Nepali Times
Paradise? Lost?


This is a development parable, repeated many times in world history in all corners of the world, of how the very act of trying to save Shangri-La can spoil it. It is a story about schmaltz, about tree-hugging. It is about how do-gooding does not always deliver the goods. This is a serious story of the dynamics of change. How to try to ensure that when change does occur, it is under control of the people who are being changed, and it is a change for the better, at least slightly. In the sixties, Sir Edmund Hillary and Desmond Doig stumbled upon Shangri-La in the Khumbu region. A beautiful village of six homes on a ridge full of conifers, with the Himalaya looming large and set amidst fields of flowers.

So Hillary and Doig set up camp to savour it all, until they noticed a slight glitch in this Eden below Everest, this paradise called Shangri-La: there was no water.

They watched as the women of the village carrying pots would walk down to a stream in the evening, a water source so far away that they had to spend the night there and labour up to their homes with the water in the morning. So Hillary and Doig made the first move for woman's lib, for progress, but mostly for compassion. They set up a pump. And as the first gush of water came into the village they wandered off, pleased with a job well done.

A decade later, when the two chanced by the village again, they found it in shambles. A shantytown had grown around the place of the little hamlet that they had discovered on their previous visit. The trees had disappeared, and where fields of flowers once bloomed there were potato fields. Smoke obscured the Himalaya. "What happened?" they asked the village elder. "Two white men came many years ago and gave us a pump," said the old man. "And since the women did not have to sleep at the water source there was population explosion. Then, neighbouring villages came and settled.."

Second story. A famous anthropologist heard of this dreadful change, and determined not to upset the fragility of the Khumbu he went about and studied its people without disturbing a single thing. Then he went back and wrote a thesis which was widely acclaimed in academia. And a hundred anthropological teams followed. They made suggestions, helped the poor and needy, and generally did good. But the changes, people later said, were not good. The first anthropologist should never have written his thesis because it brought hordes of other researchers. The region's awesome enticing beauty became commonplace.

The media is the message, these days. Yesteryear's water pumps and anthropologists have been replaced by an overwhelming force as powerful as nature's many moods that created change in the past. Television heightens expectations, gives us role models and lures with what we don't have, but could have. And a cloistered society has spawned violence, greed, and envy. The Internet whisks us to worlds undreamt of, and whose effects are yet to be understood. Admittedly today it's the elite of Nepal that is privy to most of this but there is also a burgeoning middle class. And there is suddenly the vocal and articulate disenchanted and disfranchised, be they Maosits or "ists" of a number of hues. There are now robbers in a place that considered a fish net over a storefront as security enough.

The Gita says change is the only constant. But even the ancient faith from that book is being challenged every day, a faith that once bound us. So paradises are lost and Eden's serpents proliferate as indeed they are forced to. Dr Dhruba Man Shrestha, Nepal's leading psychiatrist, has to cope with the detritus of change.
So let's talk of these rites of passage, the loss of innocence. We may not find a solution to the problem of a region transformed forever by a STOL airport, or a highway, or a village turned into a slum by a water-pump. But maybe it will do good for the catalysers of change in Kathmandu to think about the change they bring. Not the immediate difference they make, but a future typhoon triggered by the flap of a butterfly wing here today. Write to us, and then let tomorrow come. We will face it together.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)