Thursday, August 18, 2011

Cursing Your Country

'Here, you see, I have a country!' – Philip Nolan, in The Man Without a Country (1911). Banished to the sea for cursing his country, Philip Nolan, a fictional character in Edward Everett Hale’s classic, learns to love his country and adores it by way of drawing a great map of his homeland. 

In high school-- because we then had to study a two-year course to prepare for the SLC-- I had no time to curse my country for everything that went wrong in my life! Moreover, I had just returned to my “motherland” after having lived in India as long as I could remember, and I had nothing but admiration for this country.

Interestingly, during that time, there was this RUMOR that Tara Nath Sharma, the author and editor of the Nepali course books, had at one point actually spat on our airport tarmac, cursing Nepal, just before he left for the US, vowing never to return back to this country.

The image of a creative person showing such vile contempt for his country was simply unimaginable for me. But I never bothered to ask if the author, who wrote such beautiful prose, had actually cursed our land—Yesto khatam desh! Even odder, it never occurred to me to ask why he had done so, or, how was it that he eventually made Nepal his permanent home.

I am sorry to say that Dr. Sharma, for all his formative influence on me during school, and irrespective of the veracity of that rumored curse, has served me a purpose in this article. But the fact is we can find many other authentic examples of people demeaning or cursing their country.

Yesto moola desh! Yes, over the years on many occasions, you must have heard people cursing their own country with the spontaneity of a rehearsed dialogue from a street play. Often, these are subconscious bouts of frustration over the dismal state of affairs in the country and reflect more about our own attitudes toward our spatial existence than the conditions in our country. Though not full-fledged tantric expletives wishing misfortune on purpose for the country, such curses contribute to reinforce the notion that somehow this country, this “personified” land, has a mysterious way of cheating us, shortchanging us!

To be honest here, as my going got smoother in school and social settings, I did learn to curse my country on many occasions. Typically, like a punching bag before a vindictive boxer or a contender before a vengeful wrestler, my country served me subconsciously as a target for all my self-absorbing, vile attacks, intimidation, name-calling, belittling, and cursing.

Even until my recent introspection, I never paused to think for a moment if it was the country per se, really, that deserved the blames for all my frustrations, for the follies of the wayward or for the bankruptcy of my representatives in government. Whoever walked the wrong walk, the fault invariably lay on the country: it's the country, stupid! Here, this place; shit always happens. Thugs get out of prison to make room for police officers. Our puppets and puppeteers in government enact perpetual gaijatra. Suckers have their way.

Feeling miserable and betrayed in their own land, people are flocking to foreign lands. The great exodus continues, and soon half our population will be building their own mini-Nepals in East Asia, the Middle East, Europe and North America. Is that so that there's something horribly wrong with Nepal as a geophysical entity that it impels us to construct its own alternatives?

My friend Jagadish Pokhrel has a theory about how the very essence of the Nepal reality is built on our life circumstances shaped by hardship or merely the notion of hardship. This theory may share some elements with the "dukkha" paradigm unfurled among the development thinkers during the 1990s, but it differs in one fundamental way. Rather than imagining and romanticizing hardship in the manner of ascetics, dukkha in this light is a potent, real force. It's the country replete with material and moral deprivations.

As perceptions have it, despite its immense natural wealth or beauty, this country that we call Nepal is often made into a host of human abuses and transgressions, and materially too, we complain, it yields only stingy crops and scarce minerals for our consumption. So, increasingly, some of us have to look up to Vice City or Mortal Kombat! for our adoptive values and rely on imports, most recently, grapes from South Africa, apple juice from Australia or rugs from Belgium.

The very analogy by Prithvi Narayan Shah that our country is a (delicate) yam between two gigantic boulders (that are about to crush the gourd any minute, from both sides) reminds one to be perpetually vigilant and squirmy, ever ready to grab a first-aid kit, just in case. And so when one has to live on the edge forever, with little assurance of stable security, perhaps we should accept that cussing such a life circumstance dictated by precarious geophysics becomes a means of endurance. Therefore, if not for self-annihilation, then to prepare for the eventual showdown, learn we must to bicker first among ourselves?

Now I wonder if only the founder of this country had imagined Nepal as a frisky squirrel between two large mushrooms, and ever cheerfully feeding on them! As the two proverbial boulders now increasingly look like flourishing rhizomorphs of honey mushrooms, perhaps it is time to undo our yam myth. For when we consider ourselves a food item, we are only inviting others to gnaw on us, and in that light, it is ridiculous to curse our circumstance, our very country-hood.

Sociologists may have better explanations. And I am, of course, aware that in spite of the looming sense of hopelessness that has blighted my generation, there are also more people today who do not buy into such outmoded myths. Yet, I am bothered that our self-depreciating tendencies continue to hold roots in our school system, shaping and nurturing our next generation sensibilities.

Our kids are still made to rote-learn these defective axioms of classic, mythic proportions: Nepal sano chha. Nepal is tiny. Nepal garib chha. Nepal is poor. Nepal bikat chha. Nepal is remote. What does it take to be tiny among a community of over two hundred nations, half of them smaller than our territories? How come we didn’t get to emphasize that our country was, nonetheless, getting richer, albeit gradually? And, what was the point of reference for remote? Remote from our own selves simply because we shrank like a black pepper in our spatial experience, seeking self-pity for what we have become?

The irony is our parents, and partly our governments, paid our schools to teach me this ridiculous practice of persistently demeaning my country, and nothing short of cursing her in some subtle ways.

At some point one may even wonder if all our kids know there is this country of Nepal, and that it belongs to them. In some regions in the far west, kids will tell you he’s Dr. Man Mohan Singh, the prime minister of “our country”. Perhaps, in this, we may like to blame their exposure to the Indian media. But our academia is no better. How many centers of learning still subscribe books--as one Kathmandu-based school does, according to media reports-- that teach our children this: the “capital of our country is New Delhi”?

Imagine any foreigner debasing our country or our kind. Even a little slur is sure to result in violent riots: never ever dare to say that Buddha was born in India; and that is a warning as categorical as we can be. It seems that if we are doing it ourselves, we are merely acting like a self-abusing Macaque, as it is in its nature to do so.

A few more subtle examples derived from nationality, some from the past, add to our cussing appetite: Hami dherai sano chhaun, hamro mutu sano chha! We are so tiny, our hearts so small! Nepaliko buddhi nai hudaina! Nepalis are devoid of intellect! Nepalilharu milera basna sakdainan. Nepalis cannot live in harmony. What jives we put on ourselves! Is this the reason that we are still constricted in our outlook, and trust foreign consultants more than our local minds? Or adore alien icons more than our local idols?

This brings me to the disconcerting master myth of “Sati’s Curse” that touches the heart of this article. Nepal has long been portrayed as an accursed land in our social lore built on a legend about a medieval widow who was consigned to ritual immolation (Sati) along with her husband who was unfairly executed by a king. She perished in fire but only after wishing for the rule of injustice, and the punishment for honesty and good deeds in this country, for perpetuity.

The question is: are we perpetuating her wishes to curse the country for the fault of a few misguided lords?

Historians have yet to verify this widely held myth, to accurately trace the extent of loss, grief and suffering of the many immolated widows in our blemished past and the crying curses of those wronged ones. I for one tend to doubt that they cursed the country for the tyranny of a wicked few. I cannot find any evidence of cursing one’s country even in the references to Greek and Roman curse tablets from the barbaric era or our own tantric literature from ancient times. Typically, they point to curses aimed at individuals, their properties and sometimes enemy lands.

Still, looking at the dismal state of affairs in almost all sectors of our society, we may be tempted to believe that we are indeed an accursed country. But is this unique to our land? One way to start looking deeper into this issue is to work out a list of accursed countries like they have for the failed states. But that is the material for another story, another time.

Published in Republica, August 17, 2011