26 September, 2009

EVERY TWELVE YEARS THE RIVER RETURNS

Kathmandu Post, September 26, 2009
SUSHMA JOSHI

I remember Asthami, the eighth day of Dashain, from the old days. My grandfather, notorious for his bad temper, would climb down the rickety steps of his older brother’s house, fuming silently by the time the puja was finished and it was time to chop off the goats’ heads. He never had to wait for his food, so the one day in 365 when a row of female goddesses made him wait for his dal-bhatt was always an explosive time. Enforced silence—the patriarchs couldn’t talk till the puja was finished-- made his unvoiced tantrum even more tense. We’d all hush up and walk around whispering because Baba had lost his famous temper. In hindsight, it seems interesting to me that the only force that could silence this patriarch was eight feminine deities.

We sacrificed five goats for two families of around 50 people. The goats would be brought out from this little archway into the courtyard with the tamped down earth. We—a row of small children—would sit on the high brick wall and watch. Men, trousers’ legs rolled up, brought in the goats. The animals shook with fright, bleated, and tried to escape. We watched with a mixture of horror and fascination. This was the goat we’d fed the leaves to yesterday! This little one was the one that had taken the marigold flower out of my hand! Then a man would raise his khukuri and—chyak!—I always closed my eyes at this point, and when I opened it there would be thick red blood on the ground and the men would be busy running with the headless body, still shaking with post-mortem tremors, around the sacrifical space in a circle.

Yes, and now our grandfathers are going to drink the blood of the goat!, my cousin whispered ominously. She knew everything about everything. I was clueless. No! How can they drink the blood? I asked, disbelieving. Its true, she insisted. They have to drink the raw blood as prasad before they can eat.

His photograph as a young man dressed impeccably in daura-suruwal with a camellia at his coat’s lapel, and a topi tilted over his head, gives no hint of the rage that hid inside. Perhaps he, who spent a lifetime depending upon his sons' earnings, had to show his sense of masculine honor by terrorizing everyone with his words.

If a patriarch could be silenced by the Aasthamatrikas and the Navadurgas, what else could they do? Durga, the supreme manifestation of the Navadurgas, destroyed demons. Those two awful demon duos Shumba and Nishumba, the long lance, the lion who took her there and helped rip open those hairy characters. The base of the myth seems to me to be the power of the feminine to subdue the violence inherent in male psyches, the Shumba and Nishumba that slumbers inside the heart of every man.

There’s a tendency for the best amongst us to collude with Shumba and Nishumba. Durga, in order to fight off this tendency to fawn and bootlick and collude with those who embody impunity—must appear awful. Durga is not Durga if she’s not awe-inspiring, if she doesn’t scare our Shumba-Nishumba cheerleading instincts with her fearful roar.

This year, we’ve seen it all—abductions, kidnappings, murders, impunity in all its forms. Headlines scream—Nepal still a conflict zone. Who wouldn’t, during moments of helplessness, wish for a powerful female figure—munificent, unafraid, sure of victory—ride up on the battleground and drive a stake through those who sow terror and oppression?

Teej is appropriated by Nepali women to celebrate women’s lives and strengths. Teej parties blazed a quick trail across the diaspora, faster than Krishna or Shiva worship. Ever heard of a Shivaratri party in Washington DC? Compare with the number of Teej parties and you’ll see what’s important in the scheme of things. Is it the husbands that women purport to fast for, or the almost intoxicated joy with which women sing and dance, apparently, for their own enjoyment?

In the same way, female activists working fearlessly to eliminate all forms of violence and oppression could get together and try to see how Dashain relates to their own activism. Sure, not everyone’s a Hindu. And not every Hindu wants the sacred and the secular to merge. But there appears to be inherent potential in using this fifteen days not just for cards and cowda but also to think about ways in which feminist and women’s movements can get together and work together to metaphorically “kill” the demons in our society.

I’m not talking about gangs of armed women roaming the streets chopping off the heads of murderers and abductors (although I guess that would add a new dimension to the term “armed conflict.”) I am talking about women’s movements using this time to reflect on ways in which they could draw upon their inherent power to eliminate violence and oppression.

Why not choose a more peaceful deity to eliminate violence, you may ask. How about Saraswoti, that cool and calm goddess of learning who rests on her white lotus and raises nothing more lethal than a musical instrument and a book? The reason for choosing Durga, as those of you who’ve worked in domestic violence, anti-trafficking, and any work which requires dealing with impunity and brute strength, know—violence can only be faced with a degree of unshakable strength.

Every twelve years, goes a Nepali saying, the river returns. Rwanda and Burundi, where Hutus and the Tutsis slaughtered each other in the millions, had a conflict 12 years prior to their horrific genocide. That conflict, smaller, sounds like the Maoists’ People War—ten to twelve thousand people killed before it was peacefully settled through international mediation. Before it again erupted, twelve years after, in its terrific form. Have we brokered a lasting peace, or will we go the way of Rwanda in twelve years? The question, though troublesome, must be asked. Have we killed our demons or do they still live on as drops of blood spilt on the ground and which will rise, like Raktabeej, to mutate into a hundred others?

Lets allow that question to slip to the back of our minds as we return to the present. This is the first Dashain in twelve years in which it again feels like Dashain. The killings, the murders, the “encounters”, the disappearances, and the bombings, for the first time in twelve years, have been stilled. Shumba and Nishumba no longer roam the streets in broad daylight, laughing their awful laugh and reigning supreme. Durga, having driven her stake into those two awful characters, is back in action. Lets celebrate!

Sushma Joshi wishes everyone a Happy Dashain.

20 September, 2009

THE FOREIGN HAND

SUSHMA JOSHI
Kathmandu Post

20 September: As a student in the USA, I became used to meeting with Nepalis “sponsored” by American friends. These folks, usually from remote villages, harbored a complex mixture of emotions—sadness at their lot in life, gratitude at their friends (and sometimes a sense of entitlement), hidden annoyance at the often unsubtle ways in which their poverty was pointed out to them, anger at perceived derision of their culture, friction over longterm relationships in which the balance of economic equality never got any better. There were moves to become independent, and sudden cut-offs of relationships that resumed again after long periods of time. Amongst all this, there were lifelong commitments that mirrored family relationships--some more spectacularly dysfunctional than others.

The sense of getting a free ride from rich Americans would almost inevitably give way to a sense of responsibility as people realized, after a year or two in New York, that their rich sponsors did not have unlimited pockets but were actually hardworking, middle class Americans with bills to pay.

What struck me about these relationships was the way in which people put complete faith in their sponsors. They had no doubt their friends would provide education or healthcare, or whatever else their friends were offering at that point (perhaps a yearly visa which allowed them to work on a garden in upstate New York, perhaps a chance to migrate to Switzerland and work in a Swiss chalet during the season.) What also struck me was the suspicion with which they often viewed middle class, professional Nepalis from the cities. Clearly, middle class Nepalis did not care for their welfare or concerns. Given a choice, they would take the Americans over the rich Nepalis any day.

Over and over, whether these folks needed a citizenship certificate filed or a child registered in a school, I would hear them say: “the government officials won’t listen to us. We are poor people from the villages. They will listen to Kathmandu people, but they won’t listen to us.” And each time they said this, the Americans would hear them and say: “How can this situation get better?” The Americans were interested in solving this situation. The Nepalis were not.

This, it seems, is the crux of the matter. Why are the “foreign hands” so powerful in Nepal? Is it because they have the money and can dictate the terms of the work to be done in Nepal? Or is it because they simply care more about the people—and this caring by itself gives them a legitimacy that no money can buy? Are they, in other words, more responsible to the constituency of Nepali citizens, designing everything from old age security pensions to compensation for war victims, than the city-dwelling, backsliding representatives of the people?

Who cares about solving hunger in Nepal? Who’s thinking about ways to bring drinking water to all of the population? Who jumps fastest when there’s an epidemic? Who provides relief materials when there’s a flood? Is it the Nepali government officials on the frontlines, or do we see again the foreign hand?

Our politicians have a field day blaming everything on the foreign hand. No doubt that hand is so large its shadow can be seen everywhere. But why, you may ask, is it like this? Is it simply the money? If that were so, why wouldn’t the biggest donors have the biggest footprints? But often its less of the big money and more of the heart that seems to aggravate the politicians and the Kathmandu elite. World Food Program gives food to poor people? Lets blame it for the diahorea epidemic. Spanish people adopt street children? Lets blame them for trafficking. You can extend the analogy further--Indian government gives money for road building? Lets blame it for imperialism. American government gives money to spread democratic dialogue? Lets blame it for anarchy.

One reason donors are so powerful is that they actually listen to grievances. So there’s domestic violence? Instead of saying, “This is how it is in Nepal. Husbands beat wives. Its our culture,” some donor is likely to slap down a hundred thousand dollars to build a home for abused women. And why would that abused woman want to go to a politician who told her, “go home, this is how it is in our culture?” Surely her true representative is the people who actually listened to her grievance? Is that, after all, what politicians are supposed to do—make policy, bring laws into existence, change the culture?

No doubt the foreign hands themselves are divided. There may be more than one outfit operating from the same country. One could give, the other could take away. Noone can say these arms of foreign governments are united or share a common vision or purpose. Lets leave that aside for the moment. What appears more pertinent that every failure of our politicians seem to have an easy answer in foreign meddling. But there is no easy answer about why the foreigners still need to meddle in issues as essential as food, water, electricity, health and education. Surely that’s the work of the Nepali government, its officials and political representatives who claim to represent their constituency? Surely they should be thinking about providing these essential services, instead of waiting, with equal rancor and hope, that some other nation will feed their people?

Until and unless the political spectrum starts to work for the people they claim to represent (instead of wasting time trying to grab power through useless shufflings of one political clique after another), than the power will continue to reside in the foreign hand. Power doesn’t just lie in money. It also lies in the faith that people put in institutions and individuals. It is earned from hard work, and it comes from the investment one has shown over the years. Unfortunately, the balance of power earned by the dreaded foreign hand versus the rickety Nepali hand is very pronounced indeed.

06 September, 2009

CATS, DOGS AND GORILLAS


Sushma Joshi

September 6: This morning, I heard a series of frantic mewing coming from tree foliage twenty feet up in the air. I walked under the thick bouganville, but couldn’t locate the plaintive meows. Then I saw it—a black and tan kitten caught midway in the fork of a straight and bare tree trunk. Its okay, get down now, I said. Motivational speaking, funnily, works on freaked out kittens caught on branches as well as it does on California’s residents. The kitten, heeding my Chicken Soup for The Soul talk, grasped the smooth branch with two paws and slithered down. Halfway down, it balked. Just a few feet now, I intoned in my best Deepak Chopra voice. Then it was down.

At first, it didn’t want to come close and hid underneath the car. As I walked towards my garden, it followed me. Now it was miaowing plaintively. Ah, hungry cat. Maybe it would be useful in keeping the garden rats, spectacularly big and destroyers of my bamboos, at bay. I went into my kitchen and cut a piece of cheese. The tiny kitten struggled with the solid food. Just as it was swallowing the last piece, my dog, wagging his tail, pleased as punch, bounded into the garden. Before I could respond, it had chased the cat up a wall. Stop! I yelled. The dog, abashed, skulked back. The kitten, trapped in a high place, cried with woe. I chased out the dog and locked the garden gate, threatening him with dire reprisals if he dared to attack. As this was going on, our second dog bounded up and started fighting with the first. The two clueless canines annoyed the hell out of me. If you two make me lose my newfound feline, I’m going to be really mad, I threatened them. The dogs looked at me and wagged their tails. Their job, to protect their food dishes, was their primary concern. No kitten was gonna lick up their protein tidbids.

Half an hour later, the kitten was happily washing its face by me with its furry tongue. He soon commenced to rub himself along my legs, convinced he’d found a champion. Before I knew it, he was snuggling in my arms. I looked at it in resignation. Not another animal to feed! My plans to turn him into a sleek, rat-eating predator, it seems, was to be subverted by his plans—to be a picturesque couch-potato feline napping in the garden and frequently entering the kitchen to eat goodies.

All this reminded me of an irate Westerner I met at last week’s conference on global climate change. “At least with the Maoists there was a sense that something was going on? But now? Nothing!” He looked at me with weary disgust. No doubt donors, happy to have coaxed the cat of revolution to get down the trees and come to the garden, may have been preoccupied, as I was, in keeping the two fat but useless old dogs at bay till the kitten was fed a few slices of cheese. And they too, like me, must have been worried when the cat started to get too comfy, within the space of too short a time, and the grooming and the snuggling took precedence over the rat-hunting. And Nepal has many rats to kill—everything from food insecurity to water shortage, from bad education to terrible health delivery.

Have we lost our cat, a potential predator against the rats that are gnawing away at this country, to a pack of goofy dogs? As preparation heats up for the Copenhagen conference, and countries all over South Asia prepare their own strategy to deal with climate change and its impacts, Nepal’s own appears woefully inadequate. The Bangladeshi team leader talked powerfully about how the Copenhagen event would come, and Copenhagen would go, but how working together before and after was more important. The Bangladesh government has already allocated 125 millions by itself to climate change initiatives. He talked about how being proactive and taking actions independent of Western countries was important.

The Maldives delegation made even more sense. Amongst all the people talking about who’s to blame for climate change, they were refreshingly sensible. “I don’t like the blame game,” said the Honorable Minister from the Maldives. “Western countries shouldn’t pay because of what they did in the past, but of what they are capable of contributing to the present crisis. This is not about negotiation, since what we are talking about is non-negotiable.” Maldives will be the first nation to vanish under the sea if sea-levels continue to rise in the face of rising global temperatures. Three hundred thousand people will be displaced, and will have to migrate (although the Maldivians say staunchly they will stay and find a solution, even if they have to live on boats.) Perhaps because of this, they seem to know too well that stances which try to create a few more decades of fossil-fuel usage is suicidal madness for the entire planet.

For the team who negotiated the Kathmandu declaration on climate change, India’s attitude was (to quote one observer), like “a 400 pound gorilla that held all the bananas.” The Indian bureaucrat sent by the government lost no opportunity to remind everyone from the young parliamentarians to the whole audience that whatever was being discussed did not have Indian government sanction. Said the gorilla spotter, “Global climate change is taking central stage. India has lost a great opportunity to be a world leader on this topic.” For the irate Westerner, the question is even more simple. “Green technologies are profitable,” he says. “They make more money with green technologies than with oil. Why on earth would they not want to take the lead?” Eeer… cause they are gorillas?

No doubt the political zoo would be able to adapt both goofy dogs, skittish kittens, and 400 pound gorillas, but will the planet be able to take the drama much longer?

In my own garden, I pick up my purring kitten. I’ll introduce it to the dog, I think. As the dog peeps in, the kitten turns into a retractable claw machine, and before I know it the animal has bounded up a tree, leaving bloody scratches on my arm. My plans to control rats through my newfound feline, it seems, will have to remain in hiatus.