16 July, 2019

Conserve water, South Asia!

Annapurna Express, July 12, 2019

June 11th is the date for the arrival of the monsoon in Nepal. This year, there was no sign of rain on the 11th. The days ticked by as we looked at the skies, increasingly anxious about the oppressive feeling in the air. A cyclone predicted to hit the coast of Gujarat moved away to the ocean, and was blamed for sucking rain away from the mainland. Noone—meteorologists, climate change specialists, Indian scientific community, NASA-- seemed to know why the monsoon was delayed. As the drought worsened, maps started to appear on Twitter, showing how far the monsoon should have moved across the subcontinent by late June. Most Indian states which should have received rain had seen weak rainfall or none at all.

The briefest shower I have ever seen in Kathmandu washed away the dust on the leaves of my curry tree plant on June 17th. The rain lasted five minutes. On Asar 15th, we saw photographs of people planting rice in what looked like well-irrigated terraces. Muddy happy people stuck rice seedlings into the ground. For a Twitter moment, all seemed well.

For most urban dwellers running around on motorcycles, rain is an inconvenience that floods them in badly planned cities. Urban floods are an annual occurrence in cities like Mumbai. But “Floods” and “Droughts” are two sides of the same coin. For a continent that should recharge during rainy season and withdraw water during dry season, we tend to waste our precious water during monsoon in dirty, uncontrollable floods, and cry foul during dry season when another state or area which has better managed its resources refuses to give us its precious hoard.

South Asia has also adopted the electric underground pump with a vengence—most of us get our drinking water from groundwater reservoirs which are fed by rain. But South Asians in general are not known for frugal use of water. We extract massive amounts from our finite reservoirs with no thought for the future. We leave the tap turned on because there are no consequences from government or community.

Chennai, a city of an estimated 12 million people, has run dry. The alarming news that this major city in India had run out of water first became evident through satellite photographs posted by NASA, which showed before and after photographs of Puzhal Lake from 2018 and 2019. The four rainfed reservoirs in Chennai were operating at a 0.2 capacity. The city, the NASA article notes, “has been devoid of rain for almost 200 days.”  

An article by Nidhi Jamwal in The Wire on June 27th, titled “Not Just Chennai, India's Drought Situation Is Far Worse Than We Realise” quotes the South Asian Drought Monitor, “more than 44% area of the country is facing drought-like conditions, of which over 17% is facing ‘severe dry’ conditions.”

On June 23, I read an article titled “Amid growing crisis, Madhya Pradesh may become first state to introduce Right to Water Act” on the India Water Portal. The language of rights has always interested me, not the least in ways South Asians demand rights without also realizing it comes with responsibilities. So I posted this on Twitter:
In India too, the talk is all about "rights" but nothing about "responsibilities."
Not even basic water conservation steps like turning off taps, not overusing tubewells (I've seen these left gushing in India), just plain old abuse of water is not addressed.

India wastes massive amount of water, not the least for irrigation where farmers turn on an electric motor and leave the water gushing for hours on end. This waste is fueled by cheap electricity subsidies. As the July 1st op-ed “To handle water crisis, overhaul irrigation” by Joydeep Gupta in India Climate Dialogue pointed out, this must be replaced by the more efficient drip-irrigation system which pinpoints and directs water directly to the roots of the plant instead of flooding the entire field. He also advocates for a move from water intensive crops like rice towards barley, millets which are water efficient.

The language describing this crisis as “drought” and “climate change” removes human agency and turns this manmade environmental disaster into an abstract natural catastrophe. Yet we are very much to blame for this crisis. By we, I mean government policies which have prioritized pumps over indigenous methods of recharge, and forest clearcutting for mining companies instead of reforestation. By we, I mean cities which have paved every single inch with ashphalt and turned urban spaces into barren deserts. By we, I mean users who overpump underground reservoirs and overexploit it with no thought of the future.

It is clear that the Prime Minister’s Office in India is now taking the water conservation issue seriously. On 30 June, in his first Man Ke Baat program since his second re-election, PM Modi urged people to conserve every drop of water and create a database of people involved in the indigenous water conservation.

This is the very first step in acknowledging that wasteful use of water is a large cause of India’s water emergency. Now India needs to move towards a national and regional policy which prioritizes reforestation, river conservation, groundwater stewardship, rainwater harvesting, and wells and ponds revival.

Is South Asia, as a region, prepared for such a massive crisis? India and Pakistan continue to battle onwards with manufactured military crisis in Kashmir that eat away at their treasuries. So successful has this strategy been for political domination in each country that nobody—not least the political elites—seem willing to put this aside for the real issues, including water, besetting the subcontinent. India needs to sink a few million recharge wells into its cities and villages, but most of the money is siphoned off to buy clunky, decommissioned military hardware from Russia and France instead.

South Asia cannot afford a drought. We are a continent of a billion and a half people dependent on rain-fed agriculture. The crops may fail this year, and we need to plan for it. The alternative—South Asian government apathy—is too terrifying to imagine. Without rain to recharge these underground water dhukuti, we are looking not just at an abstract “monsoon deficit” but a humanitarian crisis of massive proportions.  India must stop its BIMSTEC nonsense and immediately come onboard SAARC again. The very first issues the South Asian region must discuss is how to resolve the water and upcoming food shortage crisis. 

Printed in the Annapurna Express, July 12, 2019

15 June, 2019

Homo Insapiens


The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), an intergovernmental body which assesses the state of biodiversity and the ecosystem services it provides to society, last week released a report stating one million species are at risk of extinction. They estimate there are 5.5 million species of insects, of which 10% are threatened (500,000 species). In addition, 2.5 million species are animals and plants but not insects, of which 25% are threatened. This 25% figure is estimated from IUCN Red List assessments (500,000 species.)

Whatever the numbers, which will surely be hotly debated amongst conservationists, biologists and industrialists for years to come, it is clear from numerous studies that the volume of animal and plant life all over the planet is declining in alarming numbers.

Humans are the main culprits. Their industrial agricultural practices which tolerates only monoculture and aerial applications of toxic herbicides and pesticides, huge cities of concrete, massive toxic emissions from fossil fuels, millions of tons of toxic plastic objects which breaks down into a soup of microplastic in the waterways, pharmacological waste, and a dizzying array of chemicals used in daily life is contaminating every millimeter of earth, water, sky and air.

And then there is the hubris of a humancentric worldview where the planet is viewed as terra nulla for humans to colonize. Every other species must make way, or die if need be, for our smallest needs.

Nepal may feel separate from these discussions. And yet we cannot afford not to be part of his global dialogue. Our shops are full of pesticides. Our waterways are full of plastic bottles. Our supermarkets are full of beauty products and cosmetics containing innocent sounding ingredients which cause endocrine disruption, leading to a “thyroid” health crisis. Our chickens are full of last resort antibiotics.

When I visited Jumla in 1993, I was 20 years old. With just a junior technical assistant from the NGO who had hired me to write a report about its work in Jumla as a guide, I made my way across the district for six weeks. Chickens were kept in close proximity to sleeping areas, and people were often so disturbed by the pests on the birds they sprinkled DDT onto their beds before going to sleep. I was offered some DDT to sprinkle on my bed, which I politely declined. Lecturing people on the harm created by this practice was useless—the people felt there was no alternative if they wanted a good night’s sleep.

I often think about this disturbing memory and wonder how much of the cancers occurring in Nepalese are triggered by agro-chemicals. There was a young woman ravaged by breast cancer who I met at the Nepalgunj airport on that trip. More recently, I was in Dhulikhel when an elderly lady on a bus told me she was undergoing treatment for cancer at the hospital. She was obviously sick, and I wondered how much of the beautiful landscape outside was scarred with invisible poison.

We have been made to believe Western science and its inventions are the height of intelligence and infallible wisdom. Yet how can a worldview which encourages people to keep making chemicals and compounds with not a single thought about its end result be ethical, rational or wise? In Eastern philosophical traditions (different strands of Jainism, Hinduism and Buddhism) the ethical consequences of harming another life is front and center in every action that we take. How could we have been made to believe that this “science” which keeps inventing one toxic killer substance after another is not just a way of thinking that we must all adopt on a global level, but indeed the only way? What made us so deluded we have no effective way to push back at this genocidal regime and say: “No, we refuse to adopt a way of life which is murdering a million species on earth?”

Homo sapiens—Latin for “the wise man”-- was the name given to humans to indicate their ability to think. Scientists often boast intelligence marks humans out from other beings who cannot think with the same cognitive complexity. Our cognitive abilities are far superior to any other species on earth, the scientists assure us. They’ve done the studies, so they should know.

And yet how could we be an intelligent species if we’re destroying the very basis of what makes us alive—the web of life which sustains us on earth--all destroyed with no end in sight? We may have the military, industrial and chemical arsenal no other animal does. But then no other animal attacks its own basis of life in the way homo sapiens has so successfully managed to do, with the help of science and technology.

Does this mean we are not as intelligent as we think we are? Does it mean we are missing a chip—the ecological quotient chip that all other animals come so beautifully equipped with? Will we manage to decimate the whales who survived for 2.5 million years? Will we kill even the cockroaches, the ultimate survivor? Are we bringing the web of life crashing down, all the while clapping with our own brilliance? Perhaps it is time to change our name to homo insapiens—the foolish human species.

Annapurna Express, 31/5/2019

17 May, 2019


Annapurna Express, May 17, 2019

Harvard has asked Professor Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., law professor at the Harvard Law Department and first African-American dean at the college, to step down from his post. The esteemed Professor announced his intention to defend Harvey Weinstein in January, which led to months of student protests before Harvard finally made the call to ask him to step down. Mr. Weinstein is well-known for not just producing exquisite works of cinema, but also for molesting, sexually harassing, groping and raping over 80 women in the workplace. The numbers probably exceed a 100, since not all women come forward.

Twitter was immediately up in arms about this decision, with hundreds of people supporting the lawyer for doing his just duty to defend an unpleasant character. Well-known journalist Glenn Greenwald immediately put out a Tweet in his defense, calling out the “racism”. The fact that over 80 women had faced sexual, mental and psychological trauma for years, with serious consequences to their careers, financial security and emotional well-being seems trivial, compared to the injury faced by Professor Sullivan Jr. in doing his legal duty.

While the right for all violators to a fair defense is enshrined in the law, I wonder if the African-American students who stepped out in such vociferous outrage against the dean’s ouster would have done the same for a white Harvard law professor who took the same decision to defend a police officer who’d killed over 80 unarmed black teenagers? Would they be as enthusiastic if the law professor in question decided to defend the man who bombed the black churches? What about defending the leaders of the Rwanda genocide—surely they too are entitled to a legal defense? But would a white professor who did that still expect to hold on to his teaching position? Somehow I doubt this would be a possibility. 

The reason why a white professor would choose not to defend such a character is simple—while it is written in the law that everyone is entitled to a defense, simple human decency and awareness of the atrocities faced by African-Americans in the hands of the police would make this decision to stay away from such a character a no-brainer.

Note there is no “ism” for women that draws the same outrage—a mass rapist is entitled to his legal defense, but the 80 women who came forth and the many who didn’t don’t deserve the same defense. “Sexism” doesn’t even begin to touch the level of misogyny in the way this debate is unfolding. I see not a single Tweet in defense of the women who were Weinstein’s victims.

If only this debate was just about an African American man’s right to do his unpleasant duty. This is not just the 100 odd women that Harvey Weinstein probably raped in his lifetime, but the thousands of women who have faced sexual violence in conflict and war, the millions of women who have suffered workplace sexual violence and rape, and the ever increasing cases of male impunity which creates conditions ripe for rape of girls, aged a few months to teenagers, at the hands of men of all ages in developing countries.

If Harvard thinks this debate is only about racism, it is wrong. This is about the lives of millions of women who have been affected and harmed by sexual violence worldwide. Sexual violence offenders permeate every institution at every level worldwide, pushing women out from public life, affecting their emotional and financial security, and making them even more vulnerable to violence.
What goes on at Harvard filters down everywhere and becomes legal norms in every other country, including Third World countries with poor legal regimes like Nepal. As an academic institution which often comes in the top rankings of the entire world, Harvard cannot afford to think this is about the abstract rule of law.

To allow someone to flaunt his male privilege in this manner would be akin to allowing someone who defended Nazis to be on the law faculty. The mass atrocity committed by the notorious Harvey Weinstein ticks all the boxes of a crime against humanity. I was myself surprised to learn this, but you don’t need millions of people affected by a crime for it to be a crime against humanity—about 80 will do if the crime is egregious enough. And you cannot have a man who defends crimes against humanity teaching students at Harvard.

For the many girls and women of Nepal who’ve faced violence in school at the hands of teachers, such as the women who were molested as children by Uttam Tripathi at Lalitpur Madhyamik Vidhyalaya, these scars never heal. For the many women in Nepal who were raped and killed during the conflict by soldiers, justice will now only come in the form of how we reshape institutions so they are free of predators, including opportunistic ones who will use their social and institutional standing to defend other predators.

Lets have a true debate about how the victims are in this discourse. It is not law professor Sullivan Jr. If the concern is about African-American faculty and their marginalization at Harvard, the solution is simple: hire the many brilliant black women lawyers who have fought hard and long all throughout their lives against sexual violence. There are many of them, all equally powerful and all equally capable of becoming deans of the college.

Any man this tone deaf to the worldwide MeToo Movement doesn’t deserve to be teaching at one of the finest colleges in the world. For Harvard to allow this man to remain on the faculty would be a travesty of justice.

11 May, 2019


Annapurna Express, May 3rd, 2019

The world’s waterways—oceans, rivers, Antartic ice sheets, Arctic polar bear habitats, Alpine mountain lakes, Himalayan mountain glaciers—are inundated with plastic. At first, it was just a garbage problem, something we as humans thought we would be able to deal with technological prowess. We could always rely upon recycling.

This thought comforted us with its reassurance. The familiar mantra: Reduce, reuse, recycle was chanted at institutional settings and activist ones. The power of this repetition was enough to shield us from our own arrogant, self-destructive scientific certainty.

In the past few years, the scale of the plastic threat has become clear. We are now inundated, according to scientific estimates, with 8.3 billion tons of this non-biodegradable material since 1950. That’s one tonne for every living person on earth. Only 6 percent of US plastics was “recycled” (more accurately, shipped to China to be incinerated). This will plummet to 2% with China’s ban.

The US produces 19.5% of the world’s plastics--55 Mtons in 2012, according to Polymerdatabase.com. Europe produces 20%, China 25% (same source). PlasticsEurope’s “Plastics: The Facts” says 51.2Mtons were produced in 2016 in Europe. This industry newsletter also states very high recyling rates which don’t match with facts on the ground.

Recycling has been shown to be a myth: much of it ends up shipped from rich countries to poor communities in middle income countries like Malaysia and Thailand where it is incinerated due to lack of recycling capabilities. Protests of local inhabitants go unheard. How can a city like New York City, mighty beyond belief in the global financial landscape, not be able to dump their trash wherever they want?

The only problem with this model of the rich trashing the poor is the interconnected nature of the planet. Inevitably, emissions from burning plastic returns to people in the USA in the form of global warming, causing massive storms, cyclones and hurricanes in coastal areas. The ocean, rapidly warming through these manmade atrocities, is forecasted to inundated the same New York City which now dumps massive amounts of plastic trash onto South-East Asia.

The scale of this problem is clear to everyone. But no government, municipality or mayor has lifted a finger to halt the tide, despite overwhelming evidence that the status quo is suicidal, not just for humans but for all forms of life on earth. Why is that?

Plastic is a product of the petroleum industry, which has reigned with its petrodollar power for the past century. Petroleum and plastic companies are registered on the stock market, their value counted in trillions. The biggest corporations selling petroleum also sell plastic. Plastic industries employ 1.45 million in Europe and 1 million in the US. In 2012, the US plastic industries made over $380 billion annual turnover, with $13 billion trade surplus (Polymerdatabase.com). These MNCs have lobbyists in Washington. They are an “American success story.” 

Also deceiving is the activist response. “Circular economy” is the catchphrase being pushed by billionaire philanthropists in response to plastic pollution. Institutions which promote this are under the illusion that 1000 billion tons of plastic generated since mankind started to make this destructive substance can not only be vaccumed up and repurposed (a Sisyphean task), but also that plastic can continue to pour out of the pipeline because we now have this reliable Circular Economy in motion.

This is as dangerous a myth as recycling. Any modern object, eg a laptop, is created through multiple supply chains which provide materials and parts from countries scattered globally. A circular economy would need a massive apparatus to reclaim, re-ship and re-purpose each tiny part, the costs of which MNCs do not want to bear. Perhaps policy may make them change their mind. Left to their own purposes, MNCs would rather pump and dump in a disposable economy.

Loop, much-hyped new company, the founder of which socialized with billionaires in Davos and got new customers, ostensibly recycles containers for big MNCs. The only problem: it again asks its companies to create plastic containers—only this time they’re used 100 times instead of once. The hype of the new Silicon Valley entrepreneurs doesn’t match the reality of the plastic menace on the ground.

I asked Nestle on Twitter how they would clean up the mess they had caused so far. They sent me their new guidelines on sustainable packaging. It included a policy to still use plastic bottles, but with 35% recycled content by 2025. To imagine Nestle planning to manufacture this object for the next 6 years when sustainable options are available is deranged, in my opinion. But can any force stop them? What law or ethical guidelines is in operation to modulate, regulate or punish global crimes of large corporations?

Ocean warming and microplastic pollution have led to dangerous dieoffs of plant, animal and insect species--coral, frogs, insects, birds, penguins, polar bears, amongst others.

It is clear the economic costs of our gleeful arson of the planet has catastrophic ecological and economic costs. The pyramid of life is at risk. We can alter our course by globally banning all forms of plastic now. Or we can continue to delude ourselves with bedtime stories of the circular economy, which will cost us another few decades, in much the same way as the myth of recycling lost us valuable time since the 1980s.

Nepalese pay a massive “plastic tax”--we may not realize it, but our food items are significantly more expensive because we are paying for plastic packaging for our food and household goods. The government should invest in sustainable packaging that can be made from our own natural resources, which would save us billions of rupees a year.

This much is clear: Nepal’s Himalayan glaciers, which provide spring water for a billion plus inhabitants, are melting from global warming. Our drinking water supply is at risk. If we continue to manufacture and burn plastic, we have no future in the subcontinent.

Published in The Annapurna Express, 2019/05/03

15 March, 2019


Wikikeaks publisher Julian Assange has been taken into custody by the British Police. After almost 7 years in the Ecuadorian Embassy, he was dragged out, looking haggard and magnificent as Tolstoy with a giant white beard. The Ecuadorian Embassy had given him generous refuge till a change of regime brought an end to his asylum status—who knew asylum could be revoked? Maybe the catshit had something to do with it. One of the demands of the Embassy was that Assange clean up after his cat. Video footage has also surfaced showing him trying to learn how to skateboard inside the embassy.
There can be no doubt Assange was probably a nightmare tenant. Kudos to the Ecuadorians for suffering through seven years of a celebrity journalist living in their premises. But now the question arises—what next?
First and foremost is the freedom of the press, which all democratic nation-states must uphold. Assange was involved in collecting information on war crimes conducted by the US military. This reportage is the job of a journalist, which he was in full measure. In keeping with the times, his methods of information collection involved a large amount of cyber data. Collecting information for the purposes of verifying a story, especially a story as massive as the one Wikileaks was working on, has always been the professional prerogative of the press, and one that cannot be hampered by any state institution.
 Putting Assange in jail is the equivalent of what the Nepal Police has just done to journalist Arjun Giri, the editor of Tandav Weekly (tandavweekly.com), who was detained and charged under cybercrime law on Monday. His crime? Reporting on a financial fraud conducted by a member of a powerful family that rules Pokhara. Giri is a member of Nepal Journalists Forum, Kaski Chapter. Clearly if people had issue with his reportage, they should have printed rebuttals or put a lawsuit on him for defamation of character. Instead, they went to the police and put him in jail for cybercrime. Reporting on stories is not a crime—but often in tinpot dictatorships like Nepal, where the police can be used for the ends of powerful families, this misuse of the law possible.
The US however is not a tinpot democracy. It is the home of the brave and land of the free. Journalism holds special respect there—at least it did, before Trump took a personally antagonistic position to the press and started to attack its members with impunity. Assange has done nothing that another beacon of democracy, Noam Chomsky, has not done over a lifetime of critiquing the US military and its atrocities worldwide. The only difference is thatAssange, a freewheeling Aussie with libertarian tendencies, has drawn the ire of his jealous contemporaries who will never break a story as important as this one, as Glenn Greenwald pointed out. “Narcissist” is a favorite insult to hurl at Assange, which is odd because he’s clearly sacrificed his life to a cause much larger than himself.
This much is clear: Assange, despite the vociferous insults heaped upon him by the corporate American press, has already consolidated his legacy. Persecuting him now brings forth the opposite results desired by the US state. Extremely negative publicity is sure to follow any attempts to extradite him to the USA. A friend of mine who studied Evangelicals used to say they love persecution—the more persecuted they were, the more their suffering elevated them towards Christ. Something similar is in operation here: the more Assange is persecuted, the more his already canonized image is going to solidify with the young and the moderates, globally.
The US is already on shaky ground due to Trumpian isolation policies. Separating itself from rule of law and the freedom of the press is not going to make it more popular in the international stage. Britain is caught between Brexit and the annoyed Europeans, and any attempts now to cozy up with the Trump regime is only going to make their position more tenacious on the European continent. The only solution now is a speedy legal resolution which drops all charges against Assange and his publication, and a quiet flight back to Australia with his cat.
Published in the Annapurna Express, April 2019.
Sushma Joshi is a writer and filmmaker from Nepal. She has a BA in international relations from Brown University.

11 November, 2018

Delhi University's MA in sociology includes my article "Cheli-Beti"

The syllabus of the MA in sociology at Delhi University includes my article Cheli-Beti: Discourses of trafficking, and constructions gender, citizenship and nation in modern Nepal in its reading list. 

Happy to be on the same page as Amartya Sen and Foucault!

Course SOC 218: Population and Society 

This course takes students through the key concepts, approaches, and debates in the field of population studies. By focusing on basic features of population structure and population dynamics, it will enable students to understand the importance of demography in social life. A key feature of the course is exposure to the critical sociological debates as well as policy related debates is. At the end of the course, students will be conversant with the significance of demography in social life and will have developed a critical orientation to public debates and policies regarding population. 1. Introduction to population studies and classical approaches: a) Relation with sociology and anthropology. b) Population structures and population dynamics c) Malthus and Marx d) Durkheim and Halbwachs 2. Fertility: a) Demographic transition theory b) Approaches to Fertility c) Reproductive technologies, sex selection and Infertility 3. Mortality: a) Epidemiological transition Model b) Approaches to mortality 4. Migration: a) Migration as a demographic process b) Approaches to migration 5. Population politics and policies: a) Governmentality and biopower b) Census and identity c) Gender and religion 57 The Course teacher may add a few extra ethnographic Studies to the reading list every year. The final list of readings will be distributed by the course instructor in the first week of the semester. 

1. Dudley F. Poston and Leone F. Bouvier 2010 Population and society: An introduction, Cambridge; Cambridge University Press. 
2. Susan Greenhalgh 1996 ‘The social construction of population science: An intellectual, institutional and political history of the twentieth century demography’ in Comparative studies in society and history, 38(1): 26-66. 
3. D. I. Kertzer and Tom Fricke (eds.) 1997. Anthropological demography: Towards a new synthesis, Chicago: University of Chicago Press (Selected chapters). 
4. Alaka Basu 2011 ‘Demographic dividend revisited: The mismatch between age and economic activity-based dependency ratios’, Economic and political weekly, 46(39): 53- 58. 
5. Thomas Malthus 1798 An Essay on the principle of population, Any Edition (Selected Chapters). 
6. Karl Marx 1973 (1857-1861) Grundrisse, London: Penguin, Section titled ‘The concept of the free labourer contains the pauper. Population and overpopulation etc.’, pp 604-607, available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/ grundrisse/ch12.htm#p604. 
7. Karl Marx 1867 Capital, Volume 1, Moscow: progress Publishers, Chapter 25, footnote 6, available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ ch25.htm. 
8. Frederick Engels 1845 The condition of the working class in England (Chapter titled ‘The attitude of the bourgeoisie towards the proletariat’) available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/arx/works/1845/condition-working-class/ch13.htm. 
9. Mahmood Mamdani 1972 The myth of population control: Family, caste and class in an Indian village, New York: Monthly Review Press. 
10. Emile Durkheim 1984 Division of labour in society, London: Macmillan. (Part II, chapter 2 ‘The causes’). 
11. Emile Durkheim, H. L. Sutcliffe, John Simons 1992 “Suicide and Fertility: A Study of Moral Statistics” European Journal of Population / Revue Européenne de Démographie, 8(3): 175-197. 
12. Maurice Halbwachs 1960 Population and society: Introduction to social morphology, Glencoe: Free Press. 
13. Jennifer Johnson-Hanks 2008 ‘Demographic transitions and modernity’ Annual review of anthropology, 37:301–15. 
14. Susan Greenhalgh ed. 1995 Situating fertility: Anthropology and demographic inquiry, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (Selected chapters). 58 
15. Tulsi Patel 2006 (1994) Fertility behaviour: Population and society in a Rajasthan village, Delhi: Oxford University Press (Selected Chapters). 
16. Tim Dyson and Mick Moore 1983 ‘On kinship structure, female autonomy, and demographic behavior in India’, Population and development review, 9(1): 35-60. 
17. Marcia C. Inhorn and Frank van Balen 2002 Infertility around the globe: New thinking on childlessness, gender and reproductive technologies (Selected chapters). 
18. Tulsi Patel ed. 2007. Sex selective abortion in India. New Delhi: Sage. (Selected chapters). 
19. Nancy Scheper-Hughes (ed.) 1987 Child survival: Anthropological perspectives on the treatment and maltreatment of children. (Selected chapters). 
20. Paul Farmer 2004 ‘An anthropology of structural violence’ Current Anthropology, 45(3): 305-325. 
21. Amartya Sen 1993 ‘The economics of life and death’ Scientific American, May, 40-47. 
22. Amartya Sen 1990 ‘More than 100 million women are missing’, The New York review of books. December. 
23. Lee, Everett S. 1966 ‘A Theory of Migration’ Demography, 3(1):47-57. 
24. Hania Zlotnik 2006 ‘Theories of International Migration’ in Graziella Caselli, Jacques Vallin, and Guillaume Wunsch (ed.) Demography: Analysis and synthesis, Volume II, London: Academic Press, pp. 293-306. 
25. Caroline B. Brettell. 2000. ‘Theorizing migration in anthropology: The social construction of networks, identities, communities, and globalscapes.” In Caroline B. Brettell & James F. Hollifield (eds.) Migration theory: Talking across disciplines, New York and London: Routledge, pp. 97-135. 
26. Caroline Brettell 2003 Anthropology and Migration: Essays on Transnationalism, Ethnicity and identity, Walnut Creek CA, Altamira Press, (Chapter 2: Migration stories). 
27. Sushma Joshi 2001 ‘Cheli-Beti': Discourses of trafficking and constructions of gender, citizenship and Nation in modern Nepal’ South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 24(1): 157 – 175. 
28. Michel Foucault Security, territory, population: Lectures at the College de France 1977- 8, Palgrave: Macmillan (Selected Parts). 
29. Ian Hacking 1991 ‘How Should We Do the History of Statistics?’ in G. Burchell et al (eds.) The Foucault Effect, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Ch. 9. 
30. Mark Maguire 2009 ‘The Birth of Biometric Security’ Anthropology Today. 25(2): 9-14. 
31. Sarah Hodges 2004 ‘Governmentality, population and reproductive family in modern India’, Economic and political weekly, 39(11): 1157-1163. 
32. Emma Tarlo 1995 ‘From victim to agent: Memories of emergency from a resettlement colony in Delhi’ Economic and political weekly, 30(46): 2921-28. 
33. David I Kertzer and Dominique Arel 2001 Census and identity: The politics of race, ethnicity and language in national censuses, Cambridge University Press, chapters 1, 2, 3, 7. 59 
34. Sumit Guha 2013 Beyond caste: Identity and power in south Asia, past and present, Leiden: Brill, Chapter 5, (Ruling, identifying and counting: Knowledge and power in eighteenth century India. 
35. Nilanjana Chatterjee and Nancy Riley 2001 ‘Planning an Indian modernity: The gendered politics of family planning’ Signs, 26(3): 811-45. 
36. Patricia Jeffery and Roger Jeffery 2006 Confronting Saffron Demography: Religion fertility and women’s status in India, New Delhi: Three Essays Collective. (Essay 1).

You can find the syallabus here: http://www.du.ac.in/du/uploads/Feedback/MA_Sociology.pdf

British Nepal Academic Council website features "Global Nepalis"

Global Nepalis : Religion, Culture, and Community in a New and Old Diaspora
Edited by David N. Gellner and Edited by Sondra L. Hausner
540 Pages | Various, 10 Figures, 9 Tables
Contributors: Krishna P. Adhikari, Radha Adhikari, Tristan Bruslé, Sienna R. Craig, Florence Gurung, Nawang Tsering Gurung, Susan Hangen, Sushma Joshi, Chandra K. Laksamba, Kelvin E.Y. Low, Kathryn March, Mitra Pariyar, Anil Sakya, Bhimsen Sapkota, Jeevan Raj Sharma, Bal Gopal Shrestha, Bandita Sijapati, Anna Stirr, Mélanie Vandenhelsken
Migration has always been a feature of Nepali society. Waves of Khas, Brahmans, and associated service castes were already moving south and east through the Himalayan foothills a millennium ago. As the population expanded, Nepalis from all backgrounds have continually moved onwards in search of new farmland and new opportunities, often encouraged to do so by local communities, local headmen, and the state. In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that process continued eastwards from present-day Nepal into the north-east of India and beyond. Over the last thirty years international labour migration, as well as migration consequent on tertiary education, has radically changed the patterns of settlement of Nepalis outside their homeland. The present volume covers the many different contexts-from the USA to the Gulf, from India to Burma and Singapore-where large numbers of Nepalis are settled or working long-term. Taken together, and organized by region of settlement, the contributions in this book provide a comprehensive overview of Nepali diaspora populations around the world in their contemporary contexts. The common theme binding this volume is the exploration of the process of ‘ethnogenesis’ or the emergence of strong ethnic identities in which the contributors analyse how such identities strengthen more easily in the diaspora with a large population, than in the homeland.


30 April, 2018

Story of My Homeopathic Cure

April 25, 2018
My Republica (http://www.myrepublica.com/news/40504/)

We should broaden our minds to alternative concepts of disease
and healing, not rely exclusively on big pharmacological solutions

A few days ago, The Guardian ran an article about Prince Charles and his belief in homeopathy. The writer expressed scorn at the Prince’s beliefs in homeopathy. The tone of the article struck me with its scientific smugness and condescension—an attitude which has been very effective in blocking inquiry into broader conceptions of disease and healing. In this op-ed, I want to share my own experience with homeopathy. I was also healed by a homeopathic doctor—rather to my surprise. I share the story with you so you can make up your mind about the intangibles that make up the process of healing.
In 2007, I attended the Berlinale Film Festival. I was part of a contingent of filmmakers which had been accepted to the Talent Campus. The campus aimed to bring together young filmmakers and provide them with access to mentors from different cinematic disciplines. We saw Gael Garcia Bernal, Frederick Wiseman and Wim Wenders. We heard the composer who’d done the music for Peter Pan, and the cinematographer of  Red, Blue and White. The time I spent in Berlin was fun, and took my mind away somewhat from an incomprehensible accident that had killed a close friend of mine from college on New Year’s Eve.

On the way back from Berlin, I stopped over at Thailand for one night. I paid $30 to spend one night in a room that felt like an enclosed box. It was hot and stifling, and I seem to have caught dry cold there. On return to Kathmandu, I came down with severe fever, cough and cold. When I recovered, I could hear a wheezing deep inside my throat and lungs that didn’t seem to go away. The asthma may have been triggered by the extreme cold of Berlin, transition to abrupt tropical heat of Bangkok, then back to a colder Kathmandu. Underlying it all was the loss caused by my friend’s death. I could hear a rattle in the throat that was so loud it woke me at night.

Running into a healer 
I talked to my doctor, who prescribed an inhaler. The spray of chemicals in my system made me feel worse. I felt a sense of despair at the thought I would be forever dependent on this medication. During college, I had a friend who also had childhood asthma, and who had overcome it as an adult, so I knew asthma was not a lifelong affliction. It appeared to me there was a cure. But where was it?
Then I ran into a German musician who lived in Bhaktapur. Gert Wegner was known to me through two of my friends. Sarina Rai, the most well-known punk rocker of Nepal, had started her musical career by taking guitar and drum lessons at the Bhaktapur School of Music, which had been started by Gert.

On one memorable occasion, Sara Shneiderman, a friend who was then managing a study-abroad program for American students, had invited me for a program at the Bhaktapur School of Music, and I had seen Gert in his element, in an old garden with wooden pavilions, encouraging girls to take up the big dhimmay baja drums, which traditionally were only played by men. So I knew Gert to be a kind, capable and thoughtful man, who had not just started an institution of great repute, but was also well-respected in Newari community where he lived.

Bhaktapur retains its medieval culture, and Gert was discreetly embedded in this town. His home was an old crumbling Newari home that looks like any other house from the outside. During one festival at Dashain, I learnt that Gert had been given the status of an elder, respected guru by the community of butchers he’d worked with for many years, and that he was in charge of leading a team of musicians to honor Nasa Deo. During that Dashain, we watched as team after team of highly drunk, out-of-tune, rollicking musicians went past—following by the ramrod straight, disciplined military march of Gert’s men, all playing their music in harmony. Needless to say, they won the competition that year.

I can’t remember how or when I ran into Gert again in 2007, but sometimes during these asthmatic days, I happened to visit Bhaktapur, and I ran into Gert at the yogurt shop. As to how I told him I had asthma I don’t remember, but I wasn’t feeling good, and if he asked me how I was, perhaps I mentioned the asthma to him. Then, perhaps in that same conversation, or perhaps in another, he mentioned, in an off-hand manner, that he too knew homeopathy. I was curious now, and requested him for a diagnosis. He agreed.

That same day, I walked with him through winding lanes and a little garden with flowers to the entrance of his old interconnected house. This is the kind of strange thing that looking back Hindus call “karma”—Gert is someone I have met perhaps five times in 10 years, but that moment, when I was most in need of a cure, I happened to run into him.

Gert had rented one of the floors of this old house. It still had its mud floor and walls, and on the floor on a straw mat I could see his tablas. We went up to his beautiful kitchen, and he offered me some tea. I admired the old kitchen utensils that he had placed around as objects of decoration. We had a nice conversation as he told me about his teaching at the Free University of Berlin. He explained to me he himself was not trained as a homeopathic doctor, but his former wife had been, and she had been the one to teach him.

After I’d drunk the tea, we went down again into another room. This had a cabinet full of small vial-like bottles, with the small white homeopathic medicine in them. They were all neatly labeled. I wanted to go closer and look, but didn’t want to appear too inquisitive, lest he think I was being invasive. I got the sense he didn’t want me to go too close to those neat bottles. I sat and watched him as he opened some big books, and started to read them.

Then he took up a little metal instrument which was like a little metal pendulum. He swung this back and forth a few times, looking very intent. It looked like he was testing something, perhaps the magnetic direction of the poles—or perhaps the energy my body was putting out in the room. This looked like some wacky, New Age cure—not at all the rational, Germanic pharmaceutical solution I thought I was getting. I thought about Ouija boards. I felt an urge to laugh. But because he was an elder man who clearly had earned his respect, I maintained my composure. I sat there, curious but willing to see what he had to say.

 “Do you feel the sorrows of other people deeply?”

Rather surprised, I said that indeed I did feel the sorrows of other people deeply. He rifled the pages of his big encyclopedia-like book again, searching for something. Looking at the book, he asked me a few other questions that seem to me to be equally out of range of what a doctor asks a patient who has just told you they need a cure for asthma. It appeared he was trying to place me into a certain category. I felt slightly discomfited, wondering what that category was.

Then he said: “I think you are a causticum type. I am fairly certain you are a causticum type.”

He then rifled around in his closets till he found a small bottle. He put a tiny white ball in a small piece of paper. “All you need is one,” he said. I must have looked disappointed to see the tiny white ball. After the long process of diagnosis, the medication appeared incredibly small and token. Seeing the look in my face, he said: “But I will give you three, just in case you need it.”

I was grateful for this medicine, and eager to try it out. That night, I took one pill of causticum. The white sugar taste vanished on the tip of my tongue.

Miracle happened 
The next day, my asthma, which had been troubling me for a few months, vanished. And it did not return. This was too good to be true. Just to be sure, I took the other two white sugar pills as well, even though I didn’t need it.

I have no idea how, or why. I have no idea why irradiating my throat with a broth of pharmaceutical chemicals didn’t help, and why a tiny white sugar pill did. That’s the mystery of healing. You can’t tell me I didn’t have asthma, because I know I did, and I was suffering from it. Perhaps it was the presence of this elder man who exuded an aura of wise healer energy. Perhaps it was his old adobe house, full of objects that seem to exude magical power. Perhaps it was the time and place of Bhaktapur, and the episodes of music. All I know is that homeopathy worked for me, and I was grateful towards it.

Healing is a magical act, in many ways. Germ theory may explain one part of disease and healing, but it doesn’t explain everything. It doesn’t explain how our body is connected to our mind. Which is why homeopathy, and other systems like it, find increasing adherents all over the world.

This story is not aimed to make you “believe” in homeopathy. This story is only aimed to make you take a closer look at what makes people ill, and what heals them again. This story is also aimed at those policymakers who design healthcare programs in which pharmaceutical companies are given great importance, but who ignore alternative systems of healing. The Nepali Times recently ran an article claiming one-third of Nepalis suffer from mental health disorders.

Many people’s anxiety and depression have been exacerbated by the earthquake, amongst other reasons. In a world with these many people affected by mental health disorders, we should broaden our minds to alternative concepts of disease and healing, and not just rely exclusively on big pharmacological solutions.

Sushma Joshi is a writer and filmmaker from Kathmandu, Nepal

(You can also find an older version of this article posted in my blog.)

16 April, 2018

Beyond Patriarchy

April 16th, 2018 
My Republica (http://www.myrepublica.com/news/39954/) 

In a culture of patriarchy where the girl or woman belongs to the family unit, the “ownership” of the girl by the family can often be lethal

A little girl who loved grazing her ponies was raped and killed in the Indian state of Jammu in January. She belonged to the tribe of nomadic Bakerwals, Muslims who grazed their horses and moved around, possibly across state and national boundaries. Who wasn’t moved by the photograph of the lively little girl with the big eyes in the little purple outfit—the same purple outfit her corpse is shown wearing at the moment of death? Who wasn’t sickened by the story of the drugging, the rapes and the murder? Who didn’t feel a sense of loss hearing the story of how she loved to graze her ponies in the forest, how she was the light of her community?
We know a lot about the case from various news sources. That Asifa Bano had been adopted by her family, because they had previously lost two girls to an accident. Her biological mother gave her up after her brother came and begged for a child, after he lost both his daughters to an accident. Her mother was reluctant, but eventually succumbed to his pleas. That she had been the darling of her tribe for daring to go out and graze the ponies in territory which had already exhibited discord and conflict, and that surely her clan knew was dangerous for children, especially a little girl. But still they had sent her—not a young boy in his teens, not an older man. They had sent an eight-year-old adoptee in the fraught, conflict-ridden landscape of Jammu to graze their ponies.
We know she had been lured and killed in a plot by a Hindu farmer who noticed she was grazing her ponies too close to his lands, and who surely noticed her vulnerability.  Surely he must have known that she was marginal, not tied by the strong ties of genetics and biology to the family who sent her out. Surely she, like any little girl, craved for the love of people around her, and this led her to the risky and daring act of going out in the forests alone, which brought her the attention and love she craved.
Government response 
And yet the response from the Narendra Modi government to all these incidents of violent rapes against little girls is still Beti Bachao—save your daughters. The Indian government cajoles and promises, as if the family, sacred institution, holy cow of faith, would somehow act as a barrier against rapists and murderers. As if a girl, by being a daughter, is somehow entitled to a special lakshman rekha of protection which will keep her inviolate from dangers of life. Have they failed to notice that family is often the most violent and terrifying institution which a little girl can find herself in? Let’s face it: the family can often be the worst institution to take care of children, and the nation, by extension, even less so. The state as a benevolent parent is laid bare in this narrative.
“Beti Bachao” is a good slogan for elections, but it hardly deals with systematic issues, including how paternalism is often at the root of violence against women. If daughters are kin to be protected by the family and nation, what happens to the little girl who is only half a daughter? What happens to the trafficked girl who has moved across borders to find herself in sex work and lost contact with her family, either because of circumstance, or because the family decides she has besmeared their honor? She’s no longer a daughter now. What now? Is she—eight years old—alone and at the mercy of traffickers, also entitled to the protection given to daughters alone? Is the nation to take up the role of the benevolent but absent parent—one who can hardly be trusted to feed a child, let alone ensure her safety?
Systemic problem 
India has a systematic problem with rape which won’t change until it acknowledges that girls and women are individuals with rights and freedoms, entitled to the right to life, the right to live a life without fear, and the right to dignity. It won’t change until the state stops its paternalistic discourse of kinship and protection, and moves towards the discourse of rights and responsibilities. It won’t stop until the justice system treats each victim as a citizen with the same set of rights as the elderly male politicians who are deciding her destiny.
But of course this story is so much more complicated: there is the historical conflict between Hindu and Muslim in Kashmir, between the settled and the nomadic, and the rising demographic pressures on smaller and smaller amounts of land. There is the vague, ominous unease in social media that Assam is being besieged by Rohingya refugees fleeing the violence in Myanmar.
There are the troubling photographs of women raped in Assam by Muslim men and boys, and which the Hindus are outraged about, but which the liberal press declines to cover. The outrage is fueled in part by how lopsided the public perceives the press to be. The Indian liberal press often clams up when it comes to issues that may be seen as communal or controversial, as in the case of Kairana, a community in UP where 346 families of a Hindu community fled, leaving all their property behind, due to fear of Muslim criminals. Not to mention the large scale ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits from the Kashmir Valley by Muslims.
Surely these incidents were at the back of the mind of the farmer when he came up with his devilish plot to murder the little girl, in order to scare the Bakerwals away from his neighborhood. Women’s bodies have always been a way to settle scores and disputes. India’s rape culture makes this permissible, and as the appalling Hindu Ekta Manch’s support for the rapists showed, even defensible.
How to change this culture of violence upon women’s bodies as the subcontinent gets even more fraught with changing and shifting demographics will be the challenge of the next century. There are 172 million Muslims in India, about 14.2 percent. This is not a small number. In the upcoming years, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh will have to work out a culture of living in harmony with minority populations which focuses on the rights of individuals to life with safety, and not fall back upon the old historical ways of using women’s bodies as sites of war.
The Indian government could start off by designing a campaign which shows girls are full citizens with rights to life, safety and dignity. To do this, they need to move away from the discourse of “Save Our Daughters”, because the more they associate girls in filial roles, the more likely they are to tie them back into a small space where life is always at risk and where security is never certain. In a culture of patriarchy where the girl or woman belongs to the family unit, the “ownership” of the girl by the family can often be lethal.
Joshi is a writer and filmmaker. She lives in Kathmandu

13 February, 2018

The Night of Shiva

ECS Magazine, January 26, 2018 

Shivaratri, or the night of Shiva, in my mind, is always associated with the Pashupatinath Temple. The temple was set away from human settlement for a reason—in the midst of the forest, amongst the slightly dilapidated buildings and gently ruined structures of the past, the most perfect followers of Shiva, the sadhus, had an ideal sanctuary. Sadhus, ascetics who’d left behind the material world for more spiritual and transcendental concerns, seemed at home here, with the firewood they received gratis from the king, burning away the night in the flicker of bonfires and ash.

They started to arrive a fortnight before Shivaratri, and they piled up amongst the muths and the small shrines, smoking their ganja in blissful torpor, joking with the tourists in their own languages (one Shivaratri I chatted with an elderly and jovial French speaking Baba), holding up rocks with their penises, and in general adding to the madcap ambience of the already otherworldly place. One Shivaratri, we finally managed to enter the inner shrine of Pashupati along with a long line of other devotees, through the gate which leads into the labyrinth. In the main courtyard I waited breathlessly for a glimpse of the fabled Aghori Babas, who inspire awe and fear because they live in the cremation ghats. The Aghori are known to taste human flesh from the corpses in order to battle and transcend their deepest human feeling of revulsion, in order to achieve absolute mental detachment. I was met by the sight of a group of impassive unclothed ash-smeared sadhus who had monopolized the main courtyard for the night. A muscular sadhu stood on one leg in a dramatic posture, naked as the day he was born—with only a golden watch on his wrist as accoutrement. The troupe looked more theatrical than spiritual, but of course that was part of the teeming, heaving maya, or cosmic theatre, that constitutes this night of Shiva.

In the past ten years, Shivaratri has become unmanageable with large groups of young men smoking marihuana and partying it up on the sad and tawdry ashphalt roads surrounding the once awe-inspiring temple. The temple is no longer on the fringes of the urban chaos—it is in the midst of it, surrounded by people who nibbled away at the holy site to build concrete buildings, and from which houses sewage now flows into the holy Bagmati. Young couples seeking a few moments of privacy in this city throw condoms in the Sleshmantak forest, while adolescent boys use the heritage sites for their pot smoking initiation rites. The gentrified hordes jog through the forest, which no longer holds mystique, although the monkeys, thankfully, are still to be found there, causing minor havoc and bringing a level of unpredictability to the devotional experience.

The degradation of the holy temple complex itself seems to echo the ways in which Shivaratri has become a tawdry spectacle of glaring electric lights, uncontrolled crowds and a carnivalesque turnout of adolescence lost in its search for hedonistic experiences.

Which is why visiting the Kirateswor Temple complex on Shivaratri was a special joy. Up the steep steps of a hill and into an old courtyard where a baba sits tending his dhuni fire, the music flows like a river as we sit under the peepul tree. On Shivaratri, a group of musicians had assembled under the impeccable hospitality of tabla-player Sarita Mishra, as they did every full moon, where they met up for a “concert”—a few hours of devotional bhajans and kirtans sung on a tiny stage, and to which the audience listen to with rapt attention. Sarita has been organizing full moon concerts at Kirateswor for a long time, but it is in Shivaratri I experienced the full blessings of her beneficence. Sarita beckoned to me and I made my way to the back of the complex. Up the rickety wooden ladder behind the stage and into the attic we went, and up there was a long line of musicians, poets, writers and artists partaking of the prasad—halwa, puri—the usual fare of spiritual and religious events, but served with grace and simplicity. I remember a sense of time slowing down, of sensing beauty flickering in the shadows, and listening to the voices around me as if they added to the music from down below.

A few years later, when I decided I just couldn’t brave the crowds, I happened to pass by a sweetshop in New Road that was selling bhang burfi a day before Shivaratri. The young proprietor had left the sweets out for display, so obviously there was no fear of legal repercussions—which, in my mind, are problematic anyways since bhang has for centuries been associated with Shiva worship in the subcontinent. Eaten in very small quantities and with respect to tradition, it doesn’t do any harm. Which is how I ended up spending another Shivaratri—in much the way as Shiva, I ended up eating the bhang. The sweet-seller must have used a magic recipe, because all that happened to me was a very deep, relaxing sleep. There were no awful side effects, although with any mind-altering substance this is always a possibility. That sleep seems to get rid of all my tiredness of the past few years, as if I’d repaired all the damage wrought by insomnia on my system. I felt a very deep sense of relaxation, as if all my worries and anxieties had melted away.  You could say that for a few days I felt a connection with the entire cosmos, like a fish swimming in the cosmic ocean, in the vastness of the depths. While the effect melted away after a few days, I felt an expansiveness and opening which I hadn’t felt before—a broadening of consciousness towards a larger cosmos than the one we take for granted. 

Before eating the bhang, though, I’d also lit a fire with the branches of my jackaranda tree, and sat there watching the fire for a few hours in the night. As I sat there, thoughts of the Green Tara had entered my mind. There was no religious disconnect in my mind, no thoughts about the theological and sectarian divides of Hinduism versus Buddhism. All I could think about was the Green Tara, and all I could see was a green flame dancing on the fire. No wonder then that that green flame that started to dance around the edges seem to become a manifestation of the female Buddha. The more I stared at the fire, the more the green flame leapt and danced, hovering inches over the embers, seemingly not tied to the burning mass, as if it had a life of its own. The more Buddha and Shiva melded into One.

In February 2011, I ended up spending Shivaratri in a more adventurous fashion than I had envisioned. I was in Burma, conducting research on the Nepalese diaspora in Myanmar, and immediately I was surrounded by the buzz of Shivaratri. I was in Lashio and the people let me know that most of the Nepalese had gone down to Sankhai for the festival. In Pwe Oo Lin, I visited the Pashupatinath Temple (which has a replica of the shivalinga labyrinth and an inscription from King Mahendra who had visited the temple in the 1960s), and while visiting there I was told I couldn’t meet the priests because they’d gone to Sankhai for the festival. Also in Pwe Oo Lin, I met and interviewed a sprightly Tamang lady from Darjeeling who told me that I had to get on the train and go to Shankhai for Shivaratri. And not only was it Shivaratri, but also the 108th year of the founding of the Shiva Temple in Shankhai. Obviously, Shankhai was the place to be.

 So on Shivaratri, I made my way, rather late in the morning, from Hsipaw to Sankhai on the back of a truck carrying people and goods. I was let go at the edge of a highway. Within a few minutes of inquiry with the volunteers posted at the small shacks, I was able to get a ride with a jovial Punjabi family driving a three wheeled tempo. The temple was a ten minute ride away from the main road. The bubbly Punjabi woman instantly made me feel comfortable—she explained they were carrying kilos of cauliflowers as their family’s contribution to feed the devotees who came from many towns to the festival. The Shivaratri festival was obviously a major community event, involving many subcontinental communities, and with the local Burmese showing up to take part in the festivities.

I went around with the kind Punjabi family, who took me under their wing, and made my way around the various shrines and temples inside the complex. Next we stood in line for the prasad—it was obvious the prasad was a major part of the festivities, and one for which communities from far and near had contributed money, food and labor. Some people had gone to the site a month before the event to organize and prepare. So it was a meal made with a labor of dedication and love, with large ladles turning the curry in giant vats. I enjoyed the chatter of large families sitting side the cavernous, newly built hall, enjoying their most important festival.

The Punjabi family soon found an uncle who spoke Nepali fluently and could tell me a lot more about what was going on. He told me the origin of the Shiva temple. According to the rather mysterious story, the British were building a railway track through the area when red blood sprouted out of the ground. The workers refused to move, and demanded that a temple be built in the location to appease the spiritual force that had manifested. The railway track had to be diverted to a new location, and the Shiva temple was built. Perhaps the “red blood” was a mineral deposit, I suggested, but the Punjabi uncle, who said he had mined rubies and red diamonds in different locations in Burma, said there were no gems in this area. Perhaps the workers knew that the rock was going to be quite hard to break through, and they had planted some blood as an excuse to divert the track—once it became holy ground, it couldn’t be broken apart. Or perhaps blood had in reality manifested from the ground. Whatever the answer, it was clear that despite its short origins, the temple was seen as an ancient locus of spiritual power where Shiva had manifested.

The Punjabi uncle told me that a famous Muslim musician always played at the festival. Not only that, but Muslim families also came during the event, put tika and ate the prasad. This seemed like an unusual level of engagement with each other’s religious activities, especially in light of the conflictual relationship between Hindus and Muslims in India and Pakistan, but sitting there in the table talking to a Nepali-speaking Punjabi from Burma, it all seemed to make perfect common sense. Of course the sub-continental Muslims would also come and enjoy this local festival, because community ties were central to life in Myanmar. The food was a central part of the celebration, so everyone, Hindu, Muslim and otherwise, were welcome to eat. As I walked around, I could see Burmese monks in their robes walking around and enjoying the fair-like atmosphere.

Later, Mr. Karki, a community leader from the Gorkhali community, told me a young man he considered his son from the Shan ethnic group had shown up en masse, with about 200 men, and pledged his support towards the Gorkhali community. Clearly, Shivaratri was an eagerly anticipated space and site where community ties were renewed, alliances amongst the complicated ethnic tapestry of Burma were pledged and reinforced, and a deep sense of communal sharing was enacted through the Shivaratri Prasad/meals.

One of the organizers I interviewed noted that those who volunteered at the festival saw great harmony in their family lives and their levels of prosperity rose after their volunteering experience. This sort of miracle could be attributed more to crafty public relations by a festival organizer than to divine intervention—yet, at the same time, I couldn’t help wondering if those who engaged deeply with these religious events did not, in fact, see a change in their social and familial circumstances. In Nepal, we have lost the Hindu ideas of working for the common good. We no longer remember that building wells and crematoriums, and contributing to the communal good, was once a part of the duties of a practitioner of Sanatan dharma.

The Shivaratri in Burma was also a small miracle for me, personally. In 2002, I’d applied for a fellowship to study the Nepalese diaspora in Burma, and been rejected. I’d been flown to Delhi from New York for an interview with the Ford Foundation. Then I’d flown back to New York within 24 hours. After I had sent off my application in 2010, I received a response from the program administrator in India. He reminded me: “We still have your other application on file.” Human memory is such—or perhaps my memory is such—that I had forgotten I had sent the same application, to do the same research project, to the very same Foundation, a full eight years ago. Perhaps the disappointment of rejection, or perhaps the jet-lag of that transatlantic flight, had been so powerful that all memories of that interview had been erased from my mind. So when I did receive the fellowship, it seemed divinely ordained, in some ways—I was in Shiva’s temple at Shivaratri on the 108th anniversary of its founding. What could be more auspicious? If I had received the fellowship in 2002, I would have missed this most auspicious date by eight years.

Click on the link to follow the story. 

07 February, 2018

Bibliography of late Saubhagya Shah’s Academic Writings

A bibliography of the late Saubhagya Shah's academic writings have been compiled by Pratyoush Onta (with help from his Martin Chautari colleagues).

Saubhagya Shah, a sociologist/anthropologist trained at Tribhuvan University, Nepal (MA in Sociology, 1991) and Harvard University, US (PhD in Anthropology, 2004) died suddenly on 16 December 2009 from a suspected heart attack. At the time of his death, he was a Reader in Sociology at Tribhuvan University (TU) and the Program Coordinator of TU’s Central Department of Conflict, Peace and Development Studies (CPDS). A moving tribute to Saubhagya has been penned by the writer Sushma Joshi (2017). 

You can find that tribute online at Setopati:

13 December, 2017

When the gods descend

Published in ECS Magazine, 2017

Recently the young woman who was helping me to cook and clean started to receive a spate of phone calls at work. “Come over immediately, your work is nothing, your son is everything,” the relatives at the other end would announce. This went on for a while, and she herself said to me: “What is this? I get more phonecalls than the Prime Minister.” I tried to contain my irritation at these very loud phonecalls, but eventually at one point I had to ask her to put her phone on silent. She couldn’t do that, she announced, because a very serious medical emergency was going on at her house. Her son, she said, had “deuta lagyo.”

The gods have gotten hold of him.  

I asked her what was going on with her son. She said that she did not know the specifics because it never happened while she was around, but her relatives had told her had had several episodes in which her son had started to talk deliriously by himself, and also shown symptoms of a physical fit. He has started to beat his relatives, she said. Is it epilepsy? I asked. She shook her head. “No,” she said. “Deuta lagyo.”

As an urbanized woman whose family never ever went to a dhami or a jhankri, I was at a loss as to how to interpret this. But before the symptoms were recognized as a titular deity descending on the young child, Rama had told me her son had “bokshi lagyo” (the witch has caught hold of him.) As soon as she said the word “bokshi lagyo,” I warned her: “Don’t accuse anyone of being a witch. The Nepal government has outlawed that. You could go to jail.”

Rama was nothing if not a quick learner. Immediately the next morning, she told me she’d been mistaken about the bokshi, and nobody had put the evil eye on him. She said that he’d gone with some other children to a Kali temple at midnight, where a young man had committed suicide. The spirit of the young man, she implied, must be disturbing her son.

She recruited a dhami to cure her son. “He’s asked for sixty thousand rupees,” she said, “to cure the two children.” Her niece was also exhibiting the same symptoms, she said. I was shocked. The dhami however, had given her a “guarantee” that he would cure her son, she said, so therefore the money was worth it. “Money is nothing, if my son gets cured,” she said. “The doctor cannot guarantee to cure my son, but the dhami can. He’s already showed up at our house at all times of the day and night, when we’ve called him. He has to, until the children are cured.”

The dhami diagnosed the disease: it was not “bokshi lagyo” but “deuta lagyo,” and they needed to do some protracted pooja to cure the children, he’d said. The next step was a pooja at Pashupatinath, at the labyrinth of the shivalingam, the dhami had told her. The labyrinth is an interesting, disorienting maze, and everyone from the Celts to the Christian mystics have used this device to shake the mind out of its trauma.

After this ceremony, Rama told me her son’s disease was now clear—he’d been seized by the gods, who had aroused themselves within the child and announced this: They had not done the proper pooja required for the family kuldeuta (lineage gods) in a few years, and the gods were angry. Therefore, said the deuta, this dashain the entire family had to gather in the family home and do the requisite pooja in the proper and correct manner, or else very bad things would happen. Nobody was allowed to drink alcohol. “The pujari cannot drink his tea before the ceremony is over, or else I’ll kill him,” the deity within the ten year old boy announced.

I was incredulous, but Rama assured me that not only her son, but also his cousin, a young girl, had been singing and dancing all night long because the Bhairav and seven Seto-devi (the seven white goddesses) had entered them, respectively, and were speaking through them. “It is impossible for young children to make it up for hours and hours,” She said. “When my sister-in-law laughed, my son said to her angrily: Don’t laugh! We had to shut up, even though we felt like laughing,” she says. And this had been going on for days. “I wish I had a video to show you,” she said. “They speak in this voice all night long.”

The gods within the children then got creative. Because it was close to exam time, the gods announced that the children should not be sent to school, but kept home, till they were cured. “Oh, that’s convenient,” I said. “How’s your son’s studies?” She assured me he was doing very well at school, but because of the illness she had heeded the voice of the deity and wasn’t sending him to school. The school administration had kindly agreed to allow him to sit for the next at a later date, once he was feeling better.

“The deuta knows things that my son can’t know about, that we don’t know about,” she said. “Like what?” I asked her, wondering if his mother’s credulity was egging on the child. “He said that his uncle had gone out again last night, drinking.” This seemed to me something a child would be aware of from family gossip, not just precognition or clairsentience, but it was impossible to argue. It was clear that Rama believed her son had indeed been seized by the gods, who were asking for a very serious change in behavior from the family: a commitment to give up drinking (forbidden for Brahmins), a return to a more pure way of propitiation (no lazy pujaris drinking tea before the goddess), and a bringing together of the family when everyone was scattered between Qatar, Kathmandu and the village.

Talking to Liana Chase, an anthropology graduate student who is doing her research in Sindhupalchowk on this topic, I wondered if these incidents weren’t a way for children to express their fears and get attention in families torn by migration. Were these also the only way children could draw attention towards their mental health? Rama’s husband works in Qatar—he’s had to sell his donut shop and go to Qatar after the blockade destroyed his business. From a prosperous small business, the family have suddenly been thrust into economic uncertainty and looming loan repayments. Just before these happenings, Rama had also told me her ten-year old had complained about having to take care of his six year old sister, who’d call him to wipe her ass after going to the toilet. I knew the sister was the spoilt star of the family, and both her father and mother prioritized her needs because she was the smallest, and because she had several health problems. Might not the boy have exhibited these behaviors because he was now being asked to be the head of the household way before he was ready for these responsibilites—and were these symptoms the only way to get attention in a family caught up in other more pressing concerns?

Liana told me about her research, including ways in which these psychosomatic illnesses are being treated in the villages—through government sponsored mental health care clinics, recently set up by the Nepal government; through temples and through churches. She also told me there was an organization in Kathmandu which counseled children who exhibited these symptoms, and they’d gotten better after counseling. 

I shared with Liana some of my concerns about Westernized and medicalized models of mental health care, including a story of a very good friend of mine from Brown University who committed suicide in NYC. She had been going to a psychiatrist since she was 8 years old, and heavily medicated on several drugs, including lithium and Prozac. “To me, these psychiatrists are the dhami-jhankri of the Western world. They are unregulated in their mumbo-jumbo and nobody checks to see if their very expensive drugs actually work,” I said.

What kind of safety net we now set up to deal with mental health care of vulnerable children like these two will be a test of the Nepal Government’s commitment to universal health care.

 I don’t think dhami-jhankri will ever go away, and their presence are a reminder that people need more than Western science to cure their spiritual ailments. During this Tihar, let us remember this: that the older dai is as vulnerable as the younger bahini, and that if the parents cannot distribute their attention equally, the children often get seized by spiritual forces beyond their control.

15 September, 2017

The Prashant Jha-CK.Lal Intellectual Industrial Complex

May 10, 2016

Prashant Jha, noted journalist who spends most of his time in Delhi, is often suspected by Nepali readers to be too close to India’s RAW, India’s external intelligence agency. This is not based on suspicion and paranoia but from intelligence gleaned from some of his columns, in which he’s written about the change of guards at RAW and shown an all too close familiarity with its upper echelons.

Mr. Jha, who regularly makes appearances at Nepali events in the USA, was a fellow at the Asia Society of New York, a visiting fellow at the Center for the Advanced Study of India (UPenn), and is a 2016 Poynter Fellow at Yale, recently put out an op-ed from the esteemed Hindusthan Times, in which he claimed several Chinamen were seen approaching various members of the Nepali political world, including Maoist leader Prachanda, telling them to desist from regime change, and to support Oli’s government. His May 10, 2016 article, titled “Chinese advice behind Prachanda’s U-turn on support to Nepal govt?”, seemed to be based on speculation and heresay more than facts, but this has never stopped the esteemed Mr. Jha from putting out an article from his newspaper, where he is now associate editor. Now this sort of interference would be a very unusual move indeed for the Chinese, who play no part in Nepal’s domestic politics, unlike the Indians who have been breathing down the necks of the Nepali politicians every hour and every minute since King Tribhuwan took refuge in their embassy in 2007 bikram sambat.

The ostensible reason for this alarmist P.Jha article, it appeared, was the fact the Chinese finally opened a train-link from China to Nepal. The train, carrying household goods, made its way to Nepal in 10 days—unlike the 45 days it took for Nepalese goods to reach the Indian seaport, according to the Chinese newspaper reports. This is the first time a train has linked China and Nepal, and it promises to open up the much delayed routes of trade and transit between the two countries.

To Mr. P Jha, who specializes in creating ripples of alarm in India’s South Block and uses that as his major modus operandi, the bogus Chinamen was a way of proving greater Chinese influence in Nepal’s politics, when in fact the event in question was less Machiavellian—a greater trade and transit linkage between Nepal and China, much delayed and much needed.

Of course this event would be cause for celebration for any Nepali who’d suffered the six month blockade in which India brutally cut off all gasoline supplies and other trade goods to Nepal. Coming shortly after the earthquake, the blockade brought Nepal to its economic knees, made inflation soar, and severely affected the 400,000 people who’d lost their homes but could not reconstruct due to lack of building supplies. The elderly and sick were also severely affected. Medicines, normally imported from India, ran out in the marketplace, and the lack of gas meant people not only had to live through 14 hour electrical loadshedding but also had no way to cook their meals. Nepali business have had to pay thousands of dollars in demurrage charges to the ports of Calcutta to hold their goods, adding to their losses. Surely any sane nation would try to ensure their citizens would never have to go through such a moment, ever again?

But to another scion of the Nepali intellectual world, this doesn’t even seemed to have registered on the radar. Noted journalist CK Lal, writing for Catch News, titles his article: “Nepal:India's emasculated responses have emboldened KP Oli.” In this article, seems to imply Nepal is only making ties with Beijing to pique India: no mention of the six-month Indian blockade that crippled the economy and devastated the process of recovery; no mention of the fact that India controls most of Nepal’s trade by holding its transit routes over Nepal’s head as a Sword of Damocles; no mention of why landlocked Nepal may want a second route other than India to the sea.

The distinguished and much revered journalist, who’s also done a stint at Yale University, chooses to use the word “emasculate,” usually used as a means of provocation and an incitement to violence, to describe India’s response to KP Oli’s government. Surely a more masculine response would entail more crushing force, in the same mode as the blockade? Is this what the noted journalist CK Lal is calling for?

And why would he assume that ties with Beijing would undermine Indo-Nepal bond? Why the sudden anxiety on the part of both Prashant Jha and CK Lal to bring up the “China bogeyman” to scare India, when its perfectly obvious to any neutral outsider that Nepal as a nation-state has to seek a second trade route, or perish from Indian suffocation? 

Here’s CK Lal’s understanding of Nepal’s Beijing ties:
Indians are perhaps correct in their assessment that the government under Premier Oli has taken up the task left incomplete by the ousted monarchy, which is to render the Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1950, on which Indo-Nepal special relationship is based, superfluous. This can only be achieved through a slew of agreements and understanding with Beijing that look perfectly normal on surface but succeeds in undermining the spirit of longstanding Indo-Nepal bond.

Why would CK Lal assume that ties with Beijing would undermine the Indo-Nepal bond? Surely those are two bilateral relationships that are unrelated to each other? If India goes to Sri Lanka and makes some bilateral agreements on trade and transit, Nepal will not throw a fit of hysteria because its undermining the Indo-Nepal bond. So why should India act in this manner? 

Unfortunately there’s an army of people out there who subscribe to CK Lal’s absurd PEON theory, and who are willing to fight to prove this man, whose writings are very elegant but who often verges on the extremist spectrum, right.

Prashant Jha’s greatest contribution to Nepali history may not be his noted book on federalism, but his call in the Hindusthan Times for “overt and covert action” against Nepal, which was subsequently and coincidentally followed by the devastating blockade. While its hard to pin all blame on a single journalist for what may have been a geo-political event, I think its time for the intelligensia of both countries to examine how far journalism, in all its ethics-free form, may have incited a major breakdown of Nepal-India relations, one from which the two countries will take a very long time to recover.