Nepali Times Asian Paints
Here And There
Hello, Dolly


JANAKPUR - Dolly Shah runs the famous womens' development centre here. She's 20 years old and has taught herself business skills and English. Down here, her surname doesn't place her in the royal clan, but much, much lower in the caste system.

Dolly is the day supervisor of this remarkable venture. She greets visitors with vivaciousness and humour, and probably sells them a little more than they originally intended to buy. She also bargains with wholesalers from Kathmandu and abroad. I watched a Newari craft shop owner emerge from negotiations with Dolly, checking his pockets and shaking his head in wonder at what he'd agreed to. I'm sure the deal was in the best interests of the women potters, painters and other artists who make this place so special.

As we bounced along rutted tracks from village to village, I met farmers and labourers, women and children. They were poor, they were enslaved by various backward social practices-witch-beating comes to mind-but they were not afraid. They shrugged their shoulders not with fatalism when asked where the Maoists were, and what they did, but with true incomprehension.

Even the soldiers stopping traffic at the army camp just outside Jaleswor seemed much human and relaxed as they grilled passers-by and searched vehicles. Local politicians still pursued local rivalries and issues with gusto. There was little talk of constitutional amendments and states of emergency here, much was said, however, about un-built roads and smuggling from the nearby border with Bihar.

I met other Dolly Shahs. Upendranath Banshi is a local journalist and social activist who runs a drama troupe. They travel the districts, entertaining and putting out messages. Family planning is good, domestic violence is bad. Witchcraft is nonsense, harassing old women for practising black magic is evil. Sanitation and hygiene save lives, daughters need educating, casteism is against the law... and so on. Upendra, to my mind, is a far, far better actor than the likes of Shah Rukh or Salman Khan, and he does far more good with his messages than those two with their cola endorsements. Upendra's troupe is also impressive, particularly the lady who always ends up getting mock beatings or accused of witchcraft, or playing exaggerated women's roles-Urmila Yadav.

As ever, when I'm travelling outside the Kathmandu Valley, especially in the east and the tarai, I marvel at how diverse and wonderful this country is, how the all-pervasive fear and pessimism of the Valley elite is as meaningless here as the partisan squabbling of the Kathmandu politicians.

Dolly made a face when I asked her about the capital, and whether she might one day make her home there. "Not me," she said, "this is my place, Kathmandu can come to me." There's the spirit that might have saved this country the trauma and bloodshed of Maoist rebellion, not to mention years of uncaring oligarchy and corrupt authoritarianism. If only Manjushree had sliced off all of the lovely hills around the Valley, perhaps the people that govern from here might have spread the wealth and power more equitably.

For to return to Kathmandu is to wallow in gloom and immense despair, to hear the rumour mill spewing out ever more fantastic and fearful tales of Maoist prowess, security force incompetence. In Janakpur and surrounding districts, they know about the Maobadi, but the pace of urban and village life shows far less change than elsewhere in the country.

I don't mean the changes wrought by modernity and market forces, the pollution, migration and painted advertising signs. They are there, for better and for worse. I mean fear of the dark and the slavering beast that plagues everyone in Kathmandu and the west of the country.

I'm not sure why I like it here so much. I am positive that the way ahead for Nepal lies in quiet, local activism and self-improvement, as I saw with Dolly and Upendra. All the aid money in the world hasn't helped this place one iota if fear and loathing rule the land, and they do. In the Janakpur area, the simple approach, the indigenous and the quiet charm of a culturally rich people keep the wolves at bay. For now. Let's all hope it stays that way.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)