24-30 June 2016 #814

Freedom is not free

I was living a regular everyday life, then this happened … 
Samriddhi Rai
Diwakar Chettri
It all started with a call from the BBC Sajha Sawal TV talk show. “We want you to be a part of our discussion on youths in politics,” said a voice at the other end of the line. “I am definitely not the person you’re looking for,” I replied, “I know nothing about politics.”

Fast forward three weeks. Suddenly I was either a racist who shamed her community, a brave woman who spoke what was in the minds of the younger generation of Nepalis, or a pioneer campaigner against cyber-bullying — maybe all of these at the same time. For someone who has whole-heartedly rebelled against any kind of label, it was ironical that it was I who had unexpectedly earned thousands of labels, some of which I did not even know existed in Nepali vocabulary.

I had unwittingly signed up for a ‘Sajha Saga’ show and it certainly proved to be a steep learning curve. It turned out to be an open discussion on race, ethnicity and communalism, and not just by those parading on the streets demanding ethnic rights.

I was on the set of Sajha Sawal, excited to hear the opinion of young Nepalis, and was abruptly thrown into the spotlight when the show’s host popped a question about the lyrics in my song Ma Chahi Nepali. My answer — given the fumbler that I am when it comes to public-speaking, on top of my laboured Nepali, zero skills in diplomacy and 100 per cent raw honesty — was: “When growing up, my aunt repeatedly suggested that I must marry a guy from my ethnic community, but because of all the coaxing I chose to stay away from them as a form of rebellion.”

And that was it. That was all it took for all hell to break loose. My Facebook notifications started erupting at one ping per second. There were 100 at first, then 200, 300, and soon thousands of messages had flooded my fan page inbox, mostly voicing strong rage against what I had said. Right then I knew that my day (and my life?) would not be the same anymore.   During the first phase of the controversy I apologised relentlessly. I realised that I had unknowingly hurt the people of my ethnic group, and hated that feeling. The second phase was like watching Clash of Clans unfolding live on social media, as those attacking and defending me had a go at each other. When the dust started settling in the third phase, I became aware of cyber-bullying as a serious crime, and also of the deeply-rooted ethnic sentiments in our society. The legion of young Nepalis who were fearless in expressing their opinions gave me the assurance to be unafraid to voice mine too. 

I have always believed that we Nepalis are beautiful because of our diversity, and this controversy taught me to learn more about my own cultural heritage and traditions. This was the very diversity I was proud of.

But even these realisations did not change the viewpoint I had articulated on the show. I still believe that ethnicity will never be a criterion for me to choose a partner. I could have couched my words more diplomatically perhaps, but my remarks not only broadened my own mind but also brought forth an enlightened discussion among younger Nepalis.

I was inadvertently bridging the gap between people fighting for ethnic identity, and those who idolise the concept of a greater Nepal. There are extremes in both schools of thought, and it is up to us to find common ground. Do we want our unique diversity to be our biggest strength, or a weakness? This is a question we all need to urgently address. 

In the BBC show the host had also posed the question, “What is your idea of an ideal world?” My answer to that will always be — a world where people are without any labels: of gender, profession, race, colour, possessions, and even nationality. In my ideal world, we will blur those lines.

Samriddhi Rai is a singer/songwriter, and a travel vlogger. Her ‘Sammy Adventures’ webisodes release every Thursday on YouTube

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