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Confessions of a Himalistani

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Even though editing and publishing a relatively insignificant periodical—reputation of Himal in an esoteric circle was huge, but it had a small circulation—Kanak dreamt big.

Once upon a time, which now appears like such a long time ago, winds of optimism blew softly in the Kathmandu valley.

The Nepali Congress was firmly in government. The main opposition force CPN-UML under its firebrand Madan Bhandari had succeeded in planting the Hammer and Sickle flag irrevocably into the Nepali soil.

The economy was doing rather well with the sudden gust of openness. Multinationals had begun prospecting a new frontier with Enron showing interest in Arun III hydropower project. Private financial institutions were widening their net.

The skies were opening up with the national flag carrier taking repeated hits. Export of carpets was still doing quite well and there was hope that stitching garments for the Western market will lift a large number of Nepalis out of poverty.

Olfactory organs of society were yet to sense effervescence of the malodorous gas named LPG—liberalization, privatization and globalization. Privatization of basic services, such as education, health, and transportation was in full swing with the government willingly surrendering some of its regulatory authority to for-profit consultants. Cowering with fear, the highly politicized bureaucracy of the Panchayat-era had discovered new patrons among oligarchs that controlled the reins of government.

On the foreign policy front, Nepal in the early-1990s was firmly in the Western camp. The Soviet Union had collapsed.

The Chinese were still struggling with the fallout of Tiananmen Square. Afflicted with severe balance of payment, India was too enmeshed in its own economic crisis to pay much attention to plays being staged under the watchful eyes of Ambassador Julia Chang Bloch.

The US envoy of early-1990s identified talent, nurtured performers and courted achievers in all areas of national life with equal felicity. The grapevine had it that she had played some role in parachuting Ram Sharan Mahat straight from AfPak theatre of operation right into the National Planning Commission despite strong objections from two of the NC strongmen-trio—Ganeshman Singh and Krishna Prasad Bhattarai. Mahesh Acharya was similarly helicoptered into the Finance Ministry over strong objections. This was the time when the US government had developed direct access to the household of the Prime Minister through a Koirala son-in-law, Praveen Mani Dixit. Having played a matchmaker to the most eligible Thakuri leader of the ruling party, Ambassador Bloch had become the toast of the Shah-Rana town. By the mid-1990s, the structural reform projects of the IMF, the World Bank and the ADB had completely subjugated government agencies to the will of the free-market fundamentalists.

The media scene too was exciting. The staid weeklies of yore—democratic warhorses of Panchayat-era—had begun to serve juicy titbits about politicos. Since a confession is personal, some first-person attestations are inevitable. In my naivety, I had begun to believe that writing was also a form of activism. That was when my contacts with Kanak Mani Dixit, first made in early-1990s, were renewed.

Big dreams

Even though editing and publishing a relatively insignificant periodical—reputation of Himal in an esoteric circle was huge, but it had a small circulation—Kanak always dreamt big. Sometimes he would talk of erecting a huge statue of Marline Monroe in her iconic white dress on the top of the Phulchowki Peak or in the middle of Chandragiri Ranges to impress gullible western tourists thronging into Kathmandu in search of exotica.

Kanak’s plans of opening an airline flying just Dakotas to the mountainous STOLs appeared fanciful. At other times, his ideas sounded perfectly feasible: A Hindi edition of Himal to be published from Benares with his ancestral property somewhere on the banks of Ganges as its headquarters. A rip-off of the National Geographic exclusively devoted to the Himalayas somehow didn’t ring outlandish in late-1990s. Over endless supplies of teabag cup or milky coffee from the Sherpa Bakery downstairs, Kanak used to regale his acolytes with visions of turning Nepal into the powerhouse of ideas in South Asia. He bristled with boundless energy and his enthusiasm made it look as if everything was possible.

Those were the happening times inside the gated community of Shri Durbar Tole. The reincarnation of Nepali Himal as Khabarpatrika under its meticulous editor Rajendra Dahal has become a trendsetter among Nepali publications. Kanak had played pioneering role in the operation of the first community radio, the first film festival exclusively devoted to documentaries about mountains and he was hosting talk-shows over television channels among zillion other things that seemed to be insufficient to satiate his interests.

By the late-1990s, perhaps only four publications from Kathmandu were taken with some seriousness outside of Nepal.

For the merely curious, there was the news aggregating website Nepalnews as the first stop. The Spotlight weekly newsmagazine cooked up lowbrow reports and analyses. The Himal served nutritious food for the mind to the middle-brow crowd that had more than passing interest in the region. Then there was the journal Studies in Nepali History and Society (SINHAS) for the highbrow academics and intellectuals. This was when Kanak decided to convert his publication into a Southasian magazine.

In the early noughties, I had found the idea extremely stimulating. I believed then, as I do now, that nation-states were too big for small issues of the population and too small for big issues confronting humanity. On the other hand, planetary government was as likely to be anarchic as autonomous individuals exercising their untrammelled sovereignty. In between the two extremes, exercise of regionalism outside and federalism within were twin ideas whose time had come. Naivety once again, I must admit, but only innocence can allow such ideas to ferment. I became a columnist of the Himal Southasian, first with a pseudonym Saarcy—a pun on SAARC and a tribute to the shoemaker that makes long walks bearable—and then under my own name.

In over a decade of my association with Himal Southasian, I had full freedom in engaging with whatever issue I wished. I talked about poetry, politics, Ahmadiyas, Balochs, Rohangiyas, Lhotshampas, Tamils, Tibetans, Kashmiris, Jinnah, Gandhi, security and society or whatever else took my fancy as a presumptive Southasian. I wrote about the self-serving People Like Us (The PLUs) of the upper middleclass in South Asia that considered it was their divine right to lord over the Rest of Them (ROTs) with impurity.

I freely toyed with weird ideas such as renaming the Bay of Bengal as Bay of Himal because all rivers originating in the Himalayas emptied there, which in turn were fed by monsoon rains coming from the same seas. The possibility of Himalistan as a synonym for the Indian subcontinent was discussed, which we thought Sri Lankans will never accept.

However, the proposal of Himalistani—a highbred of Hindustani, which in itself is an amalgam of Khadi Boli, Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit and several other languages and dialects of the Indo-Gangetic civilization—as the lingua franca of South Asia instead of English was explored.

Hard realities

What we ignored was that nation-state was a new but extremely powerful construct with deeply-entrenched interest groups at the helms. It was easy for me to claim that I was a Southasian with a Nepali passport, but nobody with any stake in the political economy of a particular country could afford such a luxury. I don’t know whether it was under pressure of donors or of his own volition, my columns were discontinued with a terse notice from the copy-editor that while the piece already submitted will be posted on the website, no further contribution were expected in future. A decade of dreams crashed in a blink sometime at the end of the noughties.

My loyalty to Himal, however, remained intact. I religiously bought the bookzine when complementary copies stopped. I still feel that it’s necessary for the publication to survive to keep the idea of regionalism alive. I am also almost sure that nobody other than Kanak can run such an impossible enterprise with everything from the instruments of the nation-state and its intellectual entrepreneurs to geopolitics and market forces arrayed against it. Meanwhile, the old maverick has found fresher passions. Of late, Kanak has begun to espouse Oliological convictions that are, like Trumpetry in the USA or Modinamah of India, neither logical nor illogical but merely xenophobic and chauvinistic, with the fervor of a neo-convert.  It’s not a requiem, but I dread the day I may have to bury an impossible dream that I was once part.

By CK Lal