To Write, You Have to Forget Kathmandu?- Pratyoush Onta | 2021-09-24
Jul 29, 2017
This conversation took place during the academic year 1990-1991. I was then a second year doctoral student in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) in Philadelphia, USA. In the summer of 1989, leaving behind confused years trying to become an economist, I decided to switch my focus of study to South Asian history. The first year after this switch, I took courses from various disciplines: sociology (classical social theory); anthropology (of Caste in South Asia) and history (of South Asia, of colonialism, Marxism, etc.). During the second year, in addition to the formal courses, I participated in an informal reading group on South Asia organised by graduate students with research interests in the South Asian region. The reading group would meet every few weeks to discuss a new book. On the occasion that I am recalling here, we had met to discuss the then recent book by the famous anthropologist Sherry Ortner, High Religion: A Cultural and Political History of Sherpa Buddhism (1989). As a work that was described by its author as “a contribution to a theory of practice,” it was a difficult book for me to understand theoretically, given that my readings in anthropological theory in general and practice theory in particular were insignificant then (it is not much better now). However, I enjoyed Ortner’s rendition of “a cultural and political history of Sherpa Buddhism” through what she described as “cultural schemas.”
Almost 27 years later, I don’t recall what my fellow graduate students said about the book in particular. However, I do recall that that session was both a fun and an educative one for me since I was then new to the idea of reading groups discussing one particular monograph. After we were done discussing the book, one professor (I shall not name him here)—an anthropologist who had published his first book in 1988 based on research he had done in a North Indian city and who (at that time) had just arrived from Europe to begin his teaching at UPenn—turned to me and asked: “How do you guys in South Asia get any work done?”
At first I was not sure what he meant. Then he added that he thought it was just about impossible to get any academic work accomplished in South Asia since there was no private space or time really for introspection. Thinking about the North Indian city where he had done his field research, he added (and I am paraphrasing him): people are all enmeshed in each other’s lives in such intricate ways that it must be just about impossible to extract oneself from the social networks and concentrate on the act of academic research and writing.
Until 1984 I had spent all my life in the Kathmandu Valley, first attending St Xavier’s School (Jawalakhel) and then immersing myself in all kinds of extracurricular activities under the banner of GAA (Godavari Alumni Association). Then I had gone to four years of college in the greater Boston area (Brandeis University) and then off to graduate school in Philadelphia. I had very little idea of what exactly my professor was talking about. The social networks that he thought were an impediment to academic work were the exact ones that sustained my Kathmandu childhood. There was one nakhatya or bhoj after another hosted by one of the 1,000 plus relatives I had from both my father’s and mother’s family sides. Those bhoj and the utpatyangs I did during them were the exact source of my happiness during those fun years (my right hand carries a scar as a reminder of the jumping competition held in my mamaghar where I jumped from my grandfather’s bed straight through a cupboard with a glass front). They were also the occasions during which I learned my first lessons on how to be a guffadi. Having not lived in Kathmandu or any other South Asian city as a full-time academic researcher until then, I thought what my professor was suggesting was strange, if not outright wrong.
In early 1992, after having passed my doctoral qualifying exams and had become, in the parlance of American academia, an ABD (all but dissertation), I returned to Nepal to research the cultural history of Nepali nationalism as focused on what I later called the “politics of bravery” (the title of my PhD dissertation). During the year 1992, I did not accomplish much in terms of research. Some work at the archives in Kathmandu and some oral historical work in central Nepal were all that I got done. However I did buy and read a lot of published writings in Nepali. While in Kathmandu, I took part in the Mangalbare discussions organised primarily by Bikas Pandey (this series is the forerunner to today’s Martin Chautari although at that time, I had no idea that what I was participating in then would consume so much of my life in later years). But getting to do research and writing was not easy. After seven and half years of intensive course work in two very demanding universities in the US, I guess I felt like I needed to relax a bit. But it was not only personal lethargy that slowed me down. There was more going on but I could not put my finger on it.
In October 1992, the now internationally famous author Manjushree Thapa published her first book, Mustang Bhot in Fragments. It was a travelogue of her re-discovery of Nepal after having spent her initial years of adulthood in North America. The second paragraph of her book clarified for me what it was that I was feeling. In talking about the difficulties of writing about Mustang in Kathmandu, she wrote: “To write about the things I saw, I have to shut myself off from the city around me and… rid my mind of Kathmandu’s frenzied, consuming pace: the daily change in the political scene, the inside stories, the gossip and whispers of discontent that never disrupt the scramble to survive. Forget about visiting relatives, buying fresh vegetables for dinner, looking for high-profile jobs, moving up in the world, preparing for weddings, funerals, commemorations: forget Kathmandu.” After I read this passage, I recalled that this particular nature of social life was exactly what my UPenn professor had in mind when he told me that it was very difficult to get any academic work in South Asia.
To be able to write anything of significance while living in Kathmandu, you have to engage with the city and its “frenzied, consuming pace.” But to do the actual act of writing, you need to shut yourself “off from the city” around you. And it is not so easy to shut off.
The ever-changing political drama is all too seductive and being literate in its dynamics seems like an essential qualification for anyone in the business of academia. The gossip in the fields that you care about is irresistible and overwhelming. Wait, do you want to hear the details of what the senior dhyake progressively mard writers were saying about the new woman kabi during their late evening jaand pani session (“Sorry hai it is not printable here”)? Did you hear what the new de facto boss in the major media house said to the magazine editor (“I will shut down the print edition if the income stream does not improve in the next three months. I don’t care about publishing for prestige.” Kada haina ta?)? Oh did you hear that your favourite publisher was last seen holding hands with one of his woman authors during the lit festival in Dharan (“Common man, don’t read too much into that brief tactile moment”)? So-and-so has been appointed as the new executive director of the research center (“Oh really? The centre will be great again because there will be no shortage of money now since his brother controls the country’s finances”). It goes on and on and you have not even listed half of all the fields that you care about!
Then there are your darling relatives. First the very understanding kaki who shows up from out of the blue because she had “some free time between her two meetings” (also known as saving petrol). To top it off, she adds, ‘Aja gharmai?’ You nod but you really want to tell her (borrowing words from fellow researcher Neeti Aryal Khanal): I am “at home to read,” to do some editing and some writing. Your cousin drops by only to remind you that you need to use your source-force to get her son admitted into this new KG class in a school run by folks who you have known for the last quarter century.
Talking further about relatives, there are the occasional weddings to go to (the son of the daughter of your mother’s second cousin got married in Boston and the reception is at a five-star hotel in Lazimpat). And feasts to attend following bratabandhs or ihis of adolescents (and when you read the invitation you suddenly recall attending the wedding function of their grandparents some four decades plus ago). And there are sad funerals to go to. Saddest are the ones of the people who once filled your childhood with joy.
Now it is the turn of your great friends: your closest calls to say “I am in your vicinity and I am coming over for tea” (he obviously loves your guffadi side). And there are the school reunions to attend to meet friends you have not seen for over 25 years (“Onta man, so you have been living in Kathmandu all these years? I moved to Osaka from Nairobi in 2014.” What remains unsaid: “you are a moron for choosing to live in Kathmandu”).
And being perceived in the Kathmandu circle as an “intellectual” means you are expected to attend discussions about things you know nothing about: road safety, the remittance economy, gender parity index in the Nepali bureaucracy, etc. But you also get invited to panels to talk about things you know a little bit about: how to reform higher education in the country (“no one seems to have a clue as how this can be done”), the politics of publishing in Nepal Studies (“I know a few things about this subject given that the journal I founded is 22-years-old”), and media (“Sorry I am an ex-media researcher but I have some opinions”). You’d better go to the book launch programme to which you have been invited; otherwise “they” will not come to your book launch. And then participate in other commemorations simply because you can’t say “no” to everyone.
And since this is 2017 and not 1992, there are other distractions from greater Kathmandu (which includes the whole world). The troll who habitually loves to bash Nepali NGOs as donorharuko das (clearly his fingers move faster than his mind) gives you gali on Twitter and the temptation to reply to him immediately is too big to resist (“NGOs are important for Nepal’s loktantra. Period” you tweet back only to be told by a friend—in the form of a direct message—“Don’t waste your time. Block fools”). And the request for a recommendation letter arrives in your inbox from an aspiring PhD student you have never met—the deadline is tomorrow, and she already says she is really thankful for your help. As a middle-age academic you have no choice but to oblige.
On and on it goes. Without these distractions, the stuff of your writings doesn’t come to you. Without immersing in the chaos of Kathmandu, there is no thick description in what you say. But without being able to shut yourself off from all these distractions, there is no writing to show. Kya phasad bhanya!
(This essay is dedicated, without her permission, to Manjushree Thapa. Extrovert yes, but she knows how to protect her writing time from all sorts of intrusions.)