NEW YORK - A diverse group of Nepalis gathered to mark 'democracy day' on 19 February. Madhu Raman Acharya, permanent representative at Nepal's mission to the United Nations in New York, and his wife Geeta hosted the event at the popular Yak Restaurant in Jackson Heights, Queens.
"Quite the statement, wasn't it?" he says, ushering us in. The ambassador maintains a neutral reputation here in New York, but some still view him sceptically as he was appointed to this office just days before the king's planned attendance at the UN General Assembly in 2005. He is presumably well liked by his bosses back home too-he once said that he "does what [he is] told to do."
Although many had complained at another Nepali gathering last year that 7 Falgun can't be considered 'democracy day', the variety and number of people who accepted Acharya's invitation was remarkable. The frail looking man wearing old sneakers, pajamas and a long sweater is Shail Upadhya, who is as close as a Nepali has come to being a celebrity in New York. The retired UN official has long been a resident of New York and is famous here for his colourful and eccentric fashion designing. At New York Fashion Week earlier this month, he was at ease, always in the front row, mingling with top designers and models, and speaking to journalists curious about his polka dot suits. Here, though, he's just an elderly retired Nepali diplomat. "I want to listen to what these guys are saying, I heard them mention Girija Prasad Koirala," he says, pointing towards a heated debate between political activist Paramendra and another pro-democracy Nepali. (The prime minister is one of Shail ji's less favourite uncles.)
Paramendra, the full-time blogger behind the DFN site, is no longer lauded for his pro-democracy work, but taken to task for his recent radical posts on the madhesi issue. "I rang him the very next morning and told him to take those words back. Who the hell is he to say that and divide the country?", fumes devoted NC cadre Anand Bista of the Nepalese Democratic Youth Council in the US. I find out later that the conversation has taken a nasty turn, with Paramendra being told that had the discussion taken place in Nepal rather than New York, his teeth would not be so firmly in his mouth any more.
No conversation gets very far here. Kamal Pande, another long-time resident, interrupts to ask us whether we didn't think that a recent program to make Nepal a Hindu country again had been excellent. "The Indian guest speakers were great," he adds, "they really want to help us." A man dressed like a minister latches right on and says he'd give up his life for the cause. Knowing how comfortable Sher Gadtaula is, it seems unlikely.
The owner of Yak Restaurant, Sonam Lama, will tell anyone who will listen that, contrary to reports on fursad.com, he is not involved in the Mongolian Heart illegal immigration controversy. Meanwhile, a young man from Queens whose face bears a startling resemblance to those of his uncles, King Gyanendra and the late King Birendra, looks out of place and strained. On the other hand, the two Maoists who apparently have shown up seem perfectly comfortable.
The end of the gathering is rather more predictable than the conversations earlier, no teeth broken and no slogans chanted. Everyone agrees on some things: that the chicken chilli, choila, alu dum, momo achar were overly spicy. And that we all deserve more than three momos apiece.