Resilience and cynicism
From The Kathmandu Post (12 April, 2013)
In the worst of times, what we need most is resilience, not cynicism. Face-to-face in workshops and workplaces, or on Facebook and Twitter, you can observe both attitudes playing out in full measure. The two terms are not antonyms, but they represent diametrically opposite responses to situations that challenge the human spirit.
What we are experiencing in Nepal today may be defined as the worst of times, with the never-ending political disarray leading to an extra-constitutional running crisis, created by domestic and international incompetence and malfeasance. But life has to go on, and what is required is a spirited doggedness, based on sheer survival and the belief that Nepal as a country is capable of delivering better times to its citizens.
One could say, only half in zest, that resilience is an evolved Nepali genetic trait; of a people of a country so rich in resources, who have over centuries been forced to live in penury. The foremost response of the resilient peasantry has been to survive amidst adversity. So, as society was impoverished by imperialist ambition, family oligarchies, royal dictatorships and left-radical demagogues, the peasantry turned to subsistence migration. What started as mercenaries leaving to serve the court of Ranjit Singh of Lahore continues today as Nepal’s poorest leave for India, the less poor to the Gulf and Malaysia.
A salient marker of resilience is the expectation that things will turn for the good. Since the first lahuray went off to the Punjab, the citizens have worked and waited for the better tomorrow. Innumerable generations have died without seeing the promised land, and as we speak the generation that brought the downfall of the Rana regime is almost entirely gone. The country that our fathers and mothers wished to create was one that would be in peace, democracy, wealth, equity and social justice. It is the task of the present generation to remain resilient, and to push the conversion.
In the political realm, one finds that resilience is the dominating trait among the lay public and intellectuals of the 75 districts. The one is closer to the earth of the districts, the more resilient and spirited one finds the citizenry. Meanwhile, the over-riding trait of the so-called opinion-making classes of Kathmandu Valley is cynicism laced with – beg pardon – cowardice. Programmed thinking, whether pushed by poor scholarship or political opportunism, seems to paint the person into such a corner that his only self-serving outlet is cynicism.
The ultra-skeptical mindset tends to lack rigour in analysis, like the armchair cynics who got so shaken by the rise of Maoism in the mid-1990s that they rushed to proclaim armed revolution as justified in response to extant poverty. The cynic may give the impression of being an independent thinker, but secretly he has his finger up to check the direction of the breeze. He dedicates his life to remaining silent on the issues of the day, while reserving the right to raise a clamour on the winning side after the critical moment is past.
Thus, the cynics of Kathmandu kept a ‘judicious’ silence during the tense debate over the model of federalism, even when the hallowed political consultants proposed non-territorial federalism for the Dalit community, or the idea was floated for a Madhes province that would be 500 miles long and 20 miles wide. The lips were similarly sealed during the five-month long farce meant to revive the deceased Constituent Assembly. You may notice that your friend the cynic has not yet spoken up for separation of powers, nor is demanding that Khil Raj Regmi resign his position as chief justice if he is to remain in Singha Durbar.
BP Koirala knew the cynics of Kathmandu well, suffering their taunts and jibes while working underground against the Rana regime. In Atmabrittanta: Late Life Recollections, he recalls the Kathmandu intelligentsia as made up of obstructionist pedants, who would use long-winded argumentation to justify personal inaction.
Process and systems
Resilience is the quality in the person who does not surrender to fatalism, that blood-brother of cynicism. But resilience does not imply airy romanticism, of the self-proclaimed idealist who does not have the intention or mental strength to convert goals into achievements. Perhaps the cynics around us are the romantics who lost the fight.
The cynics goes after cure-all solutions, that too presented on a platter, while the resilient citizen tends to believe in logic and cause-and-effect. Deep down, the cynic is a populist who can easily drum up a contrarian argument, while the resilient citizen
is wise in the head and good with the hands.
The resilient person tends to believe in due process, systems and rule of law. The cynic is willing to take the ‘Leninist’ chor-baato, expressing the belief (after the fact) that short-circuits are sometimes good for society. This is why so many in the Kathmandu intelligentsia have jumped on to the four-headed political syndicate’s bandwagon of making head-of-government a sitting chief justice of the Supreme Court. The resilient would have preferred to wait and to support (and be part of) a people’s movement against the burgeoning autocracy of Baburam Bhattarai, rather than destroy separation of powers to get the latter out of Singha Durbar.
Resilience is the attitude which supports building or rebuilding institutions. Thus, the need to go through the Constituent Assembly exercise once more, without surrendering to fatalism and cynicism, to make sure that the elections are free and fair; and that this time the House will be one that can actually conduct transparent debate to generate a fine, democratic document to build our future.
The success achieved through the staying-power of resilience is to be seen not only in individual proclivity, public moods, and in laws and governance. Sometimes, you can see the consequences of uplifting resilience in brick-and-mortar structures. To take an example of the ‘laagi parne’ attitude that sees the erection of concrete structures or the running of machinery, in a society where so few institutions are working, one can refer to the electric crematorium that is coming up on the banks of the Bagmati just downstream from Arya Ghat.
For years, there has been a dire need for a place of dignity for the last rites of the departed, where the tourists and pilgrims do not ogle, where pollution is minimized, and there is transparency and efficiency of management. It has taken decades, but overcoming cultural challenges, institutional ennui, political turbulence and neighbourhood antagonisms, the Pashupati Area Development Committee is well ahead in its plans for the ‘biddut shavdaha griha’.
When it starts operation in Fall 2013, the Pashupati Crematorium will stand as the symbol of resilience and force for good against interminable adversity, one to energise the populace to support more such initiatives. If any one of us moves along in the upcoming year 2070, there is satisfaction in the knowledge that the departure can now be in dignity via the crematorium!