07 November, 2004


Sushma Joshi
Hetauda is a one-day trip for Harimaya Praja. The only path to get down to the town is by walking next to the river edge, and the narrow mountain trail is often washed away in places by the rain. Holding her year and a half old son Sanubabu Praja, Harimaya fords raging monsoon waters and emerges soaking wet in her only set of clothes before reaching Manohari, where she pays twenty-five rupees as busfare to get to the district headquarters in Hetauda. Although she has come down three times, March, May and again in October, she has been unable to fulfill her mission – to get her citizenship papers.

Nepali citizenship papers are remarkable difficult to get for bona fide citizens, especially for indigenous groups far away from state bureaucracy. Eighty-five percent of Prajas (the Chepang ethnic group) do not have citizenship. Chepangs have been publicized as a “backward” group. A highly organized national Chepang conference was held in early October in Hetauda, disproving urban myths about Chepang backwardness. Like other ethnic groups, the upper strata of Chepang society have been caught up in the uneven flow of democratization and are informed of contemporary issues. But for many people eking out a living in the hills, information and access to state agencies is still out of reach.

The first hurdle is the requirements – in order to get the certificate, a person needs to prove that a male relative (father, husband etc) had Nepali citizenship. Failing this, a letter from the ward chairman is often taken as proof of residence when the application is registered at the CDO’s office. But women and children living in marginalized communities often have difficulty getting these letters.

Harimaya’s husband, a dhami (shaman) died after a three day illness, vomiting blood. None of her male relatives are alive. The V.D.C chairman has been helpful, but ineffective, in helping her with her citizenship quest.On her first trip, Harimaya was merely given a second date to come into town. On her second appointment, the V.D.C chairman told her he was working hard on her case, but he could not really do anything to help her at that moment, but that she should come again. On her third visit, Harimaya met with some people from local NGOs who could potentially advocate for her case. Many of the suggestions they give her are unfamiliar to her.

With seven children in the house, however, Harimaya cannot stay in town even for one night – she is soon back on the road to get back home so that her thirteen year old daughter, who has been left to cook for her siblings, will not have to do all the work herself. Krishnaprasad Koirala, a neighbour who accompanied Harimaya on her trip, says: “State teams would come to give citizenship certificates until 1998. They no longer come anymore.” The police post in the area has been withdrawn, leaving the area to the Maoists.

The Maoists, upto forty of them, come and demand food from relatively wealthy households, putting people in financial difficulty. Harimaya is poor, and the Maoists do not ask her to feed them, but she is affected by their presence in other ways. There is a Maoist ban on cutting big trees, and Harimaya has left her leaky roof unrepaired for fear of reprisals.

Rumors of a Maoist draft which would take a man from each household prompted Harimaya’s eldest son to go to Kathmandu to find work. The twenty-two year old was stopped at the checkpoint in Thangkot, and asked for “proof.” Unable to show his nagarikta (citizenship certificate), he was not allowed to enter Kathmandu. Wealthier families, however, do have sons working in construction jobs in Kathmandu. Caught in-between two malevolent forces, young Chepang men await the time when they can escape the land that has become their prison.

Harimaya, because she does not have citizenship papers, is unable to register her land, buy and sell property, and pass on her nationality to her children. “Citizenship creates many rights,” says Sapana Malla of the Forum for Women, Law and Development. “But citizenship is difficult to get for both urban and rural, literate and illiterate people.” Citizenship in Nepal is handed down through a patrilineal line of descent. Unlike men, women are not recognized as kin and they cannot pass on their nationality to their children.

This anachronistic provision in which citizenship is passed only through patrilineal descent exists in few countries, including the most conservative of Muslim countries - Kuwait and Algeria. The fact that women cannot pass on their nationality is a breach of Nepal's international obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

“Given the precedence of the Convention over Nepal’s domestic legislation, there is no reason why some very significant steps can not be taken to eliminate that “blatantly discriminatory” legislation against women. Some specific changes can be ensured, even in the absence of Parliament. The citizenship law, in particular, requires serious attention,” Ayse Feride Acar, the Committee Chairperson of CEDAW, said in a closing statement of the meeting in January 2004.

The fact that Nepal did not give the same rights to women nationals of Nepal as it did to its men nationals in passing on citizenship to their offspring “flew in the face” of the Convention, and some urgent action was required, she said. The current discriminatory citizenship law causes difficulties for women who have married foreign citizens, or who are single mothers abandoned by their husbands. This has been an issue especially for women in the Terai who marry Indian citizens across the border. In cases where women have divorced or been abandoned by their husbands, they return to Nepal to find that their children are not eligible for citizenship.

Citizenship is also difficult to acquire for marginalized groups like the Badi, where traditional prostitution makes paternity difficult to establish. The former Kamaiya have also repeatedly asked for easier access to citizenship, without which they cannot process the land that Parliament had allocated for each family. People internally displaced by floods, whose lands have been washed away and who are now squatting on public land, also face special difficulties.

The history of discrimination of citizenship rights in other countries, especially the USA, is an interesting contrast. Women were discriminated against till the nineteenth and earlier part of the twentieth century. Not only were women unable to transmit their U.S. citizenship to children born abroad, they even risked losing their own citizenship when marrying a foreigner. By mid-century, however, legal changes granted equal rights to women. The country's citizenship laws did not discriminate against women; instead, in one area at least, they discriminated against men.

Operating under the stereotypes that US servicemen were promiscuous with women, the Nationality Act of 1940, for the first time, decreed that unmarried fathers of children born overseas faced prerequisites for transmitting citizenship — prerequisites that women did not encounter. These rules became stricter in later versions of the country's immigration and naturalization law. The US law's bias against unmarried fathers means that children born outside of marriage to foreign women are subject to deportation. Indeed, if an American man and a Nepali woman had a child out of wedlock in Nepal, the child would not be eligible for citizenship from either country, and would become stateless.

Nepal’s recent courting of non-resident Nepalis (NRI), in which proposals for dual citizenship was floated, is ironic in light of the discrimination that most residents of the country face in acquiring their citizenship. Activists worry that the Nepali state may soon start distributing citizenship rights to non-residents for their investment capabilities, but exclude its most marginalized citizens. Bribery and corruption is rampant in the process of acquiring citizenship, observers have noted. The process of getting the bureaucracy to move can often be greased with money. And there may lie to clue to why many of Nepal’s poorest citizens remain excluded from their citizenship rights.

The current shut-down of state agencies has left a void in most parts of the country. A peaceful negotiation with Maoists is necessary before state teams start going out and distributing citizenship papers to remote areas. Unsurprisingly, even when the state sent out teams to grant citizenship before 1998, the process was not user-friendly. A child had to be a certain age before they could be registered as citizens. The teams would bump up children’s ages in order to register them, since the state teams was unlikely to visit remote mountainous regions frequently. These problems would still have to be tackled seriously.

A few cosmetic amendments have been made to ease the process of acquiring citizenship, including a clause that allows non-governmental organizations to recommend an individual for citizenship. Legal observers say this right granted to civil society organizations is unprecedented in other parts of the world. While it may work as a short-term remedy, civil organizations cannot permanently take on the responsibilities of the state.Only by changing the Citizenship Act, and the Constitution, will the problem of exclusionary citizenship be completely solved, say legal experts and rights activists. Future changes in the Constitution, of course, are contingent on the restoration of the suspended Parliament.

Watching Troy

The movie is Hollywood’s new take on Homer’s great epic, one of the greatest love stories of all time. Hollywood, however, seems more focussed on war than on love.

Greek mythology is not some thing that usually draws a crowd of teenagers at nine a.m. on a Saturday morning. But with a bit of Hollywood thrown in, it may just be possible. Show up at Jai Nepal Hall and watch the crowd that gathers for “Troy,” Hollywood’s new take on the greatest love story of all time.

Homer might be disappointed, as I was, about certain aspects of the movie—for instance, the casual disposal of Helen and Paris’s love affair in the first half of the movie—for what the director considers the real juicy story, the story of Achilles. In keeping with current American preoccupations, war seems to be on Hollywood’s mind more than love.

Immortality is the reason why men would prefer to die in war rather than live in peace, says David Benioff’s version of the screenplay. Mothers would disagree, and this version gives about two minutes to Mama to make her case. Of course she loses. The profound one-liners about life and death are almost Buddhist in their awareness of the present, but dharma seekers be forewarned: An excess of ego-driven emphasis is put on personal post-mortem fame. All that made Achilles tick was his need to have his name blazing across a cinema hoarding 4,000 years after his death, according to this version at least. This is what fuels Brad Pitt’s testosterone-driven Achilles across the landscape in some profound scenes. Brad Pitt is not somebody you would think of as a particularly mythological character, but he definitely takes this role head on.

Peter O’Toole gives a moving performance as Priam. As the father who has lost his son, he took my vote for best scene as he negotiated with Achilles to get the body of his dead son, Hector, back for a proper ritual. And while the male actors give stirring and substantial performances, the women are relegated to looking beautiful and crying.

Contrary to Homer’s version, a spectacularly insipid actress is cast as the beauty that launched a thousand ships. This Helen bemoans the deaths of men who are dying because of her with the same passion as she may ask for a cup of coffee. Think shampoo ad, and you get the general picture. Orlando Bloom is cast Helen’s heartthrob Paris. Bloom looked adorable with his pixie ears in “The Lord of the Rings” and as Johnny Depp’s sidekick in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” but this viewer thought he wasn’t quite as hot as Paris.

The director pays a lot more attention to the thousand ships than he does to the face that launched them, but the thousand ships will not disappoint you, I guarantee. Nor will the spectacular fight scenes that are suspiciously reminiscent of blockbusters fights in “The Matrix” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Can Hollywood please find some other guy from a place other than Hong Kong to choreograph their fight scenes? That drumbeat in the distance is getting particularly familiar.

The Achilles’ heel of this particular version of Homer’s epic may be its overemphasis on war. What balanced out the Iliad and made it epic and immortal was its careful balance between love, desire and the search for power. Take out one of these ingredients and you get a two-week flick that amuses but doesn’t quite become an epic itself.

Besides a bit of history, you will also get some down-home Nepali comments to spice up Homer if you see it on a Saturday morning. There were gasps of repugnance as fake blood gushed down the actors’ faces, spontaneous clapping following the stabbing of a sleazy Agamemnon by a feisty priestess of Apollo and laughter when a boy shouted out, “Be careful, that’s your bhinaju,” during the fight between Hector and Achilles. Perhaps the immediacy of the warning came from our own contemporary situation. With almost 10,000 dead after an eight-year war, we are close to the human toll of what occurred in Troy almost 4,000 years ago. The Trojan war lasted for 12 years. How long will ours last?

Reading the Gita

Reading the Gita
Sushma Joshi

The Bhagwad Gita is a book I had avoided diligently. The Sanskrit was intimidating, the topic abstruse (a lecture on a battlefield to move a reluctant warrior), the book in general surrounded by an aura of religiosity which I did not feel I could live up to. The enthusiastic undergraduate students with whom I studied in an American college and who gushed about the Gita further put me off – the Gita, it seemed, was a book of hippies and New Age seekers, and nothing to do with me. This is how I, a child of Hindu parents and a part-time Buddhist, came to know more about the Koran and the Bible, the Sattipathana sutta and the life of Milarepa, than about one of the most well-known books of my own tradition.
In college, I spent six months reading the texts of Islam, including the Koran, with a Jewish scholar. His commitment to the texts, scholarship and history was extraordinary. Also memorable were impromptu midnight readings of the Song of Solomon from the Bible – who could have known such juicy poems existed within that holy book? A steady flow of Tibetan Buddhist classics have also made its way into our house over the years, brought in by Brahmin cousins who radiated the dedication of neophyte converts. But the texts of the Hindu tradition, for some reason, never made it into my reading list.
A few days ago, I finally picked up a translation of the Gita from Penguin Classics. Admittedly, it was abridged. Perhaps appropriately, it had been translated by a Spanish scholar Juan Mascaro, whose cross-cultural understanding of different religious texts and traditions inform his version. Surprisingly, the Gita is not just an interesting but also an enjoyable read, the experience a cross between reading Stephen Hawkings’ “A Brief History of Time” and watching a Hollywoodian version of Troy.
The authors of the Gita are unknown. I say authors because often these older texts had multiple authors, who added text and stories over the centuries and turned the books into massive epics. The Koran, popularly understood to be created through divine authorship, and the Bible, thought to be written by a few select disciples, also show signs of multiple authorship over a period of decades if not centuries.
The Gita appears like an odd tack-on to the huge war of the Mahabharata. Where did this philosophical treatise on spiritual life, transience and divinity suddenly find its way into an action-packed drama about two families fighting for land? Inclusion in the Mahabharata, which has over one hundred thousand couplets and is the longest epic poem in the world, conferred instant immortality, the translator suggests. In other words, appearing in the Mahabharata was the pre-B.C version of appearing on Oprah.
Arjun does not want to slaughter his own family, but Krishna talks him into it. How can this be compatible with the whole idea of the “peaceful” Hindu religion? The paradoxes of this text are multiple, and yes, they do not answer all questions logically. A beautifully written paragraph will be followed by a casteist and misogynist observation. But if you look beyond these anachronistic limitations, the Gita is an opportunity to insert a lecture on larger issues. It includes the nature of life and death, the nature of work and duty – the discourse to convince a reluctant warrior into a war is a pretext for these important questions. The Protestants would be happy to learn that the obsession with work (karma) is not just engrained in their culture, but makes a big appearance in this text as well.
The ideas in the Gita, to this average reader, appears remarkably similar to the Buddhist ideas. Hindu and Buddhist philosophies come out of the same sub-continental stream, but they differ in their meanings and usages of similar words and concepts, says Sridhar Rana, a longtime scholar and practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism. Shridhar Rana, popularly known as “Ratnashree” to his students, started out as a tantric practitioner, and is one of the few Tibetan Buddhists who have an extensive knowledge of Hindu philosophies and practices.
What is remarkable about Hindu texts is their close theorizing of time and space, being and consciousness. Modern quantum physicists, cognitive scientists and neurologists spend a lot of time thinking about the same seemingly unanswerable questions. What is the nature of time? Where does space finally end? How can concepts of infinity and eternity be further expanded? Where does consciousness arise from? Many “new” ideas like chaos theory seem not so far away from the ideas of these unknown authors of 500 BC. Their breakdown of consciousness and perception rival those of contemporary scientists. It is no wonder that the imprint of older Hindu theories influences the scientific world.
Western philosophers and scientists from Goethe to Schopenhauer, from Jung to Oppenheimer, learnt from and were influenced by ancient Hindu texts. And yes, there is a reason for the fascination. Read these classics. They have more inside them than meets the eye.

02 November, 2004

Bagsellers take a rest and play a game of cards on Tourism Day, Thamel. Posted by Hello

RNA tank in Putalisadak during bandh day. Posted by Hello

Barbie, subcontinental style. Posted by Hello