Megalith to Chorten Speak up for the Khas


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Overseas Cargo Service and J.P.N. Exports, Thamel, Kathmandu

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Rev

Aama's-Eye View of America





B

roughton Coburn's Aama in America is the tantalising follow-up to Nepali Aama (1982), his lyrical text-and-photo portrait of the woman from Syangja, Vishnu MayaGurung. Aama in America is the chronicle of octogenarian Vishnu Maya's unlikely pilgrimage to the United States. In addition to being a portrait of the United States—-as seen through Vishnu Maya'sdisplaced but perceptive eye—the book is also the story of the author's relationship with Vishnu Maya (who is hisdharma mother), and with hisnatural mother whose death left him with troubled, unresolved emotions, and with his girlfriend, to whom he is not sure he wants to commit. The book has a large and wide-ranging premise which Coburn tries to resolve, sometimes erratically but mostly engagingly, over a journey that starts in Syangja and goes through the Tokyo airport lounge on to Seattle, Washington, California, Maine, Montana, Washington DC, New York and back to Nepal.

The most luminous parts of Aama in America come from theobservationsmadebyVishnuMaya, whose cultural references are so far removed from those of the country she is visiting that her pronouncements on American cultural artifacts and behaviour are deconstructively incoherent and, at times, visionary. In particular, her encounters with the mundane aspects of American life such as public toilets, safety belts and ice cream abound with wit.

In a grocery store for the first time, Vishnu Maya exclaims, "Mero baajey... look this bazaar, I can't believe it—all the food is lined up, one kind of meat in this line, another kind in thatline, fish set out over there. You would think it would all spoil before people had a chance to eat it."Once, as the author drives by some sheep on acouniry road, she says, "Boy, [a small question of idiom here], those sheep are moving fast—no, wait, we're moving fast." It is precisely this disorientation which gives way to her back-door insights about the United States: at one point, the drab homogeneity of the American highway and the similarity of every Chevron gas station leads Vishnu Maya to believe that Coburn and his girlfriend have been driving her around in circles.

Coburn is sensitive in following the logic of Vishnu Maya's observations. At every sea-shore she searches for Malaysia, which she has been told about by a Gorkha sold ier. She cannot believe that there are no Gorkha soldiers to be met in the country she supposedly calls "Amrita", especially after she meets one quite by chance. She is disdainful of the American custom—or at least oversight—of having toilets on topof kitchens. Her visitto American sacred sites like a Catholic church, the Pacific Ocean, or a meteorite exhibit in New York, capture vivid encounters between ardent, unquestioning Nepali-style worship and the starry-eyed new-age spiritualism, or the

IMS


HIMAL

Aama in America: A Pilgrimage of the

Heart by Broughton

Coburn

Anchor/Doubleday

New York

May 1995

U$ 22.95

ISBN 0 385 47417 2

by

Manjushree Thapa

M. Thapa is author of Mustang Bhot in

Fragments (Himal

Books, 1992). She is

currently working on

her first novel.

United States' boundless profanity. It is especially heartening to read about Vishnu Maya observing, analyzing and passing confident judgement on a land that has intimidated many lesser immigrants. As in Nepali Ama, Coburn portrays Vishnu Maya as a person of rare self-possession. Her response to the United States is like a summons to Nepalis to be confident in ourselves, and in the cultural references we operate in, when confronting seemingly over­powering foreign ways.

Equally charming are snippets of American reactions to Vishnu Maya, who seems to have travelled throughout in velvet blouse, patuka and lungi set off by acoral necklace and medallion-shaped earrings of gold. At the slot machines in Las Vegas, a man recognises her as Mother Teresa. This isolation of many Americans, which leads toa particularly American brand of uninformed but enthusiastic friendliness, is familiar to any Nepali who has been there and tried to explain where heor shecomesfrom.Onechild is inspired by his encounter with VishnuMaya to ask what itisliketodie, followed by, "Has Aama ever died before?" Another child exclaims, 'She lives just like the Flintstones!"

Situations which provide the most dramatic possibility, such as Vishnu Maya's visit to Disneyland or to the casinos of Las Vegas,are, not surprisingly, more flat and cumbersome. Perhaps the contrasts are simply too overwhelming to portray, for the moral gravity of the juxtaposition of Vishnu Maya and Mickey Mouse—when the two meet,oreven when they are worldsapart—cannot be easily expressed with grace. As such, the book might not have lost much had the author refrained from writing about these sections of the journey, and kept the book's premise smaller, more intimate. The reader in search of insight should look to the more low-key but epiphanic segments of the book, such as Vishnu Maya's triumphant, quite logical rejection of the authenticity of whales, or her reaction to large-scale mechanised farming.

The resolution of personal issues regarding the author's mother and girlfriend takes over at the end of Aama in America, which keeps Coburn from ending on a broad philosophical note about the crisis of spirit in the United States, or about the spiritual resilience of Nepalis. In choosing to settle the issues raised by the book only within therealmof his personal experience, Cobum leaves the reader wanting,but not receiving, a forceful conclusion about the way things are or ought to be in one of the world's most spiritually impoverished countries, the United States, and one of the world's most materially impoverished countries, Nepal. This omission, and occasionally strained writing, are the weak points of this otherwise well-conceived book.

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SEED IN SAMADHI, from a speech by H.Y. Mohan Ram, Professor of Botany at the University of Delhi, at a treeplanting ceremony organised by Tibet House in New Delhi to mark the 59th birth anniversary of Tenzirt Gyatso, the Dalai Lama,

A tree is a perfect example of an organisation with its own rules and relationships among the component parts, A tree represents a decentralised democratic system. If a young branch is lopped, another takesits place. Parts of two different trees can be grafted. They will unite and function as one. Another miracle that has baffled scientists is that all flowering plants, including trees, spend a part of their life as seeds. There is no equivalent of a seed in the entire living world. A seed is neither the beginning nor the end. It contains the future plant in the form of an embryo and stored food. A seed looks dead; it has no apparent attributes of life such as respiration, metabolism, growth or responses to stimuli. It can awaken from, this state of suspended animationor satnadhi—when sownand watered. Evenatiny seed hasbuilt-in genetic potential to grow into a particular tree—be it the stately Bodhi tree, the evergreen mango, or the majestic sal.

CHRIST IS MATTREYA BUDDHA, writes

Benjamin Creme of London in the Notes and Queries column of The Manchester Guardian, responding to the question: "If Christ returned, how likely is it that he would become a Christian?"

Very soon, I believe, your readers and the world will know the answer. For 20 years, I have sought, by worldwide lectures, books, Share International Magazine {as editor) and innumer­able TV and radio interviews, to make known the imminence of His return and, since July 191977, the fad of His presence in the Asian community of London.

He has come, as He predicted through Jesus, "like a thief in the night, in such an hour as you think not," and not from "heaven"but from His ancient spiritual retreat in theHimalayas; from where, as the Embodiment of the Christ Principle or Consriousness,His mind "overshadowed" that of Jesus from the Baptism to the Crucifixion. This time, He has come Himself as the leader of a large group of spiritually enlightened men, including Jesus.

He is not a religious teacher per se, but an ed ucator in the broader sense, showing the need for spiritual, political, economic and social structures if we are to survive. He has not come to found a new religion nor to create followers, but to teach humanity "the Art of Self or God, Realisation". Awaited by Christians as the Christ, by Jews as the Messiah, by Muslims as the Imam Mahdi, by Hindus as Krishna, and by Buddhists under His personal name as Maitreya Buddha, He is the World Teacher for all groups.

DIALOGUE WILL NOT WORK, writes

Sankarshan Thakur in The Calcutta Telegraph of 5 May 1995, reacting to the announcement that India and Pakistan are to resume high-level discussions on Kashmir. In the meantime, he writes, "para­dise must suffer its season in hell".

If conflict is the essential truth of our lives and of most of our history, the essential myth about it is that dialogue can resolve conflict. That great and dangerous myth—great because of its sheer size and longevity and dangerous because like all duplicitous things/it wears the mesmeric cloak of virtue—has let us down a million times and a millions times we have fallen. Look at the body of history and you will see how riddled it is with war. If dialogue could resolve conflict, history would be made up of conciliatory whispers, not the sound of gunfire.

The thing about conflict is that it turns on power and powerturnsonits own d ynamic s; dialogue is, at best, a cog i n the workings of those dynamics, it is not power itself. Dialogue is not, and cannot be, essential to conflict resolution;onlypoweris, in whatever manner used. The twist and grip of power can dictate asituation of dialoguebutdialogueitself,andonitsown, cannot achieve much.

This is theessentialthingNew Delhi should remember in the context of Kashmir and Pakistan: dialogue will take it nowhere, only assertion of its power—essentially political and military power—will. If India wants to keep Kashmir, and quite clearly it very much does, it cannot afford any dialogue with Pakistan on the issue. Imagine high level delegations of India and Pakistan ranged—suspicious eyeball to suspicious eyeball, false smile to false smile—across a long table in a long, aloof room in New Delhi or Islamabad. Imagine them starting a dialogue on Kashmir. However they might choose to couch it in diplomatese and however many roundabout ways they might take to say what they have to, the two sides will, in substance say just this: Kashmir is ours, lay off. India will say it is an integral part of the country whose future is not negotiable; Pakistan will say it is psychologically (and historically) part of Pakistan and must be ceded over. (This sort of dialogue, of course, takes place with full prejudice to the people of Kashmir who, in their heart of hearts might be with neither India nor Pakistan, but that is another matter.)

BACK TO THE FUTURE is the title to a chapter written by geographer Jack D. Ives in Mountains: The Illustrated Library of the Earth, a coffee-table book tliat presents the world's highlands from the pens of experts. Ives is editor of the volume.

Is complacency warranted—because of the supposed indestruc­tibility of mountains—or should we give up in despair because mountain topsoil will all be washed into the oceans shortly after


24

May/June T99S HIMAL

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the turn of the century and mountain decertification will pre­vail? Neither complacency nor despair is in order. The answer lies somewhere between the two extremes; in some mountain ranges the situation is close to crisis, whereas in others a healthy relationship between human activities and the environment seems to prevail...

Despair is not called for. Mountain environments and mountain peoples are far more resilient than is often believed. The word 'fragile' is overused and counter-productive. Moun­tain forests do grow back on their own, and mountain farmers, without government or international aid, do plant trees and tend them. Perhaps one of the most important needs is to recognise that mountain peoplecan do much for themselves and have much tooffer the world at large. After all, they have already provided us with potatoes, coffee, maize, and many domesti­cated animals; and there are indigenous crops as yet untapped commercially, suchasquinoa, amaranth, and literally hundreds of species and varieties of tubers and leaf vegetables.

Mountains have been a major influence on the human mind since our ancestors first looked up to them and gloried in their splendour, placed their gods and goddesses among them, and accepted their challenges. They continue to inspire a large sector of society—an inspiration that is greatly needed today. Perhaps the so-called new world order will become a reality as the Cold War and superpower competition fade from memory. Then perhaps the mountain problems can be wisely and effec­tively addressed. This will never come about, however, until the mountain issue is clearly identified and until mountain people, scholars, and decision-makers are working together on a fully international scale.

CULTURE QUIZ in Culture Shock by Jon Burbank ("A guide to customs and etiquette of Nepal", Times Book Interna­tional,1994) contains a test section which challenges travellers to get undertheskinoftbewtive$.Belowis"Situation5",withcommentary.

The office storekeeper on your construction project is discov­ered stealing from the project—about 100 bags of cement and some tools are missing and have been traced back to him. You call in your excellent Nepali project manager and ask him to start placing police charges against the storekeeper. A week later, when you ask what's happened, you are amazed to hear your manager hem and haw before he admits nothing has happened. Maybe, he says, it's just better to let the storekeeper go and forget about things.

You ask your Nepali program officer. He doesn't give a direct answer, but just says what a difficult process arresting and prosecuting someone is. The storekeeper has a wife and three small children, he adds, and the cement

is long since gone, too. You:

A. Call in the police yourself and ask them to arrest the store­
keeper and you start to investigate the program officer and
project manager yourself.

B. Have the storekeeper arrested and bring ina new expat as boss
above the Nepali project manager.

C. Call in your Nepali project and program officers and ask for
their recommendations. They recommend giving the store­
keeper a chance to replace the missing stock and dismissing him
if he can't. They say give him a month to do it, you say a week.
Everybody agrees on two weeks.

Comment: The large amounts of aid coming into Nepal are a temptation some people succumb to. Corruption can be a problem. With the large amounts of materials used in aid projects, it isn't uncommon for some of them to disappear into other people's homes. A tight inventory control system will help remove some of the temptation.

Nepalis are very reluctant to press charges for several reasons. You can never tell where the case will lead to. The trail could lead to government staff or politicians who could make it very difficult to finish the project. Jails in Nepal are not pleasant and neither is being in police custody. Locking the storekeeper in jail puts extreme hardshiponhis whole family.In cases where their own money or safety is not involved, Nepalis are very reluctant to inflict that on somebody else.

You hurt yourself and your office if you call the police without exhausting all other possibilities first. No one will trust that they can speak in confidence to you anymore. Option B doesn't get the cement back and everyone in theoff ice will resent the lack of faith you show in your Nepali staff. With C, at least everyone will see you are giving the storekeeper a fair chance, even if you don't get the cement back. The storekeeper, with no job, no chance of a recommendation, and three kids and a wife to support, is being punished fairly severely, anyway.



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