Memoir: IN THE STREETS OF PRAGUE (Satis Shroff)
‘It’s awfully nice to see you in Czech surroundings’ said my long-lost friend Kundan, as he raised his massive, ornate glass of pivo, the famous black Czech beer. That was in 1976 and the Czechs and Slovaks were a single nation. Kunda Dixit was “Our Man Behind the Iron Curtain” and wrote a column in The Rising Nepal named “Prague Prattles.” Kanak might have the gift of the gab, but I’d always enjoyed Kunda’s literary articles during my Katmandu days, when Hippies and Flower Power people were everywhere, mostly to be seen in the high temples and pagodas, stoned with Cannabis sativa, wearing deshi clothes with the word “Ram” printed on them a thousand times.
In Katmandu it was a delight to go to the many psychedelic cafes, where you could drink tea and relish Katmandu’s “special” cake baked with hash. After that, and a round of charas smoking, Katmandu looked different. Fantastic, psychedelic Katmandu, made immortal by Cat Stevens in those days.
The place was U-Thomas, a well known beer tavern in Prague, and seated on a long table were five Nepalese male students and two female Germans. It was good to hear Nepalese being spoken, because over the months I’d had been in Germany, I’d heard only German, French, Spanish or Italian. The joint reminded me of a disco-cellar called ‘Le Caveau’ in Freiburg, a small town in southern Germany, except that there wasn’t any music. However, the din that arose from the tables loaded with loquacious and jolly Czechs would have drowned any type of music, and their presence only heightened the noise.
And who bothers about music, especially when old friends meet in a tavern 9000 km away from the Himalayas. It was one ‘cheers’ and ‘prost’ after another. That’s the wonder of the excellent 13% pivo. They say in Prague beer foamed in the tankards of its citizens long before Columbus discovered America.
When abroad, the Nepalese are always confronted with the question: ‘how do you say ‘cheers’ in your language?’ Which is quite embarrassing, because Nepalese always say ‘pyuno hos!’ (please feel free to drink) or ‘pyunu paryo!’ (let us drink), ‘huncha?’(shall we?) huncha! (we may). The whole affair is carried out non-verbally with a lot of affirmative head shaking from left to right, smiles and the eyebrows taking off like a pair of boomerangs..
The tavern just wasn’t a place where one could do any serious talking because of the general clamour. and we had to contend ourselves with small-talk that passed in the name of conversation. There were a good many interruptions when curious Czechs, high on beer, would stop over at our table and ask us where we came from. One could imagine their curiosity since we looked very different from the usual European foreigners in stature and complexion and, of course, sense of humour, for there we were rollicking with what the Germans call ‘Lebensfreude’ and the French ‘vivre’.
One burly, rosy-cheeked Czech, with a receding forehead, wearing a sailor’s uniform, who had plainly drunk one pivo too much, came every now and then asking for cigarettes. Either there were no cigarette-automats in the tavern or the fellow was broke. When we ignored him, the Czech began to pantomime a Sherpa-porter carrying a load on his back. We didn’t react. After a short while he got bored and left. We also left U-Thomas.
It was winter and there was snow everywhere in the city, and icy gusts of wind blew incessantly, as we walked along the slippery streets of Prague. We boarded the rickety red-coloured state-run tram.
‘That’s the Eiffel Tower of Prague,’ said the jolly Gurung friend, as he pointed to the look-out tower on the Petrin, which formed an impressive background to the grey student hostels, where our Nepalese friends were residing. The amiable Gurung was entertaining the two German ladies in good German, and I noticed that he’d started the conversation with a game of associations: German associations. He mentioned the positive images of Germany: Beckenbauer, Bayern Munich, the VW Beetle (which was still in production at Wolfsburg then), Berlin as a wonderful city, Karel Gott the Czech singer who sings successfully in German, and soon he’d found a tenor which amused the Teutonic ladies. He was doing famously.
I noticed that quite a few Nepalese students had married blonde Czechs and settled down in Prague. There they were, out in the cold, fresh air with their wives and prams, exchanging greetings in Nepali, Newari and Czech languages. The idea appealed to me. Bilingual or multilingual children who visited Czech or Nepalese schools in Czechoslovakia or Nepal. Why not settle down in a foreign country? Or bring your foreign wife or husband home? You could decide where you wanted to live later. There was also the possibility of oscillating between two countries to counter the people who shout “brain-drain!” Or open a travel agency and send Czech tourists on guided trekking tours to the Himalayas? A good many Nepalese students from the Lumumba-Friendship University and Moscow University have brought their Russian spouses along, and they run elite-schools in Katmandu, where the children learn English, Nepal and French. It’s not unusual to see foreign females teaching in Nepalese schools since decades. The number of foreign women married to Nepalese males is rising. And also the number of foreign males taking a Nepalese bride.
On the next day we were invited to a Nepalese lunch: dal-bhat-shikar cooked by one of the brahmin students, and it was delicious. The German ladies Andrea Okewitz and Antonia Trapp relished it. Their only complaint was: ‘Es war scharf!’ (It was hot with chillies). But what’s an Asian meal without chillies? Or sambal olek? Or chutney and achar? Most Germans have a mild taste indeed, and prefer plain boiled potatoes and lot of sauerkraut, in addition to mountains of meat.
While waiting for a bus near the student hostel, I couldn’t resist the temptation of scooping handfuls of snow and confronting the others with snowballs. Soon we had, what the German ladies called a big ‘Schneeballschlacht’ in progress. It had snowed heavily the night before and was awfully chilly.
‘Do you have any samachar (news) from Nepal?’ I asked my pale, bespectacled friend Kundan, who was a brahmin, a high-caste Hindu, and could easily pass off as a European from the north. He’d been home and had mentioned that the policeman at the Pashupatinath hadn’t let him through into the sanctum sanctorum becaus they’d thought he was a foreigner, a “quiray: He Who Has Grey Eyes,” as Nepalese are wont to call westerners. My friend Kundan had reassured the policeman in fluent Nepali but the man had retorted with, ‘A lot of foreign development workers speak better Nepali.’ It was only after Kundan had produced his janai (sacred thread), which most high caste Hindus wear after an elaborate ritual-ceremony, that the policeman waved him past.
“When I left Nepal about two months ago, Nepal was rotting. It was dying. One of those slow painful processes, complete with rattles and groans,” said my long lost friend
‘Was it so dramatic?’ I asked him, for ever since I’d been living in Germany I had only heard of Nepal in the German media when some German expedition had climbed a peak or some crazy yeti-search expedition had thought they’d sighted the abominable snowman.
‘I won’t go through the morbid details and make your life miserable,’ he said with a beneign expression and a twitch of his facial muscles, as he went on to say: “Frankly, I’ve been so anaesthesized by time and instance. I couldn’t express the horrors of contemporary Nepalese life, even if I wanted to. I’m not a pessimist, neither a fatalist, but I don’t see any hope for my beloved motherland. Don’t expect any news coming from that direction to be good news.’
That sounded very pessimistic indeed. Perhaps the Nepalese are survival artists. I couldn’t find another explanation. In the past we have adapted to different dynasties of rulers in Nepal, and in modern times have survived the rule of the arrogant Ranas and the greedy Shahs. And now the republic-minded Maoists under Prachanda. I like to compare politics in Nepal as an eternal game of chess in which the players change after the shuffle of power but the plights of the poor farmer and common man remains miserable all the while. At the moment, the Maoists (tigers) are making the move, but the democratic goats are fighting for the political rights as equaly in the republican parliament. Meanwhile, the Madhesi goats in this political game of bagh-chal (Tiger Move) want to quit the chess board called Nepal and want a pro-Indian state of their own.
‘Just a week ago the Nepalese rupee was devalued 16%. Imagine the plight of an ordinary Nepalese civil servant, who is by comparison much better off than his fellow men financially’, said Kundan.
‘He’ll have to pay 16% on basic commodities like rice and dal. It’s saddening.’
He was right. There was no real democracy in Nepal. The Panchayat System, with its intricate, archaic network of nepotism, corruption and couldn’t-care-less mentality was bleeding the country. The Nepalese intellectuals were playing it safely, and those who cared were living in exile in India in those days. The entire media was controlled by the Palace Secretariat, and letters, pleas and petitions to the government for justice went unanswered. If you had connexions in the government or the palace, you could climb the career ladder fast, and if you didn’t have what the simple, honest Nepalese calls “source and force” or “afnu manchey” in the higher echelons of the government and the Narayanhiti palace, you could slave all your life, and still remain in the same job. Now that the king has been ousted and declared a common citizen of Nepal with the previlige of having to pay tax like all mortals, chakari has changed sides and, like in all socialist countries, it helps to have connections in the Maoist-cadre and among the democrats among the Congress and other parties.
A Nepalese king, Prithvi Narayan Shah who was declared the founder of Nepal, had described Nepal as a ‘yam between two big stones’ meaning thereby Tibet (later China) and India. The small country has had a tough time trying to keep a balance between its two gigantic neighbours, who had already fought a Himalaya-war in 1962, which the Chinese had won. After China had annexed Tibet, India did likewise in annexing Goa and Sikkim. And now Nepal was in the news again. There was an article in the French Le Monde datelined New Delhi about the Indo-Nepalese trade and transit agreement which was to expire in August that year (1976).
“The Empress has not forgotten the Nepalese indignation over Sikkim, and demands that Nepal should pay for oil in dollars,’ said my friend. ‘Transit duties have also been raised.’ The word ‘Empress’ was reserved for Indira Gandhi. She was known for her constitutional chicanery and her almost totalitarian Emergency of 1975.
I remember my New Yorker journalist friend Paul Wohl, who used to write for the Christian Science Monitor, quoting from a Parisian newspaper and telling me, ‘On April 2, 1976 Nepal signed a treaty with Bangladesh providing for use of the port of Chittagong for transit shipments to Nepal, but India is taking advantage of the narrow strip of Bengal which separates Bangladesh from Nepal.’ Thus Le Monde.
Whereas the Chinese had their own problems with Tibetans and the implementation of maoistic-ideology, and in maintaining a strict border policy, Nepal’s southern border with India was open for smugglers, tradesmen and border-dwellers from both sides. The government carried out a programme of resettlement of hill tribes in the flatlands, but the recent Madhesi movement which has gained momentum shows a different trend. The Madhesis, as the people of the Terai call themselves (and hill people are called Paharis), have a lot in common with the Indian culture and would like to see themselves integrated with the big neighbour to the south, for Katmandu has ignored them in all those years. Be that as it may, a peaceful compromise has to be found.
After India’s two major border conflicts with Pakistan, and the storming of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), the Indian armed forces were getting bolder. Nepal and the other Himalayan nations wouldn’t be able to put up much resistance against the newly created mountain-divisions of the Indian Army. The diplomatic and peaceful channel was the call of the hour. And thus King Birendra’s fervent wish to have Nepal declared as ‘a zone of peace’ guaranteed by international treaty’ like Switzerland in Europe, which was recognized by all warring countries as a neutral territory. Even though China, USA and a host of countries supported the proposal, its immediate neighbour Indian didn’t.
India, through an inspired article, put it this way: ‘The pre-condition for an improvement of Indo-Nepalese relations is the unequivocal acceptance that Nepal, which forms an enclave on the Indian side of the Himalayas, must belong to the defence system of the subcontinent.’ Thus Her Gracious Imperial Majesty…’, said Kundan, with bitterness in his voice. There was no doubt that Nepal was India-locked and not only land-locked. Mrs. Gandhi made also insane internal attempts at social discipline of the Indian masses through licensed thuggery and mass sterilisations.
All that was a long time ago. Indira Gandhi, the uncrowned Empress of India, is dead. Rajiv Gandhi has been murdered. (And so is Benazir Bhutto recently). There was democracy and a multiparty-system in Nepal. A congress party, which had operated all those years in exile in India, held the maximum number of seats in the Nepalese parliament in those days, and Indo-Nepal relations were flourishing with new trade and joint ventures, despite the protests from the communist faction that Nepal was selling out to the neighbour from the south. In the Panchayat era, Katmandu’s beggars were rounded up and transported to the south. They turned up two days later after a long return-march along the Tribhuvan Rajpath. This only showed that you can’t drive people away. They wanted their rights. Human rights, which was long ignored in this kingdom of the past.
Then came Katmandu’s ecological-minded mayor, who wanted to drive the hawkers and peddlers away from Asan Tole and Indrachowk, without much of an alternative, apparently because Katmandu has sister-cities in the western world. But will driving away hawkers and beggars alone be a lasting solution to the problems? After all, what is a hawker or a beggar or a leprosy patient? A human being, a Nepalese in search of a better means of existence and medical treatment. Promising a better quality of life to one section of the population at the cost of the other? There are too many unanswered questions still floating in the Himalayan air. Since King Gyanendra has been stripped of his power, but still prefers to pay his ritual homage to the Katmandu Kumari, the Living Goddess, there are some democrats who still want him as their monarch. The Maoists, however, have took a no-nonsense course and have enforced their idea of turning the former kingdom as the republic of Nepal. Instead of the Anchals or zones we have Swiss Cantons now. The disarming and disbanding of the militant Maoist warriors is another social problem in Nepal. Does the new nation need so many ex-Maobadi fighters in the Nepalese Army? Can the former fighters be recruited to work for the development of Nepal in different development projects? The would be in interest of the country for the youth of Nepal need to be given a future and their destructive energy acquired during the decade-long war be, to borrow a Freudean expression, sublimised towards creativity.
We in the west have to wait and see what unfurls in the years to come with curiosity, anguish and interest. Meanwhile, the first thing that my old friend did when he returned to Nepal with a Slovanian degree from Bratislava, was to build a gobar-gas installation for our dear Deviji.l creation. I’m sure Door Bahadur Bista was delighted to see Kundan’s technologic The food was excellent., as usual, but the kitchen smelt a bit of Landluft, as we say in the German-speaking word. It’s a pity Deviji doesn’t cook for lesser mortals. Her cuisine is the best in Patan. I’d even go further—in the whole Kathmandu Valley.
Another dear friend Christa Drigalla who runs the Interplast hospital at Sankhu mentioned that she has also started a new kitchen production for Nepalese moms, this time a German designed one.
Satis Shroff teaches Creative Writing at the University of Freiburg. He is a writer living in Freiburg (Germany) and has written textbooks on Nepali: Sprachkunde for Germans (Horlemann Verlag, Bad Honnef) and has written for Nelles Verlag’s guidebook ‘Nepal’(Munich), articles in The Christian Science Monitor, The Fryburger, The Rising Nepal, Radio Nepal, Himal Asia, the Nepalese Perspective and Nepal Information (Cologne). He has studied Medicine and Sozialarbeit in Freiburg and Creative Writing (Manchester). He is the published author of three books on www.Lulu.com: Im Schatten des Himalaya (book of poems in German), Through Nepalese Eyes (travelgue), Katmandu, Katmandu (poetry and prose anthology by Nepalese authors, edited by Satis Shroff). His lyrical works have been published in literary poetry sites: Slow Trains, International Zeitschrift, World Poetry Society (WPS), New Writing North, Muses Review, The Megaphone, The Megaphone, Pen Himalaya, Interpoetry. Satis Shroff is a member of “Writers of Peace,” poets, essayists,novelists (PEN), World Poetry Society (WPS), Boloji and The Asian Writer. He describes himself as a mediator between western and eastern cultures and sees his future as a writer and poet. He is dedicated to promoting and creating awareness for Nepal’s literary heritage and culture in his writings and in preserving Nepal’s identity in Germany. Satis Shroff was awarded the German Academic Exchange Prize.