In China in Ten Words, Chinese writer Yu Hua breaks down the country using words such as “People”, “Leader”, “Revolution” and “Disparity”. As imitation remains the best form of flattery, I’d like to borrow from Yu Hua and try to explain Nepal – and its society – with a few words that pervade our public discourse and summarise the country well. Forgive me, dear reader, for unlike Yu’s brevity, I have more than 10 words, and the list may miss out on words you may consider apt. Irreverent as it may be, there’s never a more auspicious time to begin than the month of Shrawan. Such a list must emphasise Bikas, which encompasses both physical and material development, right at the very beginning. Bikas is an aspiration as well as a reality, which drives Nepalis both on an individual and social level. But its measly cousin, Asaare Bikas, surely takes the cake.
Once again, our government has been successful in spending only 54.27 per cent of the capital expenditure budget, and a whopping 36.24 per cent was spent in the last month of the fiscal year alone. There can be no bikas without Hydro, a dream that has been sold to all of us since childhood. In recent years, Nepal’s hydro potential has shown itself to be successful, but between the Karnalis and the Budhi Gandakis, the list of projects that have remained on the shelf remains long. Historically, Nepal’s rulers taxed everything they could. So, it’s no surprise that ordinary Nepalis even today have a visceral loathing of Kar, which is levied on everything – from fuel to even the fees one pays to study abroad.
Nepalis loath taxes because they do not see any returns to what they pay the government, so it’s no wonder manipulating the invoices is a common business practice. The irony is that few businesses can survive in Nepal without being part of a Syndicate. Some may call it cartelling, others business as normal, but syndicates fix prices and manipulate the market in a manner that the consumer gets short-changed. Similarly, other societies may wish their children to be doctors or engineers, but Nepal’s most successful professional aspiration is that of becoming a Consultant, a profession that defies definition. It can mean anything from a retired bureaucrat taking up a gig with one of the many INGOs to simply proffering advice to the government. This is also not surprising, since foreign aid makes up almost a quarter of the national budget. No Nepali lexicon is complete without the word Neta. It has come to symbolise everything that is right (or left?) in Nepali politics.
From our yuva netas, some of whom are as young as 50, to our varishth netas, they have come to define modern Nepal in all its complexities. The key is to ensure one climbs up the ladder to become the focal centre of all photographs after spending years on the sidelines (and amassing wealth, as the current mayor of Pokhara has done). One has to dedicate their life to the Party, although in most instances “party” can simply mean a neta. How does one become a neta after all? The operative word here is Andolan. Andolans can mean anything from a protest against fuel price hikes and locking up a university office “to draw the attention of the university”, to the three Jana Andolans that have brought tectonic shifts to Nepal’s polity. One of the more astounding andolans I have seen so far was at Maitighar Mandala, in which one of the andolankaris was crying hoarse about how, if the MCC were to be passed, the United States would take away Nepal’s jal, jungle and jadibuti.
How can one talk of Nepali politics without uttering the word Bhrastachar? Rare is the month when our media does not expose another corruption scandal. One can even argue that the news about corruption does not deserve front-page mantelpieces anymore because they occur with such regularity and impunity. Of course, corrupt practices are not possible without a Bichauliya, which is the preferred term for a middle-man nowadays (earlier one would call them dalal, but today the term is more of a social media insult than anything else). One only needs to listen to the recent unfettered boasts of a bichauliya to understand the scope of power the profession has: They claim to not just “manage” government offices and political parties, but also “Modi and China”. No wonder many aspire to become one these days. No account of Nepal is complete without mentioning the Bir Gorkhali part of our history, which is intimately tied to the Lahure phenomenon.
It is a different matter than Nepal’s modern-day lahures are our migrant workers – both skilled and unskilled – who leave the country in the thousands by the day. But can one really blame them? Not everyone can be a bichauliya or a neta, and there are far too few options within the consultancy sector—although educational consultancies remain one of the most successful business ventures. The bir part of our history plays a big part in defining our Rashtravad, and every neta worth his salt will claim to be its biggest proponent while calling his opponents rashtraghaati. The dangers of Antarik Hastachep are put forth eternally as a warning sign, although how one defines such hastachep depends on whether one is meeting the northern neighbour or the southern one. Our rashtravad, however, has limits when it comes to equal rights for women or interrogating the prevalence of jaat-paat in Nepali society.
Some may wrongly believe caste no longer matters, but a cursory look at the occupants of all the top posts in the country will tell you otherwise. There are several other words that come to mind – TikTok, for one – and others that one can now retire (raja and Nepal bandh, for instance). Our public discourse is also filled with several waads (punjiwaad and samajwaad to begin with) that one needs new dictionaries to understand them all. Nonetheless, that words like udhyamshilta or bigyan are missing from our public narrative says a lot about us. The one exception is paryatan, where Nepal has made its mark, although not because of any policy-led initiative. Unless one counts the horrendous yetis that were supposed to mark Visit Nepal Year 2020.