Nepali Times
Here And There
A rude awakening


On the morning of Wednesday, the 8th of November, I leapt out of bed and raced down the stairs of the finest hotel in Kakarvitta, Jhapa. The first person I met was the friendly sweeper, errand boy and porter, who never failed to smile and say namaste. "Hajur, I stuttered in my broken Nepali, "American elections, hijo, er.. ke bhoyo, um." The young man looked at me with a smile, nodded his greetings and went back to sweeping the restaurant floor. He shook his head gently as he worked. I turned in desperation to my host, the owner of the Hotel Rajat, Rajesh Shrestha. He too beamed broadly at me. "Do you know who won the US elections?" I demanded breathlessly, probably a touch rudely as well. Rajesh regarded me with a sideways look as a timely phone call relieved him of the burden of having to deal with me. A news junkie bereft of the information of the moment is an unsightly and off-putting thing. Rajesh's usual customers, wisely, showed little interest in international television news channels, so no BBC or CNN in his hotel.

A Christian missionary on some mysterious assignment came down for breakfast and he too professed total ignorance about the fate of Messrs Gore and Bush. I spent that day, last Wednesday, in a state of some agitation. I accosted border guards, bus drivers, arriving and departing tourists. All gave me blank looks that suggested they had far more important matters on their mind than the will of voters on the other side of the globe. It was a good twelve hours before I found out about the still-unfolding political fiasco in the United States.

A friend wrote from Washington to observe that the next Master of the Universe was being decided by a group of octogenarian bridge players in Palm Beach and by expatriate voters-the sort of people, my correspondent reminded me, who were summed up in song by the late, great Steve Goodman: "Some of them are running from lovers/leaving no forward address; Some of them running tons of ganja/some are running from the IRS (Internal Revenue Service)". A reference to a tiny minority among the expats, I'm sure, but a reminder of how the fate of us all can hang in the weirdest of balances.

I can only think of the pious, well-meaning folk who make a living travelling the world and monitoring the elections of poorer nations. Where are the foreign observers in Florida? Why isn't, say, Benazir Bhutto calling a news conference to express her deep unease at the ballot paper situation in Palm Beach, and the alleged irregularities in New Mexico? Don't get me wrong. I'm not against election observers, as such, especially in places where governments and elite have not convinced their citizens that polls will be honest and impartial. And I'm not picking on the Americans either.

The twenty-first century is beginning with a series of reminders to the rich, developed countries of the world that they too live in fragile constructs, at the mercy of fate and unforeseen, potentially catastrophic failures of process and technology. Take the recent Singapore Airlines crash in Taipei. The record of the world's safest airline now stands besmirched because the plane tried to take off on a construction site. The tragic funicular fire in Austria is another horrid example. Many of us cheered the European fuel protesters who in September shut down their countries with their demands for cuts in petrol prices, and shook their governments to the core. For me, it all contributes to a sense of unease that worse lies ahead. The latter years of the last century, the fin d'siecle, were awash in smugness on an unprecedented scale as my generation, the forty-somethings, made vast sums of money and came to power in many democracies. We were Masters of the Universe. A surging stock market, the incredible pace of often frivolous yet always lucrative technologies, progress on the gaping wounds in global peace such as West Asia and Northern Ireland-it was all our doing. Or so we thought. Has a run of immense of good luck been mistaken for competence and exemplary stewardship? The more I think about it, the more I wonder why Bush or Gore want to be president at all.

And oh yes, profound apologies to the people of Kakarvitta for my day of relative rudeness and agitation. It won't happen again.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)