Nepali Times
Moving Target
Money Talks


Goats aren't the only ones traumatized at Dasain. Those paying for the beasts get stressed by escalating prices and all the additional expenses considered essential for the festivities. Gifts, bonuses, and feeding more relatives than you knew existed all require money. Finally, countless envelopes must be filled with bheti cash offerings essential for tika. Crisp, unsullied bills are preferred, ritually speaking, and every year plenty of new currency is issued to coincide with the inevitable run on the banks.

This season's new 500 rupee note created an unprecedented splash. For the first time since the advent of paper currency the monarch has been usurped by a rock, albeit a very large one.

Rumors to this effect, in circulation long before the notes were, are confirmed at first glance but The Hand trusts the reader has learned by now there is always more than meets the eye in the New Nepal.

Typically, the answer to everyone's first question, 'is the king's face still there?' is both yes and no. No longer on the banknote, closer inspection reveals his image inside the paper, ghost-like in the watermark. He may be expelled from his position of honour and obscured by an improbable bunch of rhododendrons, but there he is still wearing that crown.

Having moved beyond standard literacy, many valley residents now specialize in reading between the lines. The novel sight of their monarch, once considered the omnipotent incarnation of Lord Vishnu, lurking behind a bush and invisible unless held up to the light at a certain angle, has led to many interpretations.

Replacing Rajah with the highest mountain on earth could be construed as a back-handed compliment. Everest is tops, after all, and at least they didn't make the same mistake as Nepal Tourism Board in a recent promotion featuring Macchu Picchu instead of Machapuchre. On the other hand, this sullen lump of stone, notable only because foreign mountain-ologists decreed it was slightly higher than far holier summits, could be considered insulting. Surely, if dashing King Birendra was ousted instead of frowning Gyanendra, the majestic Annapurnas or elegant Machapuchre would have been chosen as stand-in.

If current political correctness required the king's face be covered with a plant then rhododendrons are far better than, say, nettles. At least they are red, which should keep the commies happy, the whole point of this charade.

The Rastra Bank governor, a man currently under investigation on corruption charges, apparently refused to add his signature to the bills unless the king maintained a presence.

Meanwhile, the Bahunocracy controlling such things originally came up with the bright idea of featuring Lord Buddha on the new currency, indicating a desperate impulse to cash in on anything they could think of, including Lumbini. This would be like Israel putting Jesus Christ on its money to lure tourists to war-torn Nazareth. Fortunately, leveler heads among local Buddhists prevailed, saving the nation from profound international embarrassment. Nonetheless, substituting Everest still smacks of the same instinct for exploiting any tourist attraction available.

The notes were produced abroad, but all schools of conspiracy and conjecture agree the rhododendron hiding king-ji is printed locally. Some say it will wear off with time, revealing his majesty just before he reasserts control. Others whisper Rastra Bank has stacks of these notes on hand sans national flower. Wisely keeping their options open, the authorities will either issue them with the ghost king in full view or slap on the camouflage flowers, depending on who's on top at the time.

Some say king-ji, humbled and pushed into the background by nefarious politicians, still lives on in the people's hearts like the banknote's watermark, a guarantee against counterfeits. A surprising number declare that anything is better than incompetent parties and duplicitous Maoists destroying the country and hope, less secretly than before, for royal redemption.

As the country careens towards an uncertain future many are fumbling for reverse gear, and it's a sad comment on national affairs that going backwards in time looks so damn attractive. Sick of the New Nepal (already a byword for anything-goes opportunism and irresponsibility) nostalgia for simpler times grows. Somehow, the new currency expresses the same confused, muddled compromises that seem to be the only way of surviving these unsettled times.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)