A tall and heavily-built European tourist, standing at an altitude of 2175 masl on the verdant hilltop of Nagarkot, closes his eyes and takes in a deep breath, as if he had finally achieved nirvana. “You have everything, yet you say you’re unhappy,” he tells my young Nepali guide, Ram, as he reopens his eyes.
|Saru, accompanied by her younger sister Sharmila, talks to the author.|
Ram labours day and night to strengthen his bank statement to be able to get a visa to Japan. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t love his country. He is annoyingly nationalistic. During my 10-day tour to the South Asian country, he would ask me almost every five minutes to admit that I loved Nepal. “Nepal acha hai na bhayya ji? (You love Nepal, brother, don’t you?). I never responded.
Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world with 31 percentage of its total population living below national poverty line. It does not help that this Himalayan land is one of the most tempting destinations for tourists throughout the world mainly because of its eight out of world’s 10 tallest peaks, thousands of years old Buddhist temples and rivers feeding on water from Himalaya’s melting glaciers.
Around 800,000 tourists visited the country last year and tourism consultants believe the tourism industry alone has the potential to lift the country out of poverty. “Around 22 million tourists visited Thailand last year and only 0.8 million came to Nepal because we lack the basic infrastructure and facilities. If we manage to attract as many tourists as Thailand does, we will no longer be as poor,” said Bijay, who runs a tourism firm in Kathmandu.
Although Nepal’s centuries-old monarchy was replaced by a shaky democracy in 2008 following a decade-long civil war by Maoists that claimed around 15,000 lives, political parties have so far failed to draft a constitution for the country, let alone alleviating poverty. “We have gathered here on Democracy Day to remind the politicians that nothing has really changed,” said Bidushi Dhungel, who was leading a demonstration of youngsters at Martyr’s Gate, a monument built in the memory of the martyrs of democracy, in Kathmandu. She and other youngsters had been campaigning for the last 50 days against rapes and robberies.
“I wish he had performed better. He didn’t live up to our hopes,” says Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s younger sister, Tara Devi Bhandari. She runs a small restaurant along with her husband, Manahari Bhandari, at their modest house in Khaski while their teenage children work at their fields. “We earn not more than 10,000 rupees per month, both from the fields and the restaurant. Still Maoists want their share (chanda) from it,” claimed Manahari. When asked why they didn’t seek Dahal’s help, the couple said he was practically out of their reach. “Isn’t it ironic? If he doesn’t have time for his family, how the hell is he going to be of any assistance to others?” interrupted a friend, who was accompanying me on the trip.
Better known to rest of the world as Prachanda, Dahal’s Maoist slogans were a ray of hope for many until he became prime minister in 2008. “His term in office proved he isn’t much different from others,” said Manahari.
Saru, Manahari’s 15-year-old daughter, has never seen her uncle in her entire life. He was in the jungle leading a Maoist insurgency when she was a child and now he seems too busy in the affairs of the state to remember his niece. “I’ve only seen him on TV,” she smiles. She shook her head when asked what she knew of Maoists. “Wait,” she said a few seconds later, as if she had realized she knew something of them. “Aren’t they the people who live on others’ income,” she said in a triumphant tone, as if she had just resolved the mystery behind the universe’s creation.
Economic problems are not the only cause of discontent among Nepalis. A country of diverse ethnicities and religions where more than 125 languages are spoken, a number of ethnic communities complain of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion and caste. While the national incidence of poverty is 31 percent, hill Janajatis have 43 percent incidence of poverty and low-caste Dalits 46 percent. “The basic problem of Nepal is the 3-Bs – Bad Brahmin Boys. The three ruling parties are being led by three Brahmins and they don’t treat the indigenous people as equal citizens,” said Dr Krishina Bhuttachan, a professor of anthropology at the Tribhvan University in Kathmandu.
He is an ideologue for the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities, a group fighting for a federal Nepal where all ethnic groups enjoy total autonomy. “Look at this young man,” he pointed to a youngster with Mongloid features sitting next to him. “He can never make a hero in Nepali films because of his narrow eyes and flat nose. He’ll be a good villain though,” he laughed. “Do you know why? Because even the concept of beauty has been defined by the ruling elite.”
He blames Indian support for the continuing hegemony of Brahmins over indigenous Nepali people. “Brahmins comprise 12 percent of the whole population, but they rule the country because they’re being supported by India,” he added.
Landlocked Nepal is highly dependent on neighbouring India, for import and export of goods through sea, making it vulnerable to Indian dictation on key issues. The country’s trade with India accounts for two-thirds of its total trade volume. To maintain this dependence, India has blocked a transit treaty between Nepal and Bangladesh since 1976, which would allow Nepal to use Mongla port for trade, a move that would lessen Nepal’s dependence on India. However, India has rejected Nepal’s requests to allow it to use a patch of Indian territory as a transit route to Bangladesh.
However, despite the country’s political, economic and social problems, Nepali people take pride in the fact that they are relatively more secular, liberal and tolerant than most other South Asian nations, like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Followers of different religions have learnt to co-exist in harmony and Nepali women aren’t burnt alive for mingling with men. Even in the most rural areas, young women brandish Western clothes and work alongside men. Minority Muslims or Buddhist monks aren’t a source of resentment for the majority Hindus, and vice versa.“That’s where hope comes from. If I can transform from an underworld street fighter into an entrepreneur, why can’t Nepal?” asked a former mafia man, Ram Chandra Khadka, who now owns his own guesthouse and restaurant in Pokhara, the country’s third largest city and the most attractive tourist location.
On February 19, the day I was supposed to fly out of Nepal, Prachanda’s Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists) was observing a countrywide strike, locally known as bandh, to protest the formation of an interim government led by the Supreme Court’s chief justice ahead of general elections. No taxis were plying on the road to take me to the airport, as the protesters had vandalized two tourist vehicles and an ambulance van early in the morning for violating their call. As usual, Ram came to my rescue. He took me to the airport on his motorbike. After thanking him and bidding him farewell when I turned to enter the departure lounge, he called out: “Nepal acha hai na, bhayya ji?” Irritated at the frequency of this question, I could only manage to force a fake smile. Now I’m planning to give him an answer during my next trip, before he leaves for Japan.