Last week as Europe commemorated VE Day (Victory in Europe, the end of WWII) there were comparisons made between then and now. The one we have all read being: parents and grandparents were asked to go to war to save the country, whereas we are asked to stay at home to achieve the same.
This has turned my mind back to the days of the conflict in Nepal and how folks coped everyday. I spent the first half of the conflict years in Bardia. I first met Maoists while on a shopping trip to Nepalganj in 1998. At that time they were posing as police and collecting money, supposedly for police widows and orphans. I saw them again a few days later when they came door-to-door for collections and revealed who they were. I know tourist groups rafting the Karnali also came into contact with Maoists and no doubt had to make a donation also. But really, at that point, the conflict didn’t interfere with day-to-day life in Bardia too much.
I moved to Kathmandu in 2000 and fell into a crowd of folk well known in their fields and who knew much more about what was happening in the hinterland than I did. And so I personally became more aware, but still there was little impact in Kathmandu. The June 1 massacre was the turning point for many. It was after then that Kathmandu saw curfews and more tension. I remember in those days I had an old-fashioned large black umbrella and was conscious walking past army checkpoints that they might mistake it for a rifle!
But overall, those of us in Kathmandu took everything in our stride. Curfew? No problem. Long load-shedding? No problem. Maoists bussing in cadets from outside the Valley? An interesting turn of events, but no problem. Yes, things were tense but we didn’t complain too much. In those days we did not have Facebook or other social media. We had Nepal Television and Nepal Radio!
News travelled more slowly, or not at all. We just kind of got on with it, yet were aware that when we opened the newspaper there would be news of battles and death between the two sides in the conflict.
So why is it so hard for us to stay at home during this pandemic? Is it because the virus is something we cannot see? But then we in Kathmandu did not see fighting in the streets during the conflict years. Is it because we have access to news and reports and feel ‘this doesn’t apply to me’? Or is it that life has changed so much in the past 15 years that we are no longer as connected as we once were to a more fundamental way of life?
The modern fast-paced life came late to Kathmandu. The advent of cable television and widely available internet have shown just how far behind we were to some other countries. City folks have stepped away from their agricultural past, wanting something more financially fulfilling. I saw a similar phenomena in Singapore. I lived there less than 30 years after its founding and those in their 20s and 30s wanted to put any connection with their parents’ or grandparents’ kampong (village) as far from them as possible. Has that happened in Kathmandu? Do we now want to forget our roots and concentrate on building higher apartment blocks, glamorous nightclubs, more luxurious hotels, etc? And at what price? We saw how during this lockdown air pollution reduced and the mountains rose again.
While other countries are making plans for coming out of the lockdown to include a more environment friendly approach to city life, we saw what happened on Day One of a reduced lockdown in Kathmandu! Are our memories that short? Are we no longer able to take any hardship? Not going to war but simply having to stay home—has this now become a major suffering for us?
Please note I am not talking about daily wage earners here, who are subject to extreme hardship at the moment. I’m talking about us sitting in our comfortable homes, ordering food and drinks online and bitterly complaining that this is going on ‘too long’. WWII went on for six years, the conflict in Nepal for 10. Surely we can manage a month or three at home. Then build business and towns back up. With priority to the environment and social equity.