The athletes representing Nepal reflect the country’s identityLeaders would do well to remember that the Nepali nation is defined by its diversity and tolerance of varied identities.
I was going to write about bald thinkers and whiskered statesmen today but the South Asian Games have been a little too exhilarating so far to devote my words to highfalutin personalities and issues. Instead, I write about sports and games, avenging myself on my departed parents who frequently admonished their truant son with the saying, ‘khelega kudega hoga kharab, padhega likhega hoga nawab’ (‘sports and games misfortune bring, books and writing make you king’). But when Nepali sportspersons make their country swell with pride, I, too, derive vicarious pleasure at their victories, even this far across the world. Yes, there was poverty, among many other things, that made my parents concerned about their son’s future. But without sports and games, I wouldn’t have been able to overcome the challenges that came my way.
Sports and games are not just personal events. Through them, one can get to the soul of a society, its temperament, its culture and politics. Even though the saying, ‘the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton’—attributed to the Duke of Wellington—may be apocryphal, cricket played on the grounds of English private schools first produced gentlemen from all kinds of classes.
And, once an English colony was established, the game of cricket, not bookish learning, gave colonials an opportunity to become honorary Englishmen. Maharaja Ranjit Singh earned respect for his cricket in colonial England but Salman Rushdie, for his lack of interest or capability in sports, was bullied in postcolonial England. As the Trinidadian thinker, CLR James theorises in his most famous work, Beyond a Boundary, cricket is not just a sport but a window to race, class, national culture, politics, colonial power imbalance and the levelling of the playing field. If sports represents something more than just a physical game of victory or loss, then how can we understand the South Asian Games?
Well, first, let’s savour Nepal’s glorious medal haul until now—as of this writing of 23 gold, 9 silver and 12 bronze; altogether 44 medals. Meanwhile, India, a country of a billion-plus people, only has 15 golds, with a total tally amounting to only 40 medals. What does it say about Nepal’s rising generation? In martial arts, and team sports, such as football and volleyball, both men and women have excelled in recent times. In South Asia, The Maldives has the highest per capita income and India has the highest GDP. But what is there in Nepal that has brought this much early success in the Games?
Most able-bodied young men and thousands of young women work unskilled jobs in South, East and Southeast Asia, the Middle East and wherever they find such jobs. Even many of the gold medal winners in these games have parents who supported their daughters (mind you, not just sons) by tending others’ gardens in Kathmandu or driving vehicles in the Middle East. Not many receive sponsorships from corporations or funding from the government. Even when they see no future in their sporting career, these young men and women make the best use of their youth by displaying tremendous courage, discipline and tenacity to bring medals for themselves and for their country.
This says something about the country and its culture. Despite all the ills of Nepali society brought about by poor management of the country by its corrupt bureaucracy and politics, and by the social ills born of Hindu orthodoxy and caste hierarchy, Nepali society is culturally still a free society, where parents have increasingly come to provide equal opportunity for their male and female children. And this is overwhelmingly the influence of Nepal’s indigenous peoples whose lessons others are increasingly emulating. When one studies the composition of these sporting teams and athletes, it shows the diversity in culture and ethnicity. It says something about the country’s potential, that is if politics goes in the right direction by embracing all identities in the state structure.
One only needs to look at people like Sanduk Ruit, Kulman Ghising, Upendra Mahato, Shesh Ghale and Binod Chaudhary—and these medal winners. For years, Nepalis thought that load-shedding or scant electricity supply was inevitable. Ghising’s tenure as managing director of Nepal Electricity Authority has brought an almost uninterrupted flow of electricity into people’s homes. Many thought the world was a sightless place. Ruit came and gave light to thousands. Nepalis thought dollar billionaires lived only in Europe and America, but they have now a billionaire in their midst. What Chaudhary does with his billions is a different matter, but Nepalis now see opportunities and possibilities.
And now look at India. Their medal count (which I’m sure will go up) in proportion to their population is suggestive of how demoralised Indians are—their global reputation has been hit hard since the rise of Hindutva (an ideology that abominates differences). To propagate violence in the name of religion is not the best way to build a society’s psychological health. Similarly, not respecting others and their culture or faith is not the best way to build a society’s confidence in itself. With majoritarian authoritarianism rising, India’s economy also is nose-diving. Hindutva power is not going to hold up to India’s traditionally recognised soft power of pluralism, Bollywood, Yoga and Gandhi that its intellectuals had until recently so vociferously bragged about.
So, there is a lesson for Nepal’s powers that be. They will surely watch these games for pleasure and national glory. But they would do well to analyse where this ‘nation’ came from—the open culture, gender parity, ethnic and linguistic inclusion, and a breakdown of caste hierarchy. The South Asian Games are important for the medals that Nepalis will bring, but they are even more important as a socially, politically, and culturally symbolic act.
What do you think?
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