The barking deers bark all night from the jungle nearby, and some dogs from a far away village mimic them. I am not describing a scene from a travel journal. It is a normal night at the village where we live now after shifting from a nearby town, Waling.
Waling is where I grew up. I have strong memories of a childhood in a small town in Nepal. I was seven when the Panchayat fell and we moved to a democracy under a constitutional monarchy. I don’t remember much of the Panchayat era except that the board at the 'Gau Panchayat' office adjacent to our house was repainted a 'Gau Vikas Samiti'. Before that repainting, the walls of the administrative building were plastered with slogans like 'Bire Chor, Desh Chod', a coarse way of demanding the king’s ouster.
Although the Siddharth Highway was built much before I was born, electricity came to Waling much later. I remember parts of the town had electricity before we got it at our house, and the televisions at those houses were of great interest to us. Many adventures can be recounted only about the endeavors made to watch some television program or movies at one of those 'lucky' houses with both electricity and TV. I also remember the trucks parked on the highway in the town were our perfect hideaways for playing hide-and- seek.
In the next 30 years, the small highway market has grown into a bustling town. Waling turned into a municipality in 1997, and today gets into national news quite often, mostly for the right reasons.
This personal journey, and the transition of a small town, is representative of most towns and villages outside Kathmandu. In the past 30 years, I moved out to study and work. I went abroad to study and also worked in a foreign army, came back, worked in Kathmandu and have now decided to finally settle down in my hometown itself. For many here, and for many of my friends and acquaintances in Kathmandu too, this decision to settle in a small town is a courageous one; to some it is blatantly foolish. The social dynamics integrated in our psyche about how we look at places has Kathmandu at its center. Personally it baffles me.
Irritated by the concept of progress and development that our society has ingrained, we tried to rebel. The idea of settling in a village, into farming, is a romantic one for many city-dwellers. Many people busy in the daily grind of city life would probably say they wish to settle into a nice farm-house in the future. Fantasizing is one thing, but actually jumping into the well of death is another. Apart from the social ridicule, we face real challenges too. Although most villages are now well connected with jeep tracks, there is no regular public transport system. And in cases of health emergencies, things can get dangerous.
Poor health and education system makes the biggest contribution to en masse abandonment of our villages. But there is more to it than meets the eye. Over the years, with many half-educated 'awareness campaigns' and misguided modernization attempts aided by foreign agencies, our traditional lifestyles have been ridiculed as symbolising failure. For many youths of our generation, success has come to mean leaving the traditional lifestyle behind, moving into the capital city if possible, or to the nearby town, and building a concrete house for oneself.
This ill-informed way of looking at success, our traditional way of life, and our culture has disoriented a full generation and left us derooted. Therefore, the way we educate our young minds today is a sad mimicry of many foreign concepts. It’s an irony that in a beautiful village surrounded by nature, we put children in a concrete room tightly packed like a cell and teach them about plants. This extreme picturization aside, without the experiential learning element in our education system, and with little regard for our traditional way of earning a living, we are preparing our future generations to be slaves of some other worlds.
Our moving into a village from the town coincided with the pandemic’s outbreak. Many of those who were smirking at the idea initially, including my father, now appreciate the freshness of nature and the freedom of getting to produce what one wants to eat. But to depend on a mass tragedy like the pandemic to reorient people's priorities about development is tragic in itself.