This review was supposed to open with a good little gloat about India as “the foreign hand”. Then I re-read the relevant pages of Manjushree Thapa’s new book of essays and reportage on Nepal, and realised that India’s covert role in Nepali affairs amounts to, by and large, shooting itself in the foot. Support the king and the status quo; oops. Support Nepal’s army against the Maoists; oops. Support the mainstream parties against the Maoists; oops. Create lowlands parties to split the Maoist vote; oops. This is RAW and suitcases-of-cash territory but, as Thapa shows, the skulduggery is neither secret nor, of late, efficacious.
That could be because India’s government, like Indians, is more or less blind to the complexities and foreignness of Nepal. The first cannot surprise when you know that the 30 million Nepalis, divided by geographies, politics and river gorges, belong to 100-plus castes and ethnic groups and speak 90-plus languages — and yet are indisputably one nation with a distinct history. This history obviously will not be understood by staffers in Kathmandu. As for the second, here is Thapa: “Your average Kathmandu bourgeois grows up fearing India, imagining it peopled with thieves, caste warriors, bride burners, scoundrels, Research and Analysis Wing agents and underworld dons.” News-consuming Indians are equally ignorant about Nepal; both sides are harmed by the information vacuum.
If you want to understand Nepal and its recent past, and why the country has no constitution though it elected a Constituent Assembly more than three years ago, begin by reading Thapa. In Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy (2005), she sketched Nepal’s story from the resumption of democracy in 1990 via the palace massacre of 2001 to the autocracy of King Gyanendra and the rise of the Maoists. That excellent book stopped in midstream, at a point when Nepal had neither democracy nor peace. In The Lives We Have Lost, Thapa brings the story to 2011, by which time there is peace (or at least no war) and democracy (or at least a republic) but no one held answerable for the crimes of the past, and no answers to questions about the future.
But where for the first book Thapa travelled on foot in western Nepal, talking to villagers, aid workers, government servants and Maoists, in the second, except for a few excursions, she writes about the deadlock in Kathmandu. And, at length, of the angst of people like herself – members of the educated elite – whose class and castes for generations provided the rulers of Nepal with bureaucrats and still provide most of the political leaders. These leaders have uncourageously refused to act in the national interest and to determine, now that Nepalis have won themselves a republic, what the shape of the new state will be. All the difficult decisions remain to be taken; and in the meantime, as Thapa says, Nepal has a ruling party with a private army.
It is anyway a complicated story, and the fact that this book is a collection of pieces written since 2002 does not make the story easier to grasp. Thapa’s interpretive solution is a two-track introduction. The text soars to the bird’s eye view, observing how much has changed in Nepal despite the paralysis and how a small society has coped with violence. And a single monstrous, overgrown, acronym-littered footnote summarises the political ins and outs, the civil society actions, the negotiations and foreign interventions. It is a grotesque contrivance but it manages to grab and shake.
As do some of the essays. In the first three, Thapa writes of reciprocal brutalities by Maoists and the Army in the Terai, and their effect on village communities. She visits families that lost members to political murder, often without cause. With friends in the Nepali human rights apparatus, she looks into custodial abuse. She writes about two young women who were raped by corrupt Army officers. In the fourth essay Thapa writes of Doramba, a village east of Kathmandu where 19 captured Maoists and villagers were massacred by state forces. The key points are the chasm between Kathmandu and the provinces and the impunity of the armed forces, who did most of the killing. The disconnect made it possible for Kathmandu to ignore, or simply not to know, what was done in its name. For a later essay she visits Maoist cantonments after the ceasefire, and as a result is able to foresee the Maoist victory in the elections.
There are also good passages on the annual political “seasons”, on rumour, foreign aid, India, and on the smallness of the ultimate victory over Gyanendra, which is “the one clear achievement of my generation”. In the final essay she walks at last through the Narayanhiti royal palace, now a museum. It is a shabby, unimpressive place, and Thapa wonders, “This was the monarchy we had overthrown? This ticky-tacky monarchy”.
Start with Thapa’s non-fiction, and then move on to her fiction, and to novels like Narayan Wagle’s Palpasa Cafe and Sheeba Shah’s Facing My Phantoms (both 2010). What such books cannot tell you about the Maoists, and about life outside Kathmandu, or outside elite circles, you will certainly not learn from the news.
THE LIVES WE HAVE LOST
Essays & Opinions on Nepal
Penguin; viii+266 pages; Rs 350