In Search of Wisdom: Where is the Heartbeat of a Society?

“What might be an aid strategy that can equip and empower local communities to improve their capacity to care for themselves?” By posing this question, an Australian professor made my mind travel through time to examine the happenings of my village. Stored images of my own memories, contained information that could bear an insight for social researchers who develop therapy to treat our current ailments!

My community was made up of those people who richly interacted with one another, with nature, and with an abstract entity called Samaj – the society. Their interrelationships gave rise to an institution to which I belonged. So many provisions were inconspicuously there for me, but I knew nothing but to take them for granted. Phulbari had mangoes, Chautary had shades and platform for rest, Pokhari held the monsoon water for the cattle enough for the whole year, Dhaireni had grass for the cattle, Raniban had fodder for them and timber for the house and barn, Theule River had swimming pools, Majh Kulo brought water to the paddies, Sahar Bato and Dahar Bato led to numerous trails for cattle and humans alike. The rice paddies and millet groves brought harvests in one season and were converted to pastures and playgrounds in other seasons; they were private and full of boundaries in one season, while fully public and wide open in others. Therefore, my community was an institution that built and maintained public and private infrastructures for sustaining our livelihood and building our economy.

We happened to share a geography that was full of boundaries yet borderless in every other way. Strangers walked and carried their goods unknown to us – unhindered – on the trails maintained by our community. There were Pati and Pauwa (shelters) for the travelers along the trails where they stayed. People from distances stayed overnight in our homes and traded their goods in our village. There was a sense of what should cost how much and, therefore, people would bargain. Gund and Khudo (molasses) of Thorga, Bhango (marijuana-seed) of Kala Patal, Silajit (mineral-medicine) and Jimbu (chives) of high Himalayas, sea-salt of Indian ocean, mineral salt of Tibetan plateau, needles and threads from British factories, bronze and copper cookware of Tansen, bangles from Pakistan, and medicine from India all came to our village through these trails. Traders took grain, ghee, dried spices, and more from our villages. Households had stashes of gold, silver and copper coins, and jewelry as safety deposits in hard times and show-off in festive times. People bartered, lent, borrowed, financed, and cooperated in one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many relationships. There were goldsmiths, blacksmiths, cobblers, singers, carpenters, carvers, masonry workers, weavers, and more in the area if not in our own community. Therefore, our community had complicated institutions and infrastructures for business and trade.

I only had to know how to shout in times of crisis, be it falling from a tree, being trapped in a room, getting bitten by a snake, or sustaining an injury. Similarly well attended were the distresses of birth, death, sickness, or disaster. When my mother fell from a cliff of Thulo Kharbari, the whole village came to her rescue even if it was of no avail to save my still-young mother in a community devoid of medical facility. It makes me proud and completely happy today to think that she died amidst the gaze of her entire community that so intently wanted to save her. And all their efforts did not end up in failures; they saved the life of Purna Prasad who had fallen from the monstrous cliff of Jadi, saved our house and barn from the fire that devoured our Tauwa (haystack), rebuilt the house of Chakrapani eaten away by fire, and rebuilt the Sanghu (wooden-bridge) of Theule Khola swept by a flood. Also, they dropped off food for the students and priest of Jaimini temple when passing by. That is how the life went. There was such a mutual reliance for rendering relief, care, and aid – be it physical, emotional, financial, medical, or any other kind. There was sense of security and protection from threats. Therefore, my community was like an institution for interdependent-care, reciprocity, social unity, disaster relief, and social security that could be at the envy of people of many modern societies.

Not that we always loved one another and did not quarrel with one another, or were devoid of selfish desires! We were the same animalistic greedy people as one can imagine. We stole the neighbors’ cucumbers, mangoes, oranges, and grapes when the very same things were hanging in our own gardens; talk of a kind of stupid-fun – better known today as vandalism! And, bitterest of bitter used to be the word wars when feud ensued. My family and the Kolate family got into some dispute over something I don’t remember and we stopped going to each others’ houses for quite some time. Even people of one village fought with another village over some disputes that I was not fully aware of. People showed alliance to their group irrespective of who was on the faulty side. However, we were bound to an invisible institution that was greater than all of us. We would not dare to not help a friend in distress even if we had a bitter quarrel moments ago. Two feuding families went to one another for Tika during Dashain festival; people revered God and feared his wrath. Grievances were addressed, discords were patched up, and yesterday’s feuding families were friends of tomorrow. There were systemic arrangements to tame the negative effects of feuds and to bring harmony amidst discords. There was always someone or something above and beyond each of us to curb our selfishness to keep us as caring social animals. There was institution for curbing individual disillusionment, protecting common values, and maintaining social order.

Many cultural instruments were built to attach people to the community while satiating their wandering senses. Festivals, Mela (fair), Rodi, Jhyaure, Bhajan, Kritan, Fagu, and Ratyauli fed our desire for fun, lust, and stupidity. Live songs and sounds of musical instruments were heard even in the monsoon season – the season of the most strenuous work. The young were engaged in sports like Bhakundo, Ginthi, Dandi-biyo, Kabaddi, Baghchal, Ek-khutte, jumping from the Peepal tree, and what not. Even farm work and repairing public infrastructures like trails, temples, ponds, and canals used to be fun and often festive. Personal affairs like marriage, Bratabandha (baptism), and funerals were community affairs, and so were plantation, weeding, harvesting, cattle herding, home construction, and many more activities. Therefore, my community was like an institution for maintaining group loyalty, fair-play, and reciprocity. It maintained utmost liveliness amidst hardship and harmony amongst discord. The sports and culture were the tools used to achieve that.

The attitude of people towards life that concerns me and others were varied. When the young guy behind the plow punished our Tauke ox unusually and ruthlessly for not obeying his humanly orders, I was devastated. That particular scene bothers me even today. The very same unruly ox was so nice to me and used to lick me if I went near him; he knew that I cared for him. Yet, when somebody else’s animal ate our crop, I used to hit those animals hard with sticks or stone. Some were equally ruthless to animals whether they were theirs or others. Junga Bahadur used to come with his shot-gun and the bird or two he killed for day’s meal. He boasted about their test. And, there were those who absolutely respected animals. There was one old gentleman, Kaphlarukhe, who hardly ever used his stick on the animals, neither on his nor those of others. When I killed a snake and brought it home to show-off, my sister-in-law said, “Do not kill animals (Prani). It is a sin. It may have died in anguish of pain.” Therefore, there was sufficient dose of respect for life above and beyond us that I was able to feel remorse on purposelessly killing innocent animals. Therefore, my community was an institution, which ultimately taught me the difference between good and bad, and made me respect the sanctity of life.

Although long ridiculed by the advanced world and the budding literates of the society (like me), the institutions of our subsistence-driven society were really advanced in community actions, public good, generosity, and risk management almost as if they got those ideas from the most advanced of post-industrial societies. What they lacked were some material means. In some sense, my community had more desirable characteristics; the social activities and collaborative economic activities were part of the same coin; there was a higher level of parallelism and a greater capacity for survival in the worst of circumstances. Imagine the loss of electricity for a month in an industrialized society! The economy would experience irrecoverable ruin. And when I look back, despite being materially deprived, my life in the village was the happiest of all that my eyes have seen many continents and countries since then.

I believe that I wrote enough about the good sides of the whole story and it is my turn to tell what was wrong. Despite strong community ties that we lived with, these institutions were experience the signs of strain. The land was feeling population pressure due to an unexpected growth, young men were venturing to India for menial jobs leaving families behind, the news of Nepal being one of the poorest in the world was spreading, and ethics was degenerating from top down. The above mentioned institutions were already being weakened by social-cancers. And their ultimate dysfunction and demise was all but certain. I feel fortunate today that I was lucky enough to experience some remnants of the good times that were soon to perish.

Feudal culture, superstition, blind faith and dependence on religion, and prejudice towards its own members were eroding the strength and resilience of the society. It harbored a dreadful caste system where the so called upper-caste people did not even drink the water touched by the so called untouchable lower-caste and performed “purification” rituals in case of bodily contact. In fact, a quarter of the community made up of trades people were subjected to that humiliation. Branded as such were the type of people who in an advanced society would be most sought after like cobblers, tailors, goldsmiths, iron-smiths, weapon makers, masonry workers, cookware makers, musicians, musical-instrument makers, potters, and more. Other castes suffered other forms of exploitation and discrimination. People were superstitious, performed unnecessary rituals, labeled the women who faced misfortunes as witches, humiliated those who were exceptionally different than others, got rid of deformed newborns at birth to “ward off evil possession”, and did not question the relevancy and utility of their beliefs. People were insensitive to others and talked harshly of others even if disliked mildly, dismissed the needs and wants of children, mocked the unfortunate, and looked down upon those who were shortchanged by nature. They overlooked internal family matters even when they involved cruelty. They suppressed the aspirations of half the people by treating women as possessions, boys as desirables, and girls as burdens. They permitted harassment on those having no male protectors. Crooks duped innocent women and children to extract all the gold and silver of the village at one twentieth of the market value and bankrupted the village’s safety-net. They did not pursue literacy, nor education, and nor higher knowledge for more than two centuries and, consequently, had slowly lost all the knowledge and skills that were passed down to them. Their state of illiteracy made them incompetent, backward and clumsy in the eyes of advanced societies and even in the eyes of the city dwellers of Nepal; city bound children were embarrassed to bring their parents to the cities and introduce them to their “smart” friends. I think the stack of complaints is already dizzyingly tall. Enough!

Now, I would pose this question to the reader, “Where is the heart of a society?” I am sure that you have gotten the answer by now. The heart and life-force of a society exists in its institutions. When the institutions are strong, vibrant, and functioning, the society is live, healthy, strong, and growing in material and spiritual prosperity. When the institutions fail, the society experiences a heart attack, as Nepal has been experiencing for quite some time. Today, we have no shame practicing widespread discrimination amongst the children of our own country, not to mention adults. We want prosperity but have no pervasive fabric for innovation, light of education and pursuit of inquiry. We are left with no institutional base for prosperity but a bankrupt rhetoric of nationalism. We are internally hollow but externally sing “patriotic songs” boasting whom we had conquered in the past while in reality depending on others for a meager survival.

When we examine the strength and qualities of my community, we see that it was a place-to-be of one time. Looking at the types of temples they were erecting on the banks of Kali River, the sophisticated varieties of musical instruments they made and played, the types of farming tools and techniques they used, the monstrous cannons they built at Kot, and the sophistication they reached in artisanship, and the amount of gold, silver and ornaments they stashed and wore, one may conclude that they were amazingly advanced, enriched, and semi-industrial people of the not-so-distant past. However, something must have gone awfully wrong for them to lose the pursuit of knowledge altogether and be in a state of degeneration by the time I was born and reach the state destitution in front of my eyes today.

Only plausible explanation for this degeneration that comes to me is “the rise of empires”. For a long time, the people of Nepal were part of small feudatories; all the resources must have belonged to the lord; and a whole setup of a functioning and thriving society might have evolved on the basis of feudalism. Competitions and threats must be fierce and the lords must have gone to a great length to build a united, loyal, and strong society around them. Because of the small sizes of the territories and fear of being taken over, they must have been managed reasonably, responsibly, and responsively. However, when Prithvi Narayan Shah mastered the art of building an empire, much of Nepal fell under his rule in the late 18th century. As the local institution of governance was removed from the territory and a far away city of Kathmandu became the capital, the fortunes of the land must have changed for the worse. A removed government of imperial nature did nothing but to collect more and more tax from the conquered people using its appointed representatives. Having been on a collision course with the more technologically and academically superior British Empire, the royal household of Kathmandu that was plagued with internal feud must have been desperate for survival. For them, the easiest path for survival was isolation and shutting off of the pursuit of knowledge that shone on the people. When literacy and pursuit of knowledge was removed from the society, it became like an animal whose head was detached and taken away. The eventual downfall of the society in every way was all but certain.

As appointees were dispatched to collect taxes and deliver justice, the structures of the local institutions were weakened and patronage and corruption took the foothold. The mutual dependence among people for peace and justice was eroded and people had to go to a far away place and spend fortunes to get justice. Consequently, the justice was to be only for the ones who could afford it. As the country was isolated from the outside world, business and trade plummeted. Political activities were not tolerated; even a mild opposition to the rulers was dealt with a death penalty. The fear of god and stratification of society was practiced to perpetuate “keep in dark”, and “divide and rule” tactics. As fear ruled, the innovative fire of the society got doused quickly.

When poor people had disputes in the village they could not seek the expensive official justice and, therefore, they had to patch-up locally as dictated by traditions. However, when the elites of the village got involved in disputes, the matter became different. When Tanka Bahadur and Bhadra Bahadur, both cousins descending from powerful families, got into land dispute, their fortunes were drained in getting the “justice”. In the end, Bhadra left the village poor and Tanka got a token upper hand. This left them as life enemies. Later on, new feuds with more families emerged in an ever complicated maze and bloods got hotter. Khagendra got murdered; Tanka Bahadur was paralyzed through beating, and two of his sons were murdered! There is no victor in the village, only a bunch of losers. The fabric of our enduring institutions is torn apart and the village is devoid of hope. The spirit of local discourse has been dealt with a mortal blow.

The marginal political consciousness that came to the village in the last few decades further polarized the village. People no longer depended on the community as before but relied increasingly on the party for their new-found and traditional needs. Poverty propelled emigration. Those in the village survive on the backing of remittances. Education got monopolized by the urban wealthy but they could not comprehend the plight the villages. Conditions became right for the societal-cancer to spread rapidly and devour our institutions. Today, the urbanites are angry that there is insufficient industrialization in Nepal and the villagers are angry that Kathmandu-settled politicians falsely represent villages and ignore their dwindling fortunes. The mistrust between the government and the people reigns supreme. The heartbeats of the communities found in their local institutions are dead and the heartbeat faintly kicking somewhere in faraway Kathmandu is unable to pump essential nutrients and oxygen to the remote communities.

To make Nepal hum with prosperity once again, the communities must begin to rally around their own local institutions, cut their partition political ties with Kathmandu, and end their parasitic attachment with outside. They must rebuild those tried and true local institutions of peace, justice, social-security, emotional-health, economic-health, investment, industry, commerce and trade. In doing so, however, they must remove the cancer of feudalism, prejudice, neglect, and superstitions. And they must re-attach the “head” – the organ of literacy, knowledge, and innovation. They must internally identify their aspirations, prioritize them, and determine what they can take from outside, why they should take, and how that is going to strengthen their institutions. At that point, help can be garnered internally and externally to solve the problem of getting the necessary external aid. Rewarding community organizations as they furnish institutional strengthening would be possible to accomplish through external agencies and assistance.

Despite writing a tempting statement in the beginning, this analysis has not delved into what strategies would or may work in Nepal. Rather, it is an examination of where we ought to be and what kinds of institutions are required to be developed to reach there. Given that we know what outcome is desired, it should now be easier to think about how to get there, and what strategy is the best one to take. Therefore, I would conclude by posing a question to the reader, “What might be an aid strategy that can equip and empower local communities to improve their capacity to care for themselves?” Please think!

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