Nepali Times
State Of The State
The pitfalls of praying alone


In the language of poetry, melancholy is the joy of sadness, the feeling that festivals create in the aching hearts of the aging parents of overseas Nepalis.

In the twilight of their lives many of them find Tihar isn't the same without the children and grandchildren. Increasingly, money matters less to those with successful children abroad. But it hurts that the ones with whom you could share the pleasures of prosperity are far away.

A paediatrician with a flourishing practice will be celebrating Tihar in solitude. Her daughters are doing well in the United States. They have invited their mother with a promise that Diwali is now an officially recognised festival in their adopted country. But she refuses to leave her young Nepali patients.

A retired bureaucrat whose words were once law spends his afternoons loitering aimlessly at shopping centres in Pulchok that try vainly to resemble fancy malls in the west. He invested everything in his children: the best education money could buy in an Indian boarding school, college in Mumbai and a medical degree in Manila.

The investment has begun to pay off. His son has a large home in Texas, his daughter-in-law sent him a Rolex which he wears. But they don't want to come back. ("No roads, no electricity, no garbage collection, no peace.") He plans to spend the Tihar weekend video-chatting with his American grandchildren.

Some parents have learnt to cope with the pathos of diaspora separation. An engineer with a successful scion in Silicon Valley confided that he was planning to escape for Tihar to Tamil Nadu because for him a festival is "whenever the children are home for vacations".

Most Nepali festivals are essentially matriarchal in character. It is the mother or grandmother who preside over preparations for Bhai Tihar, Chhat, Mha Puja, and the worshipping of dogs, cows and crows this week. They offer a welcome diversion from the drudgery of daily life as children and grandchildren congregate for a few days. For mothers with children abroad, the pain of separation at festival time is excruciating.

For the men festivals are usually just an excuse to eat, drink, gamble or grumble more than they usually do. Men can somehow pretend indifference to the absence of children by flicking the remote from the couch.

In absolute terms, the number of diaspora parents isn't high but they constitute an aspirational layer of Kathmandu society and influence the way all others perceive success. Their lifestyles are the benchmarks for spreading affluenza among the middle class.

With more and more parents home alone in Nepal, their houses get bigger as the number of real occupants decreases. The kitchens have become smaller as they increasingly dine out, and the puja rooms are shoved under the staircase as the elderly stretch to televised instructions from Ramdev in their drawing rooms.

Comfortable, conservative, and rootless in a foreign land, the diaspora espouses values that are modern in thought but retrograde in effect. The political fallout of this is similar to Bangladesh or Pakistan where the obsession of the middle class with efficiency and stability has resulted in the entrenchment of militarism and authoritarian politics. Long-distance patriotism can play havoc with the polity of home countries. To seek its antidote in Maoism is even more dangerous.

There is less to celebrate this Tihar in Nepal, but just being able to celebrate
it in Nepal with one's children still means a lot.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)