Nepali Times
The unbearable sadness of being


The head is heavy. The eyes sting and water. There is a lump in the throat. The heart thuds. Muscles ache. Even nature reflects the deep despair inside. The dismal dryness and power cuts bring on a yearning for rain to wash the gloom. It has been three weeks, but the smoke from the funeral pyres of Rukumkot and Naumule still hangs thick over our conscience.

I had long forgotten the name of the Japanese film, or the context of the snippet that suddenly resonated in a flashback: "When swords are shining and bullets are flying, the need is even more to read, in order to save the seed." The only way to revitalise the blood-soaked earth is to seed it with faith, hope and effort. The source of all that energy lies in books.

Domestic Conflict and Crisis of Governability in Nepal should help make sense of our present state of ungovernance. In separate chapters, the book delves into what ails our democracy, the shortcomings of our political institutions, and the fatal flaws of our elite. The book then peers at extant and possible conflicts: insurgency, ethnicity, minority politics, economic dependency, resource rights, and geo-political compulsions of an India-locked state.

So, you start reading, hoping for that spark that will illuminate the darkness. But, as with all edited anthologies of this genre, this book too lacks coherence. There is nothing in the windy verbiage of Lok Raj Baral that prepares you for the common sense of Krishna Hachhethu. After the racy polemic of Krishna Bhattachan about possible ethnic revolution, the bland reporting of Pancha N Maharjan on the Maoist insurgency is a bit of a let down. The commentary by Kapil Shrestha on minority politics in Nepal doesn't psyche you for the heavy dose of political economy in the wordily-titled "Mahakali Impasse: A Futile Paradigm's Bequested Travails" by Dipak Gyawali and Ajaya Dixit. This is a collection of seminar papers, and it reads like one.

Dhruba Kumar seems to have taken his responsibility as the editor of the volume rather lightly, and opted to pay more attention to writing his own two pieces. But despite its patchiness, the book takes readers back on a roller-coaster ride of our immediate past, and helps us make some sense of the predicament we are now in.

From the contemporary relevance of a collection of commentaries, the journey to the soul of a man who straddled the Nepali political scene like a colossus is like getting down from a rickety bus at the foothills, and then commencing the journey of self-discovery along a lonely trail up the mountains. BP Koirala's Atmabrittanta is the first-hand account of an epoch by its defining figure. The roots of many of the political complexities examined in Dhruba Kumar's volume go back to the days when a clash-between traditional values represented by King Mahendra and aspirations of becoming a modern nation spearheaded by BP-resulted in three socially stagnant decades.

It is said that geniuses get along as well as dynamite gets along with fire. Through his Atmabrittanta, BP succeeds exceedingly well in giving a glimpse of how the fire of ambition in King Mahendra courted the dynamite of confidence in BP. The ensuing explosion set off an inferno that smoulders to this day in the ashes of dictatorship and democracy. King Mahendra read poetry and played piano for BP, but had no compunctions in incarcerating him two days after showering him with expensive gifts. The palace is like fire: it seems to be a dangerous friend, and a devastating enemy. Prime ministers play with it at their own peril. Girija Prasad Koirala, please take note.

Then there is India-that all-present reality in Nepali politics. Reading Atmabrtitanta, you realise why BP could never befriend the all-powerful Indian bureaucracy. While Indian officials, including their ambassadors in Kathmandu, expected to be treated like latter-day viceroys, BP accorded them no more courtesy than his friend Ram Manohar Lohia would render a babu in Banaras. This infuriated the self-appointed guardians of democracy at Lainchaur no end, and they decided to ditch the Nepali Congress and hitch the wagons of India's strategic interest to the powerful engine of the royal palace. Introducing Atmabrittanta to English readers would be incomplete without mentioning the excellent translation by Kanak Mani Dixit. The prose flows with the easy fluidity of BP's original spoken Nepali transcription.

The third book takes us back two millennia to the Kiratas and Lichchhavis who laid the foundations of an urban civilisation that flowered as Newar culture during Kathmandu Valley's Malla period. This book has grown out of Sudarshan Raj Tiwari's doctoral dissertation, but (at least the first half) almost reads like a historical novel. Apparently Tiwari does not suffer from the widely prevalent fallacy among Nepali scholars that intelligiblity is damaging for the reputation of academics.

Tiwari's thesis reminds you of what Lewis Mumford, an American planner and social commentator, once suggested: that the history of civilisation could be written in terms of the kinds of containers that given cultures created for themselves-containers for the storage of grain, water, or wine, for the channelling of irrigation water or the control of floods, for the cartage and movement of goods and people, for the containment and shelter of kings and prelates, soldiers and servants, tradesmen and artisans.

One wonders what Dr Babu Ram Bhattarai, the ideologue of the Nepali Maoists would have to say about this book written by his former friend and fellow-architect, planner and teacher. Suffering from edifice complex in the grand tradition of most Nepalis in positions of power, the Maoists too erect gates in honour of their dead comrades.

After that torturous journey over the millennia through three volumes, the realisation suddenly dawns that convulsions of history can't be wished away. Agony is an inevitable part of being, pain an inextricable stage in the process of becoming. One way to reduce the torment is to engage in creative pursuits. Read. It may help save your sanity in these uncertain times.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)