Back to the village

Life is so much better in the village; what are we doing sitting around here?

Life is so much better in the village; what are we doing sitting around here?  Lightening up with light
Growing up with a serene smile
I would need nothing else
Happiness and fulfilment would be mine
– Madhav Ghimire, Rastra Kabhi

In this extract from one of his poems, Nepal's 'national poet' Madhav Ghimire defines four things as essential for happiness – knowledge, leisure, growth and a sweet smile. Though most people might be unable to articulate so precisely what is needed to be happy, we are all in search of the same things. It is in pursuit of this that we undertake an array of activities – we leave our native villages and go elsewhere, we enter the city and are drawn towards even larger cities. Metropolises the world over flourish because those on the outside yearn for the conveniences and opportunities they have to offer. Those who came to the city before us, our contemporaries and those following us – everyone's motivations are the same. But have we achieved the goals that brought us to the city? Is there a guarantee of happiness in a place that enjoys such an immense share of the country's resources, means and wealth? If the city does not have the four primary requisites of happiness listed by Madhav Ghimire, where can they be found?

In Nepal, the historical idea of the city is necessarily attached to Kathmandu. Until quite recently, 'Nepal' meant Kathmandu Valley's metropolitan area. Because of Kathmandu's linguistic, cultural and political importance, Nepal's other citizens did not easily gather the courage to enter the city. As the most developed urban conglomeration in Nepal, and the country's only power centre, it was a daunting place for the uneducated, the unconnected peasantry from the hinterland. Earlier, there were two ways for people to enter the city: through a job in the city, or under cover of political change.

Following Prithivi Narayan Shah's 18th-century victory over the three main city states of the Kathmandu Valley, many parbate (the common name for the hill-dwelling Bahuns and Chhetris) began to arrive in the Newar village. The Rana era saw the continuation of this process, and there was a mild acceleration after the fall of the Rana autocracy. From the opening-up of 1950, through the emergence of the Panchayat regime in 1960, to the demands for change in 1979, only those who could earn a moving to Kathmandu came with the intention of setting up a home there. The city had such an intimidating image that great courage was required to consider living in Kathmandu. Further, it was difficult to put together the essentials of life in the capital, even if a rural family sold all of its possessions to come here.

The referendum of 1980 brought numerous gifts of modernity to Nepal. Most importantly, by allowing discussion on the previously taboo subject of the Panchayat regime's irreplaceability, it broke down many spoken and unspoken social norms. The citizenry began to lose its fear of the city. Sales of land and property became far more common. A decade later, the political change ushered in by the democratic movements of 1989-90, and the subsequent exercise of liberal economy, again increased the pace of urbanisation. Though the Maoist insurgency put a dampener on the urban economy, this trend of immigration continued to grow as the rural middle class fled the violence. In addition to the natural flow of urbanisation, two other factors were in play – the direct and indirect impact of remittance money as Nepal began exporting labour to the Gulf and Malaysia and the search for a safe living space by those evicted from their homes by the Maoists.

A dog's work
Three decades ago, I too rode the waves of political and cultural courage that had origins in the referendum, and came to Kathmandu in search of better opportunities. I have acquired skills and professional status in the city, in fact most everything that I have and know – and so any criticism of the city might reek of ingratitude. But I do feel it is unwise to further add to the crowds flocking to the city, or to insist that everything one seeks can be found in the city. I felt all this strongly when visiting my native village recently.

I belong to the first generation of my family to come to the city. My father had completed his higher education in Kathmandu, but he did not remain there. My father, a retired teacher, and my homemaker mother are both around 70 years old and live in the village of Maghe, in Nepal's easternmost district, Ilam. They lead active lives, running their home and caring for their terraces. We – my nuclear family – like to spend as much time as possible and visit Maghe regularly. In the village, we meet our out relatives and friends, and the circle of acquaintances and interactions widens; even distant relatives contact us when they come to Kathmandu. We look forward to seeing them, invite them home as much as possible, eat a meal together and show them around the city. We delight in any present they bring us. My parents also come to Kathmandu a few times a year (for medical treatment, but also for other reasons), and we rejoice in their visits. Many Nepalis of my generation have a similar background – like us, they all look forward to the visits to their villages, and in welcoming relatives and friends coming to Kathmandu.

While visiting my parents this monsoon, it struck me that while the city provides two of Ghimire's ingredients of happiness, the village is more suitable for the other two. Knowledge and growth might well be purchased wholesale in the city, but leisure and the welcoming smile are only available in limited quantities. The village, on the other hand, has adequate tranquillity and plenty of people to smile sweetly at you. Though the village has begun to develop the means of acquiring knowledge and growth, we must recognise that the modern means of gaining knowledge – colleges, universities, formal education, opportunities for intellectual exchange, good bookshops, conferences and seminars – remain centred in the city.

Yet the city constantly keeps us on our toes, and does not give much scope for leisure. When there is work, it consumes us; and when there is no work, we are busy looking for it. We are busy shopping, busy eating, busy drinking, even busy celebrating. The sense of meaningless activity conveyed by an old Nepali adage, 'A dog neither has work, nor is it free', aptly describes the malaise of the city. And the bigger the city, the more pronounced the hold of this malaise. The city has converted us into mechanical beings, always clutching an agenda and unable to function without consulting our diaries.

Work and money are, however, not everything. A person should occasionally be permitted to be lazy. From time to time, it is necessary to feel like a sovereign being, born for oneself. It is necessary to spend time with friends and family, in times of trouble or simply to laugh with abandon. I do not want to over-romanticise the village, but it is undeniable that opportunities for leisure are far greater there than in the city. That one has to do more physical labour in the village is undeniable, but leisure time is also far more abundant. Even today, there is a sense in the village that having enough to eat and some clothes to wear implies prosperity. With little pressure to maximise the accumulation of resources, there is a sense of security in the village. Excessive wealth is not necessary in the village to enjoy the ultimate leisure imagined by the poet:

A light drizzle comes down in the monsoon morning
Let me sleep today in this lazy state
If I walk, it is to ensure rest later
Joyful it is to recline in leisure.

All the same, just as work and wealth alone are not enough, leisure by itself is insufficient. Growth and exposure are essential for all. Working alongside or in competition with others is invaluable. All parents want better and happier lives than their own for their children. Unfortunately, as noted earlier, a majority of the opportunities and possibilities for growth are centred in the cities. The glamour of the metropolis also overshadows the opportunities available in the villages. The popular definition of development is centred on a place where houses are tens of storeys tall, and where people defy the laws of nature to move around on wheels at high speeds. Due to this perception of development, the village has become the refuge of those unable to enter the city. It would ever seem that people live in the village simply as a preparation to move to the city.

Agreeable but emptying
The city gives us a great deal – momentum, progress, employment and purchasing power, among others. Living in the city, we build relationships across the oceans, have opportunities to engage with various cultures, and develop a taste for foods from across the world. In return, most of us have sacrificed a little bit of leisure and a little bit of our smiles. Let us not blame the city, though, where the need is to cork within oneself. We have taken more than we need of some things while excluding ourselves from others. In an attempt to compensate for what we have lost by being always busy, we throw our weary bodies before the television set and find solace in comedy shows, laughing as we watch other people being ridiculed and humiliated. In the village, relaxation does not need to be bought in the bazaar, and the quota for mirth does not need to be fulfilled by following the forced-laughter regime of Ramdev's yoga – the village still offers spontaneous sincerity in abundance.

Agreeable as villages are, they are unfortunately emptying. Around the time I came away to study, the average person from the village could not even contemplate the idea of settling down in the city. However, as time passed, I remained in Kathmandu, as did my brothers. This is the story of many households. After some time, coming to Kathmandu to study essentially meant that the individual would not return to the village. If a person did return, it was commonly believed that he or she had not been able to make it in the city. Living in Kathmandu quickly became more a matter of prestige than of necessity.

Today, thousands of young people leave villages every day across the country, in search of education or employment. Indeed, villages today are almost entirely bereft of young adults. Whether they migrate within the country or beyond its borders and oceans, those with a degree of learning choose to live in big cities. Those who are unable to venture afar due to penury attempt to cobble together an existence in the bazaar town close to their village. Even the parents of these young people have slowly begun to join their children, leaving their ancestral homes under the care of others, or to go to seed. Much of this migration is the result of careful planning, rather than the forced move that some have endured.

Even as this trend is undoubtedly a challenge, it is also an opportunity. In a situation where those capable of labour have left the villages, there is no alternative but to plant less labour-intensive crops, which generate greater profits – herbs, wood, bamboo and broom grass. This can create a new dynamic in rural Nepal. People without the wherewithal to migrate to the cities have begun moving to the choicest plots in the village. Likewise, city-dwellers looking to shift to the villages can easily purchase land or rent unoccupied houses, and they can fill the demand for educated people there has grown in the villages. Overall, and unexpectedly, villages have become more welcoming than ever before, both in terms of the attitude of the people and employment opportunities.

Some might disagree with this contextualisation of the 'opportunities' available in the village today. But it is undeniable that significant improvements have been made to the village infrastructure in the last few years. Today, phone and even Internet networks have reached scattered villages across far and wide, and most places are connected to the larger transportation system, through border district roads. In other words, the services sought by those requiring the latest communication tools can now be satisfied in villages of Nepal. Electricity is also available in many places, and solar power is a substitute where there is no possibility of micro-hydropower or where the national grid is yet to reach. Availability of drinking water is now a reality in most villages, and in some instance the supply is better than in the big cities. Basic health care is also available nearer to home and the hospital is an ambulance drive away. All in all, the villages of Nepal have never been 'serviced' in this way before.

The list of the village's virtues goes on. There is no air pollution, for instance, making the village an ideal residential location for the increasing number of asthma patients burdened by the dust and fumes of the city. This is especially true now that new technologies, such as smoke-free stoves and 'gobar' gas, have resulted in smoke-less kitchens. There is adequate open space, as well as (mostly) friendly neighbours. One also does not need to spend more to eat organic foods, as all kitchen gardens will be chemical-free.

Until recently, villages were symbols of traditional lifestyles. The lists of what to do and not to do were lengthy, particularly for women and 'low' castes. But staunch conservatism is giving rapidly way to increasing openness. There is no longer much gossip about who was seen with whom, who broke cultural and caste-based taboos, or even who was seen wearing something 'unacceptable'. Today, anybody can go to the village and work as they see fit without fear of censure. Moreover, the village bestows far more recognition on an individual for their contributions than the city does.

The village is especially ideal for the retired, offering as it does a chance to adopt a new vocation more suited to the person's interests and capabilities. It also provides greater opportunity to become a social leader – and if a person can see herself as useful to society, it has a positive impact both on her health and her confidence. Furthermore, the knowledge and service a society gains from the experiences of a ripe and tested individual is, of course, considerable.

And who might find a village existence unfavourable? This group consists almost entirely of those needing regular and serious medical attention, and those with certain types of employment in the city or running businesses there. The village might also not be a good option for parents with school-going children in the city, as village facilities today are still unlikely to live up to the expectations of the city-bred. Apart from these groups, however, nobody has serious constraints forcing them to stay in the city.

Due to improvements in infrastructure as well as technological progress, even those engaged in active employment can work to their full capacity from the village. You can be a writer, a thinker, an analyst, a consultant, a scholar, while living a rural existence. For individuals in certain fields – processing of herbs, agricultural products, dairy and cattle-raising – the village is of course where you should be. Those involved in desk work, and operating out of their homes or not needing to be present in an office, are not at a disadvantage in the village. The art of poets, painters and singers is likely to benefit from the absence of crowds and urban tensions. Those interested in social service are also likely to find greater scope and satisfaction in the village.

Strengthening miteri
Many of us have roots in the village. The connection of first- and second-generation city-dwellers to the village is especially strong. In such situations, fostering a sensibility in one's children to their roots inspires them and gives them greater self-awareness. If we want the next generation to understand their country, they must have a respectful insight into the village. Such a sentiment is certain to arise if children raised in the relative comfort of the city have extended contact the rural with relatives and neighbours. Parents today are increasingly concerned about their children becoming materialistic. Regular contact with the simpler and closer-knit society of the village might help to revive the sympathy and compassion being lost in urban societies.

Simply encouraging rural tourism among city-dwellers cannot achieve these goals. The tourist is merely a consumer, after all, with little stake in the places he visits. Strengthening the societal and familial ties already existing with a village or forming new ties, on the other hand, is one way to do this. Miteri, a formal practice of forging sibling relations that can transcends caste, religion or economic status, is one such bond which can be of great value. This tie can be formed, often without any former acquaintance, between like-minded people, individuals with similar character traits or even between individuals sharing a name. Though the relationship must be formalised with the exchange of gifts, they evolve into something intangible yet permanent. The value of this practice lies in friendship, the growth of ties and the consequent strengthening of societal bonds. Even as modernity has weakened this practice, the custom is a valuable one in connecting city with village or villages with each other. It can be an effective means of forming channels between communities.

In Nepal, our defunct system that could be of great value if revived is the National Development Service, a programme whereby MA students were required to spend a year working in the village. Started in the early 1970s, the programme was scrapped prematurely for political reasons by the Panchayat regime. If it were revived, it could be an effective bridge spanning the urban-rural divide. If these and other practices had been used to build an environment where the city respected the village and the village could rely on the (more powerful) city, urbanisation would likely have occurred far more sustainably. The general dismissal of the village as a place with no future would also not be so deeply ingrained.

With so many forces at play, innumerable issues related to the urban-versus-rural question need to be thought through far more thoroughly. Central among these is the point that an active and intellectually engaging life is possible in the village. Why, then, do we live in the city? What compulsion forces us to remain there? What prevents us from spending some time each year in the village if not all of it? Let us ponder these questions, and go back to the village.

Translated from the original Nepali.

~ Kedar Sharma is a filmmaker and critic based in Kathmandu.

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Himal Southasian