A day before the elections
The practice of democracy in Marpha is doubly dismaying. There is a robust and functional local democracy. But Nepali democracy comes here through the filter of tribal loyalty, therefore it manages to be extremely exclusionary. On the one hand the practice of a traditional form of democracy is celebrated as a model for citizens’ participation and cordial decision-making. On the other hand, their distancing from national politics and political issues is disconcerting.
Marphalis are polite, cultured, and more educated than any other group of Nepalis that aren’t from an Indian background (Nepali Jains, Kayasthas and Marwaris are the only other groups with higher literacy rates). Thakalis are by far the most educated group among the indigenous populations. Landed Thakalis are very well off. Global market forces play directly into lives of Marphalis – most families have members living either in the urban centers of Pokhara and Kathmandu, or flung farther afield in Europe, Japan or the Americas. Ever since China’s Tibet has achieved a dubious sort of material prosperity, the price of yaks from Mustang has shot through the roof (from about NRs 15-20000 per animal a decade ago, the price has increased to over NRs 100000 this year). It is more profitable to send the cattle off to Tibet for slaughter. Pokhara is just a day’s bone-breaking bus ride away, so the local apples fetch a better price than ever before.
Not unlike the influence of Tibetan refugees on Nepali culture in the past four decades, the influence of Thakalis on the food and hospitality industry in Nepal is outsized to their share in the population. The real wealth of the Marphali Thakalis comes from their hard work in the fields and in the kitchen. They grow good beans and greens, which they cook well and take pride in serving for a premium. The regular dal-bhat is but a poor man’s version of the Thakali thali. As a local elder put it, “Our ancestors taught us two things: honesty, and cleanliness and attention in the kitchen. We have survived on that legacy.” By now, Thakali is not merely an ethnic identity – it is a premium brand sold to the rest of Nepal, and increasingly, to the rest of the world.
That premium brand requires generational stewardship. Knowledge about local weather patterns, grazing meadows and waterways, the cattle and their seasonal rhythms, local seeds and ways to prepare their yield – these ideas need to be kept alive, within the community, if the generations to come are to successfully profit from their collective inheritance.
At Shree Janabahal Secondary School, the local secondary school with 100 students and 18 teachers, you will be hard pressed to find even a handful of Thakali children. Some locals insist there is just the one Hirachan boy in the 9th grade – other Thakali children are from families that have taken on the last name to facilitate their assimilation into the local economy. There is one Thakali teacher, and some 15 bahuns from the south. Typically, a Thakali child will attend the school in the Tibetan camp across the river, then move on to the boarding school in Jomsom, or to schools in Kathmandu and Pokhara. The new generation of Thakalis do not learn how to tend to the cattle, how to irrigate the land or prune the apricots and apples. Soon, they’ll forget the boundaries between their pastures and the outside world. They will not remember the reasons why they have always married within their four-name sub-group.
The rest of the students at Janabal come from Dalit, Magar and Gurung families that have migrated to Marpha. Some Dalit families have been here for many generations. Some have been here long enough that the systematic alienation of their communities from the benefits of prosperity in the valley has pushed them towards new ways of positioning themselves in the community. Some half a dozen families attend the two churches in the Dalit part of the village. Marphali leaders have developed a scheme to provide low-interest loans to Dalit men who wish to travel abroad in search of work. The new generation of Dalits wants to wean itself off the dependency on farm work for the landed Thakalis. Young boys want to become drivers and trekking guides.
The basic problem is this: as much as the democratic practice within the landed Thakali community follows age-old decorum and tradition that guarantees representation and regard for dissenting voices, it is practiced to prop up an agrarian economy that isn’t accountable to those whose toil to keep it alive. The people that do the bulk of the work that goes into sustaining the notion of Thakali stewardship of the land don’t actually get a proportionate benefit from it.
The very people who live the traditional Marpha way of life are not Marphali Thakalis as much anymore as they are Dalits who have been working the land for generations. Pariyars are most numerous, but there are also Biswokarmas, and at least one family of Sarkis. The famous democracy of the precious-stones set of Thakalis (Lalchan, Hirachan, Pannachan, Jwaharchan) doesn’t really include the Dalits who have the task of physically manifesting the essence of the democratic decisions – whose cattle graze where, who gets the water for his fields and when, etc. No self-respecting Thakali will sell or lease a house on the main road through Marpha to a Dalit family. Even if a Dalit person tried to buy a house, she wouldn’t be able to afford it. Yes, a couple of Dalit elders are invited when village elders meet, but they must stay outside the room, to be told what decisions were taken. They are but glorified messengers.
Marpha’s relationship with national politics is that of alienation and disdain. None of the issues that matter to the nation at large has a real impact on Marpha. So what if Nepal doesn’t have a constitution yet? For centuries, Marphalis have had their living, adaptable constitution that informs each aspect of life. So what if there is social and economic inequality in the rest of the country? The four-names have always made sure everybody gets a comfortable share of what the land gives. Since the Mukhiyaship rotates every three months, everybody gets to exercise leadership – this guarantees social equality. Politics here rarely ever interferes with development work, because, unlike the rest of the country, all Thakalis band together to build waterways and roads and schools, regardless of party affiliation. One tribal affiliation always trumps the other kind of tribal affiliation. Women may not be present to vote on issues, but if a woman champions an issue, or submits an amendment to the Thakali bylaws for consideration by the assembly of elders, the amendment must be discussed. See – no evil of patriarchy oppressing the women here! (Except, of course, they must marry within the four-names. Even marrying a Thakali outside the precious-stones set is considered an inter-caste marriage.)
Because of this security regarding their own norms and traditions, Marphali Thakalis aren’t much invested in what happens south of Ghasa, the southernmost village in Thakalidom. Thakalis are both a mercantile diaspora, and a deeply rooted agrarian community. The mercantile half of the family isn’t confined to Pokhara and Kathmandu anymore – it is taking its business acumen to Japan, Australia, the UK, the USA. The agrarian half is still pruning the apple trees, carrying compost to the fields, cutting yak meat into sukuti strips. The two halves don’t need the rest of Nepali society or polity as a bridge of any kind.
In a couple of hours, I will walk to Janabal School, where the election booth is set up. There should be some 500 voters coming to the booth, according to the locals, but a substantial number hasn’t registered to vote. A young woman put it this way – “There is always more than one person you know on the ballot. It is easier to tell them I am not registered instead of voting for either of them.” It is a secret ballot. It shouldn’t matter what either candidate believes about the voter’s loyalty – what should matter is that the voter casts a considered vote. But tribal affinity seems to trump any notion of citizenship.
Marpha is no different from any other village along a famous trekking circuit in its disdain for outsiders. By outsiders they mean Nepalis – the real outsiders, especially white-skinned foreigners, are their source of income, so very welcome indeed. At Ghasa, when I asked for a bus ticket to Marpha, the Thakali boy behind the counter scrutinized me, then asked in Hindi — Akele? Alone? There is a separate ticket price for Indians, as is there for the Gora — for that hellfuck of a bus ride. I shook my head in pity and said — Han, Kathmandu se akele aaya hun. Alone from Kathmandu. When he told me the fare, I asked him why he was charging me more than he was charging the others. He said Indians have to pay more. “Anuhaar herera Nepali bhanera chindainau, bhai? Timro anuhaar herera Thakali bhanera chinchhu ma ta.” Can’t you tell I am Nepali? I can tell you are a Thakali, I said. He wasn’t amused. He is an extension of a generational worry — that the road will bring outsiders, that too many Nepalis will want to come here for the work, for the land, for the view, and somehow ruin the tranquility of a tourist paradise, somehow corrupt the famous Marphali brand.
I will eavesdrop at the election booth and report on what I see and hear. I want to see how many Dalits show up to vote for the various Thakali candidates, and what they believe will be the benefit from voting for Thakali candidates. If I meet election observers, I will ask them questions. Perhaps Marpha will surprise me with its enthusiasm and participation in the national political process. Perhaps I can shed my prejudices about the dubiousness of the local democratic process.