Nepal's democratic conscience – Manjushree Thapa

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When I caught up with Manjushree Thapa in Kathmandu, some five months after meeting her for the first time in Toronto, we were accosted by a young man who asked for her autograph and just happened to have one of her books on hand.

Thapa, typically modest, told me she was a little embarrassed. I snapped a photo of the exchange, enchanted that my new friend was in fact, a well-known, highly-respected Nepalese author. It was because of a chance meeting in Toronto - where Thapa now makes her home half the time as she is now a permanent resident of Canada - that I ended up at a film festival in Kathmandu where my documentary, Twin Trek, was screened to an audience of 500 on Dec. 15.

During my brief time in the land-locked "Rooftop of the World," I discovered that most Nepali's have a view about fate: whatever happens, you accept it. In Thapa's instance - it's the opposite.

"I was tired of Nepal depicted as a pre-political idyll, a Himalayan Shangri-la in the Western media ... I wanted them to see what the country felt like for Nepalis: a poor, seething, deeply flawed and turbulent land," says Thapa about the inspiration for her book Forget Kathmandu - An Elegy for Democracy (Penguin 2005).

The book is a dense but rollicking ride through the country's endless knot of assassinations, political plots and power grabs. Missed opportunities for true democracy to flourish make the reader wonder what keeps going wrong. Forget Kathmandu is a riveting read that begins with the mysterious June 2001 massacre at the royal palace by the country's prince and ends with Thapa's journey into the war-ravaged countryside. Her descriptions are compelling and moving.

For those unschooled in the recent history of Nepal, the country - a complex stew of more than 100 ethnic groups and castes - became a republic in May 2008 after a decade-old bloody civil war with Maoist insurgents, which killed more than 10,000 people and displaced as many 100,000 others.

An election put the Maoist party in charge in August 2008 just a month after deposed King Gyanendra left his palace in the capital, taking refuge in the mountains.

Thapa, who comes from a diplomatic family and spent her formative years in the U.S., says she wrote the book partly to come to terms with her country - a place she returned to at age 21, after getting a BFA in Photography from the Rhode Island School of Design (Thapa later got an MFA in English from the University of Washington).

"After college, I was so thoroughly in the American art-school mold, I did feel thoroughly out of place. But I have changed a lot since then and so has Nepal."

Reading her well-researched book, I was struck by diverse bits of data including the fact that 200,000 Nepali's served for the Allies during WW II and that 60 per cent of the country's national budget comes from foreign grants and loans. Apparently, 40 per cent of Nepali's live below the poverty line.

"So many Nepalis now live and work abroad," notes Thapa, who also speaks Nepali, Hindi and French. "It's a country run on remittances ... I feel very much a part of this national passion for globalization."

A citizen of the world, Thapa - with her charming British lilt - has had writing fellowships in Berlin, France and the U.S.

Most Nepalis, as Thapa points out, were appalled by the 2001 massacre and especially with the government's bizarre explanation for what triggered the rampage - a prince high on a mixture of drugs, upset over his parent's unwillingness to approve his girlfriend for marriage.

"The family at the very centre of state power self-destructed - and in such an unseemly, medieval manner. It became a galvanizing force, a call for change."

Her book is an education for readers, to see "what a tragic mess that Nepal is."

While there is no civil war now, the unrest continues.

Recently, the Maoist government increased daily blackouts from 12 hours a day to 16 hours due to a shortage of electricity. And, more alarmingly, the offices of Himal Media - the country's largest newspaper publishing house - were attacked in December by thugs. Himal officials say the attack was triggered by articles critical of the government.

On Jan. 12, Uma Singh, a Nepalese radio journalist, was hacked to death by a group of men in the southern city of Janakpur. Singh had broadcast and written about women's rights and against the caste system, and on political issues. In fact, The Committee to Protect Journalists places Nepal on a list of 13 countries where journalists are murdered regularly and governments fail to prosecute the killers.

Thapa admits that the "immense hope" she once felt for her country is rapidly being lost.

"The militaries have not been changed or reformed. There is also immense mistrust between the Maoists and other political parties ... so the peace process is continuing, but in a slightly hobbled way."

There are ancient traditions still engraved into the Nepali psyche and socio-political structure - namely, the Hindu caste system and equality for women.

"The traditional elite has not completely given up its hold, of course ... and even most private institutions tend to be run by [them] but the intention to change this is there," remarks Thapa, 40.

The author does point out that women have 33 per cent representation in Nepal's assembly, placing it at No. 14 in the world for female political participation. However, equality for women in society is still far off.

It's interesting to note that in her book, Thapa observes that 30 per cent of the Maoist insurgents were women, yet none of them were in the upper leadership circles of the movement itself.

Thapa says it's the "internalization of democracy" that will ultimately free women and also Nepal from its feudal state of being.

"Nepal entered the modern, democratic norm very late, around 1990," she explains.

"The kings and their courtiers were adept at keeping the rest of the country in servitude... We're doing everything about a century late. It's often heartbreaking to witness, but at least we're heading in the right direction."

Thapa - who recently finished the manuscript for her second book of fiction and is working on a book of essays about Nepal's situation - had a chance to immerse herself in Canadian culture while in Toronto for six months during 2008 and she says she found the experience "exotic."

"The kinds of things that pass for political instability or political scandal in Canada - I'm sorry, but where I come from, we would eat these things for breakfast, as the saying goes ... Nepal is and extremely volatile geologically and politically. I felt like I landed in the exact opposite, a place with one of the world's most stable geological structures and politics. Very exotic!"

In her last email to me from Kathmandu, Thapa felt the urge to recount an incident in Toronto.

"I heard someone on the bus right behind my seat talking in Nepali into his cellphone. The multiculturalism of Canada, I have to say, has really impressed me."

Manjushree Thapa's books, which include the short story collection Tilled Earth and the acclaimed novel A Tutor of History, are available online.  Thapa recommends these sources:  www.booksatbahri.com, www.rediff.com, www.oxfordbookstore.com and www.landmarkonthenet.com.
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