19 October, 2008

New and improved Sushma Joshi 2.0!

Apologies for the ten year old photo with the shaved head on my profile picture: I can't seem to change it! Its stuck! But here's another one (and this one is already a few years old as well) so you can recognize me on the street when you see me...

Touching the Moon

Sushma Joshi

The budget speech of Fiscal Year 2008-9 was given a month ago, but people, I amongst them, are still mulling it. Dr. Baburam Bhattarai quotes poet Laxmi Prasad Devkota on his fourth point: “we should aim to fly high and touch the moon.”
The shadow of poetry is apt -- indeed, the document is a piece of literature in itself, gripping in the way it tries to address the concerns of an entire nation. And like a poet's dream, the vision is large and slightly hallucinatory, addressing everything from social security for elderly people and widows to ambitious highways, from cleaning up the Bagmati to mainstreaming madrasas into the educational system. After a while, reading line after line of Dr. Bhattarai saying “I have allocated” followed by a seemingly astronomical number, the budget starts to look like a good piece of fiction. From money to prolapsed uterus to herbal collection facilities for Jumla, from electric fencing to keep out wild elephants in Jhapa to the cultivation of jatropha for bio-fuel, how will the government of Nepal deal with it all? Where will all this money come from? If a good fairy appeared waving a magic wand, does the government have the capacity to deliver on its promises?

There are points in the budget that appear to be mere poetry -- multiple infrastructure projects, which include electric railways from Mechi to Mahakali appear to be a wishlist, rather than an operational plan. As you do the math, you realise the astronomical sums are actually not enough. Is Rs.350 million enough to build 180km of Pushpalal Lokmarga, or does it require more money? Even with the donors kicking in (Indians, Chinese, British, Swiss as well multilateral donors all pitching in for the ambitious road projects), some of the infrastructure projects may not be completed for years. Five hundred rupees a month for elderly citizens above 70 years is hardly going to buy them anything, even if they walk to the nearest government office and wrestle the money out of some canny bureaucrats' hands. And the waiving of debt for people affected by natural disasters -- how will that work out, with a significant number of people beset by annual floods and droughts? Half dug roads, multiple ambitious but underfunded projects in disarray, plus those that simply never take off seem likely. The room for disappointment looms large.

At the same time, one cannot help but admire the commitment, if only on paper, to social security, food storage units in remote areas, bio-diesel, and yes, even poetry (2.5 million to celebrate the great poet Laxmi Prasad Devkota's centenary ceremony.) As Dr. Bhattarai himself acknowledges: the budget is enlarged, but it has to be so to address the concerns and grievances of people through the first elected government after the conclusion of the People's War. The 100,000 rupees promised to families whose members were disappeared seem inadequate to replace a wage-earner -- at the same time, the compensation, though token, addresses the human rights violations that occurred, and gives them legitimacy and redress through government recognition and compensation.

The “seed money”, then, even if purely symbolic (let's say the Climate Change Research Centre is never established, or programmes which encourage indigenous scientists to engage in innovative research never takes off), has a purpose. The symbolic planting of the idea, including the notion that such endeavors are to be encouraged in Nepal, falls on fertile ground.

State-sponsored social security, and the notion of taking care of vulnerable citizens, along with its attendant psychological impact, may just have made a real entry into Nepal -- a pleased and excited buzz around Kathmandu informs me that senior citizens are aware of their Rs.500 entitlement, and some of them have even gotten it. Let us hope the poor can access it, not just the well-informed middle class.

The Maoists were underestimated twice -- once when the world thought they would never win the People's War, and second when they thought they would never win through a democratic election. In each occasion, the Maoists surprised the world. So let us give them the benefit of the doubt with this new budget -- surely people with vision may be able to pull it together when those with less ambition failed?

Nation-builders lay out visionary plans -- the implementation, when it happens, will happen not just through the elected and selected 601 but the entire 26 million. Perhaps that's the only point that could have been stressed more in the budget. While Dr. Bhattarai has said “I allocate” many times, and given the hope that the Government of Nepal will provide everything for everyone, he has not called enough upon people's contributions. Can the government provide the human security needs of all 26 million? Is this a reasonable demand, even?

Like the U.S., which gives tax breaks to small businesses, and to women and minority-owned businesses, which encourages entrepreneurship and rewards hard work, the government of Nepal needs to think more about ways to encourage people's contributions in budget. The U.S. has one of the easiest processes of registering a new business. In Nepal, a new business-owner steps into a byzantine process of paperwork and legal fees.

Encourage communities to start their own businesses, schools and hospitals -- give them tax breaks, or small seed grants as a financial incentive, but don't do it all. Reward those who work abroad, then return -- make it easy for them to start ventures, and invest locally. Open borders, create a safe environment for business along with labour, and create markets for Nepal's rich products. Give people hope, but don't make them wait for years.

That's when the script is rewritten from the tragedy of “Muna Madan” to poetry that flies high and touches the moon.

Posted on: 2008-10-17 21:14:22 (Server Time)

11 October, 2008

The beauty of Karnali

The Kathmandu Post
Sushma Joshi

Why did it take us so long to get here? I think, as I watch an actor cross the entire theatre of Gurukul on a rope suspended diagonally above our heads. Simultaneously, a screen in front of us displays a video projection of the raging Karnali river. The actor in question is in the play The Karnali Moves Southward (Karnali Dakshin Bagdo Chha), and as the audience looks up and watches him cross the rope bridge over a virtual river, he plunges to the ground to his death. The shock that follows in the theatre is visceral. We are watching a moment of performance, and yet the lament that follows from the death is so real it shocks the audience to a funerary silence. The video footage of the woman with a basketful of grass crossing the same river in the same manner, when it appears on the video screen, appears banal. The audience is sure to check its momentary knowledge of the “real” with the “virtual”, and wonder how many times it has watched a television screen and not really understood the visceral reality of life in western Nepal.
Why did theatre take so long to tap into the immense drama of life in all corners of Nepal? How come these rich stories, waiting to be explored from each corner of Nepal, never appeared in the same corporeal manner, with the same intensity, before Kathmandu? I have watched a lot of good plays everywhere from London to New York, but Karnali still touches me in a way Broadway doesn't. With Karnali, regional theatre has arrived in Nepal. And I have no doubt, the stories we will come to hear from outside Kathmandu will be richer, more powerful and more intense than anything the capital can ever produce.

Among the many plays I've seen at Gurukul, one of the ones I will never forget was one titled “Tara Baji Lai Lai.” “Tara Baji Lai Lai” is a chant used by Nepali children when they play. The play follows the group of Arohan actors through their formative years, from kindergarten moments to high school, with all the attendent joys and tribulations in between. Directed by a Norwegian, Morten Krogh, the play's actors lived inside their roles so fully it wasn't hard to imagine them as three year olds all the way to high school students, even though all were adults. What made the stories so believable (and laugh-out-loud funny) was the fact that they had been drawn from the actors themselves. The director had worked with the actors to come up with the script. They had improvised the entire play over a few weeks of rehearsal. At the expense of Ibsen and other classic playwrights, I have to say that the story spun collaboratively by a few dozen creative, bright Nepali actors trumped all other scripts I have seen on the Nepali stage.

Director Sunil Pokhrel seems to have listened to the rave reviews. In Karnali Moves Southward, the actors from Mugu came up with the script in the same improvisational manner. And the results show. “We have never had a showing like this for any other play,” says an Aarohan actor, who says they've had to turn away more than fifty people every evening. The play has been extended and is now in its third week.

The mass response is not just to the story, which are simple vignettes of everyday life in Karnali, but also to the powerful performance from the actors. “We've had people break out in tears and walk out,” said one of the Arohan troupe members. The performers live so fully in their roles it is hard to imagine them as anything other than their characters-indeed, at the end of the play, which ends in a sorrowful note, the actors appear as moved by the end as the rest of the audience. What touches us about the play is also the inequalities it displays, and the appalling obstacles people in Karnali have to face everyday. An element of propoganda appears through the narration at the end, and could have been left out-although of course if the aim is to change policy, then didactic commentary becomes necessary.

As an observer who has actively seen the power of theatre to change society, I hope the Karnali theatre group of Mugu will receive the support it deserves for building not just a new theatre but also for the solar power system and the audio-visual equipment it so desperately needs. When faced with food shortage, corrupt bureaucrats, the cruelty of a natural landscape without respite, empty health posts, and overcrowded planes, the least people can expect is good theatre. And who knows-perhaps-the art of theatre will be the catalyst needed for people to act, perform and together rewrite a new script for the system.

Posted on: 2008-10-03 20:45:27 (Server Time)

04 October, 2008

Funding artists

The Kathmandu Post

The Patan Museum courtyard, was at first empty, then quickly full, by 5:10pm on Saturday evening. The event was a fundraising concert, and the musicians in questions were Kutumba and a sibling duo, Barta and Binod Gandharva. Binod is still in high school, and Barta is yet to go to college. The event was aimed to raise funds for their education.
Kutumba is a name I've heard a lot, but keeping with my rule of avoiding events in which musicians who play traditional instruments congregate, I briefly considered not attending. Traditional music played just on instruments has too many strings and too much melancholy. I prefer my traditional music on the radio, where it rightly belongs, paired with a nice vocalist. Of course I was wrong.

Kutumba turned out to be a group of nice young men, dressed in rather funky red and black Nepali style blouses and trousers, with a phenomenal repetoire of music. Yes, indeed, the instruments they used were mostly traditional (although the rainstick from Australia may have been slightly less than “indigenous” in the Nepali context) but the way they played it was much more than what we've ever heard from tradition. From sounds that ranged from Kitaro's Silk Route to a funky jazz improv number at the end, the musicians were clearly drawing on musical history and fusion that avoided the usual Nepali classics, canons and clich├ęs. The atmospheric numbers we heard seem to have echoes of the Himalaya film soundtrack. Indeed, we learn from Nayantara Gurung, who hosted the event, that the band has recently been involved in creating the soundtrack of a new film “God Lives in the Himalayas.” Without doubt, this is going to be one phenomenal soundtrack.

Binod Gandarva, who was studying for his SLC exams, gave such a good rendition of Bhakta Raj Acharya and Gulam Ali that the audience sat in pin drop silence. The sibling duo then sang a lively duet together. Barta later sang a song of her own composition. Titled “Born Poor,” the song is a chant that repeats a woman's lament of being born poor and having to live as a slave. Barta received an enthusiastic audience response. At the end, she thanked her mentors, including Kutumba, for supporting her academic goals to finish her music education. Nayantara reminded the audience that the two young singers were committed to music and could very well be the Ram Dhakal and Aruna Lama of the future, and that supporting the two young emerging artists now would be investing in history-in-the-making.

The Patan Museum fundraiser seemed to highlight a trend in the New Nepal-artists supporting and mentoring other young artists to fulfil their dreams. What is heartwarming about this trend is that Kutumba themselves are young artists-most of them are in their twenties. Artists contributing their skills to raise funds for education is not new (Asman, the St. Mary's alumni network, held a concert with a well-known singer Shuba Mugdul to raise scholarship funds a day ago), but what is new is the desire to support education in the arts.

Art education is poorly supported in Nepal, especially in communities already struggling to provide children with education. Even with scholarships, students still have to struggle to pay living expenses in a city that has quickly become untenable for students. With most of the art colleges and universities centred in the capital (the Kathmandu School of Music, where Barta could potentially study, is located in a quiet, beautiful corner of Bhaktapur), students like Barta often have to be exceptional to stand out and reach the critical level of community support generated by the fundraiser. But for many other students, this kind of educational opportunity still remains out of reach.

The crowd at the Patan Museum was a testimony of the popularity of arts, and how people, when given the chance, will open their hearts and their wallets to support both young, emerging artists, as well as their dreams to get more qualification needed in the modern world. No doubt, events like these will continue to lead the way for more funding for arts education. Of course, ultimately the aim should be to establish regional higher educational institutions in art, music, and theatre in different parts of Nepal. Until that happens, Nepal will nurture its next generation of artists haphazardly, more through luck than any regular support. Let's hope this event, a sign of things to come, and that more formal circuits will be established to raise private donations and support which currently exist only through non-formal networks and in an ad-hoc fashion in Nepal.

Posted on: 2008-09-26 20:02:04 (Server Time)

03 October, 2008

Breaking Trail

Breaking Trail

ECS NEPAL | The Nepali Way, March 2008  
Text by : Sushma Joshi

The room in the Summit Hotel where Arlene Blum waited to talk was full of expatriates, not unusual for a Cultural Studies Group talk—but on the side, sitting on the edge with nervousness and excitement, was a group of very young Nepaliwomen. After her talk, I went up to them and discovered that they were an all female team about to attempt Mt Everest. The glow they had in their eyes reflected the boost of energy we had received from an inspirational woman.  

“Look at this slope. Isn’t this an easy one? Wouldn’t you just love to be up there?” she asks the audience, pointing to a slide with a gentle slope. And yes, after listening to Arlene, we can almost imagine ourselves halfway up a high altitude mountain slope. Tall and grey-haired, Arlene is distinguished and yet still full of childlike enthusiasm for her two passions—mountaineering and chemistry.

A chemist who got her PhD during the Seventies, when the academic establishment was still hostile to the idea of women entering scientific fields, Arlene managed, on the side, to lead the first all women’s team to Denali, North America’s tallest summit. She was also the first to lead an all female team to the summit of Annapurna, and the first American woman to attempt Everest. What takes a young girl from a sheltered Jewish family in Chicago and launches her full force out into the adventurous and dangerous world of mountain climbing? For Arlene, it seemed to have been a combination of love for a man and the discrimination she faced as a woman.

In her book, Breaking Trail, Arlene describes John Hall, an early mountain climbing companion who took her on his climbs and for whom she had a deep attachment. John is so handsome Arlene is sweating by the time she gets out in the parking lot on her first trip. Her first attempt at climbing, which she describes with a great deal of humor and grisly detail (the back of her pants is rubbed off from sliding down sand and gravel; and she has to take an inflatable toilet seat to sit on during class) only convinces her that she loves climbing. John eventually dies, buried in an avalanche, just as he is about to join Arlene on an ‘Endless Winter’ expedition. Arlene describes the moment in which she thinks he has come back and is sitting in her porch. She searches for him, and is told that he’s not yet arrived. A few days later, she reads the newspaper and finds out he was buried under an avalanche—on the same day that she thought she saw him sitting on her porch.

Her book resonates with examples in which she faced discrimination as a woman in the male dominated worlds of chemistry and mountain climbing. She is told time and again that women cannot climb. In one instance, a male climber won’t shake her hand because she’s a woman. Men are afraid that women will have their periods and start getting hormonal and emotional on the high slopes. Her awareness of discrimination is acute, and at times overwhelms the reader. The title ‘Breaking Trail’ comes from her own self-analysis about whether she held her own in the high mountains. Had she just piggybacked off the male members of her expeditions, or had she held her own weight? Through self-reflection, she concludes that her contribution to her teams came through her ability to break new trail. When team members are reluctant to try a new path, they send Arlene ahead. Although not the strongest of the team, she is always willing to forge ahead into new territory.

Just as she struggles to fit in as a woman in male-dominated environments, Arlene also struggles to fit in as a modern young American amongst a traditional Jewish family. Her mother has made a mistake and married the wrong man. Arlene never quite learns who her father is, or what he did wrong. Her happiest moments, then, are escaping ostracization by her family and walking around in the Chicago snow by herself—a childhood habit which served her well in the cold and lonely mountain slopes in adulthood.

In MIT, she describes the blatant intolerance of her professors when she joins the Chemistry Department. Unable to stand the East Coast, Arlene transfers to Stanford where she eventually gets her PhD. In the heady anti-war, feminist and civil rights movements of the West Coast, she conducts research free of the constraints she faced in MIT. She analyzes a fabric from which children’s clothing is made—the substance in the clothing, it turns out, causes cancer. She writes an article in Science magazine and gets that chemical banned. Many years later, she finds out that the same substance, under a different name, is being marketed as a fire retardant for upholstery. The chemical industry has made it mandatory for the chemical to be applied to all furniture on the West Coast.

That Californian love of the environment, and the harmful effects of chemicals, is palpable as Arlene Blum diverts from her talk about mountains and plunges into a dense but fascinating talk about chemicals and how they can affect people’s health. The activist in her emerges as she informs us that the chemical industry is now trying to make the same harmful fire retardant a mandatory application on computer printers—an unnecessary application.

And no, this woman is not just a theoretical scientist—it is apparent that she will be out there, breaking trail, making sure that this harmful chemical do not get coated onto household items and passed into our homes. What impressed me about Arlene Blum was not just her clear-eyed vision of the mountains, which she obviously loved, but also her activism for a cleaner, more accountable world. Her activism, like her mountaineering, has broken new ground in encouraging policies that improve people’s lives.

This is one woman who circled the world and saw some of the most spectacular scenes from the world’s tallest mountains and glaciers. Like other mountaineers, she’s a witness to the massive melting of glaciers that has happened in the last few decades with the exponential warming of the planet.

Never doubt that a few committed citizens can change the world, said some wise philosopher. Looking at Arlene Blum, it was clear that we were in the presence of greatness—and yet she spoke with the childlike lilt and cadence of a child. In a talk I heard in New York, I noticed a similar note in Arundhati Roy’s voice. Perhaps extraordinary women with extraordinary power must always disguise themselves in order to speak truth to power. Along with her voice, Arlene appeared to have a child’s clear-eyed sense of injustice, possibility and hope. There is no doubt that if anybody can reverse and change the destruction occurring in this planet, it will be by extraordinary individuals from ordinary backgrounds, not unlike Arlene Blum.

Sushma Joshi is a writer and filmmaker. She can be contacted at sushma@alumni.brown.edu. For more about Arlene Blum, see www.arleneblum.com.