MacAlister Brown fondly remembers the days when he bicycled from Kalimati to Patan and along the banks of the Bagmati. Which is why he told his group of fellow travellers from Massachusetts that the Kathmandu air in October is crisp, the skies clear and the vistas of the Himalaya are good viewing. But that was Kathmandu in 1982, when he made a last brief visit.
"The magical experience outside of the Western middle-class experience is shrinking [in Kathmandu]-the city is horribly scarred by trash and pollution, but one can still find delight in the artistry of the medieval structures," is what Prof Brown has to say now. MacAlister Brown, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Williams College in Massachusetts, USA, and his wife, Adriana, were leading a 32-member Williams alumni group on a tour of Nepal, India and Tibet. He first came to Nepal in 1968 on a Fulbright grant to teach Public Administration at Tribhuvan University. The couple stayed here for ten months and their son was born at the Shanta Bhawan hospital. He made brief visits again in 1974 and 1982.
The professor moved on from his view of the state of the environment to more contentious territory. The Panchayat era, according to him was "a mild form of autocracy and people were certainly cowed, but it wasn't a ruthless, murderous regime". He remembered that in those days too, students were restless and eager for democracy. And one day, the students asked him if he would speak on the subject of democracy instead of public administration, which he did. And did the university or the government take any kind of action against him? "No," he said, laughing.
The politicians of today, he said, are busy "feathering their own nest" and practising a "politics of personal greed and aggrandisement," leading Nepal into a "negative development phase". Reflecting further Professor Brown said that he did not foresee the emergence of a "strong man" (a la General Musharraf in Pakistan, or to refer to our own not-so-recent past, the Kot Parba and the emergence of Jung Bahadur Rana) who might put an end to the "endless series of corrupt bargains" in the bazaar of Nepali politics. He was optimistic in the sense that while he realised that Nepal's nascent multi-party system might be in danger, "democracy itself was not in danger of slipping out of control".
Besides his interest in Nepal, Professor Brown has also studied the communist groups of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and written or edited three books on them. Asked to compare the communists of Indo-China with our own Maoist movement, Prof Brown said the situation was different. First of all, both the Laotian and Cambodia communist parties were under the tutelage of the Vietnamese commu-nists, and the communists of Cambodia and Laos were affected by and benefitted from the war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s. Consider this for a fact he says-two weeks after the fall of Saigon, communists were victorious in Cambodia too. But he didn't see how Nepal's immediate neighbours would benefit if it were destabilised by the Maoist insurgency.
However, he noted that the Indo-Chinese communist groups were both rural-based, and had mass support because they targeted the landlords, merchants, money lenders and other privileged classes. But instead of taking the Khmer Rogue seriously, Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia dismissed them as an inconsequential force. Prof Brown felt that Nepali political leaders ought to closely examine the peasant and the working classes and ask themselves if perhaps a rebel leader might emerge from amongst them. And, whether this leader will mobilise the restlessness and dissatisfaction of the peasant and working/lower classes and channel it into an effective political movement that may eventually challenge the political status quo? It is also necessary to find out if the Nepali Maoists received support from any external forces, as was the case of the Indo-Chinese Communists fighting the Americans and US supported regimes. He warned that unchecked violence will eventually "desensitise the people to normal human emotions". And then it may be too late.
It was late evening when our chat ended at the Everest Hotel in Baneswor. As we stepped out, we saw several guests scrambling up the staircase to the roof. We followed them to be greeted by a picture-postcard view: the sky indigo-blue, the air sharp and clear, and the rays of the setting sun tinting the snow-capped mountains with a delicate orange. Professor Brown's face lit up with a beatific smile. Only an hour ago his brow had furrowed with disappointment at not being able to view the mountains. He was now a man transformed, a disappointed supplicant whose expectations were unexpectedly rewarded.