Opinion

Nepal’s Himalayan Human Tragedy

How deeply we’re connected to places, people, and often with the memories of both. Cities and institutions add to our bonds through friendships and relationships. And tragic news. The tragedy
03 May 2015 09:30
Nepal’s Himalayan Human Tragedy
Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on Mount Everest.

How deeply we’re connected to places, people, and often with the memories of both. Cities and institutions add to our bonds through friendships and relationships. And tragic news.

The tragedy of the massive earthquake in Nepal is full of staggering statistics: over 5000 killed, half of Nepal devastated, buildings reduced to heaps of rubble, 8 million people affected in a country of 28 million. And a miracle or two—a 4-month old baby rescued from the debris of concrete, whole and unharmed; a teenager pulled out  alive after five days buried under a five-storey building; a woman survives days under a collapsed structure of stones.

We’re told in numerous reports by ‘live reporters’ and international experts that it was a tragedy that was in the making for a long time: Effects of climactic climate change, nuclear testing, dams built haphazardly, mighty rivers blocked, deforestation, landslides, burning of bushes, logging. And the melting of snow-capped mountains like ice bergs with the greenhouse warming of Mother Earth. It seems Nature is rebelling for the abuse modern greed has heaped on its natural membrane and bosom. The very bowels of the Earth seem poisoned and mutinous.

In our part of the world, these changes to the eco systems can be more terminal and calamitous than the economic ones: several island nations can simply disappear under the rising seas, not to mention the tidal waves, tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanoes. And so much of all this is man-made like the man- forged manacles that imprison many in torture chambers.

One begins to wonder if our lives are infected by some medieval evil: Things are beginning to fall apart and the moral centre—the dharma– of the universe cannot hold it together.

W B Yeats (1865-1939), the Irish poet-politician, wrote the prescient poem, ‘The Second Coming’:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

…And what rough beast, its hour come at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

It’s from this poem that Chinua Achebe took the title of his popular novel, Things Fall Apart, which we taught at USP in the 1970s. The novel was published in 1958—the first novel in English published in Africa. Achebe died a few years ago. Nigeria now makes news by its coups and the crimes of Boko Haram. Even Achebe, who spent so much time, like his literary Nobel compatriot Wole Soyinka in exile, couldn’t have imagined the depredations of the largest and richest African nation.  Just as Nelson Mandela today would feel ashamed of the recent treatment of migrants in South Africa.

Now most of the evil acts are done by the local peoples. This is the tragedy of Nepal also. For years it’s been getting warnings of a nation living on fault-lines, politically, economically and geologically. And added to it is the endemic corruption of many in untrammelled power—from the former kings to current bureaucrats and ideological war-mongers. The king and his family were brutally murdered by one of their own. The Maoists, assisted by an alien force, continue killing their own people. Nepal was the only Hindu kingdom in recent times, and Bali the famous Hindu colony. Both are now notorious for the awful acts of terrorism and violence.

Suddenly the devastating earthquake with a massive loss of life has awakened the world to the conditions under which millions live. Fortunately many Nepalese have lived in India from time immemorial– the borders are porous between the two nations.

When India became independent, it could have gobbled up Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim as China has done with its neighbouring regions like Tibet or Russia did with many others; even after 1989 it’s nibbling at Ukraine after swallowing aptly named Crimea.

But as the tragedy struck Nepal, I thought of my Delhi college friend—a Nepalese student named D.D. Joshi. His father was a railway station master in northern India. One summer holiday I spent at his most hospitable home. Today I’m thinking of him, although I’ve sadly no idea where he is. The human heart responds more compassionately to an individual more than the death of thousands.

Nearer home, I’m remembering a Nepali student named Ram Deo, my secondary school classmate in Nadi: stocky, stolid, stringy and a good soccer player from Sigatoka. I remember him for a very special reason. On May 29 1953, an event of immense significance happened— Everest was ‘conquered’ by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.

Our Indian principal held an assembly to announce the immense achievement of two men reaching the summit of the highest mountain on our planet. The principal was from Kerala, India, and wanted us to feel proud: after all, he’d been touched in his youth by India’s independence struggle.

Tenzing Norgay, for all intents and purposes, was an Indian; certainly of the Indian subcontinent. And he was the first human being standing on top of Mount Everest, the dwelling place of the mighty Hindu god Lord Shiva with a serpent coiled round his bluish neck. From his locks, like a cataract, flowed the world’s most sacred river, the Ganges.

The river winds its way from the great Himalayan ranges through holy cities across the great plains of northern India to the Bay of Bengal. It’s only when you’ve seen the mighty river Brahmaputra in full spate that you begin to appreciate why rivers and mountains are holy and worshipped by millions. They are sources of life and death, destruction and redemption. A dip in the Ganges can absolve one of all sins but the fate of the fishes remains unknown.

It’s been said  the myth, the history, and the folklore of the Ganges ‘inspired Alexander the Great’s expedition through Asia, brought medieval priests to accept the Ganges as the river Phison in Eden, and led Columbus in search of a new route to India.’ No Indian escapes the mystery of this marvellous river, nor its poetry and beauty. No river has created civilisations as ancient as the Ganga, except perhaps the Nile.

But the life-giving Ganges has been polluted by her pilgrims and ‘holy’ cities. The Ganges is dying– even the efforts of PM Narendra Modi don’t seem to have had much effect so far. When rivers die, with them civilisation perish.

My own beloved river Nadi looked muddy, when I visited it last, and full of sludge from Votualevu tobacco cultivation and pesticides from the sugarcane farms. Its clean waters do not ripple in the moonlight any more when seen from my childhood home on a hill.

But I digress—a river is really a stream of memories and dreams. It’s closet to our consciousness.

On May 30, 1953, Ram Deo, the only person of Nepali origin in the school was asked to come forward. Standing on a stool, he was made to face the school assembly of around 350 secondary school children, mainly from the rural areas of western Viti Levu. We stood staring at the sun. The principal began a long speech, occasionally thumping Ram Deo on his well endowed head. Then suddenly everything stopped and the assembly was dismissed.

It seems in the rising heat a couple pallid   town-girls had fainted. They were taken under the huge avocado trees that thatched the school’s main shed. It’s only when Ram Deo himself was about to hit the ground that the principal stopped his speech in praise of the greatest Indian achievement.

Of course Tenzing was born in Tibet and grew up on the edges of the world’s fabulous mountain range, the Himalayas, where he grazed his illiterate father’s yaks. He became for a while the most famous person of the subcontinent—one still remembers his disarming smile as a blaze of publicity lit up around him.

I never met Tenzing, but I’d the opportunity of meeting and spending an afternoon with Sir Edmund Hillary when he was the NZ High Commissioner to India and Nepal. I think he took up the position to be close to Nepal—his great love after New Zealand and the honey bees.

Sir Edmund looked as tall as Mount Everest in 1989 when I first met him. After the conquest of Everest his one memorable comment was: ‘We knocked the bastard off!’

I think he didn’t quite realise that one of the most important Hindu gods, Lord Shiva, dwelt on Mount Everest and the holy Ganges flowed down his luminous locks.

The tragedy in Nepal, however, took me back to Tenzing Norgay. How this humble mountain boy became world famous. Several books have been written on him including a couple of ghost-written autobiographies.

There was something quite special about him. We all heard the first man, Neil Armstrong, landing on the moon in 1969, but it was equally the triumph of technology. The conquest of Everest was pure human endeavour—and that I think is its special appeal. For it is the reflection of the human spirit, rather than of a culture, nationality or some other partisan, limiting ideology or technology.

When one looks at the picture of Tenzing on the top, and the picture was taken by Edmund Hilary, one doesn’t see the face of the man at all. He’s wrapped in the equipment of mountain climbing. Together Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had climbed the highest peak. To ask who put his foot first would be an absurdity.

I’ve had the joy of walking on the foothills of the Himalayas with my students from Doon school in 1963-64. I didn’t quite appreciate the privilege but my two colleagues, Mr Gurudyal Singh and Mr Hari Dang, had been successful on their Everest expeditions. By then climbing Everest had become commonplace.

The tragedy of Nepal is a tragedy made by human beings. And there’s one great inspiration the Sherpa people have, the story of Tenzing Norgay Sherpa. Sir Edmund Hillary wrote with the rare generosity of spirit:

I have never regarded myself as a hero but Tenzing, I believe, undoubtedly was. From humble beginnings he had achieved the summit of the world.

Born in Tibet, reared in Nepal, he lived in India. Mountains and mountaineers of many nations were his companions: from the Roof of the World to the land of Lord of the Rings.

Or to put it another way: The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.

In a nation’s tragedy, one believes such an individual may bring light and give courage to millions.

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