Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Nepal First! (People's Review, 16.7.2009)

The last display of nationalism, or at least a variation of it, which I saw came about in rather an ironic fashion. An Indian Policeman from Darjeeling won the “Indian Idol” song competition in 2007 and Nepalis went wild with pride and joy. This is not to take anything away from Prashant Lama. A clean cut young man, who probably looks more “Nepali” than you or me, he has a beautiful voice and sings Nepali songs from the heart. The irony, obviously, is that the show of Nepali nationalism could squarely be attributed to the musical talents of a foreign policeman. Where then are our Nepali icons and idols?

Nationalism is defined as “Patriotic feeling, principles, or efforts; policy of national independence” by the Oxford English Dictionary. In today’s Nepal, nationalism means different things to different people. It is a concept either mutated for political convenience or, more often, ignored altogether. What makes us proud to be a Nepali and how do we express this pride? Certainly it is foolish to be proud of our current development status, economic or political. So we need to look elsewhere to fan the sparks that can ignite the flames of our patriotism. History is an obvious area, but there are other not so obvious areas which can provide us with these sparks too.

While it has become recent fashion to debase our history for political reasons, we cannot ignore our glorious history. During the last truly national war, Balbhadra Kunwar displayed his bravery at Kalapani earning the respect of his British adversaries; the names of Kazi Amar Singh Thapa and Bhakti Thapa also shine on from that war. Bahadur Shah’s consolidation of his brother’s work in forming Nepal is a lasting legacy. The great poet laureate Bhanubhakta Acharya; the literary giants Lekh Nath Poudyal and Laxmi Prasad Devkota; more recently, Appa Sherpa, mountaineer supreme who has climbed Sagarmatha (Mt. Everest) more times than any other human – we must take pride in these heroes and many others. And the name that reigns above all is one Pritihivi Narayan Shah, who founded Nepal by means of his leadership and military genius and with the gallant support of his army, composed, it might be noted, not only of chhetris but numerous other ethnic groups, a great majority of which were magars. This is the same Pritihivi Narayan Shah whose remembrance day, a national holiday termed “National Unity Day”, has now been stricken off the calendar. The same individual without whose feats, none of us would be Nepalis today. Alas, nationalism is but a pawn these days of power politics.

Besides history, we must be proud of our country’s natural beauty. Agreed, hungry stomachs cannot appreciate nature’s bounty; but that’s another issue, already mentioned above. We live in the shadow of the great Sagarmatha. Our rivers rush down from the Himalayas in torrents of silver streaks. The beauty of Nepal draws tourists from all over the world making it one of the prime trekking and mountaineering destinations. The artistry of our temples awe all. Not least, the gentle hospitality of the Nepali people is appreciated by the world. Given the events of the past 13 years, all of this may sound maudlin and laughable. But if we are to recover from those gory 13 years, these items of pride are the very instruments which will aid the recovery.

We do seem to have very little to be proud of today, in these times of lack of law and order and the hawking of our sovereignty to foreigners. But the trick is to rise above our condition and to act with vision and courage for a better future, one that we can be truly proud of. This effort, in itself, is Nationalism. We must not forget that we are a proud people never subjugated to colonialism, That we are Nepalis first, seconding our ethnicity for the greater good. This is not a dreamer’s wish. If we are to survive as a nation, we must all be Nepalis first. We can safeguard our ethnic heritage, but never forget that we are first and foremost Nepalis. We need to inculcate in ourselves discipline and fairness. For example, Switzerland has 10 times the number of vehicles as compared to Nepal, in an area less than 30% of Nepal’s. Yet the chaotic traffic that we see here is unheard of there. The simple reason being Swiss drivers know traffic rules and follow them strictly.

Sports is one area in which Nepalis are doing well while much more still needs to be done. The haul of tae-kwon-do medals garnered by our athletes in international competitions is something to be truly proud of. Our under-19 national cricket teams, men and women, have also done us proud. Our film industry has not risen to the challenge of nationalism. The Indian film “Chak De India” (we seem to be looking south for all our examples, but that, in itself, is no sin) made Indians proud of their nationality. Why not have a film that inspires Nepali nationalism, which could also be commercially successful at the same time? The theater arts and music also bend well to inspiring nationalism. I remember vividly Ganesh Rasik’s song of the 1960’s with lyrics dripping with nationalistic fervour - “Hatki hoena dati ladne Nepali ko bani huncha/Kahiley najhukne seer utheko swavimani Nepali huncha….” We must use lines like these to motivate us, to work harder, to be proud of being Nepali.

Prashant is a gifted singer who sings also in Nepali with brilliance. Our nationalism however must be stirred by stronger stuff - true pride, made in Nepal. We have much to be proud of if we can only shake off the lack of confidence our economic condition bestows on us. We are indeed a poor country. We must strive for progress. Meanwhile, let each of us do his or her part in making us proud of being a Nepali. Let us never lose our self-respect. Thank you, Prashant, for giving us a glimmer of nationalism. But now we want to do it our own way – the Nepali way!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

“Pheri Janma Hola Ki Nahola” (Will I be born again or not?)

Having passed through the usual Marxist/atheist and agnostic phases, inevitable results of attending a radically-oriented college, I have now come home after a long time away. I am not into temple-hopping though. I go to two temples – Pashupatinath and the family shrine (Kul Devata). It is hard to explain these things. I find a certain kind of peace in Pashupatinath. Of course, I presume the shrine’s reputation as one of the holiest Hindu shrines carries weight. But I identify myself with Lord Shiva, don’t ask me why. It just happened. Maybe this is what is called Faith. I surprise myself quite often as I go to Pashupatinath in the early mornings to burn a few incense sticks and receive “chandan” (sandalwood paste placed on forehead). I admit I am skeptical of all organized religions. Maybe this is because I never learnt enough about the religion I was born into, Hinduism. Certainly going to a Jesuit school did not help in that regard, though the education St. Xavier's in Nepal provided circa. 1970 compared to any in the world. In any case, I have a simple belief: the link between any individual and the Power (“Shakti”) out there, God – if you will, is a very personal one. One does not need to belong to any organized religion to validate this link.

I visited Pashupatinath again recently. I did my usual incense/chandan routine and took a circle around the shrine. This circle inevitably passes through a roofed structure where prayers and bhajans (hymns) take place, and from next to it one looks over the Bagmati River and the “ghat” (cremation area) below. Less said about the polluted river, the better. I do like to look at the ghat and feel the inevitability of life. Knowing that one day I, hopefully, will be cremated there, it is a peek into one’s ultimate resting place.

This time, in this area, there was a small group of worshipers dancing to a bhajan. Some of the dancers were lost to the world, as they offered the bhajan to God and danced, some almost in a trance. The refrain of the bhajan is the title of this piece, which essentially is a question – Will I be born again or not? The tune was catchy, the rhythm upbeat, the voices were sweet and mellow and the chorus line was profound. Without going into a theological discussion on reincarnation, I can only say I stood there, as if transfixed, listening to the bhajan and choking back emotions I did not expect.

I am quite sure that the singers there all believed in reincarnation. The ultimate in piousness and virtue is not be born again. Hence, the chorus. Not to be born again is the objective. Being agnostic on the concept of reincarnation, I did not identify as such with the bhajan. But it got me thinking. I find it most convenient to think of death simply as the curtains drawn on life. Doesn't really matter what happens after. What is to be achieved is to be achieved in this life. All successes and failures are recorded by society and perceived by oneself - in this life. Ah yes, but there is the Soul - where does it go? This may seem pathetically naive, misinformed or downright obstinate, but I'm not sure there is a soul to continue on the journey after death. Heaven and hell are concepts that can be argued about endlessly. Before I totally confuse myself and anyone reading this, let me say what I think: after death, its curtains with nothing more; alternatively, the soul (the spirit, or whatever one calls it) is absorbed by the Shakti out there. After that, I just do not know and am not sure I really care.

So, "Pheri janma hola ki nahola?" Personally, that is no issue for me. I enjoyed the bhajan on a fresh Pashupati dawn. The intensity with which it was sung reflected devotion and faith. It was holy music to my questioning ears. It was profound.