Nepali Times
State Of The State
Lost in seminar space


The venues of symposia, seminars, workshops, discussion meetings, and congresses change with the season. Public consultations in Bharatpur or Nepalganj in the winter, and Charikot or Dadeldhura in the summer. Brainstorming in Pokhara and Dhulikhel all year-round. In the monsoon, you're safest in the Valley, and the city's seminar rooms are packed these days.

But despite being punctuated by buffets, high teas, and cocktail receptions galore, these colloquia test almost every participant's patience. And they all end in agreement to reconvene to discuss the same thing.

The medium of conversation is the single biggest reason most consultations end up being tedious. It is difficult enough being interesting in one language. But to say something original in a non-native tongue is almost impossible. Research shows that children who begin to learn in English rather than their mother tongue are slower by about 10 percent. It's even worse when the lingua franca of a country is their second language, and English, learnt at later stage, the third or fourth one.

Every language carries its own value system. Sanskrit is tradition and Nepali has hierarchy built into its grammar. English has been the language of the British Empire for far too long in South Asia not to carry the authority, legitimacy, and power that comes with being the medium of the masters. It's no coincidence that the Valley's socio-political elite choose to converse among themselves in English.

Even if sponsors condescendingly agree to accept comments in Nepali-expression in any other language of Nepal is seldom permitted-participants conform rather than assert their right to be treated as equals.

Seminars are held simultaneously, and public figures have a taxing schedule that leaves little time for preparation. After a while, each speech elicits yawns even from co-panellists. Politicians suffer acutely from this: the more seminars they attend, the less time they have for their constituents. Consequently, they have almost nothing new to say after a while.

Speechifying by rights activists, civil society motivators, multi-disciplinary consultants, and celebrated mediapeople is even harder to endure. Whenever they speak outside their area of direct concern-which they do more often than should be allowed-they resort to anecdotes and generalities. Such presentations may begin promisingly, but meander through meaningless descriptions and unintelligible explanations. They always run over the allotted time and respond to no civil attempts to bring them back to the issue at hand.

Politically correct expats have three time-tested ways to shine at seminars. Praising Nepal and Nepalis is a foolproof method of getting the audience's approval. Recounting tangential anecdotes about living in a remote Cambodian village is a clever way of sidestepping controversy. Celebratory talks with platitudinous references to the supposedly positive contributions of foreign aid-especially from natives of the countries in question-are becoming the norm.

Every participant knows these talkathons are largely pointless, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, but we always accept the invitation: it makes us feel wanted. The satisfaction of making an easy 'contribution' to the betterment of society is a bonus.

The symposia will continue for quite a while. Rumour is, anyone who can write a decent proposal can have a few million rupees from various donors to 'create awareness' about the constituent assembly election. People who can ramble on about conflict, democracy, and the rule of law will remain in demand. But even if only to add some colour and variety, organisers should invite some real people too-domestic workers, farm labourers, factory hands, priests.

CK lal in

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)