Dasai comes every year, but every year it is different. When there has been a death in the family, the living grieve for the departed. A marriage or birth the preceding year multiplies the joy as a new family member is welcomed. Like any other festival in any society, Dasai is redolent with joy for some, tinged with sadness for others.
It is also a time for the larger clan to get together, to visit ancestral farms and re-establish ties to ones roots. But this year, chances are that the ancestral home has been destroyed by the Maobadi, or security forces may be camping in it. Extended family members may have fled to the relative safety of the district towns or the capital, or migrated to work.
The middle-class observes this Nepali festival in the way it does most other things-ritualistically, doing the same thing in the same way year after year. We don't celebrate festivals, we commemorate them with religious fervour. Animal sacrifice during Dasai is mostly a middle-class affair. Most of us realise that this gory custom has little relevance but no one is willing to be the first to discontinue the ritual. It's not easy to stop the cruel practice when goats are slaughtered at numerous spiritual power centres on behalf of the state.
From his study of jatras in the Kathmandu Valley, anthropologist Sudarshan Tiwari has concluded that culture is at its most vibrant at the bottom rung of the social hierarchy. This hypothesis holds true for the rest of the kingdom too. The poor celebrate Dasai in a way that has made it a joyous festival-they revel in it with wild abandon. Even though the destitute have to tide it over by borrowing, Dasai is a time to forget their worries.
As violence engulfs the country, there have been calls from several budhhijibis that we shouldn't celebrate Dasai this year when there is so much to grieve for in our collective loss. Be it the innocent murdered by the Maobadis or the alleged rebels killed by security forces, they are all Nepalis who died for a cause that has been dead for decades: dictatorship of the proletariat.
But despite our sorrows, life goes on for the living. The world didn't stop during the two World Wars, poetry was alive while the Holocaust was going on and people had time to sing harvest songs while the Khmer Rouge was busy killing one-sixth of Cambodia's population. The argument that we should call off Dasai is understandable, but not to celebrate our festivals would be to capitulate to the wishes of the warmongers. They win if peace-loving citizens stop living out of sheer fear. The spirit of Dasai must live, it can't be snatched away from Nepalis who have had little to celebrate in the past year of broken promises.
Like the call to call off Dasai, the political parties\' rhetoric of regression is beginning to sound equally hollow. It's true that King Gyanendra has been in direct command of the country for one year now. But the state hasn't, at least not yet, regressed to a pre-1990 state. The very fact that Messers Sitaula, Nemwang, Sherchan, Bijukchhe, and Tripathi are free to deride the royal move from public pulpits is proof that the constitution isn't yet dead. The regime that we have is far from democratic, but it's not completely authoritarian either. Rather than regression, what we have is a political manoeuvre similar to Pakistan's Musharrafship, a semi-dictatorship.
It has also become customary in Kathmandu high society to blame "the last twelve years" for the present mess the kingdom finds itself in. Fair enough, but tell me, which democracy in human history has become fully-functional and robust in its first 12 years?
In fact, the first decade of a democracy has always been its most fragile period. Soon after its establishment, the French Republic began the Reign of Terror and the culture of the guillotine. Briefly after gaining independence, Americans started preparing for the Civil War. India became independent and democratic, but soon got embroiled in its 50-year-war over Kashmir, and lost one with China. In Pakistan, democracy fell into the hands of the military within a decade of its formation. Bangladesh had a military coup that consumed its Father of the Nation. The Philippines tumbled into turmoil after the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos, Thailand is still trying to find a balance between the military, the monarchy and the masses.
We in Nepal had 13 governments in 12 years, but even an armed insurgency and an earth-shattering massacre of our royals didn't rob elected governments of political legitimacy. The institutions of democracy, however shaky, withstood the knocks. Instead of making fun of our first 12 years, we should take stock of the achievements since 1990 and figure out a way of getting democracy back on track by correcting the mistakes that led to the lack of accountability and bad governance. The trouble with our democracy was that there wasn't enough of it.
Some sections of the intelligentsia also take vicarious pleasure in blaming the leaders of the political parties for spreading the politics of violence. Maobadis didn't rebel against a repressive system of government, they took to the gun to overthrow a democratically elected leadership. Some political leaders since 1990 have indeed been corrupt, and reacted with iron fists against the nascent insurgency, but the law is finally catching up on them. Which one of us in the chattering classes is clean enough to cast the first stone? In any case, better a corrupt you can curse than a mass-murderer who makes society cower in fear.
In the midst of murder and mayhem this Dasai, instead of calling off the festival, let us instead use the festivities to meditate on the universal message of non-violence and then act on it.