31 December, 2015

The far-sighted Divine Advice of Prithivi Narayan Shah

On Sunday, January 21, 2014, the letter section of the Kantipur newspaper carried this small comment from one Taranath Gautam of Kalanki:

“Prithivi Narayan Shah, who did not let firangis come near him, has been portrayed in history by foreign writers like Angelo, Guiseppe, Kirkpatrick, Hamilton, Wright, Oldfield, Vensitart and others.” Then he went on to say (I am paraphrasing here, since I can’t remember his exact words): These writers have come to portray as fact that “all males lost their noses in Kirtipur”, and this has been passed down as history. But we should examine more critically how Prithivi Narayan Shah, who wouldn’t let a firangi come near him, may have been viewed by these writers.

Now this little letter, written in Nepali, was a shock of cold air. Reading the line again in Nepali, I realized that “all males lost their noses” is a colloquial way of saying “all men were humiliated.” But like all the other Western educated people like me, I’d assumed that it was a literal fact, and that Prithivi Narayan Shah had physically mutilated the Kirtipurians. But for someone who was looking to unite, rather than divide, why would he alienate this one town for no reason? 

For the highly educated English, Italian and lord knows which other gentlemen of which nationalities passing through to capture Nepal’s history, this line apparently came to mean “all men literally lost their noses.”

In other words, folks, this appears to be a great historical fallacy of rather grave proportions that has remained uncorrected and passed down as fact, a fallacy that has been bolstered by the unquestioned supremacy of Western epistemology.

But if you repeat that sentence in Nepali, you will immediately realize that it is likely a simple misunderstanding of a linguistic metaphor, written down as fact by someone who didn’t speak the language too well (or perhaps not at all).

Secondly, it seems Prithivi Narayan Shah may have been rather justified in his advice (which can be seen to be xenophobic, but in fact history has provide him to be right): firangis who don’t understand your language can distort the meaning of words, and end up writing “history” that will cause strife and bitterness for generations afterwards. I've met Newars who thought that Prithivi Narayan Shah committed a war crime of grave proportions in Kirtipur--when in fact history seems to suggest he went around his conquest with the minimal amount of harm to human lives. Why else would he choose a day when all the Newar population was lying drunk on Indra Jatra for his Kathmandu takeover? 

In other words, stay away from firangis sounds like rather Divine Advice, with the benefit of hindsight, almost two centuries after the grand old man’s demise.

The unbelievable number of firangis that have come through and denigrated Prithivi Narayan Shah and his Gorkhali empire, from academic institutions from Nowhere, USA to bright young sparks from India with great ambitions to rule present day Nepal, all seem to prove one thing: that man forged a nation of such unbelievable flexibility and loyalties no firangi’s going to break up this one.

You gotta give to PNS—whatever he was thinking in the 1700s, this one was unbelievably farsighted man who saw the implications of his work centuries and centuries later. The flower garden stays strong and it keeps flowering, despite (or perhaps because of) all attempts to break it up.

A hundred bouquets of flowers and a garland of flowers followed, but note Bairagi Kaila, even in a Republican mood, has paid homage to the flower garden.

17 December, 2015

The Speedy Salmon

Check out my op-ed "The Speedy Salmon" in Republica.


Sushma Joshi
            About a year ago, I read about GM salmon. It greatest virtue, it appeared, was that it could grow at twice the speed of its natural cousins. Instead of the 30 months it takes to fatten a salmon, scientists had bred one to be ready in just 18 months. This project, reported the Guardian USA, was taking place at some undisclosed location in the Panama highlands in secrecy. Next to it, oddly, was a fishery that grew organic fish for Whole Foods. The two centers, the article said, was separated only by a stream.

Yesterday, I read the USA’s FDA had approved this salmon for human consumption. They had also approved it without requiring the makers of this salmon to label it as genetically modified.

            The fact this salmon grows to its full size in half the time, trumpet its advocates, means that it’s the ideal fish for a growing world. No waiting around for the fingerlings to grow to a family-sized dinner.  For a planet where billions live in a chronically undernourished stage, this GM salmon is the answer to hunger. Or so the clever marketers want you to believe.

First, salmon is a rich-people food. So rich people are going to get this beast that shot up, like Jack’s beanstalk, within a few magic moments.

This reminded me of an incident when I visited the home of a millionaire in a coast off New Jersey. The young woman had a one-year-old son. The child was taken care of by a Jamaican nanny paid a triple digit salary. I took a look at the child, and I had a Nepali response: Oh, he’s big!, I said. People in Nepal look at size because nutrition of infants is a major concern in a country with food shortage. The mother was immediately worried. “He’s too big for his age, you think?” She looked at me with great anxiety. I looked at the baby again. He did look big for his age. “No, no, he’s healthy big,” I said. I wasn’t used to this maternal fear, but I understood what she feared. She was worried he was growing too fast!

The problems of the rich is that they have unlimited access to nutrition. This doesn’t mean this is healthy for the child. A child who grows too fast could signal the first phase of gigantism. Or else it could signal unnatural growth that could later lead to health problems. The only healthy way to grow, of course, is at a natural pace. Which means taking the appropriate time it takes a child to reach his/her ideal size.

Of course, rich people love speed. But do they want to eat a speedy salmon?

But for the creators of GM salmon, speed is everything. Like a car that will run 200 miles an hour, or a  processor that can crunch a million gigabytes within a second, GM food producers want a salmon that will-zip!-grow up in half its intended growth span-time. But the problems of gigabyte processing and mechanical car speed is different from the speeds of biological growth. The problem in America, however, is that these two issues are conflated, since the physical virtues of speed and efficiency has been elevated to the status of a moral virtue. America has an educational system where the knowledge of physical and biological sciences have long been devalued in favor of those great entrepreneurial virtues-making money, and making it fast

Lets say that a speedy salmon will in fact provide more food for the world’s hungry. In that case, wouldn’t it be morally imperative for the world’s big countries to spend research funds on creating what in essence is Jack’s beanstalks—ie; vegetable and animal food matter that grows at the speed of light? Sprinkle some white powder and your salmon fingerling grows at not 18 months, but 18 days. Why not 18 minutes?

The “why not?” is pretty clear to biologists and people who have worked with animals, even if its not clear to corporations looking to make speedy profits. Put a rat on accelerated growth hormones and he will die from multiple organ failures. A Jack’s Beanstalk tomato plant I bought in Germany shot up to about 5 times the height of a normal tomato plant in Kathmandu. I was gratified-until a night of rain brought the giant plant crashing down, its leaves spotted with yellow rot, onto the ground. Nature cannot be hurried in this manner without great side-effects.

The speedy salmon is one more manifestation of a world addicted to speed that wants everything instantly. Food has become the victim in this quest for profits and instant gratification. Pesticides and growth hormones are the allies of companies that would seize this most basic of human requirements and turn it into a commodity that creates great profit. But in order for the speedy salmon to bring speedy profits, people--the base of consumers--have to co-operate and agree to consume.

The Slow Food movement started out of Europe, and is in direct opposition to the speedy salmon method of food production. Slow Food grows food the way it was intended to be grown—at its own biological pace and rhythm. The Slow Food movement is growing. More and more people, especially the rich who can afford it, prefer to eat the boring old way—waiting for the salmon (or tomato) to grow to its real size.  

What would the GM advocates take—a salmon that’s gone upstream at its own rhythm in the ice-cold waters of Alaska, or an 18 month fattie that’s bred in the Panama highlands in tropical heat? I suspect even the evangelists of speed will pay a premium and wait 30 months to get a wild, glacial water fed Alaskan salmon.

The worry, of course, is speed technologies may be used to create food for the poor, not the rich. A corporation who sees a profit in creating quick food is going to force-feed it to the vast numbers of the world’s poor. And that’s where the world is going to have to keep a close watch.