Monday, May 18, 2015

Aid anomalies

This appeared on May 19, 2015 in Republica.

The unmanaged relief delivery in the aftermath of the Great Earthquake has exposed faults of both national and international aid organizations.These organizations have largely focused on short-term measures and victims' real needs have been ignored.

Recently I visited Chhap village in Rasuwa district that was severely affected by the quake. None of the houses was fit to live in. The villagers are staying in community hall of a local cooperative, which has several cracks. They rush out in panic after each tremor. Several governmental and non-governmental organizations have visited the village with sacks of rice. Not all of it is healthy to eat. For example, the rice provided by the Nepal Food Corporation and distributed through the Village Development Committee office had crossed expiry date. NFC is notorious for hoarding rice sacks in its go-downs and failing to deliver it to the needy on time. Similar was the case with World Food Program's rice. Even the tarpaulins were substandard. The black tarps were brittle. Since villagers have been cooking food under those tarps, they melt by the heat. During rainfall, these tarps are useless.
Despite living in such adverse conditions, the villagers have kept their spirits high. Their lands are intact and they are ready to toil in the fields. When asked of their demands, they told us that they needed zinc sheets so that they could prepare temporary shelters, and then they would build their own homes. They asked relief organizations and private volunteers to provide them zinc sheet or sturdy tents, like the ones used by the International Red Cross as they don't want to live under tarp forever, but those organizations would not listen.Voluntary donors that arrive at the village bring with them cheap noodles, biscuits and beaten rice. Volunteers who love showing off in social media have visited affected villages with cheap food and have rubbed on victims' wounds.

This village is not far from highway;that is why relief workers reached there in big hordes. But inhabitants of remote villages in this and other districts haven't yet seen any visitors with relief materials. The foreign donors have been reluctant to coordinate with local disaster management authorities and are distributing relief on their own. This has led to duplication of relief at settlements near highway while villagers in remote parts have got nothing. The National Human Rights Commission had raised concern about this.There are cases of desperate locals wielding khukuris and looting relief material. Donors prefer to go to accessible villages about which their local contact informs them.

The reluctance of foreign organizations to work with government authorities has raised concerns about their motive.It has been found that most money allocated to relief efforts goes back to donor countries in the form of exorbitant consultant fees and other overhead costs. Not all of the extraordinary amounts pledged translate into relief.Dubious practice of putting Bibles among relief materials and the surge in the number of roaming proselytizers have strengthened people's fear that these donors might be culturally invading their territory. The rapid opening of job vacancies for disaster management in international volunteer organizations based in Nepal makes one question whether they are trying to "projectize" to prolong their stay here.

Their focus on distributing sanitary pads and wash kits rather than seeds and fertilizers along with homemaking materials feeds the commoners' fear.

Fears of Nepal meeting Haiti's fate are not unfounded. Due to flooding of aid organizations in the aftermath of Haiti earthquake in 2010, the locals became lazy. Rather than working in the fields, they looked to aid materials to meet their needs, which they got in plenty. Many of them never bothered to build their own houses. The result is that around 250,000 people are still living in temporary camps. In several quake-affected districts in Nepal, it has been found that people rush to the streets abandoning work in the fields whenever they see vehicles carrying relief materials.

But at the same time many other victims have stopped looking for relief and started to work on their own.Even when relief materials are not enough for the displaced, they distribute these materials among themselves equitably. Even the children have learnt from elders to judiciously distribute things and keep them safe.Many victims have realized that it would be foolish to look up to government to take care of them forever. A large number of people have lost everything and the poor state cannot heed everyone. That is why survivors have started taking relief materials as well as making full use of undamaged local crops and woods.

To keep the spirit of the commoners alive, the need of a strong government is sorely felt. Despite the experts' warning that the "Big One" could strike the country any time, our government didn't prepare. This lack of preparation hampered timely delivery of relief. Since local elections have not been held for the last 15 years, there were no local elected representatives who would have known every house in the ward or the village and coordinated with relevant stakeholders to deliver relief to the needy.

However, all is not lost. There is plenty to learn from this disaster. The government can coordinate with all stakeholders to immediately deliver necessary materials like tarpaulins, tents, edible foods, clean water, and medicines to the needy. This will restore victims' faith in the government and help stop foreign elements from meddling.

Foreign donors didn't want to donate their money in the Prime Minister Disaster Relief Fund citing that it would be misused;and slow delivery, given Nepal's ponderous bureaucracy and red tapism. To alleviate such fears, the government should make all transactions transparent and cut red tape.Unnecessary expenditure in the form of overhead costs must be minimized.

Almost 30 percent of annual development budget remains unspent every year. All that unspent money can be used for reconstruction. PM Sushil Koirala has requested all countries to open their tills for rehabilitation and reconstruction. He should also ensure that this money would be used judiciously. The survivors need encouragement to build their homes and till their own lands. They don't want to live under tents and look for relief, forever.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Enchanting ebooks

This appeared in Republica on April 4, 2015.

Enchanting e-books
For a book lover like me the debate on choosing paper book or e-book is a non-issue. Slowly the world is going digital and books are no exception. When people are embracing latest digital gadgets with glee, why should we hesitate in choosing e-books?

Champions for the paper book generally resort to olfactory images. 'I love the waft of smell fresh off the press,' claims a typical paper book reader. But a book is to be read not to be smelled. I have not come across any research claiming that the smell of the page helps better comprehension. (I confess that I too have a keen nose but that doesn't make me a good reader.) Some other readers talk about the tactile pleasure of flipping the pages. But modern tablets with touch screen simulate that experience with comfort.

E-books are easy to carry around. An e-book reader with an affordable price comes with at least 2 GB onboard data storage. That means you can store around 1,000 books in the device. Imagine lugging 1,000 paper books around! Let me tell you of my personal experience without sounding boastful. My family owns more than 5,000 paper books as my father has this obsession with hoarding books (he reads them too). Before the e-book explosion I too used to buy paper books in copious amounts. But safekeeping of those books was a major problem. I bought big bookshelves that occupied two rooms. Dust, termites, and shameless friends who don't bother to return books after reading them used to cause me anxiety. With e-books all these troubles have disappeared.

Let's see what people's objections toward e-books are. E-books are accused to be a strain on the eyes. That is not entirely true. I used to have a Kobo e-book reader. It had black and white graphic design and reading books in it was comfortable to the eyes. Yes, the light-emitting modern tablets are problematic. Gazing at them for a long time makes your eyes itch. After my Kobo reader broke down beyond repair, I bought an HCL ME Tablet that supported PDF files only. PDF files are real nuisances as they are largely incompatible with reading devices and I was forced to squint like a diamond cutter to understand the words. It gave me bouts of headache.

But one of my well-wishers had me install Moon Reader into the tablet. It supports Epub files, fully compatible with almost all devices, and has this great feature of warning you to take a break from reading after an hour. You'll take the advice if you love your eyes. Let me warn you, reading paper books for long stretches too can tax the eyes. With Moon Reader, interestingly, you can turn on the audio function if you don't feel like straining your eyes. Even if the robotic voice can be irritating, your eyes will get a break without any interruption to your reading pleasure. Speaking of myself, I wake up some nights and fail to get back to sleep. To while away the time, I read e-books in my tablet with auto-light and this doesn't disturb my wife and children. I have to switch on the room light if I have to read print books, or go to another room.

Some people have raised the issue of cognitive disadvantage of reading e-books. They argue that romantic and thriller genre of fictions, where you don't have to exert your thinking, is better suited to e-format. (E-books contributed to the huge success of Fifty Shades of Grey.) But comprehension of hardcore non-fiction and philosophy is difficult in e-books. I believe this is a matter of perception. A good reader meticulously makes notes in the margins and highlights relevant passages of the book for reference. Generally, when you come across a difficult word you google it. Now, e-books have built-in hyperlink facilities which direct you to the information you require. This may distract an inattentive reader but those who search for references to broaden their knowledge certainly benefit.

Moreover, one research on e-book reading has found that reading on screen is slower than reading on paper. If it is true, it gives the reader more time to think what s/he has read, rather than rush through the book with little comprehension. Quoting Sara Margolin of State University of New York, Julian Baggini in his Financial Times article writes, "slowing down may actually allow us to spend more time consolidating what we have read into a more cohesive mental representation of the text"; furthermore, "not skipping around during reading" could be "a good thing in that it forces the reader to read the text in order, and preserves the organization the author intended". Can one read James Joyce's opaque novels in a rush? I believe e-books would be good medium to read these novels that call for much deliberation.

The biggest advantage of e-books (in our context) is that you can read books for free. The question of morality might be raised here. "You're causing harm to the author and the publishing industry by downloading a book for free," one may object. But what harm is there in downloading the stuff that is easily available? The publishers can make a formal complaint anytime and ask the authorities concerned to take down materials if they infringe copyright. But preventing the upload of books for free is easier said than done.

All this doesn't mean that I'm a total convert to e-books. I read paper books from time to time. But I'm not emotional about e-book replacing paper books like some of my fellow bibliophiles. I find the technology can very well satisfy my hunger for books.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

जनकराज सापकोटाको "जीवन कतिपय" Janak Raj Sapkota's "Jiwan Katipaya"

जनकराज   सापकोटाको  निबन्ध संग्रह "जीवन कतिपय" ले निराश गर्यो । तराईका सीमान्तीकृतहरूका  बारेमा लेखिएका दुइटा निबन्ध बाहेक अरू  सबै बोक्रे लागे ("ललनको बिहे" र "सस्तो मृत्यु : महंगो दु:ख" मा पाठकको संवेदनालाई उद्वेलित गराउन सफल छन् उनी)। अनावश्यक गन्थन यी निबन्धका विशेषता हुन् । विषयमा प्रवेश गर्नुपूर्व लम्बेतान मनोवाद गर्नु र केही शब्दावली दोहोर्याइरहनुले निबन्धको सौन्दर्य क्षय  भएको भान हुन्छ ।  भुइँमान्छेको   कुरा उठाएकोमा  लेखक दंग देखिन्छन् सायद । तराईका दलित प्रति त उनी सहानुभूति देखाउँछन् तर दोस्रो भागको "सहर र जीवन" मा भुइँमान्छेका क्रियाकलापमाथि उनले गरेका  टिप्पणीमा  उनी  "जजमेण्टल" लाग्छन् । सहरप्रतिको उनको  रोष झर्कोलाग्दो छ,  अँध्यारो मात्र देख्ने दृष्टि साँघुरो  छ । अस्तित्ववादी  चिन्तनका केही सूत्रलाई उनी सहरी जीवनमा लागू गर्छन, जस्तै चक्रपथको सिसिफियन तुल्यता, परिवार नियोजनका साधनको  अभावमा प्राप्त व्यर्थ जिन्दगी जस्ता बिम्ब प्राय: दोहोरिन्छन् । देखिएका घटनाको थोरै गहिराइमा जाने प्रयत्न गर्दैनन् उनी र सतही टिप्पणीमा रमाउँछन् । आजकलका लेखकमा भाषा  सबै थोक,  विचार गौण हो भन्ने लाग्छ सायद !          

Friday, January 16, 2015

Political Rage: A review of Bhoj Raj Neupane's poetry collection "Chhuteko Jutta" छुटेको जुत्ता

This appeared in Republica on January 16, 2014.

Poetry is the expression of sensibilities. Emotions and ideas knock any sensible person but only a poet can express them in words. A poet´s success is measured by the ability ofhis/her poems to touch the readers´ sensibilities. By this yardstick, young poet Bhoj Raj Neupane can be called a successful poet.

Neupane´s poetry collection "Chhuteko Jutta" (Missed shoe) contains 37 simple poems with the general theme of the pains of common Nepalis. Ten years of insurgency, absurd politics, inhuman rituals, gender discrimination, and many other social evils have subjected the commoner to grief. The poems give voice to these commoners. In the poem "Kehi Sana Sapanaharu" (Some small dreams), a conflict victim addresses the poet and recounts the death of her daughter at the hands of militants. Other victims too pour out their pains to the poet and urge all not to engage in war again. Even if the poet calls it a dream vision, this unfolding of events used to be an everyday reality of the conflict-hit people whose cry for justice is still unheard.

That Neupane is a politically aware poet is clear by his choice of making politics the major subject of his poems. It is unfortunate that Nepali politics deserves only the scorn from all quarters because of its waywardness. The Maoists fought a bitter war against the state in the name of bringing revolutionary changes in the country. But once they got the power, they forgot all their ideals and became part of the same system they were supposed to change in the first place. Having made use of commoners to wage the war, the leaders conveniently forgot them after joining mainstream politics. Many combatants were left wounded and disabled.

"Chhuteko Jutta", the most powerful poem in the collection, paints the picture of a former Maoist combatant who lost his legs in combat and is now left behind to fend for himself in the streets. By showing the death of mobility of a commoner, the poem sharply satirizes the apathy of the leaders for their activists.

It is due to the directionless politics of Nepal that many youths choose to become migrant workers.

In "Bhagda Bhagdai: Ek Chintan" (Fleeing: A Thought), the speaker declares that he has become an anti-national person by trying to go abroad as nothing good can happen in this country. The speaker tried to stand on his own feet but the cartel and syndicate-dominated system brutally murdered his dream. The only alternative is going abroad. All the ideals of nationalism fail to retain a youth when the country is in such bleak conditions.

Similar is the emotion expressed in the poem "Maatoma" (Under the Soil) in which the speaker tells an interlocutor to put him under the soil as he cannot make proper use of his brain and brawn.

Not only are the current situations disappointing in Nepal but even the future seems murky as leaders are mulling over splitting the country along ethnic lines and thus preparing for a long strife.

In "Naakko Katha" (The Story of Noses), noses of different dimensions, signifying different ethnic groups, fight against each other and a situation arrives when all the noses are cut off. Later, in a twisted political decision, the entire noseless people are given capital punishment. Through this dystopian narrative, the poet warns the leaders of the perils of federalism along ethnic lines.

Whether it is the extension of his rage against the absurd politics of Nepal or his oversensitivity, Neupane appears misanthropic in some of his poems.

In "Dhunga" (Stone), the poet compares the heartless stone with duplicitous and conniving people and puts the stone on a higher pedestal.

Similarly in "Charaaharuko Bibek" (Birds´ Conscience), the poet praises birds for their freedom and borderless movement while humans are divided by the borders of castes, religions and nationalities.

The evil aspects of humans have been recorded in most of the poems which may lead the reader to think that the poet is an incorrigible pessimist.

Simplicity is the hallmark of Neupane´s poetry, but at times his poems appear simplistic. Many reactive poems—those written after reading a news piece—like "Lati Bishwakarma" (Mute Bishwakarma), "Aasuko Nadee" (River of Tears), "Kapilvastuki Amrita" (Amrita from Kapilvastu) appear to be mere structuring of words in verse, lacking depth. It appears as if Neupane´s journalistic past has superimposed his poetic sensibility. What he couldn´t react in the news dispatches gets expressed in the poems.

The above analysis has made it clear that Neupane writes realistic poems. The reflection of society´s ills is what his poems are all about.

A question can be raised here: Is the poet supposed to function like a mirror and merely show the society as it is or is s/he supposed to be a lamp and spread light in the darkness? Rather than complaining about society´s ills all the time, a poet can spread hope and become agent of change.

Contemporary Nepali poetry seems to have overlooked this fact and thus political poems have appeared in abundance these days. I hope Neupane doesn´t limit himself to writing these kinds of poems. It would be a waste of his poetic sensibility.

Tug of War : Charlie Hebdo killngs

This appeared in Republica on January 13, 2015.

The recent attack on Charlie Hebdo and killing of 12 journalists has provoked intense debate on the limits of freedom of expression. While a civilized society can never condone the taking of human lives, incident at Charlie Hebdo is not as simple as it appears.

That Charlie Hebdo lampooned one and all without discrimination is partially true. In recent years, the weekly was disproportionately irreverent against Muslims who comprise just seven percent of the French population. It misused the name of free expression to toe the French far-right party National Front’s line in ridiculing the minorities. It had been giving voice to the deep-seated fear of the majority against the surging number of immigrants. Some cartoons showed pregnant Muslim women crying for their welfare rights, the underlying meaning being that they drain French resources by producing many babies. This bordered on hate speech against the minority but French Muslims kept their silence.

Jacob Canfield in the Hooded Utilitarian minces no words in exposing Charlie Hebdo’s reality. He says, “Its cartoons often represent a certain virulently racist brand of French xenophobia. While they generously claim to ‘attack everyone equally’, the cartoons they publish are intentionally ‘anti-Islam’ and frequently sexist and homophobic.” The cartoons were in bad taste and lacked satirical values. They were rather sketched to see how far the limits of the freedom of expression could be stretched.

Then there was the deliberate provocation of Muslim fury by producing crude cartoons on Prophet Mohammad. Despite knowing well that the Islamic faith prohibits the depiction of any images of the God and His prophet, the provocateurs at Charlie Hebdo sketched Mohammad’s naked body and exposure of his genitals. The faithful were naturally angered. This militant approach against religion was bound to invite militant response. The right to offend will inevitably entail the right to be offended.

But killing even a single person cannot be justified by any means. The Holy Koran condemns the loss of any innocent life. In fact, the attack suspects at Charlie Hebdo office spared female reporter Sigolene Vinson caught in the crossfire saying that their religion forbade them to take a woman’s life.

It is unfortunate that militant Islam’s barbarism has grown by the day with new and newer outfits trying to outdo the other by orchestrating gruesome murders in the name of the faith. Because the violence catches the headlines, many people have come to believe that Islam itself is an inherently violent religion. The imposition of medieval sharia laws and appalling treatment of women and people from other faiths in many Islamic countries too have fanned flames to the accusation. The peace-loving believers have not got as much prominence as necessary.
Some people have tried to portray this unfortunate episode as the clash between Islam and the West. This is too simplistic a binary to indulge in. The lunatic murderers in no way represent the whole Islamic faith, despite their claims to the contrary, and I don’t think Charlie Hebdo represents the whole West, which seeks to respect all faiths. If the latest statistics by the Pew Research is to be believed, French hold respect for Muslims more than other Europeans. It means Charlie Hebdo does not even represent the whole French. After all, secular values are all-embracing rather than alienating. This is a clash between two fanatics.

What then to make of overwhelming response to Charlie Hebdo massacre and the twitter-fare of Je Suis Charlie? I believe it’s the show of solidarity against the mode of response (taking lives) to affront in a civilized society. But this solidarity march should be viewed in a dispassionate manner. Why do the same bleeding hearts not gather when the powerful western countries kill thousands of innocent people in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan? No large-scale demonstration in support of the innocents killed in drone attacks has been observed.

Now that the terrorists have struck at the very heart of the west’s cultural center, all this show of solidarity has appeared. But has anyone thought about what French Muslims are going through? Having been ridiculed as economy-sapping leeches, their cultural dress being banned in the name of secularism and their deep-held faith being mercilessly lampooned, even a moderate Muslim feels cornered. But the majority French Muslims remained calm. The charge against Muslims that they all are squeamish holds no water.

The British and American responses to Charlie Hebdo incident expose their hypocrisy. These two countries don’t allow any offense against religion, de jure or de facto but rush to offer support to the irreverent newspaper in France. In 2006, the UK government promulgated Racial and Religious Hatred Act and introduced “incitement to religious hatred” as a penal offense, which not just incorporates the majority Christianity but all faiths. Many have been jailed for the offense. The US campuses where supposedly the discussion of all issues is held without discrimination don’t entertain radical figures who have challenged religious clerics. As The New York Times’s columnist David Brooks argues in his latest article, “Americans may laud Charlie Hebdo for being brave enough to publish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, but, if Ayaan Hirsi Ali is invited to campus, there are often calls to deny her a podium.”

Many newspapers around the world showed their respect to Charlie Hebdo cartoonists by reproducing less provocative cartoons from the weekly. This can’t be interpreted as them being afraid of a terrorist attack. Rather, it is their respect for Muslims’ religious sensibilities which disallows depiction of religious figures in images. It is a case of responsible journalism rather than self-censorship.

While the loss of human lives shakes my conscience, we should also remember not to misuse the freedom of expression to hurt others’ faith. After all, freedom of expression is not absolute. I am certainly not Charlie Hebdo.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Rahul Pandita's "Our Moon Has Blood Clots"

Rahul Pandita's moving memoir "Our Moon Has Blood Clots" is one of the most powerful books I've read in recent times. The plights of Kashmiri Pandits, forcibly evacuated from the Valley in 1990 by Pakistan-backed Islamic militants has been faithfully recorded. Pandits had been historically suffering at the hands of Dogra and Islamic rulers but post-1990 violence against them crossed all limits. The writer himself belongs to the Pandit family and was threatened with dire consequences if his family remained in the Valley. Many of his acquaintances and relatives were mercilessly killed by militants. The refugee settlement in Jammu was appalling. Worryingly, the government was/is apathetic towards them. The writer compares Pandits' pains with that of Jews under Nazi regime. Written lucidly with philosophical insights, this moving account generates sympathy for poor Pandits who had/have to live under fear and persecution without no fault of their own.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

JM Coetzee's "Disgrace"

JM Coetzee’s Booker Prize-winning novel “Disgrace” is a story of misplaced chivalry and its repercussions. The dynamics of traditional man-woman relationship is laid bare when the woman rejects man’s protective interest to assert her individuality.

Professor David Lurie’s loneliness and libido drives him to the arms of his pupil Melanie with devastating consequences. He chooses to be sacked from the university when Melanie files a complaint against him. Then he goes to his daughter Lucy’s place far away and during his stay Lucy is subjected to a horrific crime. Both Melanie and Lucy reject the protection offered by Lurie. Although Lurie is disgraced twice, Coetzee doesn’t make him a hateful figure, rather the reader’s sympathy lies with him.

Another entangled theme of the novel is that physical gratification can never relieve one of loneliness.    

The historic injustice to Africans and their revenge, women’s choice of abortion, euthanasia and many other issues too appear in the narrative, making it a serious literary fiction. Coetzee’s graceful use of language makes it a delightful read.