23 May, 2009

LESSONS FROM ORANGES



Sushma Joshi, Kathmandu Post, 5/22/09
One longterm expatriate, who'd recently read an op-ed in the papers advocating the chopping down of trees along the roads, complained to me: butchery is in Nepal's genes

Two friends of mine took me on a midnight jaunt through Valencia, Spain, last winter. What stunned me was not just the rows of beautiful houses in the old city, and the rush of water from the fountains, but the rows and rows of orange trees that bloomed white flowers in the moonlight. "Do people eat these fruits?" I asked. The trees, which lined the main thoroughfares, were studded with big orange fruit. "No, I think they're just for decoration," my friend answered with a laugh.

Sevilla, known as the City of Oranges, was even more heavily covered with orange trees than Valencia. No doubt the city was inspired by Arab architecture and gardens, vestiges of which still remain in the form of the Alcazar, where the romantic and ancient gardens were filled with orange trees that dripped with fruit. One of these, Patio de Los Naranjos, is known for having hundreds of orange trees. This patio was once part of the old mosque, where the worshippers washed their hands and feet in the fountains before prayer.

Imagine all of Pokhara's roads being lined with hundreds of fruit trees with fat oranges and pomelos that are planted by the municipality and are only for decoration (the people being too satiated with cheap fruit to think about jumping on the branches to vandalize these state products) and you get the idea.

In Sevilla, I bent down next to the historic square and removed some seeds from a squelched specimen. The seeds, still slippery, slid through my fingers as I wiped them reverently and put them inside my bag. My thought was to replant these seeds back in Kathmandu. The seeds sunk instantly into the vast and bottomless depths of my luggage (although I did find at the bottom of my suitcase a souvenir of Sevilla -- a one euro calendar with pages and pages of glossy images of the crying Madonna, and a dried out pine branch shoved into my hands by a rather ominous gypsy), but I still wonder where the seeds vanished to.

Of course, indigenous fruit would no doubt work just as well if we had the foresight and common sense to plant these in our rather hospitable climate. But as one longterm expatriate, who'd recently read an op-ed in the papers advocating the chopping down of trees along the roads, complained to me: butchery is in Nepal's genes. His point being that a people capable of chopping buffaloes, then people, then houses, now trees, ran along the same continuum, and how would we ever change our mindset to one of preservation and conservation, rather than destruction?

On a recent trip to Dhankuta, I was pleasantly surprised to see besides the usual concrete monstrosities (somebody stop these architects who are mindlessly running across the country and putting up the same monstrosities by the millions) a few examples of indigenous architecture that seems to have escaped the butchery. One was an elegant Limbu home that rose out of the hillside and struck the eye with its beautiful proportions and colors. The other was the old bazaar, still dominated by Newars and filled with small shops whitewashed in lime and with small wooden benches and patios in the front. Dhankuta still retained a whiff of the charm of the old bazaar.

It takes me a minute to walk off the bus before a young woman offers help and directions, another one tells me to go to Hotel Parichaya, where the motherly woman who owns it tells me that of course I can have a room, and before long I am walking through town and having conversations along with a young friend who appears to know everybody in town. Dhankuta reveals its multicultural and tolerant nature pretty quickly-- an evening walk up and down the hillsides reveals a tightly knit community who, despite the rising ethnic politicization, seemed to know and care about each other's welfare.

There is a particular charm to small Nepali towns that now seems to exist only within the pages of old Insight Guides, but Dhankuta thankfully seems to have retained most of it. And Dhankuta, like Valencia, also plants orange groves along with ginger, masala, and other herbal products. The price of ginger has skyrocketed -- with China being a prime buyer. There is a hairloss shampoo made from ginger and made in China that is now widely marketed in Nepal, people inform me. Dhankuta, it appears, has the potential to be a prosperous old town that, if it pays attention to cultural heritage and preservation, could draw a substantial number of internal tourists to its orange groves.

The Malaysians, who use Nepalis as cheap labor, appear to have caught onto the power of preserving heritage along with its interlinked power to draw tourists. An American friend of mine recently returned from Malaysia and showed me photographs of tea-houses in tea-estates in Penang. The old houses were beautifully preserved, and the tea-houses, newly built with simple indigenous bamboo and wood, appeared completely replicable in Nepal. This man, a longterm Kathmandu resident, says he's decided to move to Penang because life is better there. "The Nepalis could so easily make a few tea-houses in Ilam. But there's nothing there, not even a place to sit and taste the tea," he complained. Can we see this as an opportunity for some enterprising entrepreneurs and not just yet another thing that doesn't exist in Nepal?

"Let's plant some avocado trees in Pashupati," I recently floated this idea to a few people. "If you do that, the monkeys will eat them," was the response. Now that's an interesting thought. Does it make more sense to plant avocado trees (and protect them enough as saplings and prevent the monkeys from pulling them up) in the hope that in fifteen years time there will be a tree loaded with fruit that monkeys could eat, and which would provide them the nutrition that would cure them of their current sickly status? Or should we just say that it's a worthless project and just let it go?

Is it the same with the fruit trees? Can we say that Nepal is too poor to have orange and persimmon trees line its streets, where the people will jump on the branches like monkeys and eat everything? Or can we imagine a future where perhaps in about fifteen years time, which is how long it takes certain fruit trees to mature, people in Kathmandu and Pokhara may have enough civic sense and enough nutrition that we could also imagine our streets to be lined with trees which would be loaded with fruit and left alone -- a sign of the prosperity of our economy, and not a validation of our poverty?
(Sushma Joshi is the writer of "End of the World" which is available in Quixote's Cove, Vajra and Educational Book House.)

Posted on: 2009-05-22 18:29:27 (Server Time)

20 May, 2009

OVERCOMING ODDS




Sushma Joshi
Republica, May 19, 2009

“Oh, you’re going to see Jhamak?” says the older man as we sit drinking tea in a tea house in Dhankuta Bazzar in the early morning chill. “I’m her uncle.” Jhammakkumari Ghimire, the writer who’s triumphed despite her disability, is apparently known by this androgynous name, I soon figure out.

Then he proceeds, in those causal but fortuitous coincidences that take place in Nepal all the time, to tell me about how Jhamak became the writer that she did. “Her parents bought her little sister a book. And Jhamak turned round and round in a rage for two days. She can’t talk, you see. So finally her father figured out, after a day or two, what was bothering her. And he said: would you like a book as well? And then she tapped her foot with joy. That’s how she talks, with her foot.” Jhamak, says her uncle, was always expressive. Once she drew him a rabbit that looked like it could run. He took her to Kathmandu once. Carried her down there. Once down, the poets and the literary people surrounded her. “It was like I was the one who couldn’t speak,” he remarks.

As we walk up the pine forest, her friend Elina Himbang tells me that Jhamak recently had a birthday party, and all the journalists came. We walk up a steep terraced field, and Jhamak’s mother tells that we should have taken the pathway, they have now built one. One of Jhamak’s younger sister is going to school. The second one is in the field, planting. In a giant pot, pumpkin rinds boil, food for the cows. We duck into a small doorway on the ground-floor and there is Jhamak, on the bed with the white bedspread. She smiles. The first thing you notice about Jhamak is her joi di vivre. “Namaste, Jhamak,” we say. Elina points out to me, in case I missed it, that Jhamak is answering—her two feet are placed in a neat namaste. She grabs a notebook and starts to write with her feet, and soon we are immersed in conversation.

“Why are you calling her Alina?” she corrects me, when I mispronounce her friend’s name. “She’ll find a hundred mistakes in your writing,” Elina laughs to me, when I sign the book and fumble with my raswas and dirghas. “Jhamak, you are getting thin,” Elina voices her concern. “Well, I’m a human being. Sometimes I gain weight, sometimes I lose it,” retorts Jhamak, writing quickly with her feet. Sometimes people who don’t know her misunderstand her, they go back saying this woman is quite arrogant from her replies, laughs Elina on our way back.

The one thing you notice about Jhamak is how little her disability seems to have disabled her. She cannot speak, but she is more expressive than many people with functioning vocal cords. Her answers are sharp and funny ,always to the point. She cannot walk, but she has traveled farther than many people from her own community who are tied to the rhythms of planting and reaping, a farming, agricultural life that would have been her heritage had she been born whole. Instead, she was born unable to move, tied to her bed—and that by itself had made it possible for her to be a writer. On the desk, I see a black and white photograph of a youthful, beautiful Parijat. It is no co-incidence that both of these women were disabled in some form. After all, how else would women find the time needed away from incessant and daily chores to devote to writing? Disability, in the case of these two women, had actually come as a blessing in disguise, freeing them up from women’s work and allowing them to fully concentrate on the passion of their lives--literature. All around her are piled books, books about the history of Ilam, books written by Nepali writers, contemporary, classics. In the desk I see a computer. Alina tells me that Jhamak not only folds her own quilts and makes her own bed, she also uses the computer with her feet.

In the book “Outliers”, by Malcolm Gladwell, the writer talks about how genius is not an accident. We are the products of our history and backgrounds. And sometimes, the very discriminations that we face in our lives will enable us to reach success in a way a privileged life wouldn’t. Gladwell uses the examples of the Jewish lawyers of New York, born around 1930s, who got a good public education but who were discriminated by all the WASP dominated firms. They set up their own low level firms which started to do aggressive corporate work that other firms wouldn’t touch—and when the boom for corporate takeovers happened in the 1970s, Jewish lawyers had honed their skills for a few decades and were ready to take on work nobody else could do. The Jewish lawyers, concludes Gladwell, were successful not despite their discriminated background—but because of it.

In Nepal, our people face more odds than people from other countries. And yet, as elsewhere, we find people in Nepal who’ve overcome those barriers to become successes in their own chosen fields. Jhamak, whispers her friends, now takes care of her family with the earnings of her writings. Poor girl, they used to leave her in a basket, now she takes care of them all, sigh her neighbors. Now that’s one remarkable story for a Nepali Brahmin woman, born in the hills with apparently insurmountable odds. And yet she triumphed. Jhamak, it appears to me, is not a genius so extraordinary nobody else can replicate her feat. She was a woman of her time and place, who had the luck to have a supportive father who understood her desire to read a book, and supportive family members who were able to take care of her daily needs so she could focus on her writing. Dhankuta, with its laid-back multicultural tolerance and liberal air, provided the rest. Now if only we could see this, and ensure that other people with disabilities could also have the same quality of life that she has had.

16 May, 2009

A KOSI OF THE MIND




Sushma Joshi, Kathmandu Post

Perhaps the answer lies in the conversation my travel partner is having with a man he's just met in the airplane. "The man was run down right here. The truck backed into him and killed him even though he was only injured slightly," says the old man. "Yes, it's that law," says my friend. "It's cheaper to run down somebody in an accident than pay compensation for their medical expenses." Herein, I think, lies the clue to Nepal's poverty. In Nepal, it is cheaper to run down a human being dead than follow the course of universal humane behavior and treat somebody who's been injured through a manmade accident.
And the accidents here are many. The most tragic accident, of course, is that done to the Dalit community. Fifty lakh live in Nepal, and eighty percent of them are landless. Rather than pick them up and heal the historical injury, Nepal prefers to run them down, putting the state machinery in reverse and backing the heavy vehicle of official bureaucracy into them till they lie down and die.

Of the thousands who lost their homes under the bleached-bone white sand of the Koshi barrage, another man-made accident in which the man tampered and reversed the course of nature, the most vulnerable are still to be housed and fed. Many are of Dalit communities. "Saptari is the district with the most number of Dalits in Nepal," Bhola Paswan tells me. Bhola, a grassroot journalist who reports on Madeshi Dalit issues, lives in Kanchanpur, close to the epicenter of the flood. His diary is full of poignant stories which never make it out of the local level.
The population census of 2001 says Saptari had 1 lakh 25 thousand Dalits. And yet, despite the population density (or perhaps because of it), Saptari's Dalits remain oppressed.
Consider the case of a Dom family who live in Kamalpur VDC, Bhola tells me. The family of 8 lived in a village which burnt down in its entirety during Holi. Everybody else rebuilt -- but the Doms, considered the lowest of castes, were not allowed. The reason? The Doms had a house in the very outskirts of the village, but as the population rose and the village expanded, they ended up at the center, too close to school teachers and party cadres. This, sadly, was the reason for their eviction. The village tolerated them on the margins but they couldn't imagine them at the center.
Despite repeated visits to the police station, Bhola Paswan says, the police are reluctant to press a caste discrimination case. They are willing to do a "kut-pit mudda" -- physical assault case, but will not touch the word "caste discrimination." Although the government is supposed to represent victims of caste discrimination against the victimizer, these cases are rarely filed. "I debated with the inspector for an hour and a half," he says. "Is this my job? There's nobody to speak for Dalits, so we journalists end up doing it."
Bhola recounts another story that reeks of injustice. Khattar Sarvariya, a Dalit man, has been working as a peon at the VDC office of Kanchanpur for over thirty years. He had a stroke that left him paralyzed three years ago. His wife got his Rs.2200 job in his stead. Other peons who joined after him were accepted as permanent employees, while he, despite his seniority, was considered "asthaiyi" (temporary), and is ineligible to claim any compensation. The irony doesn't just come from the fact that he has served tea for thirty-four years to political party members who come to the VDC to debate which just social service cause should be eligible for the VDC funds.
It also comes from the fact that the land on which the VDC office stands was given up by Khattar's father-in-law, who was cajoled and intimidated by the Panchayat regime to donate the land with promises of new land elsewhere. New land never materialized. Today Khattar continues to work as a peon on the same land that should have been his, unable to get compensation to redeem not just his historical seizure of property but also his three decade service to democracy. "Do the political parties who drink out of the tea of his hands think about the oppression of his case?" asks Bhola.
Bhola says his family life has suffered due to his incessant service to the public. His mother almost died when he was on recent tour to Kathmandu, which made him realize how much he'd prioritized societal responsibility over family ones. "Today," says Bhola, "I take better care of my mother. I stop by her house in the afternoon and check to make sure she's taken her medication." He has worked from seven am to seven pm most days for the last seven years. Stringers at the grassroots level are often paid Rs.100 per news item that may have taken a day or so to collect -- and at times friends at the district level may run the news without informing the grassroots that their stories have already aired or been printed, thereby depriving them of even that tiny honorarium. For many years, he worked as a stringer and the money he received barely covered his phone, fax, motorcycle and other expenses. The Rs.2000 given to him by an NGO gave him just enough to keep going. "Grassroot journalists fill the newspapers, but we are paid less than day laborers," he says. Today, he is a desk reporter for Naya Patrika and makes a modest salary.
Bhola's stories have won awards -- the Sancharika Samuha women's journalist group gave him their annual award for his story of a woman who was made to leave the country and exit the border to India after being severely beaten up by 150 men in a Panchayat style meeting. The woman's crime? Abandoned by her husband (who was Indian and lived across the border), she had returned home to Nepal to her natal village. A single woman must be a woman of low moral character, went the prevailing judgment -- leading 150 brave Nepali men to beat a single woman until she ended up at the hospital.
Despite unceasing service to the public, Bhola and others face the challenges of many of Nepal's journalists -- low pay, lack of respect, threats to physical safety.
Journalists are not just news gatherers but informal justice providers, and often the only sole advocates, for marginalized groups and people. A happy medium, I think, may be to support grassroots folks who provide critical social justice investigations state benefits -- make them employees of the Dalit and Women commission, and let them write articles as part of their work. My friend argues this is wrong -- I am looking at a humongously unwieldy bureaucracy that would drive Prachanda crazy were he still at the helm. Meanwhile, the Working Journalist Act is still to be implemented, and many young men and women like Bhola continue to act as advocate, social action volunteers and investigators combined for a pittance (although a few others have entered the conference circuit and make more than their fair share for rather sloppy and sometimes plagarized work). Perhaps the INGOs may think of a happy medium in which committed journalists can continue to write news but also be paid a working salary.
In Saptari, Bhola is on his way to visit the Dom family. Soon, he will advocate for other Dalit families who have no other people to advocate for them at the local level.
As we trundle back past the barren-white Sahara of the Kosi disaster, I see the first patches of green sprouting on the white sand. Surely if we can overcome this terrible flood with Biblical undertones, we can overcome the manmade disaster of caste discrimination? Nepal has been declared a caste free zone multiple times by multiple governments, and yet when it comes to action many of the 50 lakh Nepali Dalit citizens who do Nepal's most productive work -- tailoring, leatherwork, iron casting, sanitation, music -- remain injured through a manmade disaster. Isn't it time to offer compensation?


(Sushma Joshi's book "End of the World" is available in Mandala, Vajra, Pilgrims, United and other bookstores.)



Posted on: 2009-05-16 01:51:04