Friday, April 11, 2014

Hindi film "Queen"

कंगना  रनावतको  अतिप्रशंसित हिन्दी  फिल्म "क्विन"  हेरियो । सानो बजेटमा बनेको साधारण कथा बोकेको यो फिल्म साँच्चै मोहक छ । बिहाकै दिन हुनेवाला श्रीमानले सम्बन्ध तोडेपछि आहत भएकी रानी (रनावत) ले एक्लै हनीमुन मनाउन पेरिस र आमर्स्टड्याम गएको र नारी स्वतन्त्रताको अनुभव बटुलेको कथा हो यो । भारतीय पुरातनवादी समाजमा उकुसमुकुस भएर मुर्झाएकी  नारीले स्वतन्त्र विचरण गर्न पाउँदा फुल्दै/फुक्दै गएको कुरालाई राम्ररी देखाइएको छ फिल्ममा । रनावतले सुरुमा लजालु, भयभीत केटी र पछि गएर आफ्नो कुरा दह्रो रूपमा राख्नसक्ने गरी भएको विकासलाई पत्याउने किसिमले देखाएकी छिन् । उनको अभिनय तारिफयोग्य नै छ । पेरिसमा एकल आमासँगको वार्ता, उन्मुक्त चुम्बनका नजारा अनि आमर्स्टड्याममा तीनजना विदेशी पुरुषसँग होस्टेलको एउटै कोठामा बस्नुपर्दा रानीको सबै धक/लाज छुट्दै जान्छन् र उनले आफ्नो वास्तविकता थाहा पाउँदै जान्छिन् । फिल्म अल्लि लामो भने लाग्छ, आधी घण्टा सजिलै सम्पादन गरेर काट्न सकिन्थ्यो । भारतीय राष्ट्रवाद झल्काउने प्रतियोगिता बेकार लाग्यो भने केही विदेशी पात्रहरू "अथेन्टिक" लागेनन् । तर बलिवुडले बनाउने बकवास (सुपरहिट) फिल्मका तुलनामा यो प्रयास स्तुत्य लाग्छ ।             

Expression against oppression (Mo Yan's "The Garlic Ballads")

This appeared in "Republica" daily on 11 April 2014.


The state is supposed to protect its citizens and provide for their basic needs. Citizens agree to be ruled so that they can enjoy free and easy life. But many a time the state encroaches upon the freedom of the individual. When this encroachment proves oppressive to a large number of people, they burst into violence. The state reacts to this violence with counter-violence.

The 2012 Nobel Laureate Mo Yan’s novel The Garlic Ballads narrates the story of a state-citizen tussle leading to tragic outcomes. Translated into English from Chinese by Howard Goldblatt, this novel tells the story of post-Maoist China which still has myriads of problems. It is a political novel that presents the bitter political reality of rustic China. The painful account of garlic farmers in Paradise County touches the heart of the reader to its core. 

The peasants of Paradise County live their arduous lives with occasional grunts, planting garlic in plenty and nothing else. The Chinese Communist government has ordained them to do so. But when there is surplus of garlic, the government refuses to buy it, to the horror of these peasants. When local officers treat them badly, they burst into anger and vandalize government property. All hell breaks loose. There are arrests and court proceedings. The peasants have to pay heavy prices for the transgression of law.

The story is told in a non-linear manner. Individual stories of Gao Yang, Gao Ma, Fourth Aunt Fang, Jinju and some other characters run alternatively in succeeding chapters, often crisscrossing the narrative. Each chapter begins with a ballad sung by the blind bard, Zhang Kou, who strums his erhu and incites people to rebel against the corrupt government via ballads. He functions as the chorus in the novel. Towards the end of the story, the authorities gag him, put an electric prod on his lips, and insult him. This is symbolic of dictatorship trying its best to suppress the people’s voice. The ballad in the beginning also marks the passing of time.

Class differences in the supposedly classless society of China are depicted in the novel. The growing numbers of red capitalists (with greed and corruption as their characteristics) look down on the true proletariats. They live a life of luxury while poor people starve. There is an inherent flaw in communist governance, the novel seems to suggest.

Mo Yan’s style in the novel has been called ‘hallucinatory realism’. Gao Yang’s fever-induced visions in the jail (the horrific conditions of prison are shown brilliantly) and Jinju’s vision that the fetus inside her womb is struggling to come out serve as examples of this hallucinatory realism. This technique seems to have been employed as a means of satirizing state oppression. In fact, the searing realistic picture painted by the author satirizes totalitarian government scathingly. No wonder the novel has been banned in China.

Since the novel is set in a village, certain peasant values have been incorporated in the novel. The reader finds organic harmony among villagers, their beliefs in supernaturalism (ghosts roam in Paradise County towards the end, and Jinju’s dead body is married off to the dead body of another guy), their strict adherence to customs, mores and traditions. Love marriage between Jinju and Gao Ma earns the ire of Jinju’s parents.

The novel realistically establishes the discourse of the body. Body is the site where different things, mostly negative, happen. The body is associated with disgust here. The characters fart, retch, belch, defecate, and urinate in public. The police brutally inflict torture on rebellious peasants and hurt their dignity. It seems the writer employs bodily disgust to point his fingers at the disgusting reality of the totalitarian government. Olfactory disgust in the form of smelly garlic is one of the novel’s motifs.

The incorporation of jokes and anecdotes in the narrative has enhanced its readability. The peasants live by the stories and it also works as balm for them when they face painful condition in jail. The mention of the Hindu god of death, Yama, makes it easy for Hindu readers to connect to the story.
Mo Yan has been compared to some great novelists of the West. I found Dostoevsky and Joseph Heller’s influence in this novel. The impassioned speech of an ex-soldier in the court and the whole court proceeding seems to reflect the famous court scene of Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov. The run to freedom by Gao Ma towards the end echoes Yossarian’s run in Heller’s Catch-22. The oppressive treatment of puny individuals by overbearing administration hints at Kafkaesque influence.

Because of its successful experiment in narrative technique and its emotive story, The Garlic Ballads deserves a must-read star. This is the best novel that has appeared in recent decades. Nepalis have to read this novel to know about the ugly face of Communist totalitarianism, as Mo Yan narrates the stories of his native People’s Republic of China.

Title    :     The Garlic Ballads
Author    :     Mo Yan
Genre    :     Fiction, in English
Publisher    :     Arcade Publishing,         Reprint Edition
Published    :     November 1, 2012
Pages    :     304, Paperback

Friday, March 28, 2014

Plight of the Poor

This appeared in "Republica" Daily on 26 March 2014.

Samjhana KC, 25, sells vegetables at an Old Baneshwar crossroad in Kathmandu. It has been five years since she started her business. Before that, she used to be a live-in servant in the house of a middle-class family in Bishalnagar. Hailing from a remote village in Dolakha district, she was brought to Kathmandu some 12 years back while she was very young. The employing family had promised her decent food, clothes and education. She worked for the family for five years and went to another family for three years. During these years, she saved some money and started her own business. She says that she doesn’t want her children to do any household works. 

The culture of keeping live-in servants was ubiquitous few years back in Nepal. Domestic helps used to be easily available to work in upper and middle class families in urban locations. Usually poor people like Samjhana from remote villages were hired as servants. Unskilled workers provided for cheap labor for a long time. Ranging from minors to the aged, these servants did household chores for minimum wages.

According to International Labor Organization’s recent data, domestic helps comprise around 12 percent of the working population in developing countries. The 2013 joint report of The International Domestic Workers Network (IDWN), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), and Human Rights Watch states that around 40 percent of domestic workers are employed in Asian countries. These workers have been abused and exploited by their employers, the report indicts.

Domestic workers have been found to be living in horrific conditions. Very rich families may provide separate servants’ quarters but middle class families keep servants under staircases or other cramped spaces. Decent food and cloth is rare. The workers have to labor for almost 18 hours a day. Even progressive families have an unwritten rule that servants should not sit on the same furniture or use the same crockery their employers use. 

Servants are vulnerable to violence and sexual abuse. A police officer’s family subjecting a minor worker to brutal torture and underfeeding made headlines few years back. Influential people raping their maids have also been reported. Rather than being subjected to such mistreatments, unskilled laborers prefer to open their own small business as seen in Samjhana’s case above. 

J. Maillard/ILO

Dr Rudra Gautam, associate professor at the Central Department of Economics of Tribhuvan University (TU), had conducted a survey on Nepali domestic workers in 2011. The survey found that there were over 160,000 domestic workers across Nepal. Most of these workers were minors and they had not been paid proper wages. 

United Nations agencies and rights organizations have been pressuring Nepal government to ratify Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. Nepal had voted for the Convention in the 100th session of International Labor Organization. It has, however, shown reluctance in ratifying the Convention and make necessary laws to prevent abuses of workers’ rights. One can’t be sure Nepal will do any good regarding domestic workers’ rights even after ratifying the Convention. Nepal has an excellent track record of ratifying international conventions and making domestic laws but failing to implement them. 

But the trend of becoming live-in domestic servants seems to be changing in the recent years. Families say it has become harder to find live-in staff. Demand is rising as more women go out to work and fewer live in joint families where in-laws act as nannies. Yet supply is falling. Servants, in turn, are more able than before to demand decent working conditions. Wages appear to be rising, causing grumbles among employers. Incidents of servants scampering off with employers’ goods never to reappear have also instilled fear in employers to hire live-in servants. Even live-out servants are hard to find these days.

With the rising demand of unskilled workers in the Gulf countries, many domestic workers have chosen to go abroad. This is another reason for the dearth of domestic workers here. Government of Nepal has made agreement with foreign countries to supply laborers. Mostly women are employed as domestic helps abroad. But their sorrows continue even there. Since this type of work belongs to informal sector, the government cannot even keep track of these domestic workers. Violent cases of sexual harassment and physical torture on Nepali women workers in some Gulf nations at the hand of employers have been reported. An estimated 2.5 million Nepali women work abroad legally and illegally, according to the Women’s Rehabilitation Centre. They have been living in risk.

With the development of new technologies that ease household chores, the need of servants seems to be on the wane. Modern dishwashers, washing machines and dusting equipments have appeared in the market. But despite the availability of such devices, very rich people still keep servants. In an interesting study of employers’ psychology entitled “The Theory of the Leisure Class”, Thorstein Veblen states that even after the appearances of labor-saving devices that would considerably reduce the need for household labor, people hired servants not to relieve themselves of tedious tasks, but to be provided with “conspicuous subservience”. A servant both satisfied the master’s “propensity for dominance” and presented a public “performance of leisure”. The feeling of dominance and submission in master-servant relationship gives pleasure to the employer.

As long as economic inequality remains in the world, practice of hiring servants for domestic chores will continue. The location may shift to the developed world but servants will always be there. 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Decline of humanities

In one of the stories of the Arabian Nights, an exiled prince, who later becomes a kalandar, is asked by his employer what his skills are. The prince replies that he is a poet and man of letters. “That skill is useless here. Take the ax and collect wood,” enjoins the employer. This anecdote reflects the current situation of humanities studies in Nepal and in other countries.

The studies of humanities suffer as students opt to join other streams. That is why many colleges in Nepal are phasing out humanities. Similar trend exists in universities worldwide. It seems the focus has shifted to business and vocational studies, which is understandable. 

Gone are the days when gaining education meant being able to introspect and ask existential questions. These days one has to be “saleable” in the market. Education that ensures jobs with lucrative benefits is held high. Deliberation on ontological and epistemological meanings is considered unproductive. One has to learn the tricks of the trade in this ever-growing capitalist market-driven society for survival.

Simon During, an Australian Research Professor, in an article in states that “in 2010, the UK government, in deregulating university fees, simply stopped funding undergraduate teaching in the arts, humanities, and social sciences while maintaining support for engineering, the sciences, technology, and math. Partly as a result, applications for the humanities fell by over 11 percent the following year.”

Similar dearth of students in humanities is seen in Nepali colleges. Deepak Khanal, principal of Bluebird College, Lalitpur, points out three reasons for students’ disinterest in humanities and fondness for management studies. First, management students get jobs quickly after finishing their studies. With the proliferation of financial institutions and banks, these students see a big job market. Second, humanities have been traditionally treated as a stream that students with poor grades join. Those with higher scores opt or are forced to join management or science. Third, there are plenty of optional subjects in humanities and students demand a certain subject, and not the other. The college cannot offer the subject or hire a subject teacher as per students’ demands and students join other streams where all subjects are compulsory. “We used to offer humanities in our college but the dwindling number of students forced us to phase it out,” Khanal says. 

More students enroll in Masters in English than in any other subjects: 1,412 completed their postgraduate in English from Tribhuvan University in 2012 alone. This is significantly higher than the numbers in other subjects in humanities. Sociology still attracts students but political science, history, culture, geography and many other subjects have very few takers. The lure of English exists among Nepali students, maybe because English is the international language and has the potential to fetch lucrative jobs. But the jobs available to English graduates are as teachers, journalists, librarians, translators and foreign education consultants, among others. None of these are attractive in terms of salaries. Jobs in international organizations based in Nepal are lucrative but they follow a tacit policy of “reverse discrimination” so that so-called upper-caste people rarely get these jobs. Other subjects in the humanities stream have even more limited opportunities for jobs.

It is a big disincentive for humanities that students don’t get lucrative jobs but they also lack basic employable skills. Even the English graduates’ writing is not up to the mark. This shortcoming hampers their eligibility in the limited job market. This is because English is taught in Nepali or other local languages in public schools from the very beginning. The instructors themselves are not adequately qualified to impart writing skills. The annual examination system gives no space to test the abilities of the students and to monitor their progress. Moreover, cheating in examinations is an established practice. Thus students with poor academic skills pass with flying colors.

It’s high time that the curriculum be improved so as to incorporate sellable skills rather than focusing on abstruse theories. 

However, there are incompetent students in other streams as well. There are worrying studies pointing to the incompetence of our doctors and engineers. Nepali medical graduates from Chinese universities repeatedly fail the competency exam conducted here. The local graduates fare better in this regard but there have been discouraging reports about massive corruption in medical colleges. Unqualified students easily become doctors by paying hefty fees these days. An empirical study carried out by BR Pahari concludes that “the existing level of graduating engineers from Nepal are not meeting the standard demanded by the market”. This is problematic indeed.

Unemployment rate in Nepal is estimated at around 46 percent. Most of the unemployed are University graduates. The gradual increase of service sector means that many graduates vie for the limited seats. The big pool of applicants in many job openings prove that population has skyrocketed while not enough jobs have been created. No wonder that both skilled and non-skilled youth choose to go abroad searching for jobs. 

The government should ensure favorable conditions for establishing industries (the job creators) and also encourage youths to pursue technical studies. Even the humanities can be improved given a little willpower. 

The author is with Republica’s op-ed bureau

Sunday, February 23, 2014

On Kishor Pahadi's "Mugdha Symphony"

किशोर पहाडी दाइको "मुग्ध सिम्फोनी" भित्रका कथाले साधारण मान्छेका जीवनभोगाइलाई सरल तरिकाले प्रस्तुत गरेका छन् । छोटा कलेवरका यी कथामा बालबालिकाका दु:खपीडा, पुरुष महिला सम्बन्ध, यौनका आयाम, देशको बेथिति, गरिबका कष्ट, मातापितासँग सन्तानको सम्बन्ध लगायतका विषय परेका छन् । पहाडीका पहिलेका कथा मैले पढेकाले तीसँग तुलना गर्दा मलाई यहाँ संग्रहित कथा फितला लागे । विषय र प्रस्तुतिमा नावीन्य भेटिनँ मैले । पुरानै पाराका कथा छन् । पहाडीको विशेषता भनेको पात्र र परिवेशप्रति पाठकमा करुणा र सहानुभूति जगाउन सक्नु हो । यी कथामा पनि त्यो विशेषता त पाइन्छन् तर ती भावको उत्थान केही कमजोर लाग्छन् । अझ पहाडीको हास्यचेत त गजबकै लाग्छ मलाई र यी कथाहरूमा त्यसको अभाव खट्क्यो । कथानकका तार्किक शृंखला मिलेका जस्ता लागेनन् (प्रसंग फेरिएका जानकारी पाइन्नन्) र घटनाहरू अत्यन्तै मसिनो धागोमा बाँधिएका लागे । सम्पादनको कमीले पनि यसो हुन पुगेको होला । सम्पादनकै कुरा गर्दा वाक्यहरू टुक्रिएका छन् कतिपय ठाउँमा जसको औचित्य साबित हुँदैन । "संज्ञा" भन्ने कथाले मेरो हृदय स्पर्श गर्‍यो भने अन्य कथाले सम्भावनामात्र देखाए । "संज्ञा" मा वृत्त र रेखाका दार्शनिक चर्चा मन परे । "कथा अनन्त" मा अनन्त किन यति धेरै क्रूर छ आफ्नो छोरोप्रति भन्ने कुरा खुल्दैन । "फेसबुक" मा जुही थापाको कथालाई अनुवाद मात्र गरिएको छ, आफ्नो व्याख्या छैन । "मुग्ध सिम्फोनी" भनेको के हो ? सिम्फोनी आफैँ मुग्ध छ कि श्रोता सिम्फोनीमा मुग्ध छ ? कि त्यो कथावाचक घर मुग्ध छ सिम्फोनीमा ? "समय सहचर" मा आएको "त्यस्तो अँध्यारो भएपनि टाङ्टाङ टुङ्टुङको आवाज चाहिँ प्रस्ट आइरहेको थियो" भन्ने आशयको वाक्य अचम्मको छ । अँध्यारोमा आवाज सुन्न त के व्यवधान होला र ?

On "Sins of Love"

Went through Barun Bajracharya's short story collection, "Sins of Love." A slim book spanning just 64 pages, the stories have the common theme of love. Barun's expanse of love is so wide that this world is not enough for its fruition. So, his characters seek love even after death. Death looms large in most of the stories. The impulsive love of teenagers and love of parents and children and misdeeds of hypocritical people are the subject matters of the stories. Commercial filminess in the sense of glorious coincidences to propel the plot forward seems to be Barun's weakness and he has to work on it. Barun has a certain flair in his language and style (complete with realistic dialogues and expletives) and seems to be seeking to develop his own style which he should. I am not so fond of these kinds of romantic stories so there is not a favorite one to pick. I hope Barun takes up other themes as well for fiction.

Devi Worship in Bengal

देवी शक्तिलाई आदर गर्ने परम्परा (दिनदिनै पूजा गर्नुपर्ने ५ देवतामा देवी पनि पर्नुहुन्छ) हुँदा हुँदै पनि वैदिक परम्परामा प्रमुख देवताका रूपमा पूजा गर्ने चलन व्यापक थिएन केही शताब्दी पहिलेसम्म । हुन त तन्त्रलाई सीमान्तीकृत गरिएकाले पनि देवी आराधनाको व्यापकता नभएको होला । डाँकु तथा समाजबाट बहिष्कार गरिएका मानिसले देवीलाई खुब मान्ने गर्दथे । श्रीमद्भागवतमा पनि जडभरतको प्रसंगमा डाँकुले जडभरतलाई देवीसमक्ष बलि दिन लाग्दा देवीले मूर्तिबाट प्रकट भएर डाकुको टाउको काटी भकुन्डो खेलेको उल्लेख छ । चम्बलका डाँकाले "जय भवानी" भन्दै आक्रमण गर्थे । बंगालमा देवी पूजाको व्यापकता बेलायती उपनिवेशको सुरुवातसँगै भएको भन्ने तर्क छ आसिस नन्दीको । अंग्रेजले हिन्दू धर्मको "निष्क्रियता र मूर्खता" मा जोड दिँदै प्रहार गर्न थालेपछि त्यसको प्रतिकारस्वरूप बगालको उच्चवर्गीय भद्रालोकले वैष्णव समर्पणवादलाई त्यागेर आक्रामकता बोक्ने शक्तिको आराधना गर्न थालेका हुन् र आश्विनको दुर्गा पूजाको महत्त्व बढ्न थालेको हो भन्छन् नन्दी । हाम्रो देशमा त शक्ति पूजाको लामै परम्परा विद्यमान छ किनकि काठमाडौं मण्डलको त ठूलो तान्त्रिक महत्त्व छ ।