29 December, 2008

Golden replicas

Sushma Joshi
Kathmandu Post

If you can't join them, beat them.
This Maoist maxim was illustrated all too clearly to me when I went window-shopping to Bhatbhateni supermarket last week, and was bemused to see a whole shelf of Hindu gods and goddess replicas -- manufactured in China. The Ganesh was misshapen, the Shiva and Parvati duo looked white, and Krishna looked fat and charmless, but other than that they were definitely from a rather recognizable and familiar pantheon of deities. All were gilded in the classy gold of new China. On another shelf, there was a large ceramic Laxmi sitting cosily with Dutch milkmaids and Italian garden figurines. Perhaps an American entrepreneur, tired of being a Dharma Bum, had gone over to some factory in Guangzhou and tried to spin his fortune out of cheap labor and unbeatable prices.

Whatever the story, it seems China, tired of beating followers of religion and religious leaders, had decided to beat religion in another way: by jumping in with the rest of the world and taking on the commercial marketing of it. If China can pirate Disney and Hollywood, it can pirate Hinduism. The only blindspot of course, is that they (whoever they are) had forgotten one thing -- that most religious imagery in Nepal and India is manufactured by people who are practitioners, and who spend a great deal of time and labor-intensive effort creating careful statues of deities who they believe are imbued with the spirit and breath of divinity. This intangible factor, of course, is much harder to manufacture in Guangzhou. If the Chinese had their way, they would bottle the breath of divinity and sell it at $1.99 in New York, but unfortunately (or fortunately), this breath still needs a real living context of practise around it -- which is why Green Taras made in Nepal, carefully hammered out by Newars in Patan, fetch a few lakhs that the fourteen hundred rupee Khasa resin Tara sold in the footpath can't command. And yes, many of the statue makers in Patan sell to Taiwanese Chinese, Hongkong Chinese or mainland Chinese.

But for the moment, this seems not to matter -- the shop assistants at Bhatbhateni assure me cheerfully that the plastic statues are flying off the shelves. I look at them more carefully and realize the light plastic object d'art have made it into my own family home. There was a gilded Ganesh above the TV. It lasted approximately a year, after which it fell apart to pieces after being thrown to the ground by an overactive infant. Of course, at the end of the day, daily worship centers around the metal statues bought in Ason, and the plastic objects, disposable, vanish after a few years. Which is not to say the commercial-industrial complex of China is interested in objects that last for ever. Indeed, that would kind of defeat the purpose -- the idea, it appears, is to create disposable Gods that one needs to buy more than once after the baby has taken it apart.

Does this mean that China has come around to religion? Of course not. The underlying anxiety that the Chinese have with religion remains -- look at the way they still meddle with the succession of Tibetan Buddhist leaders, forgetting party duties to go find newly reincarnated Lamas. Or the way they persecute Falun Gong practitioners. Just because China manufactures and markets Hindu gods and goddesses doesn't mean it supports religion.

Perhaps we can apply the same maxim to Nepali Maoists -- just because our own home grown variety have let religion alone and have subscribed, at least outwardly, to the flashy ethics of democracy doesn't mean they don't subscribe to other aspects of Maoism. For instance, the censorship of the press.

The Great Leap Forward of Mao, which aimed to jumpstart industrial and agricultural growth through communes, ended in famine and starvation. About 40 million people died during this time. And one reason is that the commune leaders, desperate to show they were performing, over-reported grain harvests. But the grain storages were empty, and millions of Chinese starved to death in 1959. “The best way to prevent the country from following another movement like the Great Leap Forward is to create mechanisms that check those in power, “ says Dali Yang, assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago and author of Calamity and Reform in China: State, Rural Society and Institutional Change Since the Great Leap Famine . "Had there been a free press and other institutions of oversight that are commonly found in open political systems, the Great Leap famine would certainly not have attained the magnitude it did," said Yang in the Chicago Chronicle.

The energy crisis, left unchecked, could lead to an unplanned Great Leap Forward-like famine, with many people losing jobs as factories and private enterprise close or shift. A slow slide into food crisis during the time of a global recession is not unlikely, especially in areas like Mugu, Dolpo, Humla and Jumla where food shortages are a yearly reality.

Eight months after they won an election, the Maoists still have to show the people what they did with the people's trust, a few millions of donor funds, and a bloated 600 member Constitutional Assembly. Obama, newly elected President of America, has set himself a scorecard that people can check him against in about a year's time. He's put a lot of agenda on the list, and he expects people to come back and see how well he did on his own self-appointed goals. Do we have the same from our leaders?

Walking by Durbar Square on Thursday, I saw a gigantic poster of Mao pasted on the Kumari House. Turns out it was the 116th Anniversary of Mao's birthday, and the party was holding a quiz contest. Who are the national betrayers who held a rally after the Mahakali treaty? Year, month, date please. the quizmaster asked. Team one to eight couldn't answer. Neither could the crowd. Despite the eagerness to please, the organizers' questions and expectations were just too hard.

Lets hope that the Maoist leaders don't set up expectations that are just too difficult to meet for ordinary people. While Nepalis are cheerful, buoyant, and easily adjustable, they can't really work or produce anything in a country with fifteen hours of loadshedding. Huddling around the candle is one option, but that's not really going to turn Nepal into Switzerland. Of course, there is no loadshedding between Baluwatar and Maharajgunj so the leaders may not even know what people are referring to.

For the moment, the Maoists have our trust. This is a breakthrough opportunity to turn the country around and take it forward to the next level. We don't want to become like the Iranians who went from the frying pan into the fire, from the Shah to the Ayatollah. Now lets support them so they can move forward, if only to make electricity available at a reasonable cost. If the Maoist leaders can harness the hydropower potential and bring electricity to the majority of Nepalis, that would be a landmark achievement in itself. The question is, can they do it? Or are their promises of energy more reminiscent of the replicas in Bhatbateni -- gilded in new gold, but broken after a year of hard use?

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