Nepali Times
Well runs dry


The times they've been a-changing for a while now, and some yearn for the good old bad old days when things were far from ideal, but 'worked', democracy or no. The more practical among us recognise the ultimate futility of nostalgia. That ideal of a unity-in-diversity nation under a benevolent demi-god, that semi-pristine Kathmandu Valley of Toyota taxis, mom 'n pop stores and easy-going grace, that simple amorphous countryside, steadily developing, never really existed except in the minds of the myth-makers.

But one can see where these sentiments spring from in our fraught modern times. Some of the old was better dispensed with, but there are new things to worry about all the time. Only last week I rejoiced in the wealth of global culture some of us are enjoying here in Kathmandu. Film festivals, book launches, concerts and art expos engaged local and international artists and audiences. Culture seemed to be progressing even as our politics was stymied by the pygmies in charge. And if culture were flourishing in the capital, perhaps it could represent a larger force for good throughout the nation?

It's easy to get carried away. While the cup we hold up to toast the world indeed runneth over, our own cultural reservoirs are running dry. At the very least, they are being poisoned by the arsenic of Naya Nepal. Crassness is filtering into every aspect of our Nepali cultural experience, nowhere more so than in our cities.

Whither the community of deusi and bhailo? It used to be something we all looked forward to, hosts and guests. My neighbours in Dhapasi have never stopped to consider the effect of their drunken railing or wailing dogs, but the festive seasons trigger not eager anticipation now, but dread. This Tihar, we were brave enough to turn away prospective entertainers after 9 (but not to refuse them unearned cash prizes), but the lawyer who'd just moved in next door seemed less bothered by neighbourly propriety. After a dazzling, wholly illegal display of fireworks on Laxmi Puja he and his family appeared to have settled down to a well-earned night's rest. It was not to be, not for them, not for us.

At a quarter to 11 their doorbell (an ear-splitting rendition of a well-known bhajan, a marvel of public piety) began to sound. The door opened at 11 to let in a stream of shrieking youngsters who then proceeded to regale the neighbourhood. To their credit, they'd been practicing for weeks, live and electrified. But their amalgam of Hindi and Nepali pop remixes was as hopeless as it had been to begin with. At least the comrades didn't come knocking with their hypocritical Loktantrik deusi.

Where is the charm of festive gambling when it simply represents for most of Kathmandu's idle elite an intensification of what they do the whole year long with endless rounds of Marriage? Dasain is just one big sale. Holi has long since lost its charm to marauding bands of spray-painted goons. Wedding parties are all very well but even the humble Bratabandha has now become an exercise in pompous excess. Perhaps the comrades have a point. If only they could desist from using the very culture they decry to feed their greed.

Culture is meant to represent the collective intellectual achievement of a people. With such cultural diversity as the Nepali peoples possess, one would think our collective culture would possess such beauty and wisdom as few nations could match. Then why is it that a day in the life of the Kathmandu Valley, especially one marked out for celebration, is increasingly characterised by collective cretinism? What is happening to Nepalis?

Doubtless there is some confusion as to what Nepali culture means anymore--who it is for, and what it is for in the age of Naya Nepal. Our very diversity has engendered such a situation. This is understandable. But if youthful confusion hardens into criminalised cynicism, then cultural loss won't just be limited to occasional exasperation with ritualised socialisation. It will be permanent, with living cultures coopted by ossified ideology as hollow as the idea of a Maoist 'people's culture', and our well will truly have run dry.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)