Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Are We Big Yet?

Measuring Nepal’s ‘bigness’

The poet laureate Laxmi Prasad Devkota asked in one of his celebrated essays: Is Nepal small? Though his approach to the topic was essentially romantic and patriotic, in one of the passages he hints at the variety and vastness of our mountain geography.

In that essay published some sixty-eight years ago, he writes: If you locate yourself at one corner of the hills, and glance in three directions, you see three different worlds from that spot. Sometimes, as I look around, I get to see four different images—of the shade, the sunshine, the drizzle, and the fog.

Earlier in the same passage, he contrasts the rich tapestry of the hills with the bland expanse of the plains: Plain is ho hum like a consistently dumb person, plain cannot be an art work, it is like the background of a picture without the real picture, but there is melody of variety in the scenes of a hill country.

Growing up, I read this essay many a time if not to enjoy it for what it is, then to prepare for my finals in college. To a physically-oriented young mind, the “bigness” of Nepal Devkota was trying to demonstrate via his idyllic prose tinged with spiritual and patriotic fervor seemed irresistible, yet also surreal. He seemed a let-down, promising something geographically concrete in his title but never meeting my expectations in terms of showing that Nepal was, indeed, physically big!

With that in mind, imagine the puzzled face of an adolescent, schooled amid the conventional sounds of “we are a small country”, amplified sharply by the persistent clamor of the international news wires—“Nepal is a tiny Himalayan kingdom” between China and India! If school textbooks and news headlines were to be believed, Devkota must have been crazy.

The point is, two contradictory notions of Nepal had to be reconciled: one forwarded by the founder of the country, Prithvi Narayan Shah, crystalized in his aphorism “Nepal is a [tiny] yam between two [large] boulders” coupled with the belittling stereotype perpetuated by newsleads, and the other imagined by Devkota in his “sundar, shanta, bishal” (beautiful, serene, great) proposition, epitomized by his classic question. Realism trumped idealism, except when we were lulled into a false sense of largeness fed by the historical narratives of Teesta-to-Kangara, and equally appeasing tunes of char jat, chhatis barna ko fulbari (a garden of diverse castes and sub-castes, suggesting the vastness of the country) from Prithvi himself.

It took me some time to realize that true to the character of any man of creative words, Devkota pointed out a possibility, an alternative reality. He spoke of a universal feeling that transcended any national or political borders. He could have been equally asking: “Is Samoa, or for that matter, Monaco or Tonga or Vatican small?” No people or nation, however small geographically, likes to be perceived as such. The feeling of “bishal” reflects the unceasing appreciation of immense natural bounties we all are bestowed with. At another level, it embodies a deep loyalty towards one’s kind and soil, a feeling of monumental self-pride legitimized by the idea of patriotism, a gift of the past two- hundred-and-fifty years of modern nationalism.

Devkota was a bard, all right, writing his heart out as an ordinary citizen. But long before his muse, the territorial ambitions of the Gorkhalis were real. Starting in 1744, and within a span of 60 years, the House of Gorkha had expanded across the central Himalayas, except for losing about one-third of territories to the East India Company during the 1814-16 war. The succeeding Ranas, the Sree Teens, basking in the glory of their political predecessors, turned color blind, and in their despotism, could see nothing but their own towering reflections in every direction. The Shahs resurrected with a vow to cede political space to the people, but soon their patriotism degenerated into autocratic chauvinism.

Today, few seem to give a hoot to the idea of “bigness” of this country, or even the country. The birthplace of Buddha or the land of Mt Everest, serve merely as refrains. Anything that has to do with the past is immediately discarded into the dustbin of “250 years of feudalism”. Never mind the wires, for they simply disseminate hyperboles. Besides, it is kind of settled now that we in fact never were a “tiny” country, even physically or demographically: more than half of the world’s 200 countries are smaller than Nepal, and we are the fortieth largest in the world in terms of population.

Today, we have reached the point where some self-appointed people personify the country. Most often, we measure our country not by its natural abundance, or geographic expanse but by the number of political parties, their inflated pride, and their erratic ideologies. The new monarchs, dubbed “Sree Char” (the leaders of the Big Four), look in four different directions serving to the media feeding frenzy their different pseudo-images. Whatever their projections, they are now largely taken as perverted revolutionaries, demagogues, new authoritarians and sectarians. Instead of the nation and the people, they seem devoted more to their serfdoms. Here again, it is difficult to reconcile such narrow, insulated politics with the fashionably “big” ideas of democracy, republicanism and federalism.


Sure, size and population or swollen egos of political leaders do not truly make a country big. Still, for all the focus Devkota placed on nature, my interest lingered in our geography: just how accurate is the total surface area (147,181 sq. km.) of the country? I have often heard that as in the plains, surveyors measure mountain areas like they do “flat areas”, length multiplied by breadth, not necessarily taking into account topographical landscape features, such as surface, elevation or incline. Even for a layperson without expert knowledge of the subject, this leaves room to assume that the actual estimation of the total area of the country—which could be many times more than the current figures—has not been made. Devkota’s question rings sharp here, too.

I approached an expert to verify the facts. The prominent geographer Buddhi Narayan Shrestha who is associated with Nepal Geographic Information Systems Society (NGISS) suggested that until 1986, when Nepal, with support from Canada, concluded her Land Resources Mapping Project via vertical aerial photography, the country’s total area remained merely an approximation, based on data from India and the UK. Today, satellite photography has made the calculations much easier, he says, emphasizing these technologies ensure accurate measures of the total area. I am curious to know more about the technical details he furnished, topographic or cartographic, which I cannot explain here adequately.

My effort here is to prod a topic of public interest, taking a common-sense approach. For generations our ancestors have worshiped our mountains, while many others have cursed these rugged landforms for all the many hardships and challenges they posed. Overcoming these difficulties may require more understanding than rage or deification.

I recall here the words of the eminent Geographer, the late Dr Harka Gurung, from one of my interviews with him in the early 1990s: We know so little about these vast mountains, their geology, what they carry deep inside their bellies; these are the topics for explorations a long way down the future.


But for now, let me return to the question, what actually could make a country “big” as we experience it today? Undoubtedly, vibrant economic growth, coupled with a political leadership that is accountable to the people. The greatness of a country also shines through in the resourcefulness of its citizens, their public-spiritedness, and their magnanimity. Above all, remarkable achievements in our human development indicators, such as health, education, employment and social security will help bring us closer to that status.

Until then, we will continue to feel more small than big.

Published in Republica, June 4, 2013