Sunday, 4 December 2016

Lessons from the Mountain Kingdom:

D: “So what do Indians think of Nepal?”

We were sitting at Almond’s, a restaurant frequented by the locals in lakeside Pokhara, and feasting on spicy momos and soul-satisfying hot bowls of thukpa. Looking down, the street lined with shops was abuzz with tourists and travellers of all kind; the sights familiar from many places in India, yet there was something distinctly different about it. It was our third day in Nepal, and I was unable to place this difference in my mind.

Me: “I don’t think we look at Nepal as distinctly different from India; more like an extension of our country.”
D: “Oh wow. That is the ultimate humiliation!”

D’s comment, however jokingly said, represents the changing attitude and growing aspirations of the youth of Nepal. Decades of political instability, insurgency, attempts at stabilizing democracy, lack of livelihood opportunities, economic dependence on India and its resulting ‘big-brotherly’ arm-twisting ways, and the recent earthquake coupled with almost a year-long trade embargo by India - all have been instrumental in shaping and reshaping the country’s societal outlook. Like India in the pre-90s and Uttarakhand in recent times, the youth and able-bodied men are moving out of the country in search of better work and life opportunities leaving behind villages with only older generation and women. Kathmandu is now a sprawling city growing by leaps and bounds as people continue to migrate here – some statistics say, almost a quarter of the country’s population live in this city alone. It’s a story which is similar to the burgeoning population in cities of India. The country is still struggling to put basic infrastructure and amenities in place with rural Nepal bearing its brunt, just as rural India continues to struggle even now. Similar traditions, culture, attire, food, religious practices, a caste system which might not be as complicated as in India, yet discriminating in nature, a multitude of ethnic groups and languages – all point to notions of semblance with India.

Yet, as I travelled, observed and conversed with people there, I realized the differences are not only numerous but stark and glaring. There’s a particular strength and equanimity that I sensed in the people here, just like that of the sublime mountains. Despite years of hardship and instability, the people have found ways to grow and better their condition. Like the owner of the shared jeep that we took from a village in the Annapurna region who mentioned that when the government do not give any budget for roads, the villages will still pool in and built kaccha roads. Like the youth groups, individuals etc. who are helping rebuild villages in Gorkha which fell like pack of cards during the earthquake. Unlike India where poverty is worn on the sleeves, there’s a quiet dignity even in the poorest people here. Unlike India, where people are overtly friendly, meddlesome and inquisitive, Nepalis are friendly yet reserved giving you the space that you require. Unlike India, where societal violence towards women is right on your face, it was liberating to travel around without fear. Unlike India, where cleanliness if just an abstract notion and streets are littered with garbage and plastic, Nepal seems to be largely a clean(er) country.  Beyond Kathmandu, the landscape is exquisite – with heavily forested green slopes, blue-green free-flowing rivers and villages with traditional architecture. A landscape and a way of life that many mountain states of India have lost, forever.  A landscape and a way of life that I so desperately yearn for.

Nepal is at a stage where it can chose to go the India route; that is, chose the western model of development and destroy everything natural. Or it can build on its strengths and traditional knowledge and show the world an alternate model of development with environment and people at its core. And I believe it can.

Lying on the overgrown grass in a park in Pokhara, lost amongst the mountains, the blue autumn sky, the lazy drone of dragonflies, and with nobody to disturb you, I realized what an amazingly beautiful country it was. On the last day of our stay, a gloriously silent Diwali night, we walked all the way to Patan Durbar Square through bylanes decorated with rangoli and diyas. Windows of the old houses were lit up with these diyas where women stood and prayed in the dim earthy light. The Durbar Square was surreal, with stunning architecture, some fallen, some still standing, lit by mellow yellow lights and full of people getting ready for a candle march. In that moment, surrounded by the mountains and history and holding on tight to my friends P and G, I knew I was truly and absolutely in love.

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