A tribute to the privileged fewCompetitive stupidity comes naturally to the decision makers of a country with the lowest IQ.
The neocon Leninists, the lapsed Maoists and the republican monarchists of the ruling coalition gave their ex-post facto seal of approval to the so-called People’s War by commemorating the day armed conflict began in February 1996 with a public holiday. Perhaps the deal of quid pro quo was sealed between the regressive forces of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party and the CPN-UML on the one hand and the Maoists on the other when they agreed to restore the official celebration of Prithvi Jayanti after 15 years.
It seems competitive stupidity comes naturally to the decision makers of a country with the lowest IQ in the world and the highest Happiness Index in South Asia. The monarchist, the Hindutva forces and sundry other conservatives have every right to celebrate the presiding deity of Gorkhalis over various other nationalities that form the present day Nepal. Similarly, revisionists of the Maoist variety should have full freedom to save face by marking an uprising that concluded the “war” in a stalemate, but lost the peace due to the rashness of their leaders.
The nihilism of the Jhapali Naxals that evolved into the UML after 1990 has been much worse. Some of them are closet monarchists, a few others don saffron to practise Hindutva politics, and the rest are politicos without principles. Once a force of social and political transformation, the Nepali Congress has been continually falling into the pit of conformism ever since its leadership failed to see that the 16-point conspiracy was hatched to reinforce the ethnonational hegemony of the dominant group.
In over a century of Ranarchy, every coup in the Gorkhali court that brought a fresh Rana face to power was greeted with the lighting of lamps in the capital city. The Shahs added to the tradition of mindless festivities by declaring public holidays to mark the anniversary of the restoration of monarchical supremacy, the birthday of a long-dead king and even the day of the royal-military coup!
With a history of continual and violent upheavals behind every change of the ruler—the Indra Jatra of 1768, the Bhandarkhal massacre of 1806, the Kot massacre of 1846 and the Narayanhiti massacre of 2001 to name just a few—most people have learnt to prioritise stability over progress. It needs the initiative of the nobility or aristocracy to generate the confidence that the desired changes will not lead to chaos.
Various geostrategic forces were at play, but the relatively peaceful settlement of 1951 can partly be attributed to the ascetic stewardship of BP Koirala and the reckless leadership of King Tribhuvan—the classic politics of a priest and a prince working in tandem—that led the “revolution” of 1951 towards a peaceful resolution.
For an extended family that has reigned and ruled over Nepal for over two centuries, the Shah-Rana clan has produced surprisingly few leaders in anything other than the military. Subarna Shamsher in politics, Jagadish Shamsher in literature, Prabhakar Shamsher in business and Rani Jagdamba in philanthropy have made notable contributions. But none of them have been path-breakers as such. Fewer names come to mind that made remarkable contributions to public life after the People’s Movement of 1990.
Probably the aristocracy of the country is so insecure that the sense of noblesse oblige—broadly defined as honourable, generous and responsible behaviour towards the less fortunate ones—does not come to them naturally even when it is in their own interest. That makes the lives of Himalaya Shamsher and Greta Rana somewhat noteworthy.
In traditional societies, even heavy gates open automatically for the highborn. Himalaya Shamsher (1928-2023) began his administrative career at the top of the bureaucratic hierarchy as finance secretary. His second job was to found and lead the central bank—Nepal Rastra Bank—and end the dual currency regime in the country with a fixed exchange rate for Indian rupees. The only other person with a comparable career trajectory is Bhekh Bahadur Thapa with an equally illustrious family history.
Unlike in politics, where ups and downs are par for the course, it becomes extremely difficult to climb down from one’s perch in any profession. When Himalaya was purged after the royal-military coup of 1960, he had little patience for a possible reappointment. He flew abroad in search of better opportunities and found a cosy refuge in the UN system.
After completing as illustrious a career in the international civil service as on home turf, he came back to the country when the adoption of Washington Consensus policies and Structural Adjustment Programme had opened up the economy for ambitious entrepreneurs. He chose the relatively safer sectors of banking and beer—it’s difficult to lose money when lending funds and vending alcohol—for his business ventures.
Once King Gyanendra staged the “creeping coup” with the dissolution of Parliament in May 2002, dismissal of the prime minister in October the same year and the direct takeover with the February First diktat in 2005, the community of donors and diplomats got really panicky. The civil servant turned banker and brewer reinvented himself as an activist of civil society, and became a fixture at consultations with stakeholders. I first met him in one of those forums.
Himalaya spoke little but was heard respectfully at every meeting. We often differed on most issues. Noble lineage, aristocratic upbringing, elite education and professional honours didn’t stop him from being brusque to the point of being rude with those that publicly disagreed with him. Perhaps he had developed the habit of being dismissive with dissenters during his years with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), reputedly the employer of choice for the decadent elite of the Third World, as one of the “Lords of Poverty” dispensing favours in peripheral countries.
When none of the favourite agendas—ceremonial monarchy, unitary state, assimilative society and secular culture—of European intermediaries appeared to find favour with the Interim Parliament in 2007, the focus of international peaceniks shifted from civil society to politicos. We met less often but learnt to respect each other more. Even when all his contributions are forgotten, Himalaya will still be remembered for his legible signature on currency notes, and the slightly overvalued but fixed exchange rate with the Indian rupee.
I came to know of Greta Rana (1943-2023) in the mid-1990s when I reviewed one of her passable novels. She wrote me a condescending letter advising me to “keep tilting at the windmills”. I remember the phrase because I had mistakenly taken the barb as a compliment! I took up her invite and met her in the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) office where she led the editorial team.
Greta may have wished to lure me into literary criticism in the English language for she kept getting me into holding conversations with visiting litterateurs hosted by the British Council, serving on the jury panel of poetry competitions, and prompting me to write more book reviews. I knew my limitations, but she gave up only when I began to ignore her requests.
She did so many things with words—poetry, novels, plays, translations and editing—rather competently. But she will probably survive in the memories of many as a possible mentor who remained on the lookout for budding writers.