Constraint and opportunityThe adoption of information technology has smashed the barriers that existed in broadcasting and dissemination.
Covid-19 has brought devastation to the world in so many ways. It has confined people to their homes, villages, countries and spaces, taking away the mobility humans were used to. Face-to-face interaction has become frightening, something that mechanisation of society had begun with the introduction of the automobile at the start of the 20th century but perfected beyond belief by the advent of cell phones. Yet, information technology, while further physically isolating each individual to themselves, paradoxically created at first a synchronous virtual community. But the pandemic has opened the floodgates of community crossing the limitations of national and financial boundaries. Through Facebook and YouTube live streaming, Zoom, Webex and Microsoft Teams Meeting, and several such apps, more and more communities across continents not only receive ideas without the costly infrastructure of a radio or television station but exchange them. And that’s the miracle of new technology in response to this pandemic.
Since March, when the pandemic travelled from Europe and China to the United States, I have used Zoom consistently, Webex occasionally and now Microsoft Teams every so often to hold classes and attend official meetings. I have appeared on three live-streaming sessions, two on serious social issues, all in Nepali, a language I refrained from writing in for many years, partly because my professional career was based on the English language and literature and partly because I resisted it thinking, mistakenly, that if the Nepali-speaking ruling elite of Nepal is so resistant to Nepal’s myriad of other languages, then why should non-Nepali speakers participate in public discourses in Nepali.
After having written in English regularly in these pages since 2009, I gradually realised that any public discourse in a non-English speaking country needs to have two faces in order to be effective—one for the Anglophone national elite and the international community and the other for the local, vernacular educated. So, I started writing in Nepali, along with my usual English. After appearing on an hour-long television programme in Kathmandu in 2017, I travelled through my district town to my village in eastern Nepal, a plain of the hinterland in my childhood. But in all three places—the capital city, the district town and in my village—kids, as well as adults, stopped to tell me that they saw me on television. For people in my village, it was a big deal. Over the years, they knew that I had somehow educated myself or my parents had educated me and I had made it. Many assumed I must have accumulated much wealth by staying away for so long in America, and when I visited the village intermittently they told me why I looked so thin despite living for many years in America because the well-off ought to look ‘khai lagdo’, or potbellied. I had no way of explaining what I did other than the fact that I taught. What I taught I had no way of explaining. And my English writing would prove awfully inadequate to tell my villagers what I studied all these years and what I taught.
This realisation made me shed my resistance to Nepali and I began to write in it. Obviously, there was a much larger readership in the official language of the country. But the effectiveness of the audio-visual medium surpassed even the vernacular writing. For example, I don’t think most of my villagers read any newspapers, print or online; they rely on television, radio and now social media for the news. Many are still illiterate or at best semi-literate. For such an audience, even my writing in Nepali would be alien.
Covid-19 has overcome even the constraints of the costly infrastructure of a television station. Facebook live sessions have proliferated. Every other day, I see organisations that might not have been able to publish a newspaper or think of founding a television or radio station putting together programmes for live streaming about one thing or another. There is the Public Discourse Foundation, hosted by an English faculty at the Central Department of English at the nation’s premier university. The host has a PhD in Subaltern Studies. I appeared there along with a young feminist poet to discuss patriarchy and citizenship in relation to the discriminatory citizenship bill in the country’s parliament. In response to a Nepali article I wrote on the post-Floyd protests, the Limbuwan Readers Club asked me to present on a book of my choice about the racial problems in America. I chose and spoke about James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963). Both these were organised by Kathmandu-based organisations with very limited means. Yet, their reach, because of the ease of live streaming, had become worldwide and countrywide at the same time. Before these, I had appeared on another ‘Facebook live’ about the Millennium Challenge Corporation, organised by a local Nepali gentleman from Chicago.
All this shows that dissemination of serious ideas has become easier, quicker and cheaper than ever before. And Covid-19 has created a compulsion to be both global and local (glocal, as some call it) at the same time. And I’m sure in the coming days and months, those marginalised groups with little or no access to national language or resources, such as Tharu, Rajbanshi, Maithili and others, could organise such live sessions to spread their ideas among the resource-deprived communities. While Covid-19 has put constraints on the world; it’s also opened the doors for unexpected opportunities for consciousness-raising and creating a just society.