Nepali Times
Naipul, Udit and Tenzing


Given the national mood of exuberance it has produced, VS Naipaul's apparent acknowledgement of his Nepali roots seems to have come as a balm for Nepalis bruised by Udit Narayan Jha's reported rejection of his. The sad part about the playback singer is that every time he tries to shape an identity that would please fans on both sides of the border, he ends up in deeper trouble. If he can be accused of anything new this time-apart from spousal abuse-it has to be poor judgement. Udit should have learned from Hrithik Roshan, who he lent his voice in the actor's blockbuster debut. After seeing how Nepalis could burst into a fiery orgy of patriotism against slanderous remarks everyone said the Indian actor had made but no one had heard him make last year, Udit should have been more circumspect while answering questions concerning his citizenship.

Regardless of what Udit says today, he probably can't forget the hours he spent squatting on the little lawn in front of Radio Nepal's yellowish studio with that other crooner from Birgunj. Their duet Sainli ra maili poila gaye chan spawned countless parodies before they decided to do their own video remix. Even today, when Udit speaks about Madhu Chettri, he sounds like he's referring to a mentor rather than a mate.

Udit might have wanted that national award so desperately this time that he didn't realise he was going overboard in identifying himself in that interview. He was not entirely inaccurate, though. The Koshi river is Saptari's Sorrow. If perennial floods forced young Udit and his siblings to flee to the safety of his maternal grandparents' abode on the southern side of the open border for part of the year, blame Mother Nature or the fathers of the dam project.

Udit might not have wanted to hurt us on purpose. Even if he did, maybe he wanted to get back at those who he thought messed up his recording schedules at Radio Nepal because his accent and complexion were a bit different. Or maybe he couldn't forget those musicians who deliberately spoiled their arpeggios or struck the wrong note just to make him record extra takes. Nepalis unconnected with those studio machinations would have been gratified if Udit could have risen above those slights. But, again, it's easy to preach the virtues of magnanimity when you're not the one nursing the grievances.

Udit is perhaps more Nepali than the actress in Bombay who happens to have a politically prominent Nepali surname. That's not my slur, by the way. I'm just paraphrasing another Indian newspaper interviewer who responded to the leading lady's suggestion last year that she was the first Nepali in Bollywood who didn't have problems acknowledging her origins.

This brings us to where origins really do matter. How many prime ministers and foreign ministers can you name who were born outside Nepal? Three, four-or more? Count as many as you want, but you have to acknowledge that they didn't choose their birthplaces. When their ancestors were banished to Banaras or even further south after each shift in the power equations of the Nepali court, our forebears didn't rally to plead for compassion. If we can live with foreign-born leaders, can't we realise the futility of arguing over the character of the boy from Bharda who started out vocalising patriotic songs for Radio Nepal and decided to redefine himself as he moved along his career graph?

As for Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad, the Trinidad-born author long wrote of India as either an area of darkness or a wounded civilisation. Many Indians nevertheless longed to see the day he got the Nobel Prize. Such abiding kinship must have inspired Naipaul to revise his views about India. Even then, the best he could do was come up with a portrayal of a country in the midst of a million mutinies. When he finally got the Nobel last year, Indians felt their perseverance had paid off. But Naipaul had other ideas while preparing his acceptance speech. Two years ago, somebody sent him papers suggesting that his ancestors might actually have come from Nepal. For a country still overwhelmed by the critical acclaim Samrat Upadhyaya got in the West, Naipaul's revelation had to merit nothing short of front-page-anchor display. One ebullient reader urged the government to extend Naipaul honorary Nepali citizenship. Other commentators were already thinking a step ahead, wondering whether we would have any determination left to move on if he declined.

Udit could have done what a prominent personality of an earlier era did in a similar situation. When Tenzing Norgay became part of the first duo to conquer Mount Everest, there was much political controversy between Nepal and India. We wanted Tenzing to assert he was ours and the Indians wanted him to affirm he was theirs. Tenzing, who at the age of 18 left Nepal for Darjeeling where he hoped to be able to join one of the British expeditions to Everest, was fed up with the feuding. "I was born in the womb of Nepal and raised in the lap of India," he once told a reporter. No doubt, the game of celebrity-snatching continues, with one author claiming as recently as a year ago that Tenzing actually might have been born and raised in Tibet. But since the man himself had already spoken, we didn't have to be too distressed by endless speculation.

Udit's dilemma is different. And not only because he's the one making conflicting assertions depending on which side of the border he happens to be on. But the singer's identity crisis is not unlike that of Naipaul's protagonist in his 1979 best-seller, A Bend in the River.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)