Wednesday, January 2, 2013

This Urge To Know

As 2012 comes to an end, I am trying hard to reflect on that one single thing that kept me alive and agitated throughout the year. And now is also the time to contemplate on what is to become of the New Year.

I am using the word “alive” to refer to the reason for my living in these times of doubt, to describe my mysterious agility in this perennially foundering country of ours. Add to that the fact that Kathmandu, the city that I call my home, has much to offer by way of mortal standards to contribute to my distinctive life experiences. For example, the city has usually ranked very low in global livability surveys. In one such survey from 2012 carried out by the UK-based The Economist magazine, Kathmandu is ranked among the bottom 13 countries out of 140.

The survey describes prevalence of violent crime, threat of conflict, and availability of public health care as “uncomfortable”. It determines the level of corruption as “undesirable” and extent of censorship as “uncomfortable”. Similarly, the survey describes our city’s general public education indicators as “intolerable”, and the overall quality of infrastructure (transportation, water, energy, housing, telecommunication, etc) as “uncomfortable” and “undesirable”. My city is barely livable.

And I wonder if those qualifiers are strong enough. Those of us who live here know better. The words that I often hear include “horrendous”, “monstrous”, and more appropriately, “inescapable”.

Now to the word “agitated”. When living standards are distant dreams, where impunity reigns and the government is for the chosen few by the chosen few, you cannot expect to be heard that easily unless of course you occupy Baluwatar like in the unfolding Sita Rai case. Unfortunately, such collective act of civic conscientiousness is humanely impossible for every incident of corruption, rape or violence.

So, as a citizen living in a city without my representation, without an elected municipal government, I am often annoyed, embittered, and enraged at the poor quality of public services that affect our lives, in our homes, offices, schools and streets. For the foreseeable future and for the majority, improved living standards appear like fantasy and it’s only agitation that keeps us astir, moving, and thus alive for no other reason than to merely remain alive and kicking.

It’s living in anger and rage, without a prompt or fair hearing. We may perhaps be the most irate generation. The positive spin to this is that we are a resilient people.

It may be true. Agitation must be sustaining a lifestyle, if not life itself.

After some personal cogitation on some of the biggest national and international stories of the year, I came to a surprising conclusion: the one thing that kept bugging my mind the most was neither the demise of Constituent Assembly nor the reelection of Obama as the President of the United States of America, nor the landing of Curiosity Rover on Mars!

Sure they were intriguing stories. But my story of the year that continuously agitated me was a thread of a rather emotional question, a sort of a communicative conundrum that ran across many issues and events of the year.

Why? What really happened?

It started with the most bizarre case of the year. Earlier in the year, a young lady, a student of journalism, spoke to me on phone. She was trying to explore learning or apprentice opportunities. As a professional who believes in mentoring young people, I gladly welcomed her to visit my office.

She called me twice again, trying to set up the appointment. It was beginning to feel disconcerting, trying to say the same thing again and again. Finally, a few weeks later, the lady did almost arrive! She called me from near Bhatbhateni, asking for directions to my office nearby.

I’m almost here, will see you in minutes, she said.

It has been a year now, but that lady never arrived! The mystery remains unsolved. What really happened? This has become a billion dollar question, and I worry about her safety, and this incident pains me deeply about the way I am able or unable to communicate with people in this era of new technologies and instantaneous communication.

The means to information and communication is often limited, even with massive increase in hardware access. In such circumstances, the urge, the thirst, the need to know what you think you need to know becomes even more powerful. It is so irritating not knowing what really happened. I even began to say (sometimes in jest) that if the lady did not arrive by the end of the year, I would hire a detective to connect the dots.

Perhaps it’s the journalist in me, a seeker of information wanting to know the details, the facts, the whole story. For media professionals, not getting enough of the right information is not the end of their informational pursuit, but it is the very challenge they live up to.

Now I am beginning to feel that my right to information, to know the facts, were violated in this incident. And I agitate in this conundrum through the telling and retelling of this story, perhaps simply an act of missed appointment. For me it personifies the communicative gaps I encounter and wrestle with in my daily life.

To be in the loop, to be current comes with a huge price tag. You need to devote plenty of time, and passion for the details. Besides the lady of my year, I have spent countless (I am not saying worthless yet) hours trying to find out what was really happening at the Birendra International Convention Center throughout the year, why we lost the CA, and most important, what is going to happen now that it is gone?

It’s the same in pursuit of the year’s stories and events ranging from Gangnam Style video to the Mayan apocalypse to Pokhara floods, Chandra Bahadur Dangi or Sita Rai. You spend hours to figure out what it’s all about. In Nepal, where rumors, conspiracies and hearsays are the mainstay of public communication, this vetting task becomes all the more important. And sometimes, they call for actual sit-ins simply because mobiles and Facebook cannot replace human face.

Open societies are structured in the way information is generated, managed and consumed with clear objectives in mind. For us, it appears that communication is more about process than outcome. We are becoming less and less communicative while at the same time seemingly more and more like communication-active.

I am still waiting for some all-important email replies from a number of people who check their emails umpteen times a day. And I got to be honest here; I am not an exception to such non-response.
If only I could explore ways to restore some old-fashioned communicative sanity in the coming year. With our adoption of the latest gadgets and tools, we deserve some measure of predictability in our personal or mediated exchanges. It is not too much to ask for.

Published Jan 02, 2013 in Republica


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