If the best of a commodity happens to come from the Himalaya, should it trade more cheaply in world markets than lesser brands simply because it is South Asian? Despite the intense free-market rhetoric currently directed at South Asia from Western centres of capital, for one commodity the firm answer to this question has so far been yes – the best should come cheap if it comes from an impoverished place. The notion of payment according to value is discarded in this arithmetic. Instead, a basic equation of colonial days comes to the fore: those compelled to sell at under-market prices should be silently grateful for what they receive. One gets the urge to check the calendar: which century is this? Wasn´t it 50 years ago this coming August that the South Asian colonial economy came to an end?
The commodity in question has been lovingly described in countless volumes, its pricelessness extolled. There are manuals for its acquisition in raw form and its subsequent refinement. These make fine distinctions between the product of one micro-region and another, grading different types and sub-types like diamonds in the rough. There are many testimonials to the quality of this treasured Himalayan commodity, describing its exemplary performance, durability and superiority to comparable products from anywhere else in the world. And finally there are memoirs that describe the opportunity to make use of such an extraordinary thing – simply made, perfectly suited to its purpose, and performing practically flawlessly for years on end – as a rare privilege, even a life-changing experience. Sparingly paid for, it is lavishly praised. All in all, an ideal commodity. Moreover, when its useful life is over, it can simply be returned for a small fee.
This rare Himalayan commodity was first discovered by the British in the early 19th century. At that time they imagined the Himalaya to be full of hidden riches – gold and other precious metals, jewels, spices, fine wool and cloth. Rapaciously seeking access to these riches brought them into battle with those whose territory they sought to infiltrate. And there, in battle, they found an unanticipated treasure. It was a man.
They would call him Johnny Gurkha. Short in stature and of unassuming appearance, they glimpsed him through the smoke of battle and the fog of Orientalism. Seen in that light, his “determined bravery” and “astonishing exertions” in the face of superior military force were understood as expressions of an innate martial spirit. Here was a Himalayan treasure that could prove invaluable in the continuing quest to mine the riches of the Orient.
The British promptly began to purchase it – drawing first on captured stock and then, as its value was proved, creating an elaborate mechanism to extract more from the then forbidden Nepal Himalaya. In more recent years they were able to openly collect the “raw material” of the Gurkha Brigade in the hills of Nepal. Demand has risen and fallen over the years, but they have not stopped mining the Nepal Himalaya yet.