Snide journalismOften, international write-ups on Nepal are full of misrepresentations, misinterpretations and misinformation
'Welcome to Whoopee Land’ is a recent article in the American magazine, Slate, about Nepalis’ fascination for the rides at the brand-new amusement park that has come up near Chobar in Kathmandu. It is a piece replete with bemusement that comes naturally to an outsider. Writer Stephen Groves cuts from the Nepali hordes at Whoopee Land to a far-less-boisterous group of foreigners listening solemnly to sublime messages being imparted by a resident lama at Kapan monastery. It does make for an interesting imagery in contrast, and obviously work to pique the interest of readers far away (and will hopefully bring in some karma-seeking tourists as well).
What riles me though is the manner in which Nepal is portrayed to the outside world, which one finds a bit too often in write-ups such as this. They are rife with misrepresentations, misinformation and misinterpretations. Often, the characterisations are devoid of any sense either. Consider this sentence: ‘Nepalis see the advantages of being part of the global market, yet hold foreigners with some degree of suspicion.’
A perfectly meaningless sentence, for one could substitute ‘Nepalis’ with almost any other nationality and it would still be true. Except that the writer apparently believes that this is unique to Nepal because: we were never colonised, we were forced to send our men to serve under the British flag, we were isolated until recently, hippies showed up in the 1960s, Mount Everest put us on the international media spotlight, and migrant remittances now contribute about 30 percent of the country’s GDP. The reader can judge if this provides any explanation for the national psyche.
The Gurkha connection
The writer also describes the oasis in the middle of Kathmandu—the Garden of Dreams: ‘The garden is a conglomeration of Western culture and Nepali tradition. A member of the ruling family of Nepal with a German first name, Kaiser Sumsher Rana, built it in 1920, and paid for it with wealth accumulated from British payments for troops and land, a legacy of the 1816 treaty.’
Good writing, but reflecting poor research. The man’s name was the very much Nepali, Keshar, as it clearly says on Nepali signboards all around the place; that he chose to spell it ‘Kaiser’ is a different matter. As for what paid for the garden, certainly the Ranas benefitted from their ties with the British. This included sending off Gurkhas to fight in World War I, in return for which, in 1920, a grateful Britain decided to give Nepal an annual sum of Rs1 million. There is broad consensus that the Rana ruler of the time pocketed it all, and as a son of the prime minister, Keshar Sumsher may have received some of that largesse.
Inadvertently though, the writer seems to equate Rana opulence with Nepalis in the British army, forgetting that the Rana rulers had at their disposal the entire country’s exchequer as well. What is lost in the narrative though is how the country suffered throughout the Anglo-Rana arrangement. As the British general, Francis Tuker, wrote of the country following WWI, Nepal ‘bared herself to the bone to send her men to Britain’s aid. In the fields were only the women, the children and the old men: her youth had flowed out along the mountain ways into depots in India and away over the wide seas’.
Nepali anthropologist Anup Pahari writes what followed: ‘[T]he major political pay-off of the War was the signing of the 1923 Treaty of Friendship with Great Britain in which the British, for the first time, recognised Nepal’s independent and sovereign status. Nepal’s sovereignty was, thus, no historical accident. Peasant-warriors, under Prithivi Narayan, gave their lives to unify Nepal in the late eighteenth century. Nepal managed to escape being drawn into the political map of British India once again because of the Gorkha soldiers. Since 1815 and till the early 1920s, enough hill peasants had laid down their lives in service of the British Empire that the rulers of Nepal could, with justification, demand from the British a fully independent status for their country.’ A much more complex history than just a rich Rana and his garden.
A bit more care, please
Take another example of misinformation. Outside magazine had a story a year after the 2015 earthquake, stating: ‘The excluded people, the Madhesis, lived in the lowland region that borders India. They make up perhaps half of Nepal’s population...’ Everyone knows that half of Nepal’s population lives in the Tarai but also that Madhesis do not make up the entire Tarai population. A more careful look at the facts and figures would not be too much to ask.
I remember the writer, Patrick Symmes, from 15 years ago when he did a long piece for the same magazine about his trip to Rolpa during the 2001 ceasefire. He has his moments such as this description of Crown Prince Dipendra and the palace massacre. ‘He reportedly drank some scotch, smoked some hashish, and then committed regicide, patricide, matricide, fratricide, sororicide, and finally suicide.’
Much of his article, however, comes across as a classic example of how infuriatingly snide a journalist can be about the country he is writing from. Together with three Nepali reporters, Symmes was on his way to attend one of the many open rallies the Maoists were holding all around the country. This is what he had to say about his travelling companions: ‘The correspondents are equipped for the mountains in slacks and loafers. They speak Inspector Clouseau English, and pander to us all day with a stream of preposterously false declarations about the terrain, the travel time, and the villages we pass. If you like dust, bumps, bad food, sweaty seatmates, misinformation, near misses with trucks, and Bollywood music, the road trip has its moments.’
That Nepali reporters with their imperfect English sound anything like Peter Sellers is a first for me, but clearly Symmes has a way with words even if it is to make fun of others. There are misrepresentations such as ‘High-caste Hindu Brahmans and Chetris of Indian descent...’ Obviously, he has no idea of the Khas civilisation out west.
There is more of it after he meets the Maoists: ‘Out here, spoons are still in the future, and metal of any kind is so rare that even plowshares are made of wood.’ Then Symmes describes a Maoist leader who ‘preens about in a gray Gore-Tex coat’ even in bright sunlight. At the end of their visit, it is raining and he concludes that the leader’s ‘Gore-Tex coat has soaked through completely. It’s as fake as he is.’
Once again, clever writing but demonstrates nothing more than that, since ‘Gore-Tex’ would have no meaning out there just as the various ‘imperialist’ brand names the Maoists sported and the irony of which foreign observers were quick to point out meant nothing. Sartorial elegance would have been the last thing on the Maoists’ mind and they went with whatever the local sahuji had to sell.
Thankfully, there are some readers who object to simplistic descriptions. I particularly liked this comment on the Slate article by one ‘darth saul’, who wrote: ‘Nepalese kids love a ride just as kids in America do. People there work, and they need mindless leisure just as everywhere else. Just because American hippies go there for Sangrila, spiritual enlightenment etc, don’t mean that Nepalese people exist for that reason. They have better things to do than provide exotic backdrop for Western tourists.’