31 December, 2009

The most significant event of 2009?

France 24 asked its observers what the most significant event of 2009 was, in their opinion. My answer:

"Coming from Nepal, the Copenhagen climate change talks were very important to us because 65% of Nepali people are farmers and for many of them the lack of rain for the past three winters along with the very meagre monsoon we had this year really affected the amount of food they could grow. For many of these people, the food they grow is all they have to eat; they don't have a job. Despite the fact that the Copenhagen talks faced many obstacles in coming together in agreement, at least they brought global attention to this issue from all fronts."

Watch Sushma's submission at France 24.

27 December, 2009

Angry Brahmin Girls

DEC 27 - One Nepali man of Brahmin origin who’d grown up in the States, and with whom I was hanging out in those moments when you think you might be compatible enough to share the rest of your life with, told me kindly that he’d finally diagnosed what my problem was. I had, he said, the Angry Brahmin Girl syndrome. Angry Brahmin Girls could never get over the gender discrimination they faced when they were young, and consequently had trouble in later life forging relationships. As an antidote, he suggested going out to a steak dinner (steak being the forbidden food), which I would eat while he watched over his own empty plate. Then, when I was done, I could throw the bones at him to assuage my rage. We had a good laugh about this, and despite everything, parted friends.

I think back on this incident and have a good laugh once in a while because it reminds me of the self-reflectivity so often missing in Nepali culture. This Brahmin man knew enough about his own culture to understand that misogyny was rampant inside it, and gender discrimination mainstreamed into the way of life. He also understood the restrictiveness that can often come with traditional gender roles, and ways in which young women may not want to play those roles. This kind of internal self-criticism, which I tried to highlight in my last op-ed (showing the difference between authoritarian versus liberal Brahmins) is often missing inside Nepali culture. And not only in Brahmins.

Brahmin-bashing has become convenient-let me admit it, I do it myself because it’s easy to do. But the kind of internal self-awareness and checks and balances we require from all of Nepal’s cultures is missing from everyone. Brahmins often provide the convenient focus of all of Nepal’s inequality, but far more goes on in the country than can be tacked onto one group. There is no conspiracy and there is no Big Brother, as my anthropology professor used to say. If only, then it would be easy to get rid of. Instead, the world is a much more complicated mess with no clear answer.

None of the social scientists who’ve highlighted the caste-ridden society of Nepal ever think about looking at the Sherpas and how they may also be practicing discrimination. But talk to any “Rongba” (hill dweller) who’s lived with the Sherpas and tried to penetrate their mountaineering culture, and you know at once that work discrimination exists even among these most picturesque and romantic people of the high mountains.

In Manang, only Manangis are allowed to own land-never mind if they spend only a few days in Manang and the rest in Thamel. The ones who do live in Manang and who do farm the fields can’t own land-because they are lowlanders or of the wrong ethnicity.

Go to Mustang and you will find, besides the wonderful Bonpo culture and the fabulous king, Dalit people being held as virtual slaves, trafficked internally from the lowlands. Go to Mustangi villages and ask who’ve received electricity-you will find that even in the most contained villages, the Dalit households will have been left out of the communal hydropower projects.

But the Dalits themselves are not exempt from misogyny and caste discrimination. Talk to reporters, and they will tell you well known feminist Dalit activists have forbidden their family members from marrying one rung below on the caste ladder. Talk to Badis, and you will realise that the Dalit world also needs to look at internal oppression as a serious issue. Talk to the Dalit woman in Kavre whose husband was beaten to death and her land almost seized by a Kasai Newar man, and you’ll realise that Dalits are not immune to practicing oppression and exploitation against Dalits.

My sense of it is that oppression is never as even or as uniform as we imagine it to be. The far west sees far horrible conditions for Brahmin women than a Dalit man will ever do in the far east. The Dalits in Madhes face far worse conditions than those in the hills. The Madhes remains an uneven minefield, with people of all castes and ethnicities facing discrimination at various geographical points, and with no one immune to violence.

So while Brahmin bashing is easy, its time now for all of Nepal’s various ethnicities to look within and see what’s going on in their various home fronts. Until that happens, this culture won’t change. We aren’t trained to see internal discrimination and oppression, and that takes place everywhere, regardless of culture.

This lack of critical awareness may be what keeps the culture of political impunity alive as well. The Army will continue to provide political protection to rapists and murderers as if their entire flock was at risk. (Hello generals, relax. The justice system just wants the bad guys, not you.) The UML will continue to sit on the policeman who triggered the gang rape of the policewoman, and the Maoists will continue to protect the journalist beaters as if their lives depended upon it. And all political parties will continue to accuse each other of being two-faced during these incidents, while none will attempt to prosecute any of these crimes or stop the violence.

Until we start to look within and see that oppression and human rights violations are everywhere, we will continue to see it only in others. And until that culture of self-reflection and self-criticism sets into all of Nepal’s various groups, we may yet see a lot more impunity.

Until then, eat some meat. Throw some bones. Laugh.

20 December, 2009

Cutting the cake

KATHMANDU, DEC 20, The Kathmandu Post - The music was akin to jatra music. I was walking on the Lazimpat road and assumed the music was for some festival. Oil lamps burnt on the ground, and men carefully put red powder on the words. I mimicked the dance — one man smiled. Then I looked down and realised the words said: The autonomous Newa state. Ah. Then I looked deeper into the crowd, and readjusted my eyesight. Except for the one woman dressed up in her lone jyapu outfit, the rest of the men were a familiar species — Brahmin men.

Now this was an intriguing sight indeed. A group of Brahmin men celebrating the birth of the Newa nation. I took out my camera to document this interesting fact. The leader of this little group took out a little mike, in response. “Down with anybody against federalism!” he intoned. Immediately the tenor of the group changed — threatening, more intimidating. My hackles rose. Having grown up fighting authoritarian Brahminism, I can recognise an orthodox tone of morality when I hear one. And this guy was definitely one of these old bahun bajays telling me what to think. I am not against federalism, as those of you who’ve read my previous articles know. It was the authoritarian manner in which he was using the mike against me that made me go: Ah ha. I know your kind.

Well, is it any surprise that the Brahmin men who run this country have now decided to split up the country into little ethnic pieces? After the Second World War, the Europeans gathered together to do something pretty similar. In their term, it was known as “the cutting of the cake.” In the Western world, after a marriage, the bride and the groom cut the cake and this is seen to cement the marriage. The Europeans used this trope to cut Africa into little pieces — the English got the East, the French got the West, the Dutch got Congo and Belgium got another part of Congo. If you’re wondering, as I often did, why African nations always have very straight national boundaries, its because the Europeans literally sliced through the heartland with a knife. You take this part, I take this part. It worked very well for the Europeans, who enjoyed, for the next half century and even now, unprecedented access to natural resources, precious minerals and stones, petroleum and other riches of Africa free of cost, as the small African leaders squabbled within themselves and proceeded to kill their own people. The Hutus killed the Tutsis, the Tutsis killed the Hutus. Sierra Leone’s rebel leaders drugged and chopped off the hands of their own youngsters. Meanwhile, diamonds, gold, bauxite, other precious minerals, and oil continued to flow out of Africa into Europe while the people continue to die of preventable diseases and starvation.

The straight lines that cut off Gabon from the Cameroon also cut off the small ethnic groups from each other. So if you take a knife and cut off little chunks of Nepal into Sherpaland, Tharuland, Newarland and god knows what else, you are saying that the smaller groups of Rais and Magars and Dalits and Brahmins who live within those nations may one day not find themselves so welcome there. A British journalist told me an interesting story of what she’d observed in Limbuwan. Two best friends, one Rai, one Limbu girl, were sitting together in a little meeting when the topic of Limbuwan came up. The Rai girl was so upset she ran out crying and wouldn’t come back. Seems familiar? This is known as the old strategy: Divide and conquer. Do you think these Brahmin men from autocratic backgrounds really care about ethnic autonomy, or are they just using this in the old-age way? Cut up people’s linkages to each other, throw them a few bones, and watch them fight?

If Brahmins seem happier at the formation of the Newa state than the Newars themselves (some of my urban Newar friends are pretty embarrassed about this whole business), then we have to ask why. Don’t get me wrong, I am a great fan of Newar culture and am delighted to be living within the Newa autonomous state — in fact, I don’t think we ever stopped living in it. The Shahs were deposed but the Taleju ceremonies goes on, as it always did. One layer of colonisers gives way to another, but the Newars seem indestructible in their pride for their culture. I’d be the first to be secretly delighted if an architectural Nazi started to impose Newari architecture on the Kathmandu Valley and took down all the ugly wedding cake homes. Recently at a jankhu I was the only one demanding bhoj food (the Newars apologised and said it took too long to make — would I like some greasy aloo gobi?) I support the Bhaktapuri fabric industry more than your average hip young Newar. And I still blame my friends for fooling me and telling me “shyau” (apple) was “miaw” (as in cat’s miaw) when I was sixteen and wanted to learn Newari. Now I am stuck with a teenage vocabulary of three phrases — “I am hungry”, “shut the door,” and “Shut up or I’ll beat you.” Maybe if I’d grown up in the Newa autonomous nation, I may know a new language, eat healthier food and secretly assuage my Gandhian need to wear handloom fabric. But as the times show, these (dare I say Brahmin) ideas of cultural purity can barely be imposed on a nation of multi-cultural and modern identities and aspirations.

So what exactly will these autonomous nations do, besides giving the Maoists a platform to plant their flags on their little ethnic pieces? The Shah kings used to make the ethnic groups dance in their costumes, and now the Maoists are doing the same. What is the difference in this divide and conquer strategy? Will it cause more quarrels as 59 different ethnic nationalities all start to resent the heavyweights who got their own states? I am not against an ethnic state or two if those are mixed in with states that are formed for other reasons — geographical or linguistic. But to have Nepal split up along ethnic lines seems foolhardy and against the fabric of a multi-ethnic nation.

Recently I met with two Bosnian filmmakers who were in town. When asked about the ethnic fighting in Bosnia, the woman said simply: “Our family was multi-cultural. We had everybody in it. There were Muslims and Christians and Bosnians and other nationalities. We didn’t want to choose, so we left the country instead of having to choose one side or the other.”

Most Nepali villages are a mixture of ethnic groups. I don’t think we should be surprised if the Maoists (or their offshoots) start to trigger ethnic cleansing, as seen in parts of the Tarai. The only thing that might save Nepal is its famous tolerance. I was in Janakpur about five years ago, sitting in a bangle shop, when a janjati man came into the shop and started raving about the Madesh. He was a former Army man, he said. He’d lived all his life in the Tarai, given his life to the place. Now they wanted him out. He was upset feeling the heat of local politics. His tone, aggressive, was meant to provoke. The bangle seller listened with phlegmatic calm, and did not say one word in response. In the end, as the old man left, the bangle seller said: “he’s been here all this life. That’s his personality.” I still remember the encounter if only because it was an emblematic moment in which a local situation that could have spiraled into conflict was defused by one wise bangle-seller.

That same calm and tolerance may save the people of Nepal as they weather this next storm. There are always leaders who seek to divide, rather than to unite. It is Nepal’s bad luck that our revolutionary leader originates from atavistic Gorkha rather than liberal Dharan or Dhankuta. The key is to recognise that the aim of leaders may not always jive with those of real lives and real people. Whether they get applause in the Asia Society or get money from international donors, whether they are elected officials or well-known academics, the incredible and inborn common sense of the Nepali people should win over fanatics and fanaticism. Ethnic warfare has defined this age for other countries and continents. We must all be vigilant that this doesn’t happen in our own country because some Brahmin men decided this was the only way to hold on to power.
PS: A clarification on this unclear paragraph:
"Whether they get applause in the Asia Society or get money from international donors, whether they are elected officials or well-known academics, the incredible and inborn common sense of the Nepali people should win over fanatics and fanaticism.."

The"Whether they get applause in the Asia Society or get money from international donors, whether they are elected officials or well-known academics" part refers to the fanatics. A friend of mine who works as a lawyer in New York City walked out in disgust from a program at the Asia Society after a well known academic gave a rousing, provocative speech advocating for the ethnic cleansing of Brahmins from Nepal--for which he received applause from the assembled crowd.
Read it online in Kantipur.
Posted on: 2009-12-21 04:21 

18 December, 2009

Free to be you & me

Free to be you & meSushma Joshi

DEC 18 - At the recently concluded Kathmandu Mountain Film Festival, after the screening of In Search of the Riyal, Kesang Tseten’s moving documentary about Nepali migrants’ plights in the Gulf, a young man got up. “I am in Grade 12,” he said, in bad English, “Do you think I could get a job in the Gulf with my qualifications?” The packed hall had just spent an hour watching Nepali migrants work in some of the most difficult and heart-wrenching conditions in the world. They often got into debt only to find themselves in some of the harshest working conditions, including desert farming, and construction. The return is often negligible, with people leaving behind elderly parents and infant children to work for meagre wages. One humorous source says in the film: “We have sold ourselves with our own money.”

“Excuse me, I didn’t understand your question,” Tsetsen said, thrown off balance. Then, a little helplessly, he looked around for help. “Devendraji, do you want to take this question?” Devendra Bhattarai of Kantipur Publications, who spent several years rescuing Nepalis from the horrible labour and inhumane conditions of the Gulf, was equally surprised, and had no answer.

About four years ago, I was doing research in the red-light district in Mumbai, and encountered a young woman who had been rescued from a brothel. She said that she had been in the village when a Maiti team had shown them an entire film about the horrors of the redlight area in Mumbai. The group had come to prevent women like her from leaving. And yet here she was, after years in the brothel, in the rehabilitation home. Didn’t the prevention programme deter you, I asked her. “No,” she said. “I knew, but I still came.”

This seems to be the state of Nepal today. We know the horrors that await us but we still go to places that we know may not be good for us. We sell ourselves with our own money, and get very little in return. What is it about Nepalis that makes them want to leave, rather than stay? What is it about us that makes us leave, three million of us sweating it out in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and the Mexican food shops of New York?

Perhaps the answer lies in a beautiful, idyllic village I visited recently in Dhading. The village had recently had a visit from Room to Read, and they’d given the community money to build a new building with a library. Seizing the chance, the ex-VDC chairman had gotten money to get a new road dug to the school. The area had seen everything from mushroom farming to coffee come through. People were squatting on some of the richest land in the country, and the harvest yield was high. The area had a serious oversupply of schools and hospitals. “Look at this beautiful land. And yet,” said the girl who’d been left back to take care of all this bounty, “Nobody wants to stay.”

The men were all in different areas, from Australia to Japan to Malaysia to the Gulf. Even some of the young women were in Kathmandu. The people left were either too old to leave, disabled, or frustrated youth in the process of hunting for new opportunities that would give them access to the urban culture and the wage earning opportunities that define modern life.

So will all this development will have been for nought? Will billions of dollars be poured into building schools and hospitals and roads into communities that are rapidly losing their young to the cities and low wage labour? Will the beautiful schools built with the support of a hundred nations only teach young people about the value of paid employment and urban migration, but none about the value of agriculture or entrepreneurship?

The ex-VDC chairman who’d so quickly grabbed the opportunity to build the road took us to his home. Surrounded by fields of organic vegetables, his life appeared idyllic. And yet it was clear that when it was time to work, it was the women who went to the field. The men, of course, were busy with meetings and other activities. Perhaps this is the fault of our development strategy. We’ve focused on roads and hospitals and schools but forgotten that the richness of life comes from men and women being together and conversing, that the richness of life lies in quality time which cannot happen so long as women are constantly in the fields, that the beauty of life, no matter how great the material comforts, can never equal a dosage of equality.

Seeing men and women of all ethnic and caste backgrounds walk down a city street is an unbeatable experience and gives people a taste of democracy that is never possible in a world segregated by gender, age, and caste.

So perhaps next time the donor agencies put aside money for an area which already has an overabundance of hospitals and schools, they can think about the ways in which young people might be encited to stay back and become entrepreneurs.

Perhaps seeing agriculture tied to good marketing as a way to profit may be one way. Cash crops like essential oils and coffee are certainly paving the path towards that.

Perhaps putting money into creating a coffee shop culture which allows people to relax and drink their own coffee in an

environment free of restrictive social norms might be another.

Perhaps government agencies and donors need to think about the creation of theatres and dance halls and usable libraries—not just NGO libraries with ugly looking publications that tell people about health and hygiene, but real libraries with real books like those found in other countries—with the same deliberation they now currently give health posts and schools. The creation of a democratic culture within villages will be essential in retaining the young. And this may not happen till we see freedom (to think and to be) as essential as health or education.

Joshi has a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Brown University

13 December, 2009

An Unconditional Ocean

I always wonder why people in Nepal are so aware of celebrities from other countries, but don’t recognize their own. This December, for instance, Oprah magazine, the magazine of one of the world’s most influential and wealthy woman Oprah Winfrey, features a beautiful red gown on its cover. That gown is designed by no other than Prabal Gurung, our own fashion designer. Sadly, our children know all about Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse, but are indifferent to their own stars.

Indira Rana-Magar, who recently received the prestigious Asia 2009 Asia 21 Young Leaders Public Service Award from the Asia Society of New York, gives me the same feeling. Indira is a fireball of dynamic energy who takes care of 300 children of jailed inmates in homes across Nepal.

Prisoners Assistance Nepal, her organization, bested 20 finalists from across Asia to take the top prize for this year. PA Nepal helps children of jail inmates who have no other place to go. Taking care of this most marginalized population requires huge amounts of time, dedication and commitment. Despite her good work, Indira finds that her work is often more recognized outside of Nepal than inside it.

At the Central Jail in Tripureshwor, which used to be medieval in its condition even a few years ago, we peek into and admire a plot of land being developed into a hospital. Indira is on a mission to create a child-friendly space in the visiting area. “We’ll paint this area here, hai Sir? Put toys and stuff so the children can meet their parents in friendly surroundings?” The officer in charge, fully cooperative, is ready to let the walls be painted in child-friendly colours and images. It is apparent change is in the air.

Indira’s language is street, her friendliness is village. It is obvious that without her frank and easy energy, and her dedication to opening communication between stakeholders, the closed institution may never have opened its doors to visitors to observe its under-resourced and pitiful state.

There are 158 women in this prison out of 1,500 prisoners. Their main crime is infanticide, drug and human trafficking. “Girls are not accepted by men after a relationship and pregnancy, so they have to kill the newborns,” says Indira. “Think about it. This is a conservative society. If people like you and I can’t have children outside of marriage, how can women from the villages?”

“A leader is someone who is part of that community. The person has to work deeply with the community before the right voice comes out,” says Indira. “There are so many women activists who have visions to modernize. But women won’t listen to us if we don’t represent them in an authentic way.” For Indira, her simplicity and honesty are points of pride — qualities that allow her to do the tough work of bridging gaps between state institutions, prisoners, children and donors.

Indira’s home in Sankhu is filled with 50 children. “Namaste, Ama!” the children chorus when they see her walking up the hillside. “Okay, children, go pick me some radishes,” she says, and the children run off into the hillside, each child picking one radish and dancing back mischievously to bring back the gift for her. The children, unlike those of other institutions, are clearly at ease and feel no fear — an important indication of the philosophy of how Indira has raised them.

“These are children from deprived families. My philosophy is that each child has a unique potential. They need space to build up their self-esteem, they need to feel pride,” she says. Her Jun-Kiri (firefly) system of education stresses small classes, interaction and a holistic approach in which children live in their natural environment and practice farming alongside conventional education.

“These children are from villages. They need to return there one day, so they need to learn how to live there, isn’t it?” she asks us. “They need to learn to take care of each other, just as in a village when the parents are in the fields and the older sister or brother takes care of the younger ones.”

Older girls listen with attention as Indira expounds on their need to be responsible and give back to the society. Each older child is responsible for a small child. They are asked to mentor the smaller children to do basic housework and laundry. The three homes and one daycare center, already short of adult supervision, cannot afford to hire a lot of staff, and the older children’s contribution remains valuable in this context.

“Didi has been so supportive of whatever we want to do,” one girl tells me later. “I am happy to be here working for other children and to give back to society too.” Says Annie, a volunteer from Canada who spent a month living with the children in Sankhu, “For a home with such little adult supervision, the home works remarkably well.”

Indira’s dedication to humanizing prisons goes back decades. “I started to visit jails with Parijat when I was very young,” says the 39-year-old activist. Parijat is the pen name of Bishnu Kumari Waiba, Nepal’s most famous female writer. Parijat was attached to Amnesty International, and visited jails in order to support political prisoners. “She was the one who started the campaign to make jails more humane, and brought the rights of prisoners into the public. She would use money from her writing to buy eyeglasses for prisoners.”

Indira, a young teacher at Parijat’s sister’s school, caught Parijat’s eye with her youthful and dynamic energy. “I was a tomboy, I used to wear pants under my kurta. She treated me like her own daughter and would share half of her bread with me.” Indira was with Parijat till the day she died.

Indira often remembers Parijat and the mentorship she received from her because, as she says, “She never died from my heart.” Also, says Indira, it is important to recognize the pioneers who started work, since the Nepali people often have trouble giving credit where credit is due.

“I never thought I was going to have this career when I started work. I just worked, not thinking where it would lead, and now I can go to any country in the world and I have a place to stay,” says Indira, in her frank way.

Indira, a single mother, still stays at the children’s home in Naya Bazar, even though once in a while her 12-year-old daughter asks her to move out and find their own home. “I feel most comfortable around the prisoners,” she says. “I would go to teach in the prisons and eat their rice when young. This is my community.”

The 100 percent dedication Indira gives her children may have been made possible due to her single status. Indira is separated from her partner. Laughing, she says, in her broken but fluent English, “You know, in Nepal men like good girl. Good girls are obedient, they are soft-spoken, they are presentable, like doll in showcase. They don’t like honest girl. They don’t like strong and outspoken girl. That’s why I say to people: I am not good girl. I am bad girl!”

With people like Indira leading the way, tangible changes are now visible in the prison sector. “The crisis of prisons is everywhere. Three million American prisoners don’t have voting rights. But now Nepali prisoners have voting rights inside prisons. Despite overcrowdedness and lack of sanitation, Nepali prisons function has communities,” she says with pride. “We are ahead of prisons in other countries in some respects.”

Besides being a dynamic leader who constantly seeks support for her children, Indira is also a cyclist (she often bicycles with well-known cyclist Pushkar Shah), and a singer. “I wrote this song for Parijat,” she says with a smile, then starts to sing in a voice that sounds hundreds of years old, full of poignant sorrow.

“I have become an unconditional ocean,

the storm has come again, now I think

I have become a wave.”

“Richness is not just collecting money. Richness is how you are impacting society. Isn’t it?” Indira says, with a smile, once her song is done.

(For more on the award, see: http://www.asiasociety.org/policy-politics/asia-21/nepal-ngo-wins-2009-public-service-award

For more on PA Nepal, see: http://



12 December, 2009

France 24: The most significant event of 2009?

Coming from Nepal, the Copenhagen climate change talks were very important to us because 65% of Nepali people are farmers and for many of them the lack of rain for the past three winters along with the very meagre monsoon we had this year really affected the amount of food they could grow. For many of these people, the food they grow is all they have to eat; they don't have a job. Despite the fact that the Copenhagen talks faced many obstacles in coming together in agreement, at least they brought global attention to this issue from all fronts."

Watch my submission to France 24 Television.

The Most Significant Event of 2009: Interview in France 24

France 24 interviewed me about the most significant event of 2009. I said the climate change talks in Copenhagen was the most significant event of the year.

05 December, 2009


DEC 05 - About a year ago, I started an anti-white rice andolan in our house. The strategy was this: each time my mother put rice in front of me, I would say, “White rice!” in exaggerated horror, then ask for some other grain. Maize maybe, or wheat. My mother was heavily offended. She thought I was insulting her, not the rice.

“White rice is full of calories! There aren’t any trace minerals! The entire husk has been beaten out of it!” I used to tell her.

After a few months of this tension, my mother, who had been modestly eating some cornmeal or some wheat-meal on her own—the food reserved for poor women in the Brahmin hierarchy—started to realise the men may benefit from this low-status grains as well. Maybe—horror of horrors—the men who had been relegated to the ‘good’ white Basmati rice were actually eating the unhealthy grain. It took at least a year before oatmeal, cornmeal, and other grains began to make a regular appearance in our kitchen, and a few months more before the dogs started to eat white rice as the humans diversified their diet and started eating the grains otherwise reserved for dogs.

I’m still not sure if I’ve won the fight over processed food yet. But my insistence on ‘buy the Nepali biscuits which were baked yesterday, not the supermarket biscuits that have been sitting on the shelf for months and were made in Malaysia months and months ago’ may also have made a tiny dent on the women who make the decisions and select the food.

If food habits can be changed (and I know this from my own experience), then other things can change as well. After returning from Indonesia, I taught my mother how to make hibiscus tea. This rich red flower, which I now see everywhere in Kathmandu loading-down bushes with its red blooms, is rich in anti-oxidants. In places like Japan, Thailand, and Indonesia, hibiscus contributes to the diet in the form of juicy-rich in anti-oxidants and other medicinal properties. And it is easy to make. Pick flower, remove stamens and pistils, put hibiscus bloom in hot water, remove flower after water turns muddy red, add lemon juice, and voila—you have sparkling crimson juice that in Japan or Korea you would have to pay a few hundred rupees for.

Then there’s chrysanthemum (godavari). In places like China, chrysanthemum tea is celebrated for its healthy properties, but we in our fabled Valley waste it on garlands for statues.

I’ve been accused by my friends of being overly prescriptive with my ‘grandma remedies’. So let me promote yet another of my remedies to a national audience—people, the best medicine you can find is actually in your kitchen. Turmeric, or besaar, has always been known for its profoundly-antiseptic and healing properties for ages in the Indian subcontinent. But the Balinese seem to have perfected the art of using it in its most raw and natural form. I had to do some research on how to get the raw roots—finally, one farmer selling his wares in Asan happily ran into his house and brought me out a kilo of raw turmeric roots while I guarded his little patch of garlic. Take one root, scrape out the skin, pound out the fresh juice, and add lime juice and water—what you have is a potent juice known as Jamu in Indonesia, and which people drink everyday for its healthy properties.

“People in Nepal have so little luxuries,” A Spanish man told me once. He was on his way back from a tour in Nepal, and the poverty, as he described it, stuck in my mind. “All they have is one plate of rice and beans with a little vegetable and no other luxuries.”

The irony of this poverty, of course, is that we are not a country poor in natural wealth. We could very easily use the flowers and plants and grains and other natural ingredients we have around us to construct simple yet local luxuries. We are not like Sudan where half the land is baking desert, or Yemen where the water is running out. We are actually one of the countries that are rich in biodiversity and water wealth. Of course, left unconserved (and over-pumped by India), that may one day just be a uilay ko bajay ko kaatha—a tale once told by grandfathers. And hariyo ban, Nepal ko dhan, which brought a sense of pride in our forest wealth and which was quite effective in spreading environmental messages during the bad old days, have now been chucked out by the good old democrats for its feudal connotations.

The latest addition of fast food chains to Nepal’s diet is only going to deepen this sense of poverty. Only chicken flown in from Brazil is the best chicken is the message fast food outlets want to give us. But chicken from Brazil has many problems—not the least of which is a very large carbon footprint this bird leaves behind as it leaves its heavily over-processed plant in Brazil to fly in refrigerators to land in Nepal. Anybody with a bit of sense will realise it’s better to eat local chicken—it’s healthier! But will the rich kids listen as they rush in to get their share?

In places like the U.S. and Europe, a ‘Slow Food Movement’ has started. Slow food rejects everything fast food stands for. It uses local ingredients. As much as possible, the food should be freshly and organically-grown, without pesticides or chemicals, and

distributed without plastic packaging. People try to ensure that the food is trucked in within a few km, not from Brazil. And this slow food movement is also the beginning of a new life movement, a life that embraces less consumption, and which leaves less of a footprint on this planet that is already groaning from the rapacious demands people make upon it. A slow foodie eats a local momo made from the local rango, rather than chicken wings from Brazil.

What we choose to eat daily will ensure how the planet copes with the increasing demands people are making upon its water, earth, and air. If you are truly concerned, the steps are simple to follow. Each time you eat something, you can make a choice to choose local food over global brands; unpackaged food over plastic; unprocessed food that is closest to its source over processed varieties encased in cardboard. How our grandparents ate is actually a good indicator of how to leave a low footprint in the earth.

And for those little luxuries, you can always look around you for natural things. Use those flowers, make some tea. And for what it’s worth, I still think a cup of Himalayan coffee from Palpa beats any Starbucks coffee anyday.