Jumla changing

The scenic district in western Nepal is undergoing changes – some more desirable than others – that more or less echo activities in the capital.

The sounds of Jumla are perhaps the best indicator of change here. One look at brochures of Jumla and most will expect to be woken up by roosting hens and the cackle of daily village life. This is still true although it comes with a few other sounds, new sounds, sounds of a town in transition, the sounds of change and perhaps the end of one era and the beginning of another.

If the first car coming into the Kathmandu valley, in pieces and on the sturdy shoulders of young Nepalese amazes you, the story of how the first motorbikes came to Jumla will sound too ‘out there’ to believe: the first two wheeler arrived on a helicopter. Result: more followed suit, as the road came up and now fancy, new Indian motorbikes zoom around Jumla bazaar, honking their horns and growling at lazy pedestrians.

Tractors snake in and out of town too, as do trucks, some with daily supplies such as rice, flour and noodles, but most with construction material to meet the needs of the many, many new houses
being built here. Add to this the drone of new houses being built, something that has become a part of their aural landscape. The annoying ubiquity of Hindi film music and Nepali pop blare from roadside speakers. Change is here and from what any layman can see, the Jumlis are loving it. When asked how locals felt about about the road getting here and also so many new people now making Jumla their home, most said it was a free country and anyone could live anywhere they wanted. Obviously, no one complains about the road as it came with supplies and ease in many areas.

Change is apparent at their ‘janaral’ (general) stores too. Their staple diet of rice and fhapar is now punctuated by noodles and biscuits. Apples are Jumla’s most popular export but juices of fruits that grow nowhere near here fill store shelves. Also sharing shelf space are western clothes: jeans, t-shirts, jackets and leggings. Medicine is aplenty too.

One glaring absence is of newspapers and magazines, which perhaps have taken second place to more immediate news sources such as the radio or even their mobile phones. NTC and Ncell both work here, perhaps even better than in some parts of the capital. The architecture is another indicator, both of change and of adapting to new demands. Jumli style houses are crammed in between modern buildings, some even with etched glass and vertical blinds. For the most part however, the architecture is the same. Stone replaces brick here and partitions are of wood. Ceilings are still low but the roofs, thatched before are now made of corrugated iron sheets.

Some of the changes are more welcome than others, at least for visitors. Shri Shambhunath Gyanakunja Nimna Madhyamik Bidhyalaya in Shriduska, about 30 minutes by car from Jumla Bazaar is a school with possibly one of the most scenic locations. Sprawled out in the shadow of gigantic, barren hills, with a roaring river running just beyond the school’s stone boundary walls, the students scramble into their classrooms at the sound of the class bell. The infrastructure is sturdy and young local teachers are helping educate and equip a sizable population of Jumli children.

The school is in Talium Village Development Committee (VDC), one of 26 other VDCs in 12 districts who have adopted the Ministry of Local Development’s Child Friendly Local Governance Initiative(CFLG), a program that helps bring attention to children and their rights. In April this year, Hanaa Singer, Country Representative for UNICEF/Nepal also a partner agency for the initiative, observed and interacted with the school’s management committee to get updates on their progress.

Hearing of problems here, amidst such dreamy environs makes for a rude wake up call. Government apathy allows textbooks making do with worn out, old textbooks borrowed from seniors, an otherwise not-so-bad example of reusing supplies except were it not for local vendors who get these books for free from the government and apparently sell them in the market.

As a target district for UNICEF, Jumla has been making leaps and strides in many of the UN body’s agendas, sanitation and hygiene being one of them. Working with the local government, there are some creative ways in which the community is being involved. Take the ‘Name and shame’ game for example where the locals are grouped around a schematic map of their VDC. Any house without a toilet is marked with yellow paint, symbolizing open defecation. Logically, much to the dismay of other villagers who ‘have’ toilets, the amount of feces that can actually get back into our environment and even our food is calculated. Out of ‘shame’, many of the locals commit to making a toilet in their homes right away. A direct and effective method, the campaign has actually helped the area become an Open Defecation Free (ODF) zone.

A few days later, basking in the warm sun on the banks of Rara Lake, a three-day trek from Jumla, I wondered about all these problems and programs, the people working to provide sustainable solutions and it’s transformation from a small town to a major one.
Scale that to city proportions and you get a pretty good representation of the scene in Kathmandu today. The problems might look different but at its most basic level, the intrinsic nature of the problems, the struggles for identity, the need and want for solutions and the presence of both good and bad parties (depending on where you stand) is the same.

My thoughts then turned to what was almost my first thought when I saw the ‘Name and shame’ game. I wondered who home could gather the 601 Constituent Assembly members and shame them into cleaning up their act.

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Nepali Beatz

Shyam Nepali’s madal shop is in Saugal, Patan. A roadside shop, Shyam’s words are often swallowed partly or in whole by the sound of the traffic outside.

When a festive procession passes behind his shop, he suddenly stops what he is doing, listening carefully, his kind eyes suddenly distant, perhaps reminiscing about a different time.

“Bhimsen jatra”, is all he says by way of explanation before he starts working on a madal again.

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flirting for petrol (and other stories)

Kathmandu is abuzz with events throughout the month. Prithvi Narayan Shah’s famous words for his vision of Nepal as a common ground for four castes and thirty sub-castes, is most evident here in the capital. If alive, I’m sure he’d yell out a delighted “Hell yeah!” after inspecting this melting pot of a city.

I am not sure what he would have to say about this other place where people from diverse cultures and backgrounds come together, increasingly now than ever before – the long, snaking queues at gas stations. Culture wise, I guess we are just holding on to and preserving whatever we have seen our parents doing, but I am sure we can take full credit for this cultural phenomenon where we bow to authorities, not take any proactive action and happily shirk all other work and responsibility to go line up. 

lining up in the midday sun at kalimati's petrol pump

 That said, petrol lines make for some amusing times. It’s a place with a lot of “personality”, masses brought together by one common goal – to leave you behind as they inch forward, pretending to make conversation. There is always the old-ish guy with an ancient smoke machine, pushing forward, scratching newer bikes and generally just pissing people off. There is the kinda-cute-possibly-married woman on her scooter, sweet-talking to the station’s attendant in hopes of getting ahead sooner, only to get on his nerves with her supposedly flirtatious questions about how hard his life must be. Then there is the cell phone wielding loudspeaker, divulging information about everything from the multimillion rupees deal he just closed, the state of the country and about how Girija Prasad Koirala was his “gaun ko mama”.

Speaking of people coming together, this month I was working on a story on the Jawalakhel Zoo. I guess the pleasurable part in this had less to do with the actual writing and more to do with meeting the behind the scenes people and visiting the zoo numerous times to get a better idea of how to run an 850-species, daily show. It’s sad how the zoo is often looked at as a place of recreation for the lower middle class. Truth is the zoo with its animals and such a lot of greenery smack in the middle of an upcoming urban jungle that is Lalitpur makes for a great outing, for all ages. It rained once on one of my visits, the drizzle made the earth smell delicious and the place seemed so very distant from Kathmandu ’11.

raining at the zoo!

 One other headline caught my eye this last month, immediately saddening me. Mira Acharya, anchor at Radio Nepal and wife of popular comedian and actor Haribamsha Acharya had passed away and a photo accompanying the piece showed a forlorn looking Haribamsha, eyes still puffy from crying, staring into space. I have always been a fan of the Maha jodi, a pet name given lovingly to the comedian duo of Madan Krishna Shrestha and Haribamsha Acharya. The kind of following they have in Nepal and amongst Nepalese abroad remains unparalleled. Haribamsha especially has always brought to life colorful and crazy, always distinctly Nepali characters to life. His comedic timing is spot on and his political satire-laden innuendos are a riot. I grew up on Maha tapes and although I haven’t seen them perform live yet, I hope to one day. I hold a huge amount of respect for their art and how they’ve stayed rooted to “home”. Many will agree with me when I say that they are so in-sync with Nepali lives that they feel like someone we know personally. As a result, that image of Haribamsha in the papers, felt premonitory; it felt like the universe had lost its balance. I hope he finds enough strength within himself to deal with this huge loss. RIP Mira didi.

There’s nothing to raise dampened spirits than a little song and dance and some great Newari food. The first day of May, a government holiday marking Labor Day saw Bu Keba – The Organic Village Café organize Jatra – a festival of Newari food, Newari music and Newari dance. So as a covert US army mission (supposedly) put an end to an era of terrorism by offing bin Laden, I happily put an end to my craving for a good Newari Samay baji set by washing down chhoyela and bhattmaas  with some good quality aela. Everyone welcomed the afternoon’s light drizzle, the sweet smell of the earth adding to the organic theme of the place. Also in the air was the distinct smell of marijuana; someone had taken the organic theme in their own hands (literally), lighting up a “joint” on the open road.

living green = eating green

 Taking things in their own hands seems like a Nepali thing sometimes. Notice how the ubiquitous +2 colleges in the capital have the most fun names in the world? I’ve seen a Caribbean College – flip flops, shorts and hula shirts as uniform (?), an Einstein Academy – talk about pressure on a kid and White House – a great bet if your master plan is to be the first Nepali president of the U.S. But nothing beats my favorite name for a school – Oxbridge, which apparently brings the best of two top academic institutions of the world together conveniently in Mahalaxmithan, Lagankhel.

best of both worlds 🙂

Lowest point of the last month – the inter-caste Nepal bandh called by Tamang and Newar politically affiliated groups. Highest point of the last month – a few hours of street photography, on the same Nepal bandh as I captured a game of street cricket… Still, Die Nepal Bandh Die!

howzzaat!

(published in living magazine, may-june 2011)

all this talk of culture is getting me thirsty

I am on a walk through the Bahas (courtyard) around Itumbaha: in the older part of Kathmandu with the former Ambassador to the EU and to India Durgesh M. Singh. The man walks me through numerous Bahas, dropping insightful comments and trivia carelessly. I try to remember it all, an audio recorder would have come in handy I think but then again, it would have killed the candid nature of the conversation. And just like that, as we bowed our heads to walk into a small baha, Durgesh M Singh points out Rajamati’s house to me.

Rajamati's house

Now like many other Nepalese of my generation, I grew up listening to the song – “Rajamati Kumati…” – sung or mentioned randomly and I always thought Rajamati was a fictional Newar hottie. I mean in times where you had no TV or Internet, people would rely a quite a bit more on their imagination, no? It never occured to me that someone had written a song about a real person. Rajamati was apparently so beautiful that people would flock to her house to try and win her hand in marriage.

Other revelations followed in the neighborhood. Sites of historical shootings, important temples, the first cement house – incidentally the house he was born in, so on and so forth. I had grown up nearby all of this and I had never known of all this history around the corner. It really is sad how a lot of my generation is like me, where we know random dates from western culture and history but know not much about our own.

When he finally came around to sharing his project idea, I agreed instantly – developing all of these Bahas and including them in the tours that bring tourists for a heritage walk here and then limit them to the Basantapur Durbar Square is a brilliant idea. These narrow alleys seem to have retained in them the charm of living in a community; their quaint little shops are a far cry from mall culture, the roads that criss cross across and around them discourage motorised vehicles and their lifestyle is a definite throwback to an earlier, charmed era.

Once the area sees tourists, the logic is that locals who have left for better housing/water/parking facilities will want a piece of the pie and come back, if not to live here, then perhaps to open up shops or cafés maybe to cater to visitors. This wuld also meant that the houses that are close to ruin would be maintained. Maybe with time, the place could even have nice little shops selling non-kitschy souveneirs – maybe even select boutique stores selling Nepali products. Imagine tourists soaking in the feel of the place, spending time in one of these bahas while they munch on some sukuti and wash it down with aela.

One of the best parts of the idea is that even if people do not come back to live in these bahas anymore, the fact that the role of the bahas can be something besides housing and that they can become a self-sustaining part of the community in itself would be quite something. The only thing to be careful about that I can think of right now is ensuring the place does not turn into some place like Thamel.

Just last month I had met Jitendra Shrestha, a cultural expert who had argued that what we proudly but wrongly call our culture is but our heritage. Unless and until we tweak it to suit present time, add to it and make it our own, it will remain something we inherited and not “our” culture. Durgesh M. Singh’s idea to look at Bahas practically and to make them a self-sustaining part of our society seems like a solid step towards this transformation.

Crime & Punishment

My day started with a picture of a young Nepali, lying in a hospital bed in Kathmandu. This man had been rescued by the local police who got there “in time” after the room he was in was set on fire by members of Milan Chakre’s infamous gang of criminals. His face and body parts suffered critical burns and are now a bluish black color, rendering him almost unrecognizable. What role did he play in Milan Chakre’s extortion scheme of 20 million rupees from the owners of Habitat Housing in Kathmandu? That he was a staffer there at the housing company, working hard to earn a little money in a big city.

This picture in today’s daily says a lot. Firstly, crime is rife in Kathmandu. In all forms and scale, from extortions to petty theft, crime has never gone away. Statistics reported by the police beg to differ but their numbers are based on cases that are reported to them. As people who live in Nepal or probably anywhere in South Asia would concur, the lion’s share of crime often goes unreported. This is probably because it is ingrained in the public’s psyche in these regions after their experiences with corrupt, ineffective government officials that nothing ever comes out of police reports, except perhaps retaliatory action from the criminals or defamation that they were involved in any type of crime.

But also because we are a people who for the most part pride ourselves on our ability to bear with injustice and inefficiency. No power at home? Shell out extra money from a thinning bank account to buy an inverter. No fuel to drive to work? Adjust and take a tempo and get in line when the tankers finally arrive. Mobile reception sucks? Find a spot where it does and bend over, crouch or sleep on the floor to get that one line of reception. But don’t complain, that would be inappropriate. Just adjust. “Nepal is a tiny Himalayan kingdom of smiling, happy people who don’t have much but are always smiling”, like dumbasses.

Secondly, Milan Chakre is in jail and the crimes being committed right now are by members of his gang on the outside. I could be wrong but these members are probably not in their fifties, who cough when they cuss and can’t run during a police chase because they have age induced knee problems. My guess is that the people involved are probably unemployed youth who’d happily do a respectable 9 to 5 gig if they got one. Additionally, these youth are probably not from Kathmandu and most probably came to the city to try and earn a living. What started out as a job hunt probably ended in frustration, leading to petty crimes and then finally gang related crimes as they got addicted to the easy money. It’s not exactly a case of a section of society that’s inherently evil, that refuses to work and enjoys crime but of a large section of our society who are unemployed and are forced to resort to crime as an alternative to getting the means to their basic needs.

Thirdly, when did Kathmandu turned into Colombia or Bihar? Burning up people to prove a point? I thought that happened only in Tarantino’s B grade movies or Bollywood flicks glamorizing the grim crime scene in Bihar. To think this happened in Kathmandu and that it could have happened to any staffer going about his day, doing his chores at any large company is just appalling. What if your boss or mine don’t pay the amount demanded by Chakre’s gang and we end up on that hospital bed, charred and probably even handicapped for life?

I am not the expert here on how to deal with such criminals if and when they are arrested. An eye for an eye apparently turns a nation blind. But for a nation full of people who look away and shirk responsibility until they are directly affected, something radical would do it. Perhaps a public, painful execution by the state would send a dual message. One to the criminals saying something along the lines of – as you sow, so shall you reap and two, to the public to try and get back some of the respect that the state has squandered away over the years.

Maybe I’m wrong, but if you were that guy lying in that bed or if he was your brother, father, uncle whoever, wouldn’t YOU want something that sends out a chilling message to the guilty?

1000 a day

I recently read a piece in the New York Times by Nepali writer Manjushree Thapa about how Nepalis are leaving for greener pastures, unable to find a place in their own land, as a result of our politicians’ (whom I’ve stopped calling leaders – thank you Anil Chitrakar for pointing out that grave error) petty politics. How many? 1000 people every day at an average. And those are people leaving as migrant labor alone and not students and vacationers.

That’s 365,000 people leaving the country every day. The current population of Kathmandu is around 1442271, which means it would take roughly four years to empty Kathmandu. If the thought of an empty Kathmandu is scary but too far-fetched an idea for you to start freaking out, you’re right. Kathmandu with its pollution and lack of electricity and drinking water will probably survive. For a price, the problems seem to go away for many people –invertors and diesel powered generators light up selected homes, tyanker-fuls of water arrive at doorsteps for drinking, showering and soaking in and air conditioned vehicles whisk you around town, in case the pollution turns you off..

While the capital faces problems like housing and subsequently water, electricity, pollution (land, water, air etc), the villages really ARE emptying and the effects of it are, for lack of a more suitable word – sad.

I hiked into one such emptied out village in Gorkha, in the monsoon of 2009. While hunting for interesting stories and interesting people, my friends and I found ourselves in a deserted village called Khoplang Bazaar, once a busy stop between the capital and Pokhara. At first, we didn’t notice anything odd. It was a rather small village, we could see both ends of the bazaar from where we had entered the village and there was the occasional stray dog and goats running free. It hit us as we sipped on some chiya at the village’s only teashop. We hadn’t met or seen any young people yet. The village seemed populated either by children or by old people. People between the ages of twelve to fifty seemed absent.

the young, the old and the alien.

The effect was eerie, almost haunted. We would be walking around, trying to get some shots of the place, (the deserted houses made for some weirdly beautiful shots) and there would be a pair of old eyes following us from a small window in a ramshackle old house. Perhaps they saw their young ones who had left the village in us or maybe we represented the far away land (Kathmandu) where many of their young ones were. Whatever it was, it got us to stop acting like tourists.

 The next day, we hiked back to Kamala didi’s place. A young mother of two whom we had befriended on our way here, Kamala didi’s husband too wasn’t around. He was working in Qatar from where he sent money to run the household. He also called occasionally to check on his adorable children and his ailing, aged mother. One of their two daughters only knew her father by his voice on the phone.  I asked Kamala didi how hard it was to raise two girls on her own in a village and she just smiled and continued with her work.

To support the household, she had started working small jobs around the village, helping an NGO set up a system of water taps in the village, something that would free Kamala didi and countless women in her village from walking up and down the hill, carrying gaagri-fuls of water. Developmental works were traditionally men’s domain, but in their absence someone had to pitch in. And since it involved Kamala didi mingling with “too many” strangers, the older folk didn’t approve. She continued; what else could she do when the money didn’t get to her from Qatar in time? Whom could she complain to? Her kids? Her ailing, foul-mouthed mother-in-law? Or to us, strangers who looked at her and realized only how easy they themselves had it back in Kathmandu.

So yes, the villages are rapidly emptying, the capital is bursting at its seams with people pouring in from all over this garden-of-a-country of people of four castes and thirty six sub castes and the problems the country faces are piling up exactly like how the rubbish piles up on Kathmandu’s streets when the street sweepers go on strike.

All this while, our politicians look away and continue with their haggling for power exactly like how we look away and not do anything when garbage piles up in our streets.

Comments from a Climate Change Conference

The setting is at ICIMOD in Lalitpur, which stands for the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development. The occasion is primarily a meet for promoting the Kailash Sacred Landscape. Although the area falls in Nepal, India and China, the maximum number of people living in the area are Nepalese. Of the 30,000 sq. km that makes up the culturally, climatically, historically and naturally diverse landscape, 12,000 sq. km falls in Nepali territory.

Officials representing the Government of Nepal are here too. The Joint Secretary of the Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation is present as is a member of his staff, supposedly an expert on scientific issues, who tries to answer all questions directed at his boss. Also present are member participants from several INGOS. Visiting participants from Switzerland are present too, drinking their cups of tea and trying to make sense of the heavy Nepali accented English of some of the speakers. After a while, it is the Nepali participants trying to make sense of their French accents, as they stare at mathematical models on the screen. There are participants from Australia’s RMIT University too, one of whose presentations the Joint Secretary of the Ministry calls the “best-est” presentation of that day, making the rest of the participants feel like they just lost a competition they didn’t even know what going on.

The meet is also on the effects of Climate Change on Tourism. This is what I am here for. A presentation from a participant from CEST Nepal who shows some amazing pictures of the toll that climate change has taken in parts of Nepal’s mountains loses credibility when a participant asks him a question, the answer to which is that the former copied the slides from a ‘good source’. The Swiss twosome Guy – pronounced Gee and Werner – pronounced Vurrnerr, have an amazing job. They travel around their beautiful country, trying to locate heritage sites that are in a sorry state, draft proposals for their upkeep and get the work done too. They also map out older trails that are no longer used in remote-r parts of the country, but which might have historical, cultural and touristic value. I talk to them about a possible story, one that draws parallels between the two countries, maybe discusses their work so that we can replicate these amazing ideas here in Nepal. They agree to get in touch once they’re back from Humla.

I also talk to a person from the Nepal Tourism Board. The magazine I work for is affiliated to them and I assume he knows about this. He does not. When I ask him about Nepal Tourism Year 2011’s planned new destinations which could make for great stories for the magazine and if he has such info; the answer again is no. How can this be? I ask him, who has the list then? Who has the information? I do not think anyone does, he says. Either this person had a few shots to bear with the lengthy presentations or if he is speaking the truth, NTY 2011 is in big trouble. I manage to get a few phone numbers out of him as we exchange contact details.

Apart from the discussions that sounded largely fruitful, the presence of the Joint Secretary of the Ministry and his comments seem to be for little more than comedic relief. I am sitting next to the guy sitting next to him so I hear quite a bit of the chit chat that he engages in before, during and after the presentations. When an Australian research person is presenting her slides, I hear the JS’s staff whisper to his boss – “yo program ta hamro office ko sab jana lai dekhauna parne hai? Kura khulasta parne raichha.” (This is something we should we should show all our officials from the ministry. It makes everything so clear!) Meaning what, the officials at the Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation did not prepare before attending this conference on climate change or that they are ignorant of such issues? Very disturbing but not really that much of a surprise, seeing as to how the Joint Secretary in his introductory speech thanked ICIMOD for this initiative and clearly admitted that, “such type of programs are very important and we aware of such effects of climate change but the government does not have a plan of action for it.” How very honest and reassuring. But for the most part of the meet, the guy remains silent, taking down notes and whispering into his staff’s ear who runs out to make calls. Before lunch however, he finally decides to give ONE comment.

The participant from RMIT University had given a 50 million worldwide figure for mountain-based tourism. The Joint Secretary’s comment: “I am very skeptical about how you got that kind of figure. (Exercise?!) We are trying to bring in one million tourists in 2011. (Many of the participants openly laugh at this.) But you mean to say that Australia has 50 million tourists in its mountains alone?” For a second, the Aussie research woman is perplexed. Then she gets it, smiles and replies – Oh, I am sorry, perhaps I was not clear enough. I meant those numbers to be for worldwide mountain based tourism, not just tourism in Australian mountains.” Joint Secretary, blushes in embarrassment and replies –“Thank you.”

So how exactly do these highly placed officials at the Ministerial level communicate when they represent Nepal in international events if they have such a hard time on home court? If they do not have a clear idea of the issues at hand, on what basis do they negotiate on proposals and funds to mitigate these challenges? Do all Nepali officials give the same uneducated, ignorant and dumb impression at international conferences? Certainly explains a lot about why Nepal manages to get little out of these conferences except for perhaps a chance to sightsee and do some shopping.

Just before I sit down to write this, I see a picture of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad blabbering on at a UN meeting about one more conspiracy theory regarding how Americans partly engineered 9/11, prompting US and European teams to walk out on his speech. Is this what will happen one day to Nepal if someone like Comrade Prachanda, our own awesome conspiracy theorist, represents Nepal at such events?