An outsider’s view of the dreams and realities of the people of KarnaliThe book, a collection of pictures and notes, shows the many facets of the Karnali region—ethnic diversity, its diverse landscape and cultural heritage.
A changing, modern economy, increasing availability of ready-made goods, a government that cracks down on the hashish trade—such factors threatened and deteriorated the traditional but independent economic system of Karnali. Then, with time, the population multiplied, and subsequent scarcities—such as energy, transportation, modern infrastructure, schools, health institutions, et cetera—enervated Karnali's capacity to adjust to changing times. Development projects too did little to impart much tangible breakthrough in changing life in the region.
Consequently, the once historically prosperous Karnali region received an image of underdevelopment. However, the region still contains prolific venues of hopes and ways to make itself a self-sufficient dwelling place once again, argue the writers—Teeka Bhattarai and Samrat Katuwal—in Karnali: People and Places.
The book, a collection of pictures and notes, foregrounds the many facets of the Karnali region—ethnic diversity, its diversity of landscape, agriculture products, and cultural heritage. It walks the readers through nine broad themes: natural features, people, transportation and communication, housing and architecture, health and hygiene, food and agriculture, education, and off-farm activities. The themes include sub-themes too, and a total of 70 topics are covered under different themes.
The sub-themes are more revealing and nuanced. They take the audiences to the untrodden nooks and corners of the region. The main content dovetails 325 photographs: of them, 95, the largest chunk of photographs, are under the theme of food and agriculture, followed by people (42), schooling (39), and so on. But even with this wide coverage, the book is selective in its presentation and spatial coverage seems to have been determined by the nature and theme of the mission in which the authors were participating in their various travels in the region.
Enriched with succinct notes and comments, the photographs transcend what the readers' eyes see and help the readers to traverse through objects, people, and places, other diverse assets of the Karnali region. They range from general information to sociological, anthropological, cultural, geographical—even scientific and medicinal information in the case of herbs, nuts, and foods. The writers observe transhumance—the agro-pastoral system and consequent semi-nomadic lifestyle—as a common practice among the people of the Karnali.
Seasonal migration is also a major mode of lifestyle in many parts of Karnali. The Karnalites live by nourishing grains such as chino, finger millet, red rice, foxtail millet, Jumli marsi; drink home-distilled liquor; get nurtured with tropical beans, vegetables, a variety of apricots, apples, walnuts, and Himalayan chilies; get cured with Yarsagumba, a summer plant, and winter insect; and entertain with their festivities including Dashain, archery, deuda dance, and other shamanic traditions.
Though the writers do not claim to be professional photographers, the photographs in the book are marked by variegated and pleasing observations and demonstrate sincere optimism. Their observation is anthropological, sociological, and geographical.
And unlike the literature and documents in the past on Karnali, the book does not try to stereotype the image of the region as an underdeveloped, exotic, outlandish and remote zone. This book is not sniveling. The pages are fitted in with cheerful and beaming faces of people, shots of sundry facets of nature, fresh and astonishing bunches and seeds of grain, pieces of herbs and nuts, and frames of architecture and designs. The authors provide a rich collection of photographs as evidence to portend that if sincere attention is paid, the current retrogressive image of Karnali can easily be changed.
If policies are implemented with a selfless will, Karnali, until recently disconcerted from the rest of Nepal, will witness in the very near future a rapid change. The writers reckon trading the local products in towns and trails, tourism, the great Himalayan trail, construction and utilisation of trailside stay hold a larger share of the promise of its prosperity of the Karnali region. Similarly, capitalising on wool and woodwork, bamboo weaving, nuts, timber, and herbs would greatly complement the mission of making Karnali independent again. What the place needs is the noble will from inside Karnali and outside it.
Though change and optimism is the major contention of the book, the authors do not hesitate to pinpoint the dark and gloomy aspects of the society too. The writers poignantly underscore three crucial obstacles to the promise of prosperity. First, so-called development projects have merely increased dependence; development has become too ritualistic in the region. Though some amount of infrastructural development has paved the way, it has prioritised makeshift living instead of empowering the dwellers towards sustainability and independence. The development in the region, for the writers, has just been short-term glee.
Similarly, the poor learning environment caused by both adverse climate and poor management of learning resources has been a major detriment to the qualitative progress in the education sector: schools lack trained teachers and resources. Culturally rooted, locally adapted schooling and conducive school premises still hold the hope for the future, the writers claim. Last but not the least, the longstanding social rites and dead habits have also added to the slow progress of the life of Karnali.
For example, one photograph alludes to the stark and dehumanising aspect of Chhaupadi rites perennial in the far-western region of Nepal. Similarly, in contrasting frames and lenses, the writers show child marriage, caste system, unequal gender relations, women's workload, and reproduction could be the severe obstacles to the bulging optimism.
Karnali, one of the most affected areas during the second People's War, stirred a great political upheaval across the country. For its own fate, it could not see much more structural and sustainable change except some gratuity in the form of haphazard road construction. And the writers contend that very few efforts have been made to utilise and mobilise its local resources for its sustenance. Not only this, Karnalites live with more grave paradoxes—poverty amidst plenty, school versus work, change versus superstition, schooling without teachers, issue of sanitation and cooking environment, and so on. However, the objective of the book is clear: Karnali needs to change and it can.
Except a few grammatical glitches in the notes and some inconsistencies in patterning and designing of the photos, the book is an important historical document of Karnali's thoroughfare and urges every thoughtful reader to see life with both mind and eyes.
Karnali: People and Places
Author: Teeka Bhattarai and Samrat Katuwal
Publication: Mandala Book Point, Kathmandu
Price: Rs 2, 200