Bengalis have their addas, Awadhis their majlis, 19th century Europeans had their caf?-klatsch. All these are different names for an inherent homo sapien habit. We like to gossip, exchange views, share ideas, and let words flow in a congenial atmosphere. That is what chatrooms attempt to recreate in cyberia. But, it's cold out there-the anonymity of the Internet fails to connect us deeply with each other.
The traditional spaces for such interaction for women were by the community well, or the lonely tree at the edge of the forest, where they gathered fodder or firewood. Men sat under the canopy of a banyan tree near near a temple or school. In the hills of Nepal, such a tree, often with a raised platform around its base, is called a chautari. Prosperous and aware villages have quite a few. But every village has at least one.
Then came tea-shops and bhattis, selling homebrew and cheap edibles, which took away some of the regulars from rural chautaris. After that, radio, television to an extent, and the offices of political culture became focal points and agenda-setters in such discussions. There are many func-tional chautaris in the countryside, but they aren't used as extensively. Does this decline in the popularity of chautaris have something to do with the increasing intolerance in Nepali society? It's difficult to say, but people do have little time, and even less inclination, to listen to views that aren't consonant with their own.
Kathmandu may be called a metropolitan city, but it is the capital of a primarily agrarian and rural country-close to nine-tenth of Nepal's population still lives in villages. And there are few places here to express idiosyncratic ideas on culture, politics and the arts-other, that is, than Martin Chautari. The discussion on 9 January, the second Tuesday of the month, as always, was typical. On offer was Darjeeling-based writer Indra Bahadur Rai's path-breaking Nepali novel, Aaj Ramita Chha, (roughly: Today Is Interesting), in the sense of the Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times".
The discussion was kicked off by Sangita, a working mother who had ploughed through the book with some effort. Her remark was forthright and unpretentious: "The book ambles without a beginning and an end." Her judgment: "It's a difficult read." That is what any reader uninitiated into the nuances of high-literature feels while reading classics, but few have the courage to accept it. Sangita did, and got an appreciative nod from other participants in a similar dilemma.
The second reader to comment was Ashutosh, a Harvard graduate and activist. His suggestion: "Read the book twice to appreciate the slice of life it serves." After that, an animated discussion followed for over an hour and engaged ex-ambassador and linguist Novel Kishor Rai, novelist Khagendra Sangraula, poet-satirist Bimal Nibha, writer-commentator Narayan Dhakal, writer-commentator Basanta Thapa, novelist Manjushree Thapa and a group of young students familiar with the cult of Indra Bahadur Rai. Discussions over, those part-icipants who wanted to, contributed Rs 10 each to the tea-kitty and went their separate ways-content, and perhaps enlightened. Most of them will come back for more mangal-bares-the Tuesday discussion .
Topics vary. From property rights for women to the lack of trust laws in Nepal, the predicament of people of the tarai, the status of women in Vedic literature, the threats to democracy and the vibrancy of the press-any topic of interest to anyone can be discussed at Chautari. The procedure is simple. The programme for the month is fixed in advance, and circulated through e-mail, photocopied signs and word-of-mouth. The main speaker-the pundit in Chautari-speak-presents his views in about half-an-hour. After that, anyone with a view can be an expert commentator or an interrogator. This goes on for a couple of hours.
Chautari has no hierarchy. Pratyoush Onta, a convenor, says: "Chautari disagrees with the tradition of an elite speaking from the pulpit to an audience of lesser mortals listening respectfully. It is a forum for dialogue, or even polylogue." That, in essence, is the mission statement of sorts-not formally declared, but universally accepted by all those who frequent Chautari. "I am right, you are also right. I may be wrong, so could you. Let us think, listen, speak and re-think and develop a culture of communication." Simple, challenging, and a helluva lot of fun.
This has been Chautari's rallying cry since its humble beginning in October 1991 when water-resources engineer Bikash Pandey, Norwegian engineer Odd Hoftun and his Nepal-born political scientist son Martin, initiated a fortnightly discussion forum on "development philosophy". When Martin died in a plane-crash in July 1992 on his way to Nepal from Oxford where he studied, Hoftun Sr made available some space for the forum to continue. Since April 1995, it has been called Martin Chautari.
Today, Chautari is run by a committed mix of activists, journalists, writers, commentators and students. Though it remains within the world of the word-spoken and written-its members have notched up remarkable successes in social activism. Recently, it functioned as the focal point of a movement for the emancipation of kamaiyas in western Nepal. Earlier, Chautari members spearheaded the campaign to ban diesel three-wheelers from the Valley, and succeeded where better-funded NGOs and INGOs failed. Chautari is often the first place where non-conformist ideas are expressed and discussed.
After a decade, Chautari is reassessing itself. In an internal document floated for discussion, Ashutosh observes: "Chautari's flagship programme-mangalbare-is a success and an anomaly." Agrees Pratyoush Onta: "Even though it is exceedingly successful on its own, Chautari's failure to replicate itself in Kathmandu and elsewhere in Nepal needs serious attention." The kind of commitment required to run such a forum is not common anywhere. It is even less so in Nepal where intel-lectuals do not consider themselves learners, but interpreters of divine wisdom.
But Chautari has ignited a change. The ideals of Chautari- tolerance, respect for the other, and the freedom of thought and speech-remain with everyone who comes in contact with it. How many insti-tutions can claim to have initiated a culture and sustained it for over a decade, sticking to its undeclared mission? Success sits lightly on Chautari members. They laugh it off as the reward of a job well done, and done for its own sake. It is this nonchalance that makes Chautari what it is-a live chat-room. Forget Internet versions. In a country of twenty-three million people, Nepal has about three hundred thousand phone lines, fifty thousand computers, and less than thirty-thousand Internet connections. Chautaris are not just relevant, but important.
The Chautari keeps the Socratic tradition alive in a city that is getting impersonal by the day without fully acquiring the urbanity of a metropolis. That in itself is something to celebrate.