RED FLAG OVER
Greeting the arriving visitor at
"Exercising people's democracy in the 21st century, free from exploitation, suppression and discrimination…advancing from the basic area of world revolution…in order to prevent counter-revolution, consolidated into one…highways…roads…complete electrification and self-sustained economy…herein lies my vision of a new Nepal."
Even as the
King Gyanendra subsequently took over the government thinking that he could do better than the elected politicians in alleviating the crippling poverty of the countryside and the escalating Maoist insurgency. He failed miserably, became a public hated figure in the country, and was forced to concede power to a coalition of politicians and the Maoists after a bloody People's Movement uprising. Today, most of rural
After almost 240 years, the
Nepal, kingdom on the roof of the world, has been renowned for being home to Mt Everest, the world's highest peak (as well as eight of the world's top ten highest) and the Sherpas, legendary for being expert mountaineers; birthplace of Lord Buddha; and home of the Gurkha warriors. Sum all that up, in short, a land of peace, a living
I flew to
We arrived in a
Meanwhile, despite the political tension, Thamel, the tourist ghetto in central
We hung around Thamel shopping for Tibetan thankas and miscellaneous trinkets, with forays to the magnificent architectural gems of the ancient Durbar Square of Kathmandu, with amazing exuberant sculptures of gods and wild animals, as well as the inspiring, out-of-this-world stupa of Swayambhunath with its all-encompassing, mysterious "Buddha's eyes".
We passed the
His uncle, Gyanendra, who was till then more notorious for shady business dealings, was somehow not present, and Paras somehow survived the mass shooting. Dipendra, despite being the suspect murderer, was declared king while in coma – he had allegedly shot himself on the left side of his head, although he was right-handed. He died 2 days later. No autopsies were conducted on any of the dead and all the dead were cremated within 24 hours.
Gyanendra was quickly crowned king, amidst curfew declared as mass protests broke out among ordinary Nepalis who suspected foul play. Angry young Nepalis with shaved heads marched through the streets, shouting, "We don't want a murderer as king!" A board of inquiry was conducted in which one member out of three resigned, and the findings of the remaining board was inconclusive and left the whole episode in mystery and a multitude of conspiracy theories. Within months, the building where it all happened was completely razed and flattened.
We flew to Lukla airport on Agni Airlines. We could have flown any of
I would have preferred a quickie drive to Namche Bazar, the largest town in the region, but was shocked to discover that the road from
Across the countryside and in most towns and villages, red flags now fly from the odd building and lamppost, and Maoist graffiti defaced many walls with drawings of the hammer and sickle. In Lukla as well as across the Everest region (and perhaps elsewhere in the country), Maoist booths had been set up to collect somewhat compulsory "donations" from passersby. This was supposedly illegal, in particular, after the Maoist entered the provisional coalition government following the cessation of king's power, but the booths remain. When asked why they continued to collect "donations", "local rules and regulations" was the reply.
Yes, the Everest region is now the territory of the
It all sounded very well and noble –but the reality is that
I also came across a boy wearing a uniform and Maoist badge playing with other children. He was probably not older than 12 years old but he could well be wearing the uniform for fun, although there have been allegations of both sides in the conflict recruiting child soldiers. The local papers reported on the abduction and killing of a journalist by Maoists which the Maoist Politbureau claimed to be an isolated incident by "renegade elements", and the confiscation of properties by the Maoist Young Communist League that have already begun in certain districts. Another paper reported that anarchy had emerged in the Terai region – one person killed by gangs every other day and nobody bothered to report to the police any more because the police no longer bothered when regime change was imminent. Things did not look good at all.
Depressing politics aside, the
We spent a night in the small hamlet of Phakding (pronounced "Focking" – sounded almost obscene) and then slaved in almost army forced-march fashion up the final cliff-like slopes to Namche Bazar (3480m) on my birthday. It was too hazy to see Mt Everest's 8850m peak, but the next morning was clear. We walked up the hilltop army base overlooking Namche Bazar – there it was – the white icy
After the photo was taken, I went to the Namche Monastery, which was closed but nevertheless stayed awhile to give thanks to what was an extraordinary year for me – my corporate endeavours and associated rewards, my own struggle against hypocrisy and the perverse seduction of corporate slavery, and the eventual decision for self-actualisation. Then, it was a tough back-track and return to the hot showers and general comforts of
What is a typical Nepalese face? Is the Nepalese Indo-Aryan (i.e., Indian-looking) or Mongoloid (Chinese- or East Asian in appearance)? Sit in a café and one encounters Nepalese who look Indian, Chinese or a mix of both.
The Nepali tongue, an Indo-Aryan language close to but different from Hindi, is the unifying tongue of all Nepalese of diverse ethnic groups. It was formed from the dialect of Gorkha, a poor small town in the hills that once played host to the Shahs, a dynasty of warriors from
Two opposing forces now confront the Nepali language. Outside Nepal, among the Nepalese diaspora, which included several million living in Sikkim and Darjeeling in northern India where are Indian citizens, and the million or so Nepalese of all ethnic origins working across the world as maids, construction workers and skilled and unskilled jobs of different kinds, the Nepali language is their sacred tongue from home. Among these people, as well as those living in the metropolis of
To Maoists, however, the Nepalese state is the prison of ethnic groups, and the Nepali language, with its links to the Shah kings, is the oppressing tool used to chain up all the disadvantaged ethnic groups living across the country. Thus, the Maoists, as well as many of their allied regional separatist groups, would like to promote local ethnic languages over the national language. It remains to be seen how this struggle would play out.
The royal massacre of 2001 was not
The young up-and-coming general and Chhetri nobleman (and possibly a lover of the queen regent to an insane king), Jung Bahadur, engineered the murder of a few hundred noblemen and high officials in the Kot courtyard adjoining the
The Shahs remained puppet kings until the Shahs' Restoration of 1951 that removed the Ranas hold on power. The Ranas continued to exercise disproportionate influence in Nepali business and public life. Every Shah king had married a Rana – including the dead King Bailendra, and the girl Crown Prince (and king-for-2-days-while-in-coma) Dipendra wanted to marry was a Rana too, albeit from a rival branch that his mother (also a Rana) had disapproved of.
We returned to
Now, with the countryside under Maoist control, no one, neither the political parties, the army nor the monarchy – all discredited institutions - could defy the Maoists anymore. Plainly, the Maoists have a blank cheque for anything they want since they control the guns. To me, the only plus point is the world would soon have to learn exotic new names such as the Autonomous People's Republics of Kirat, Newar, Tamuwan, Madhesh, Tharuwan, Temang, Magarat, Seti-Mahakali and Bheri-Karnali – all constituent states of a new Federal People's Republic of Nepal.
We had lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Thamel, one of the many new ones opened by Mainland Chinese. The owner, a handsome young man in his early thirties, came to
Their appearance in
The Nepal Army, I have come to understand, is as good as a ceremonial force. Staffed 51% by Chhetris and Brahuns, the Nepal Army, until recently known as the Royal Nepal Army, has not fought any war since the 19th century wars with the British. The legendary Gurkhas were recruited from the unprivileged ethnic groups of Gurung, Tamung, Limbu and Rai – all Mongoloid in appearance – and trained by the British Army and Singapore Police Force. And yes, the same ethnic groups, together with many others, form large parts of the Maoist guerrilla force too.
Most ironically, the Maoist top leadership, like those of most of
Imagine growing up here and playing football on the ancient city squares, where kings and knights with their armour rode through the streets. There seemed to be few such places anywhere else in the world, and those that exist tend to be in pathetically poor countries where development didn't occur and hence time stands still. Is this what one would like to grow up in? Unfortunately, development and mediaeval authenticity often comes as a package.
If Nepalese in general have remained poor, selected ethnic groups have benefitted from tourism development. The Sherpas have gained from being guides, hoteliers and restaurants not only in their mountainous home region popular among tourists, but are also engaged as mountain guides in faraway places like Ladakh and other parts of India, Pakistan, Bhutan and Tibet. They are active in tourism industry across
Despite years of developing the tourism industry, most of
We got onto a bus through winding roads to the lakeside city of
I sat by the peaceful shores of
On Saturday, I will head for