Curse, Myopia and Amnesia



My wife and I recently went to see the Koh-i-noor, drawn in by its curse and controversy. Brought from India and set in the crown of late Queen Elizabeth, wife of George VI, the diamond (105 carats) is the fifth biggest—the biggest is the Culinan 1 (530 carats)—in the world. The Culinan and Koh-i-noor, together with a few other world famous diamonds, are on display in the Jewel House in the Tower of London.

Two million people visit the Tower, a palace converted into a museum, every year paying a hefty fee of 20 pounds each. Many other palaces turned into museums—such as the Louvre and Versailles in France, Topkapi in Turkey, Museo Cerralbo in Spain, and Lal Kila in India, etc.—have also become huge spinners of tourist dollars. So have the remnants of lost civilizations and faiths—such as Mayan and Egyptian pyramids.

Sheetal Niwas in 1923.

Mounir Zharan, my friend and once adviser to President Hosni Mubarak, told me soon after the Tablibans destroyed the Bamian Buddhas in Afghanistan that Egypt, when it embraced Islam, almost demolished the pyramids and sphinx. But wisdom prevailed and now those historical monuments rake in millions of tourist dollars every year.

Philosopher George Santayana has said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I would add this: Preserving history and culture pays handsome dividends. Those who wage war on their history and culture lose big.

How is Nepal doing in preserving history and culture? Very poorly. Temples suffer deep neglect. Greedy predators have usurped and destroyed many pauwa pati and sattal (community centers and inns) to build private homes. Political mobs have pulled down several statues of historical and cultural significance. Only recently, even the government tried to remove some of these treasures from public places.

Specifically, when monarchy was abolished, I had hoped Narayanhiti Palace would be converted into a museum and preserved to display crowns and other regal paraphernalia. But no. Then-Foreign Minister Upendra Yadav, driven by an egotistic crave for the pyrrhic glory of having his office where the king had his, wanted a portion of it. Other ministers did not care, and the cabinet gave part of Narayanhiti Palace to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.What a terrible misuse of a valuable national treasure!

Indeed, the Ministry, housed in Sheetal Niwas, had to move out when the cabinet decided to convert the red-bricked building into the Presidential palace. Krishna Shamsher Rana had donated it to government for use as the state guest house, and Queen Elizabeth, President Rajendra Prasad, and Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Chou En-lai and others had stayed there.The section where these dignitaries had spent their Kathmandu sojourn could have been an important point of tourist attraction.

This was another blatant misuse of a national treasure. The Ministry should have gone back to Singh Durbar. Admittedly, Sheetal Niwas had already lost much of its luster when one of my successors converted the section where the foreign dignitaries had stayed into the foreign secretary’s office. The cabinet completed the misuse by designating it the Presidential palace.

The decision is wrong for two reasons. First, Sheetal Niwas has nearly 100 rooms, which the President does not need for his residence and small office. Besides, people could connect with their President more easily if he were living in modest quarters, not in a palace. Second, the decision goes against the benefactor’s wish. The most appropriate use of Sheetal Niwas would have been either as a state guesthouse, as the benefactor intended, or as a museum.

Anyway, the government converted the remainder of Narayanhiti Palace into a museum. It turned out that the last king, Gyanendra, had already done much damage by demolishing the building where King Birendra was murdered with his family in cold blood. That fateful building would have been an instant hit with visitors, curious to see where the most grotesque massacre of our time had taken place.

Why do the globetrotting Nepali elite—political, bureaucratic, business and community leaders, many of them educated abroad—wage war on history and culture even though they have seen how other countries preserve and tap them for progress? The question brings me to the Koh-i-noor’s curse and controversy. The curse: A male wearer of the diamond will meet with misfortune. So it sits in the queen’s crown. The controversy: Both India and Pakistan claim it and want it back. So Britain can keep it.

I have two theories about this war. First, in a lighter vein, the Nepali crème de la crème want to escape the alleged curse of Bhim Malla’s wife that honest persons should meet with misfortune in Nepal. So they abandon honesty, as male wearers shun the Koh-i-noor.

Second, on a more serious note, Nepal’s accomplished class are under the impact of twin diseases—myopia and selective amnesia. Myopia prevents them from seeing beyond their personal interests and instant gratification, and selective amnesia makes them forget the good things they have seen in other countries as soon as they land at Tribhuvan Airport and embrace the bad ones for life. So, they compromise integrity and sell or destroy national treasures (cultural and natural heritage) for personal power and perks, so foreigners have the reins of Nepal.

Incidentally, such myopia and selective amnesia are not unique to Nepal’s cognoscenti. The former scientist president of India, Abdul Kalam, says of Indians, “Take a person on his way to Singapore. Give him a name—YOURS. Give him a face—YOURS. YOU walk out of the airport and you are at your International best.

“In Singapore you don’t throw cigarette butts on the roads or eat in the stores. YOU are as proud of their Underground Links as they are… YOU wouldn’t dare to eat in public during Ramadan, in Dubai. YOU would not dare to go out without your head covered in Jeddah. YOU would not dare to buy an employee of the telephone exchange in London at 10 pounds (Rs. 650) a month to, ‘see to it that my STD and ISD calls are billed to someone else.

“YOU would not dare to speed beyond 55 mph (88 kph) in Washington and then tell the traffic cop, ‘Jaanta hai sala main kaun hoon (Do you know who I am?). I am so and so’s son. Take your two bucks and get lost.’ YOU wouldn’t chuck an empty coconut shell anywhere other than the garbage pail on the beaches in Australia and New Zealand. Why don’t YOU spit Paan on the streets of Tokyo? Why don’t YOU use examination jockeys or buy fake certificates in Boston?… YOU can respect and conform to a foreign system in other countries but cannot in your own.

“When it comes to burning social issues like those related to women, dowry, girl child and others, we make loud drawing room protestations and continue to do the reverse at home. Our excuse? ‘It’s the whole system which has to change, how will it matter if I alone forgo my son’s right to dowry.’ So who’s going to change the system? What does a system consist of? Very conveniently for us, it consists of our neighbours, other households, other cities, other communities and the government.”

That Indians share the same maladies is no excuse. Small countries have to live and prosper by their wits. So the Nepali elite must be honest, treat their myopia and selective amnesia, and preserve and tap cultural and natural heritage for progress. Will they do it? Maybe 2013 will inspire them. Happy New Year.

Published in Republica

Published on 2012-12-30 01:15:08

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