Travelling through time to arrive at todayThe Himalayan Arc: Journeys East of South-east brings together a collection of writings that explore modernity in the South Asian region. The onset of modernity in the region can be traced to Prithvi Narayan Shah, the founder of the first nation-state in South Asia, whose campaign to gobble “up tiny hill principalities and larger kingdoms in a military juggernaut” was partly successful, writes Amish Raj Mulmi in an essay featured in the book, because the Shah king had developed “a political ideal that allowed a people to pledge their allegiance to the modern abstraction of an amorphous, unchanging state.”
The Himalayan Arc: Journeys East of South-east brings together a collection of writings that explore modernity in the South Asian region. The onset of modernity in the region can be traced to Prithvi Narayan Shah, the founder of the first nation-state in South Asia, whose campaign to gobble “up tiny hill principalities and larger kingdoms in a military juggernaut” was partly successful, writes Amish Raj Mulmi in an essay featured in the book, because the Shah king had developed “a political ideal that allowed a people to pledge their allegiance to the modern abstraction of an amorphous, unchanging state.”
In this modern abstraction of nation state, many have found a sense of belonging and a political identity, which could be projected in a global arena, but for many in the region—“from the desert of Ladakh or the dry terraces of western Nepal” home is “where you and the hills meet.” Not surprisingly, the question of identity has emerged, Sujeev Shakya writes, only after “the proliferation of banking activities and formalisation of commerce required further proof of identity. Suddenly, the question of which nation and which state you belong to became important.”
Despite the creation of separate political identities, there is a notion of a Himalayan citizen who shares gastronomical as well as cultural ties with most people that are living in the shadows of the Himalayas. Singal, for instance, “a staple during festivals in the Kumaon region,” Pushpesh Pant discovers, “in Nepal goes by the name of Sel roti.”
Food and festivals are similar in the Himalayan region, and so are its problems, which find its origins in the region’s encounter with industrialisation. The rich cultural and traditional life “of the most revered region in the world” might only survive by “pratic[ing] religion by proxy.” The symptoms and threats of modernisation are blatantly obvious. “No piece of Kashmir spares an allusion to the gross commercialisation of Srinagar. Rampant construction is proving to be Missouri’s undoing. Ooty has its trash problems.” These testaments of modern horrors ring true for Kashmir as well as Kathmandu. Prajwol Parajuly’s eulogy for his hometown Sikkim might have been written for every single South Asian city: “Our roads are horrendous, but that’s okay. We’ll blame the rains and claim it’s practically impossible to repair them, never mind when the prime minister visited, stretches of roads that were pothole ridden for years were made to look perfect.”
And, there are political anxieties of modern times. In Myanmar, for instance, problems arise because socialism has taken the form of capitalism, “and yesterday’s generals are today’s businessmen,” Buddhist monks and a Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader aren’t dismissive of the violent expulsion of a Muslim minority of the country. While the world at large remains a bystander.
Today, fate has it such that, Tibet remains unrecognised as an independent country, but Tibetan religion is increasingly becoming associated with the cure for the lack of spirituality in western modes of living. So is it any surprise then that Dharamsala, the popular Tibetan refugee town in India, “parades a mountain cosmopolitan of boutique hotels, rooftop pizza parlours” where “Sikhs, Hindu, Jews, Christians and everyone in between” sit and discuss the teachings of the Dalai Lama?
So is it possible to maintain a value of a religion or culture, without having western ideals infiltrate the traditional value system? A question, it seems, that Bhutan wants to answer affirmatively. For which, the country has adopted a semi-isolationist policy. Climbing on high mountains have been banned to preserve the religious purity of the mountains. Tourism has been highly regulated, and the country has devised its own measurement of development: Gross National Happiness (GNP).
Isolating itself, expelling thousands of citizens may have contributed in preserving what the Bhutanese thought to be authentically theirs. The writers describing these lines of behaviour seem uncomfortable with the position Bhutan is taking, but they seem cautious enough to not argue.
One does wonder, amid all these, if there is hope of reconciliation between the old and the new or between traditional intuition and the latest system of logic? Sometimes there is, Sudhindra Sharma and Kanak Mani Dixit hint in an essay that has been collected in the book, “a Shaman is being asked by UNICEF to help popularise the use of oral rehydration salts by village mothers. When the Rato Machindranath chariot gets bogged down in monsoon mud, it is the motorised cranes that come to the rescue.” In these kind of convergence, one can hope that the region’s ancient wisdom has been bettered by the influence of new technology.
But what is reiterated in the Himalayan Arc over and over again is the unsettling violence, literal and mental, modernising forces have wrought upon the citizens of this place. Passing by from one ecological belt, anyone is bound to notice rebellious groups, unsatisfied citizenry, and people’s lives ruined by the hegemonising power of the economy.
Modernising, this book shows, is not as progressive as the word indicates the world to be. It is life altering but not life affirming. Questions loom large as a reader goes through the book: What is in store for the future of the Himalayan region? A mist of spirituality and religiosity weaves the Himalayas together. Food, folk tales, and the nostalgia over the traditional ways of life point towards a shared ancestral origin. Yet, presently, there is a tectonic divide among the people living in the area. Governments project nationalistic ideals, and state mechanisms are unperturbed when effacing identity movements.
The Himalayan Arc lives in the periphery of the dark centre of our present times. The book is directing our gaze towards the void created by modern life. The range of voices collected in this book help us articulate our own anxiety of living with material gain and spiritual degradation. For this articulation, that comes through essays, stories, poems and photographs, the book is a high value discovery.
For a book that dwells so much on modern times, however, Himalayan Arc does not encapsulate the
woes of becoming a refugee, nor does it dwell on the threat posed by abnormal climate change. A few more addition and some omissions could have made this cis-Himalayan journey complete.