Book Review: Non-fiction/The Lives we have Lost by Manjushree Thapa, Penguin/2011, 266 pp; Rs350 (Paperback)
It’s completely puzzling to observe Nepal, till few years back, the only Hindu kingdom in the world still carrying the tracts of mysticism and secretive overplay within its public space. Since the wind of change directed for democracy in 1990, public information means got the much needed professionalisation but alas those were proved inadequate as the large chunk of population kept relying on the feudalistic attributes like “rumour”. But what the protests of 1990 importantly strengthened, the complete disillusion of masses from the continuing Panchayati system, a pseudo model of democracy. Then the monarch, King Birendra sensed the rising aspiration and affluence of the new educated intelligentsias and wisely absorbed the contemporary political demands in the mainframe of statecraft. This was indeed a commendable survival strategy for both the Monarchy and democratic movement.
Manjushree Thapa, writer and journalist of substance and international reach, represents that informed class with series of remarkable works on Nepal’s painful democratic transition and beyond. The author of very much unforgettable, Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy of Democracy, The Country is Yours, A Boy from Siklis: The life and Times of Chandra Gurung, Mushatang Bhot,The Tutor of History, Seasons of Flight, Tilled Earth and now with an anthology of her essays, “The lives we have lost” exudes the concern she possessed for her native Himalayan state. Most of the twenty-nine essays in this collection were already appeared in the different newspapers/magazines across the world but its compilation allows now a greater sense to read all them in sequence. Its naturally appears enabling in confronting and understanding the complex political dynamicism inside the Nepal, until the end of monarchy in 2008.
Manjushree deserves all admiration for maintaining a principled stand against the institution of monarchy, which until the royal massacre in April 2001, used to be seen as the permanent holy manifestation. Manjushree hails from a top military family and her father was a serving minister and close rank to the King Gyanendra, but she stood with the time that was leading a different fateful course. In such circumstances, her resistance to the unnatural royal successor, following the mysterious royal massacre is the solid proof of Nepal’s growing impulses for democracy. Indeed that’s a positive sign amidst the ongoing flux in political circle. She has beautifully presented the parallel developments in democratic movement since 1990 along with inconsistent responses from monarchy over the changing times. Her focus on insincerity of Gyanendra in controlling the situation post 2001 reveals the self destroying elements within monarchy, which certainly grew only after the takeover of throne by the most notorious and unworthy successor of Shah Dynasty!
Throughout the rich histories of South Asia, Nepal remained cornered except actively reciprocating in the two base areas-religion and ideologies. Rest, its diverse ethnic and caste communities are still unexplored and normally throw bewilderment for an enthusiast while being in search of perfect knowledge about the antiquities of these communities. This is partly because of non-interference from Western imperialists in the 19th and 20th centuries. By its effect, while the new genre of English educated middle class emerged in India and stepped ahead for self rule, Nepal remained a feudal country under the canopy of superficially commanded “quintessential monarchy”. Anyhow, Nepal did catch the modernisation in 1950’s through the effects of new educated class who were in close touch with the changes inside India and even participated in the India’s struggle for independence against the tyrannical British rule. Ofcourse Koirala’s were the prime mover of those new trends but millions others too joined the league soon, which paved the way for essential radicalization that finally lead to the limited democracy in terms of Panchayati system executed by the King Mahendra.
Subsequently, in the 1990’s, India ushered towards the liberalisation regime but not without the acute antagonism from the substantial ultra left forces. Infact, those were the gulfs of chronic socio-economic disparities, failed to found the new way around in democracy. Although on Indian scale, Nepal couldn’t integrate itself with the global economy but its middle class started to be denounced by the Maoists as “comprador capitalists” after the phenomenon rise of Maoists in mid 1990’s as ultra and later as democratic force in Nepal’s politics. That added a new twist in the hitherto bipolar power division in the nation...barring Maoists, there were feeble ideological contradictions among the major Nepali political parties. The top leadership of these parties was mostly constituted through the upper castes but the sudden claim of Maoists in the power circle, originated a different discourse for democracy that was stricter and poised to dethrone the most explicit class enemy-“the institution of Monarchy”. The sudden shift in national politics tolled high on the lives of ordinary citizens, most of them were died cold blooded and without being the part of activism.
The initial years of Maoists were full with the outrageous crimes. The rule of Gyanendra further supplemented the violence, and rest political parties spoiled their time in mutely staring the open failure of civic life for a decade. The twists and turns also compelled India to follow a much nuanced approach in Nepal’s internal matters…at the time of transition; a constructive and non-interfering role from India should be seen in proper light and without getting it stretched in awkward zone. By locating herself in centre, Manjushree provides the candid picture of those uncertain times where to form a stable stand against the Monarchy was not without inviting grave risks. But among those who succeeded in this way, author was one among them. Her consistent anti-Monarchy stand remained continue from both the Kathmandu and Delhi…as always, Delhi given the ample space of expression for the restoration of peace and normalcy in Nepal. Manjushree’s nostalgic recalling of her Delhi’s days and the supports she got from her journalists friends simply reminds the unaltered concern of Indian’s for their most confidant neighbour.
The last essay of book “In our House “, is written with great sense of attachment for legacies left by the Monarchy. Few pages found caliber in meticulously recalling the Nepal’s Monarchy in flashback. There is also sign of certain losses felt by a big population of Nepal and the question simply can’t be ruled out, whether King Birendra could met with the similar fate like of undeserving Gyanendra? Ofcourse situation would have different today, even the most overt critic of Monarchy, realizing now the merits of King Birendra. It’s essential however to not confuse his popularity with any other man of royal family. After a long row of power tussle, none the other than Maoist chief Pushpa Kumar Dahal “Prachanda” admitted the scope of symbolic Monarchy but the time is passed now as the real Monarchy ended with the massacre of 2001 and King Birendra. This book would be worthwhile for every enthusiast on Nepal and like before, they may find the well intentioned writings of Manjushree streamlining the memories and emotions to a right end. As Nepal is now on a steady but stable path of complete multi-party democracy, so looking back towards history will be vital…”The Lives we have Lost” is a step forward in this way…!
Atul Kumar Thakur
December 27, 2011, Tuesday, New Delhi