Saturday, March 30, 2013

Thuji Chey!

Hope you had a great festival of Holi. The season of spring, of bloom, of new hope and joy, of love, and of gratitude is here.

The run-up to this year’s color carnival was thankfully conspicuous in its lack of ruckus. For many years in the past, it had turned into a grotesque tragicomedy in which town folks rained down balloons filled with dirty waters on fidgety pedestrians, obscenely abused women, and the police had a field day hauling away miscreants. It had become a travesty; a day of discord, of vengeance, and of ingratitude.

Perhaps because of police loud speakers blasting the sounds of caution that people have died in the past by falling off the rooftops, by drink and bhang-induced driving, and had sustained injuries by lola bombs, there seemed to be some relief this season.

Could it also be that we are becoming more decent, compassionate, or grateful people? In this season of nature’s generosity, it is worthwhile to reflect on the idea of gratitude and its manifestations or restraints in our culture.

My first exposure to the term was in books, in the cryptic kritagyataa, one of the least read parts of any volume. Growing up, as happens in many average Nepali communities, I was hardly taught to pronounce that bridled word dhanyabaad (“Thank you!”) in return for a gift or some kind of help. I know, that was long ago and things have certainly changed much since.

Historically, however, we have many examples of this virtue, expressed in our own ways. It is said that Buddha, a week after his enlightenment, standing motionless, gazed at the Bodhi Tree in gratitude, for seven full days. That was his way of saying dhanyabaad to the tree for offering him shelter for six long years. In later ages, scriptures record that people like King Janak of Videha gifted his kingdom, in gratitude, to his guru Ashtavakra, a sage merely in his teens. In recent times, we see this virtue, for example, in Laxmi Prasad Devkota’s caring for total strangers, BP Koirala’s heart for reconciliation, and Tenzing Norgay’s humility.

Even as a world-famous victor, Norgay had this to say after the first successful ascent of Mt Everest: “Seven times I have tried, I have come back and tried again, not with pride and force, not as a soldier to an enemy, but with love, as a child climbs onto the lap of its mother. Now at last I have been granted success, and I give thanks, ‘thuji chey’ that is how we say it in Sherpa, ‘I am grateful’” (Tiger of the Snows, 1955, p 4).

Thankfulness, it appears, has no bounds, it reaches out to our foes as well as to our friends. Consider the controversial remark made by the late Girija Prasad Koirala following the 1990 Jana Andolan. Referring to the dismantling of the one-party Panchayat system, he had declared: “This is the victory of Nepali Congress, of the Nepali Communists, also of the Panchayat!” Politics apart, in hindsight, his utterance bore an undertone of gratefulness to the mutually discordant powers. Such tactical tributes can be traced to other cultures too, such as the one bestowed by the conquering British on “our gallant adversary Balabhadra Singh and his brave Goorkhas” at Nala Pani in 1814.

Yet, explicit expressions of gratitude are becoming rare, although offerings to trees, rivers, snakes, skies, planets, often in the forms of age-old rituals, continue among a large section of the Hindu majority. Today, it is not unusual to see even educated youths on a moving motorcycle risking their lives, by instinctively and ritually folding their hands or touching their heart at their first sight of a road-side temple, or a holy mound around the corner of the road.

Even Dashain and Tihar that come with blessings and gifts, end with bowing and touching the feet of elders, but rarely with a word of thanks. Unequivocal, verbal acknowledgements are hard to come by in our culture. As the personality psychologist Murari P Regmi wrote some twenty years ago, “the Nepalese seem to acquire self-control over spontaneous impulses and have a strong superego” (The Himalayan Mind, 1994, p 33).

In the past two decades, Nepalis have gone through enormous change, socially and cognitively, but Dr Regmi’s assumption could still hold true, at least for our cultural proclivity. We seem to take things for granted, and shy away from acknowledging indebtedness for fear of perhaps exposing our low self-esteem or insufficiencies.

No wonder, we reveal to the world extremes of mental attributes as people. In 1980, the journal Science had reported that Nepalis had much higher pain threshold than Indians and Europeans. However, the paper said, it was because of culturally imposed stoicism, implying that Nepalis felt pain intensely but did not report it! In November last year, the US pollster Gallup reported that Nepalis are the ninth least emotional people among residents of 150 nations.

Are we holding back our true emotions? Is our endurance restraining our feelings of gratitude too?

We seem pretty good at warming up to people: Sanchai hunuhunchha? (“Are you alright?”) Chiya khanu bho? (“Did you have your cup of tea?) Basnus na! (“Please, sit down!”). But not so good at wrapping things up. Hardly do we hear somebody saying “thank you” in return for such niceties. Leave a passage to a pedestrian to avoid bumping into him, vacate a seat in a public bus to someone in need, open a door to a person about to come in, host a dinner for a friend or family members, and after all you have done, generally, and only generally, expect a large grin, not the sound of a dhanyabaad.

And you may still be hopelessly waiting for an email note or a phone call from someone whom you helped in the hour of his or her need months ago!

Nonetheless, in our own way, we seem to be straddling between no gratitude, false gratitude and self-gratitude. In the first of these types, you will hear somebody proffering your views, your works as his own, often with an air of personal conviction. The other type offers undue credit to somebody in a position of influence. In one example, an individual bought an expensive mobile set only to attribute it as a gift from a friend working in South Korea! The most narcissist of all is self-referential gratitude to the point of “What haven’t I done?”, “As I have often said...” etc.

Except for our exclusive clubs of gratitude, such as our modern restaurants, some schools or homes, or hubs for foreign tourists, the verbal dhanyabaad remains a rare commodity. This will come as a reverse cultural shock to people who have spent some time in an occidental culture, used to that “How are you; ain’t this a beautiful morning?” from total strangers.

In the West, Cicero long ago described gratitude as the parent of all virtues. In a way, in the US, it has been institutionalized in the festival of Thanksgiving. Research shows thankfulness is a skill that can be cultivated to guide our emotions, such as developing a list of things we are grateful for—the weather, family, food, or health. Robert Emmons, an American professor of psychology, writes that gratitude is one of the keys to happiness; and it functions as “a psychological immune system that bulletproofs you in times of crisis.”

These are times of crisis in our part of the world, and we in Nepal may need to do more to cultivate gratitude, and express it more explicitly. We don’t have to gift a kingdom or gaze at a tree for so many days to feel grateful. But we may certainly have to go beyond our rituals, or the increasingly fashionable “thanks” or “welcome” in the English language to culturally revamp our style.

Thuji chey, in Sherpa, for this season of bloom, and your time.

Published in Republica, March 30, 2013. 


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