Saturday, September 22, 2012

Review on "The Lives We Have Lost: Essays and Opinions on Nepal" by Manjushree Thapa

Manjushree is the daughter of a high-ranking Nepali official who served in various capacities under three Nepali kings (Mahendra, Birendra, and Gyanendra). Much of her own higher education was abroad, and she has split much of her recent time between Nepal, India, Canada and the United States. She is one of the generation of younger Nepali elite who has seen Nepal from inside and outside, growing up in an almost ethereal third-space. Her writings—fiction, opinion pieces, literary reportage—are not only vibrant and engaging but resound with and give voice to much of how those of her generation have experienced Nepal. As an adult third-culture kid (ATCK) from Nepal, I count myself among those.

One of her more recent works is a collection of her opinion pieces written and published in various newspapers, journals, or magazines from 2003 to 2010. This work can be seen as a follow-up to probably her best-known non-fiction work Forget Kathmandu: Eulogy for Democracy (2005), which traces the history of Nepal. These opinion pieces follow the events leading out of Nepal’s Maoist insurgency: ending the war in 2006, deposing the 240-year-old monarchy, the drawn-out process of electing a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution, the Maoists moving from a geurilla force to the elected leading political party in Nepal, the integration/non-integration of the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) into the Nepal Army; and the roles of foreign aid, the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN), and (begrudged) big-brother India in the (non-existent?) peace process. In these pieces, she not only touches on what democracy, republicanism, and ethnic federalization, mean for Nepal, but weaves or unravels her own thoughts, reactions, and personal actions during these unfolding events.

While these pieces themselves are well written, the book itself transparent in its construction. The introduction provides a chronological overview of the events in which these pieces were written. Each piece then is bookmarked with a summary of the context in which in was written, and the date and publication in which it was originally published. The result is a well-framed a commentary on the overarching Nepali political situation, grounded in distinct personalities and events. The collection ends with a piece recounting and reflecting on Manjushree’s visit to the Narayanhiti Palace Museum—the former residence of Nepal’s monarch, turned into a museum upon their deposition. This piece serves to reorient the events in the book back on her and her family’s experiences. While Manjushree in no way sets up herself or her family as representative of how other Nepalis have internalized these events, it provides the reader with a picture of how these events have affected a Nepali family.

Two essays that I found particularly applicable to my own situation as a foreigner in Nepal were “Educating the Influential Foreigner” and “Some Home Truths for the Donors.” Her biggest critique is that these influential foreigners, be they diplomats, donors, or aid workers, do not inform themselves about Nepal’s complex history and current cultural and political situation. Most of their information comes from “cocktail-hour chatter [rather] than…in-depth study” (pg. 79). She quotes one aid industry consultant who described this situation as the development sector in Nepal having “no historical memory” (pg. 80). That bodes bad when the majority of Nepal’s GNP comes from foreign aid (with family remittances in close running). Manjushree shows that this lack of historical memory causes diplomats and aid workers to misread where the majority of Nepalis stand, and end up on the wrong side of political situations. For example, the international community in Nepal had much of its weight thrown behind the monarchy—Manjushree described them as “cooperating with a repressive absolute monarchy, helping to uphold it against the interests of peace and democracy in Nepal” (pg. 84)—and were shocked to realize that the majority of Nepalis thought differently when that monarchy was deposed. Manjushree’s solution to this lack is for “influential foreigners here to read, read, read—and not just newspapers [the English-language ones read like bad gossip columns--TD]. Actual books. And if there aren’t enough good books around, then support the intellectual ferment gathering force today: invest in new scholarship” (pg. 81). She also indirectly tells donors to get out of Kathmandu and see for themselves how things are in other parts of Nepal, rather than just hob-nobbing with the Nepalese elite in Kathmandu. Manjushree herself has traveled widely in Nepal. Many of the pieces included in this collection are from visits she made out West, and she has another collection of writings commenting on development in the Mustang region of Nepal, entitled Mustang Bhot in Fragments.

A foreign friend recommended Manjushree Thapa’s work to me when I asked for something to read during my stay in Nepal in 2010. Manjushree quickly became one of my favorite commentators on Nepal. There is a growing number of good scholarly works on Nepal, but I find Manjushree’s candid and considerate observations and opinions, not veiled or overwhelmed by anthropological theory, to be refreshing. They both confirm and challenge my own thoughts on where Nepal is going as a country, and what role I, as a foreigner, should or should not have in these developments.