Sunday, August 15, 2010

MY Space. Our Space.

Dharma Adhikari
The recent news is that Mr. Ram Bahadur Bomjom slapped a group of villagers who entered his meditative abode in a Bara jungle. Oh my, what has happened to our freedom of movement?

It appears that our petite Buddha is getting compulsive about personal space: Get outta MY place!

Irrespective of his un-Buddhist action to ward off intruders, now there around the place Mr. Bomjom has gotten a barbed wire fence installed, thus developing a stronger link with the territory.

In deed, “territoriality”, characterized by an attachment to a physical, social or mental space, and the defense of that space against perceived or real encroachments by “others” is an age-old fact of animate life. In lowly creatures, we see this most evident in hippopotamus, and in bulls, dogs and cats (unless you befriend them).

Among all the species, the Homo sapiens have developed since antiquity, often forcefully, a keener sense of borderlines, most notably of power and dominance, exemplified by the many battles fought for self-defense or for occupation. Perhaps we inherited this instinct from the animal kingdom that reigned supreme before we overran this realm.

For good or bad, the very idea of a nation, of shared culture, ethnicity, language and government, is one of the most territorial of human inventions. It seems that Israel is always erecting walls and America is always fending off wetbacks. Every internal threat of disintegration, in itself a form of territoriality, upsets us, and every border pillar torn down or missing now and then on our southern international boundary understandably agitates us. But today, in our experience, even the notion of a nation has become subordinate to the idea of MY enclave, clearly evident in our obsession with MY clique, MY clan, MY party, and above all, MY kursi. You just don’t cross the floor, or give up, come what may, even those four embarrassments and more.

It’s quite a contrast to the values many of us were taught to internalize, growing up. There never was MY chair in the family. It was hamro ban, our jungle. There never was even MY father or MY mother, but our father and mother. It was our village, our country, not mine. I never had MY teacher, but our teacher. It was not MY house, but our household. But regrettably, sometimes, the collective also manifested into an in-group, exclusionary remark, as when kids from another village thronged by the neighborhood path or waterway. I had to shout out loud: Hey, this is our road, our river. Get lost!

The most conspicuous sign of our persistent physical territoriality is our enclaved living in our urban sprawls. We are ubiquitously a walled society. There’s scarcely a house in Kathmandu, and even a public building or place without these walls, including tundikhel, the city’s common. There’s nothing aberrant for us to commute daily through narrow cracks and constricted lanes that oftentimes compel lengthy detours for a meager leg-space. We curse them, but can do nothing about them. And honestly, these walls are thick and tall, for they are not skimpy fences around wide-lawned dwellings like in many open, modern societies. We have not even left any room for trespassers, an inspiration perhaps to our foreign friends who took to fortifying their embassy buildings in our style.

There is no doubt that MY space is defiantly stinging our space, adding much consternation on us all. According to Ashna Mathema, a World Bank urban planner, residential density of traditionally urban Kathmandu was already one of the highest in the world, as early as 1960. The Valley’s population doubled in the eight years between 1996 and 2004. Nationally, we will have 30 million more people in two decades. The ecology of our “near environment” has gotten denser. Our interpersonal spaces are shrinking fast; and it’s hard to avoid a bump into someone, or to evade a habitual gleeker, or a bad breather or a heavy perspirer, or, excuse me, a farter. Imagine the health fallout.

The US intercultural communication scholar Edward T. Hall, who died little over a year ago, spent his life studying perceptions of space. In the seventies, he observed that an ideal social distance for an average American, who inhabit what he called a “contact” culture, ranged from four to twelve feet, significantly lower than for Asians, from “non-contact” cultures. Nepalis, although traditionally sparse and scattered rurally, seem to be fast deterritorializing, profoundly altering their space orientations. The Central Bureau of Statistics estimates that by 2021 over a quarter of the population will be living in urban areas. More forest encroachments and farm destructions are coming, sometimes led or encouraged by our very own ministers. We require orienting to ways of coping with overcrowding. Our intimate spaces already get routinely violated with impunity. In particular, any space in a public bus, for example, is MY space. We scurry for any seat, never mind if it’s exclusively reserved for the disabled or for women.

Our space; MY foot! We are on MY way, all too vividly in our construction breaches, sidewalks infested with rampaging motorcycles and restless hawkers, the garbage-strewn streets fomenting our young cricket enthusiasts, and our city’s corners and cavities putting up with our daring wall-wetters, etc. We also have our rural highways to sun-dry paddy. As if a sign of our triumph over our space, we continue to dangle and flutter our laundries in the public like victory flags and as if in an auspicious deed, sprinkle or release our discharges in our common vicinities. Thanks goodness for our teeming traffic; I don’t get to see that many cows wandering our streets these days.

Now forced by advancing markets we are selectively sanitizing our urban landscape, for example, with our new-found zeal for shopping malls and skyscraping apartment buildings. Considering the resources spent on these structures, there is some room to wallow here. But the warning bells dingle loud: The unplanned settlement and land development in Kathmandu will worsen our new territorial aspirations. The South Asia Cooperative Environment Programme (SACEP) assessed about three years ago that by 2025 agricultural lands will vanish in the entire of our once pristine valley. Don’t expect yet that some of these patches may turn into OUR grand parks or something, for our natural preserves. There will be more walls erected, gated communities installed as well as malls with electric stair lifts that readily take you up, but always seem non-operating or dead on your way down.

I am only beginning to wonder how our individual physical territorial tenacities have corroded our shared socio-psychological spaces. Not infrequently, a topic these days among peers is that it is becoming really difficult to penetrate the professional walls of many groups or organizations that have actually turned into cabals, the collective MY. We are always on the lookout for mero manche, an insider, to accomplish a normal task that our entire bureaucracy is wont to put off indefinitely. Economic territoriality seen in the increased concentration and limited distribution of wealth has worsened basic subsistence. It is fair to say that thousands are leaving the country to find a space for themselves.

With the advance in new media, MY space has emerged as a new territory, including for those who cannot afford to leave their country. Provided that everyone has the access, it has the potential to bridge the social and economic distances, surmount territoriality with more imagination and resistance. The danger is that virtual spaces, just like our physical spaces, reinforce our self: MY page, follow ME. As its novelty fades, its influence and visibility suffers. In light of our technological arsenals, ecological disasters and social and economic turmoil, we can get around our lesser attachments perhaps only through our collective territorial aspirations. Professor Stephen Hawkins went as far as to say the other day that we should flee earth (Get outta here!) and colonize the real space so our species continues to live forever.

Forget Kathmandu, or Nepal? Outward-bound or inward, space-bound or earth-centered, it is time that we all became little Buddhas reflecting on our personal failings and collective destiny. The challenge is we will still need some space to do that.

Published in the Republica, August 15, 2010