Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab
After a few frosty seasons, 2005 has unshered in a warm and sunny winter in Nepal. The streets are once again bustling with tourists, both Western and Indian, the hotels are running to near-full occupancy, the casinos are swinging and pubs are packed with bar crawlers, mostly of the European back-pack variety. Thamel, the hip nightspot of Kathmandu, modelled after a similar street in Bangkok comes alive of sundown with strains of Roger Water wafting in the narrow streets, beckoning the undecided. By nine at night, the innumerable pubs, restaurants, and discotheques of Thamel are bursting with Western guests, some of them wannabe musicians playing their guitars. Thamel, more than anything else, looks like an island, untouched and undisturbed by the trouble afflicting other parts of Nepal. It is prosperous, hip and happening.
Thamel in a microcosm reflects the general mood in Kathmandu, where apart from a few stray posters one does not see any signs of turmoil. Says a local, “We have a saying: if Thamel is rocking then everything is fine in Kathmandu. “Things are not only fine in Kathmandu at the moment, they are very busy as well, as the tourist season has just begun. Perhaps, it also has to do with the fact that the Maoists’ announced ceasefire is still on, and the security forces are yet to get into action mode as they are still recuperating after two-month-long festivities of Dussehra and Diwali. It is only through the local newspapers that one discerns that not all is right with Nepal, that the surface antipathy conceals a latent anger among the people. The editorials talk of the growing anti-monarchy sentiments and the lead articles report protests by lawyers or students in some part of the other of the Valley. However, if signs of seething rage are absent on the streets of Kathmandu, the Indian influence is more than present.
In these times of increased political sensitivities, it is not among the best things to say, but the fact remains that in Kathmandu one is never too far from India. Not only geographically, but aurally, psychologically and visually; the Indian shadow looms large, in the form of language, music, food, films and even culture. Sure, in sporadic bursts the landscape and the architecture look different, but the feeling of foreignness never settles in. From the moment you step out of the chaotic King Tribhuvan International airport, a warm wave of familiarity suffuses you. In the motely of swish cars like Toyota and Pajero, the Indian Maruti stands conspicuously out because of its sheer number. A majority of taxis on the streets of Kathmandu are Maruti 800s. In the city itself, whether the commercial centre or the tourist jaunts, one is constantly greeted by the sight of women in sarees and salwar suits, speaking fluent Hindi. Most ordinary Nepalese are comfortable talking in both, native Nepali and Hindi. In any case since Nepalese use the Devnagri script, the text reads like Hindi, whether it is on the hoarding or even the local language newspapers. Indians feel at home in Nepal also because they need neither the Visa nor foreign currency. In fact, most taxi driver prefer Indian currency for its higher value.
“We have very old and close bonds with India, both cultural and emotional,” says Lt Col Narayan Singh Pun, chairman Nepal Samata Party, adding in the same vein that, “But Indian is no longer a friendly word in Nepal. Today, nationalism demands that you have to be anti-Indian, “he explains. Baffling words, these. But hey sum up the irony of Indo-Nepal relations. India and Nepal are like a couple married for decades, contemptuous of each other and yet bound by some inexplicable love. Even in a brief week-long sojourn in Kathmandu this becomes evident. While an average Nepalese swears by Indian films, food, culture, education and economy in private, in public he denounces the pervasive influence of Indian economy and the suspicious nature of Indian politics and so on. One Indian Foreign Service officer rues, “Nepalese have got in the habit of kicking India and then demanding aid as a right.”
Many young, educated Nepalese now talk of a growing closeness with their new friend China. They refer to Nepal’s relationship to China being as old as with India’s, which may be true, but when they say that it is as close as with India, one finds it slightly difficult to understand. Chinese eateries in contrast to roadside dhabas advertising Punjabi tandoori chicken, Gujarati thali, Bombay bhelpuri and Hyderabadi Biryani. While China has recently started a direct bus service from Kathandu to Lhasa, Indians and Nepalese have been crossing the porous Indo-Nepal border on foot as well as automobiles for years. Chinese have also provided Nepalese with a cellular service, and it is true that in the last nine months since the Royal coup of February 1, the Chinese have inched closer to the Nepalese government, but as far as the society goes, it is a different story altogether. The satellite television beams Indian channels, both entertainment and news. The newspaper are replete with Indian politics with the cigar smoking crowd discussing Bihar elections. And the gossip columnists write about Indian actor Vivek Oberai changing the spelling of his name to turnaround his box office fortunes. Of course, the mother of all connections remains the Hindi films, which see concurrent releases in Nepal. The youth in dis cotheques swings to the beat of Hindi remixes and the dancers in the bars gyrate to the tunes of well-known Hindi items numbers.
A Nepalese analyst smugly says that it is precisely for these reasons that young Nepalese are wary of India. “It is simply too big. People in Nepal fear that India wants to Sikkimise Nepal, but they have no such ears from China.” However, a retired army officer dismisses these fears as rhetoric resorted to by politicians. “Geographically, linguistically, culturally, traditionally and militarily we are with South Asia,” he says. “We have nothing in common with China. “It is these paradoxes that we seek to understand along with the issues of democracy, Maoist violence and of course the ever-lengthening shadow of China which seems to redefining Indo-Nepal relations.