Published in: NepalNews.com
The Jimirghat Bridge over Kali River had broken during the Maghe-Sankranti fair of 1978. This meant that Kali became a formidable barrier in route to Kathmandu from our mountain village. In the midst of torrential monsoon rain, on a single log canoe ferry, we took a risky adventure of crossing Kali, which was roaring with massive flood water. The risks and difficulties of our journey were overshadowed by our excitement for new experiences. Our first ever bus ride the next evening from Naudanda to Pokhara also remained forever memorable. In the evening of the third day, we took our first step to Kathmandu city, the gateway to future for aspirants. Its notable impact was a realization that we in the villages were so far behind in the race of time.Kathmandu was the most prized place to which educated Nepalese from everywhere flocked, a sharp contrast to our almost entirely illiterate village. Prized campuses of Tribhuvan University like ASCOL, Tri-Chandra, Maharajgunj, and Pulchowk, were only found there. Also found were the most varieties of life’s amenities. So many options just for stove alone: wick stove, pressure stove, coal stove, sawdust stove, and even electric stove, factory-made in standardized sizes and shapes. A village Chulo took any size or shape, but burned what was only known from traditions – wood. In Kathmandu, even the shoes came in large varieties, whereas all of us walked barefoot in the village. A few people like my father owned their pair of locally-made shoes, which they wore on special occasions. Our village was stuck to a poor economy, poor education, poor facilities, poor opportunities, and poor knowledge of the outside world.
In the villages, we were bound to bondages of tradition, obligation to blood-relations, and loyalty to the village. Outsiders were immediately known and who is going to belong with whom was predetermined. Members were obligated to uphold community values and not digress in their own unique paths. But in the city, we had much individual freedom: no bondage of tradition, no need for daily prayers before eating, and no one cared if we did not show up in the classes at the university. What mattered were other shared qualities like situation, profession, ideology, workplace, and social class. People of different places, social castes, and ethnic groups fused here much better than in the villages. People from so called upper casts to untouchables ate together without any fear for stigma. Individuals followed more of their natural will in choosing their group belongings. Average people navigated their way into a complex system using their own devices, but accordingly found superior professional opportunities and intellectual freedom.
As new entrants to the city, we were willing to give up anything we knew in order to be in tune with the new world we had come in contact with. We also discovered that even Kathmandu was very poor compared to other countries. We, therefore, had this natural urge to know why others did better than us. Thus we competed fiercely for opportunities for studying or training in other countries. And, some of us ultimately emerged in cities of industrialized countries.
More developed places we went, more money we made, higher we developed professionally, better houses we lived in, and more choices of material and services we enjoyed, and better public facilities like schools, hospitals, roads, and parks we accessed. Not to mention, we blended in a modern mass society as its members, legally equal in standing with other citizens of the new places. We got used to a new social order which prized neutrality and non-discrimination, and sought humane treatment to all. We exercised individual freedom, and consequently became unnoticeable, as everyone else. We experienced modern and efficient societies governed by a professional, impersonal, and codified system. Everything appeared so very normal and good.
With the passage of time, we realized that something was lost along the way and what we had perceived as complete was not complete after all. Even the advanced society, which I considered as free was not a truly free society to liberate us from all bondages. In a pursuit to build a free and fair society, every individual was made to latch onto a system built from a common code. A person is made to respond to the code, like a driver constantly engaging his mind in maintaining a state-assigned speed rather than engaging the mind on profound ideas, even when he is alone on the road. Thus, a person built subservient relationship with generalized rules that reign above all. Even each member of a family is first connected to the law, then only to the family. These relationships collectively form a symbiosis to give rise to a system that treats all persons equally and without discrimination. The difficulty is that the system of a mass society cannot treat the individuals individually and different situations differently. Sooner or later an individual person realizes that the system was designed to serve the impersonal and homogeneous mass. One as an individual loses his or her significance for the sake of building a mass identity. They gain non-discriminative treatment at the expense of connectedness and richness of living. But seated deep inside each of us is a person that is reluctant to accept oneself as an anonymous member of human species. Therefore, we become troubled by the incompleteness of the system in which we live.
Through the application of democracy, we try to make all citizens equally influential. Elections are held every four or five years. However, they are so poorly instrumented that they are giving rise to acrimonious societies than the aspired fair and argumentative societies. The day after the election, those who are able to influence the elected officials or to exploit the vantage of rules become the winners at the expense of the rest toiling for daily living. Because the rule must be placed higher than a person, all the tricks to winning and losing can be embedded within and in between the rules. That is the reason why even the narrowing of human gap achieved through struggles of the past are being wiped out slowly and surely despite the increasing exercise of democracy. Amidst many-fold rises in productivity and wealth, a person today lives to work and does not work to live. People spend more time nursing their stresses than on the thoughts for enhancing the richness of the society.
After all, there never is a perfect place of residence in the entire world. Even the most advanced place we came to belong to could not complete our quest for finding a place of true belonging. Our belonging to this mass society has been by a virtue that “we all belong” in a general sense. Ours is a legalist belonging in a society that acts like a collection of a large number of independent and equal people where an average individual is neither significant nor insignificant. Even in a neighbourhood, we live in individual dwellings without a sense of personal connectedness with people living next to us. While being entertained in theatres, people sitting next to one another may have no connections and may not interact with one another.
What we lose in the process is the personal sense of belonging where we physically interact with one another and the worth of personal existence. The rise of mass society has cost us the community where its members are significant, courageous, and robust. A mass society offers so large a community that it is not a community anymore because its members are strangers and insignificant to one another; they are servile, delicate, and risk-averse.
Those of us who grew up in rural communities have an imprint of not only the downside of rural living but also its upsides. The biggest of the upsides are the courageousness of people and richness of community spirit. There everyone knows everyone else and has a personalized way of greeting them, like Kanchha Ba and Thuldidi. And deep inside, we love to belong to places where everyone knows us and where human connections are strong. But that is possible only in small places. There all people come for help when someone runs into trouble. In a big city, an impersonal and specialized department called police will be called in times of distress or even during accident. People living in adjoining apartments may not know the distress of their neighbour.
It seems to me that the size of the piece of “pie of richness” we can eat depends on our intellectual capacity and state of self-cultivation. When drifting from society to society, we get something we like but also we lose something that we love. In the village, there was connectedness and accordingly greater was the courage of individuals, but also great was the ignorance about outside world and the hurt when the connections ran under stress. In the metropolis, we have more freedom but accordingly greater is the trauma of insignificance and loneliness; we are fusing and diffusing in the mass at the expense of identity and self-worth. Although food in the city was cooked in too many types of stoves, it tasted so much better in the village. Although people in past spiritual societies might have lived under less stress, people in modern industrial societies live longer, produce more, and face negligible physical hardship. Although a modern man may go to movie theatre to watch a performance rich 3D movie, a participant of a Rodi in a Nepali village would certainly come out with a greater and richer quality of fun. Thus the quest for quality of life cannot just stop as yet, or never should.
Today, the industrial society is extending its tentacles in every corner of the world. Consequently, rural communities are experiencing erosion of values and are economically falling farther behind large cities, and are suffering a slow death under the shadow of industrial economy. The centralization, standardization, and synchronization loving industrial economy draws the society’s juice to the metropolis where trained people, energy, capital and state power are concentrated. Rural communities have no such offering for people to return back.
Ironically, however, the industrial economy is slowly clipping its own tentacles. The spread of Internet, computing, information, technology, distance-education, and other mind-intensive and labour-sparing technologies have opened some escape doors from the monopoly of the industrial economy. They are demolishing the barriers of physical distance. Soon rural communities could remotely access the same knowledge as that accessed by the people in the metropolis. It would then be possible for rural people to intellectually and technically be in lockstep with urban dwellers. People with rural roots would have opportunities to reconnect with the places they left. The daring may return while continuing to participate in productive knowledge activities. The technology-assisted collaboration would allow them to create virtual cities that thrive on knowledge economy while physically living in connected and agile rural communities. Proliferation of knowledge and creativity would offer “the best of both worlds” in rural communities, while simultaneously raising their economic and pedagogic health.
When knowledge barriers are broken, rural communities that are in the decline today could offer not only the physical connectedness among its people and agility of a small group, but also wither the size disadvantage through productive inter-linkages with the world. Innovative communities could then offer alternative living with less stress and respectable quality of life to people of knowledge alienated by other economies. Using the knowledge as the capital and power, it would be possible to convert the monsoon waters that made the river like Kali to go wild into an agent for transforming agrarian communities into agrarian-knowledge economies and into places for knowledge pilgrimage. Let the crossing away by people over Kali be converted into reverse crossing of knowledge and attraction to the very land that people had left. After all, the future will be there where people recognize the power of knowledge and ride on its wave through a path of lifelong learning and innovation!