The only story in town

Manjushree Thapa

Politics often seems like the only story in town. No matter whether you're a businessperson or an artist, a student or a shopkeeper, you can't escape the constant buzz of 'what's happening,' meaning what's happening in politics: the latest about disarmament, Girija's health, SPA unity, Ian Martin's findings, Prachanda's watch and home furnishings, the Madhes, the Janajatis, the absence of a women's movement, the Dalits, the cantonments, the antics in Parliament, the disappeared truth and reconciliation, bandas and anti-banda initiatives, the exhumation of bodies, the constituent assembly elections – will they happen in June?

When I began this arts and literature column, more than a year ago, I received irate notes from friends, demanding to know what was I doing ignoring the only one story in town: politics.

But in fact the arts and literature offer more illumination into 'what's happening' than do the pronouncements of a thousand politicians. For these pronouncements are but stories they are weaving, stories whose truth they hope to convince others, and also themselves, about. Day by day, we are witnessing a fierce rhetorical struggle to imagine the country anew. The assumption is, he – or she – whose story drowns out all others will shape the New Nepal.

The problem is, these stories are emerging from parallel universes.

Take the Panchayat-era conservatives. For them, what's happening is nothing less than the falling of the sky: Only the monarchy can save patriarchal high-caste 'hilly' Hindu nationalism now. From the study of biogeography, we know that ancient strains of flora and fauna thrive best in isolation, due to an absence of competition. Similarly, ancient logics have thrived in isolation in Nepal. Panchayat-era conservatives sincerely believe there can be no Nepal outside the feudal imaginary. And in their hermetically sealed circles, they confirm their own worst fears. "Is the sky falling, prabhu?" "Yes, the sky is falling, prabhu."

For the excluded majority – the Janajatis, Dalits, women and Madhesis – though, what's happening is the opening up of the nation – or the possibility of its opening up, at last. They do not want the peace process to be the exclusive deign of the SPA leaders, who have persistently tried to preserve patriarchal high-caste 'hilly' Hindu nationalism, especially when useful to themselves.

From the standpoint of the excluded majority, then, the failure of an exclusivist peace process is good news, as long as it leads to a new, inclusive peace process: Peace Process II.

The SPA leaders, meanwhile, remain the most inscrutable people in the country. At the district and local levels, party leaders tend to be frank and forthright, pragmatic and competent. At the center, though, they turn enigmatic. They say one thing, and do another; so pathologically paralyzed are they by their conflicting class / caste / family / cultural / philosophical / institutional loyalties, one wishes for them only the opportunity for early retirement, and psychotherapy.

By contrast, it is quite clear that the Maoists' faith in their own historical inevitability remains unshaken. Last November, at the Sahajpur sub-cantonment in Kailali, a Maoist soldier told me, in a surreally personable chat, about his part in the war. He had been involved in the attack on the Achham barracks, and had gunshot wounds to the neck, chest and arms as testament. When he mentioned that he was originally from Kalikot, I brought up Kotbada: the army, chasing down the assailants of the Achham attack, had massacred innocent laborers there. For some reason I thought he would feel responsible, in part, for the massacre, or at least remorseful.

But he felt only indignation. He launched into a story – impossible to know if it is true, but he clearly believed it – of a soldier who deserted the army after the massacre, in protest, only to be killed by soldiers from his own barracks. "He became a legend," he said. "He proved that this is a criminal state. It makes me sick just to think of that slaughter. They killed those men like animals," he said. "There was blood all over the ground – they say the earth is still red there."

No mention, in all this, of the blood he so willingly spilled in Achham.  

Parallel universes, again.

So long as each group, above, tells/hears only its own story, there can be no common narrative for New Nepal. All we will have – all we have now – are many short stories, whereas what we need is akin to a novel: a vast, dialogical narrative that weaves every group's concerns together, into a shared universe.

The only way to write such a narrative is to include everyone in its drafting. The time is right, now, for everyone to sit down at a nice, big round table, and to talk, talk, talk – not past each other, but with each other – to come up with the story of us all.

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