After living for three years in Kolkata during the mid-1980s, when I returned to Kathmandu and started re-familiarising myself with the Nepali capital I would often be struck by commonalities between the layouts of the main parts of the two cities. The striking Dharahara tower loomed over the roadside hawkers of Sundhara, just as the Shahid Minar towered over the Dharamtala flea-markets. The Dashrath Stadium and the area extending from there to Ratna Park, with all the football played in between, reminded me of the Kolkata maidan. Even today, the wall graffiti bears similar phrases – Down with expansionism! Down with imperialism! Translated into English from Bengali or Nepali, these sound peculiar. The politics-breathing citizens of the two cities perhaps found solace in the search for the various nuances of these words. The tax havens of Makhan and Indrachowk in Kathmandu resembled the streets of Burrabazar in Kolkata – in both, the Marwari traders spoke the local language fluently even without treating the city as their home. Their various committees and religious fraternities were little oases made in the image of their own little Rajasthan or Haryana in their adopted cities.
On a recent visit to Singha Durbar, the seat of Nepali government, I become nostalgic about the corridors of Writers’ Building in Kolkata. Only the squeaking fans are missing in Singha Durbar, but they are in winter replaced by weirdly designed heaters. The way ‘tea money’ changes hands, the way signage is meant to confuse rather than guide, the manner in which the Khardars treat you – all these do not differ from how things are at Writers’ Building and the way the babus there treat visitors.
The Nepalis in India used the adage ‘Sarkar ko kam kahile jala gham’, adapted from a Bangla phrase meaning that the work of the government is to wait till the sun goes down. Everybody scrambled for government jobs and they ensured that they retired with a good pension without doing much work. The primary objective was to ensure that their children received a good education and their family a decent life. Surprisingly, the children of the bureaucrats of both Writers’ Building and Singha Durbar migrate elsewhere, often overseas, for education and work. Perhaps their parents are happy that they have migrated out of the country seeking greener pastures. Both Kolkata and Kathmandu seem to share a common fatalism that nothing will happen here. Or maybe they feel that their dhamma is to stick to their jobs, in order that their children can provide them retirement options in faraway lands.
Liberals have always been seen as sympathetic to the left, and if one is educated then one is immediately classified as an ‘intellectual’. In Nepal, though, there is a tendency to proclaim one’s credentials as an intellectual more aggressively. So if one happens to be a good doctor, then one should surely be leading morchas demanding justice, writing plays and songs, or directing films. Bureaucrats in Nepal aim to leave their mark not through the work they do in their professions; rather, they seek to be judged by the poetry collections they publish. A corporate executive would like to get music albums released or have solo art exhibitions. How can one be educated if one does not indulge in the vagaries of literature and the arts – of course while appreciating the usage of English words such as vagaries? Being labelled a communist during the day and sipping Johnny Walker Red Label at night is the pinnacle of ambition.
In Kathmandu the political discourse does not vary, be it the Page 3 parties of literati, glitterati and twaterati (consumers of alcohol), or the bhatti drinking dens in the back alleys. The same is the case in Kolkata, where political discourse follows the same track in the bars of five-star hotels, the clubs that revel in Raj nostalgia, and the addas of various paras. It is all about supporting the party or the faction you believe in, not about engaging in pluralistic debate. There is endless talk meant to demonstrate one’s connections with the political class rather than discussion about what this class is doing. In Kolkata, if it is not politics, it is about clinging to Rabindranath Tagore and emphasising one’s rich cultural heritage. In Kathmandu locals invoke Siddhartha Gautama; remind listeners that Tenzing Norgay was a Nepali national, that Mount Everest lies in Nepal, and that the country’s brave soldiers fight with khukuris. The commonality in the manner in which cultural superiority is touted as the ultimate differentiator leads one to the possible answers as to why both cultures are so complacent.
Neither Kolkata nor Kathmandu appreciates competitive business. Is it that the traditional rent-seeking behaviour in both cities does not leave room for the spirit of entrepreneurship, or is it that locals like to leave business matters to people who come from distant lands? Business is equated with capitalism, and businessmen are therefore seen as class enemies. They become natural targets for extortion, be it in the name of Durga Puja in Kolkata or some yagna in Kathmandu, or the cultural programmes of colleges in both cities. When political violence flares up, the glass windows of stores and their fiberglass signage become the favourite targets, after state property. Violence is used in both cities as a political tool – in Bengal, we saw the emergence of the Naxalites and in Nepal the emergence of the Maobadi.
The politicisation of student unions and trade unions can also be seen as another commonality. While student unions wanted students to be allowed to cheat in examinations, trade unions wanted to create a best-case scenario where one would be paid full wages without doing any work. In the factories, trade unions competed with each other in providing lists of demands till factory owners decided to close their factories and move them elsewhere. The excessive politicisation of students and workers can be singled out as the critical reason for Bengal becoming an economic laggard over these long decades, and Nepal squandering the hope brought about by the restoration of democracy during the early 1990s.
The children of Kolkata and Kathmandu share common memories – sloganeering and placard-wielding people who kept them out of their schools, and their parents stressed due to disruption of their lives. These bad dreams haunt them so much that they decide to leave their city, state or country as soon as they feel they have garnered the courage and strength to do so. They also grow up learning that politicians stand at the bottom of the hierarchy of the professions as one becomes a politician only if one cannot manage any other career.
Ray of hope
The humbling of the Left Front in the recent elections in West Bengal perhaps provides pointers to the new era into which Bengal is entering. There is a sense of urgency amongst the members of the new government, but the challenges of being able to start a project and implement it are humongous. The anti-establishment wave never ceases, and the newly ruling Trinamool Congress knows this well. The resurgence of Bengal must be based on a society where economics is prioritised over politics, the right to do business over the right to halt businesses, the right to a relevant education to compete in a globalising world over the right to meaningless paper degrees.
For Nepal’s left parties, the demise of the Left Front in Bengal means a significant loss in terms of influence within the Indian establishment. But read more carefully: it is also a message that if we had some commonalities in the past, it is now time to search for some in the future that will lead to economic growth and prosperity.
~ Sujeev Shakya heads Beed Management, a Kathmandu-based management consultancy. He is chair of the Southasia Trust, publishing this magazine, and author of Unleashing Nepal.