Written word in our times

This morning, I read a very tender story – of a woman named Lois who fell in love with Kerouac (story via Brain Pickings). Their relationship continued on and off for several years. After several years, when Lois was under depression and grief from losing her mother, Kerouac turns up at her doorstep only to play a song. He had walked five miles, after a long journey.

Lois penned this poem on what she lived that night when Kerouac turned up and played a song for her, spent time with her and perhaps left. The poem is called Universe – One Song

UNIVERSE — ONE SONG
a letter to you Mr. Kerouac

how my mind was winter swept
bumped the spring time bud
o my god it could be quick
tho i will not attend —

in the middle of the night
my father answered the door
with great annoyance
i followed

you were there with tears in your eyes
you had walked five miles
with a heavy reel-to-reel
tape recorder on your back

you said
“i brought
St. Matthew’s Passion for you to hear
so you won’t commit suicide”

you had walked five miles
in the middle of that long dark night
to bring me your passion —

how my mind was winter swept
bumped the spring time bud —

i am still here Ti Jean
but wonder where you are on cold starry nights
my eyes as ever, tear bright!

For those who value words, this is a moving gesture. I wonder if everyone who receives words as an expression of a moment spent together value it the same. At least, if not value, shouldn’t people not try to trade it away as though something shameful was written which must be known to rest of the world? It is appalling to see books and newspaper articles emerging from letters that were at some point too personal for individuals involved. Yet, either one of them or someone else grabs them and lays bare what was meant for only the two involved – sender and receiver. It is of course a different matter when he sender himself permits the use. So, I haven’t been an admirer of biographical accounts that rest on some ‘rare’ letters as one of them on Lady Mountbatten and Pandit Nehru which was published some years back.

On another front, it is crushing to see how in relationships, during estrangement, some people end up sharing letters (with others or make public) which were meant for them as individuals, only as an act of revealing something detestable. Why were those words not detestable when received? For all that one can do and must do, at least some dignity and respect to words that bring the writer’s truest self to the receiver, must be accorded.

I went on this tangent thinking about how people around me value words. There is this tendency to read what a ‘famous’ author writes and an effort to remember those to be later used in their own arguments. Yet, when someone else, not famous, nowhere near it in fact, writes something, it is not even granted the basic minimum dignity.

In these times, written words matter. They have mattered and perhaps will matter even more with the onslaught of communication technologies which favour a virtual presence and dispenses with real human interactions – the touch, the presence and the shared sense of the moment spent.

 

Stupa to Stupa: Trail running in Nepal

Stupa To Stupa Run 55 K, Kathmandu, Nepal

Stupa To Stupa Run 55 K, Kathmandu, Nepal

“Its gonna be a long day”, said the Canadian runner as we tackled the first elevation of the day. It was half past seven in the morning. A naive 6-7 hour finishing time however was my idea. I saw that intention mocked at, by the trail, as the noon sun began drying the salt at the back of my neck. Stupa to Stupa run has been the most grueling run that I signed up for, until now. What, with a lifestyle of running in plains (and the lovely parks of Bangalore) was I hoping for here in the mountains? Running is a completely different affair on mountain trails. A simple lesson as this, hits home as I write this. An Olympic runner once said that “you have to run mentally first” is true of trail running too. I tried running mentally. Then, at 28th km I realized that I had the mind for the remaining 27 km but not the body. Spirit was soon a pendulum swinging from I-can’t-do-it to keep-chipping-it-away. Every 100 meter done is 100 meter closer. By the third ascent at around 39th km I was in the dumps – cursing myself for being there. This was a perfect spot for the onset of such crisis – no hope of dropping out because on either side the trail has no vehicle support. One would have to walk through anyway!

The morning had an upbeat mood which is sort of typical for runs. A little beyond the Swayambhu stupa which was the start line the trail began climbing up to the peak of Changunarayan. The summit lies at 7.3 km from the start. The impression was that this is the only hard tackle of the day. Rest of it would come easy. This wasn’t true. It was only first of the many truths about trail running and about myself that were to hit over the course of the day.

I wasn’t prepared for the substantial elevation gains three times over the entire course. As soon as one starts, over the 7 kms the trail goes from 1326 m to 2073 m. When this is done, a long winding forest trail follows which is also one of best forest trails I have seen. A thick bed of dry leaves covered the trail for the next 10 kilometers. There was an earthly feel to that stretch. At such moments there is a feeling of being thankful for being able to run, which gets you to these places. I was glad to be there in that morning. It was hard to spot any stray piece of plastic packaging or litter that generally comes along with human presence. Whatever was, was nature’s own. Nepal is a very beautiful place to run in my impression. The trails are very well kept, or rather, left alone. There is military presence all along the mountains though. And one needs park permits to enter in these reserved areas. SAARC nationals benefit from low entry fees.

The first aid station (with food) was at 20th km. Picked up a few muesli bars and biscuits and went on. The sun was bright by this time. However, on higher altitudes it was cold and comfortable. Crossing 20th km, I felt a good reserve of energy and was up for the remaining, until I saw the trail marking ribbons stretching all the way to horizon. The second climb, contrary to popular view, was actually more difficult. It ended with squeezing all the energy, knee strength and hope. It was a grinding halt. Hereon, I could only walk. Left knee was no longer able to bear the sight of those long staircases which stretched almost 200-250 meters. This was a trek, not run, I thought. Between 20 km to 28 km the elevation dropped to about 1460 and went up again t0 2050 m. To a runner from the plains this was a sentence to the gallows.

Meanwhile, the Nepali runners with their ‘hill legs’ were cantering out into the canopies. The fastest finishing time on this trail is 7 hours. This was a piece of info shared at the finish line. The finishing time estimate I set out with in the morning had a reality check!

On this trail, I bonked out by 28th km. The usual mind games took over. The DNF devils buzzed around and I was giving in to them. Even a gentle gradient hereon would get me walking. There was no hope of shuffling through them. The many streams of water flowing across the trail helped with reviving home and a good wash could get me an uncomplaining half km run.

Soon enough, I was out of my mind. The entire machinery stopped. It was like the silence which consumes a space when the power goes off abruptly. I wasn’t thinking anymore. I wasn’t registering events around anymore. I had stopped looking at the GPS too. Same state of mind until 50th km when the trail descended from the hills onto the plan and had the last 4 km run up to Boudha Stupa. This was an aid station. A kid sat on a chair, may be 2-3 year old. I stretched out my palm, she stretched out and touched it after some hesitation. We sat. After a few biscuits, I was up for the last leg. It is amazing to see what is registered in the mind’s eye during such states of exhaustion. 200 meters ahead I lost way. Went off a different path until someone said that other runners have passed through a different way. I almost died at the thought of backtracking to the right course. However, from this spot the Boudha Stupa was visible in the distance. It would have been a shame to call it quits now.

Getting back on the right course, the last two kilometers were through city roads. It was not a run. It was a quick leap to end it all. A large part of me wanted to get done with it all and go back to the hotel bed. I hobbled into the paved alleys that led up to the stupa. Runners had to do a kora (circumambulation) of the stupa and then show up at the finish.

I had managed to end the day. As always, finish line never sees a miserable runner, just an exhausted one. This wasn’t life changing. I felt that such event have been character building for me. I returned to a very large meal of Nepali daal-bhaat after a long hot shower.

The rest of the night was seething pain in knees and torso, but a peaceful realization that I know myself a little more, a step at a time.

 

 

Policy lessons from Nepal

durbar_nepal

Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal. 2017

This week completes over six months of formal engagement with Nepal’s development sector. On the sidelines of the second Nepal Investment Summit which is being held for the second time, after the first one in the 1990s, there seems to be a recognition of need for investment in economic growth of the country. There is also a pressure on the government to take faster decisions on proposed projects.

I first visited this country in 2008. Early observations were with an eye of a traveler from the neighbouring country. Last year, work led to understanding Nepal’s development context (and challenges) better. Here are a couple of policy lessons that emerge from this experience:

  1. Influence of geopolitics on public policy: This link is under appreciated  in policy literature, in my opinion. Domestic policies in Nepal’s case are significantly influenced by factors emerging outside the country. The choices for low income countries (LICs) in the current global context are by far limited. It is well acknowledged that infrastructure like roads, electricity, healthcare etc are vital for improvement in basic quality of life which then is likely to translate into economic growth. In low income countries like Neopal, most of this vital infrastructure is poor. To get this built should (and is) a national priority. This is where LICs have tough choices to make because their own investment and expertise potential is low. These must be supported by someone else. If these are aid agencies then they are driven by the aid providing country’s strategic agenda. If the support comes from multilateral agencies then these come with conditionalities (as Latin American and Asian countries very well know by now). If the support comes from regional powers (in Nepal’s case India and China) then the geopolitical considerations take the center-stage. Nepalese attempts at improving its economic growth are limited by the rate at which it builds highways, electricity generation and supply among other things. Japanese agencies have helped fund some of the highways over the last decade. One Belt One Road (OBOR) project proposed by China is another strategic project which awaits Nepalese government’s approval. On the southern side, India continues its support to build postal highways and other roads leading into Nepal from Indian border. The progress on all of these highways which are important for Nepal’s domestic trade are influenced by changing nature of relationship with its neighbours. A basic core of policies driven by domestic context and demands appears to be weak in Nepal. Our discussions with civil society groups reveals that the national policies on water and sanitation too are influenced by aid agencies and their financial support. This is what I mean by influence of geopolitics on public policy. 
  2. Governance capacity gaps are more debilitating than financial capacity in the long run : The common refrain for state of affairs – poor infrastructure, weak state capacity, governance issues etc, is that LICs lack financial resources to fix them. This need not be true. Answers to efficiency and service delivery do not emerge from national exchequer.
  3. Often times, strengthening democracy is a necessary condition in societies with diverse ethnic and social groups: At ATREE@20 conference last month in Bengaluru, Kamal Bawa sat listening to the presentations on conservation and development. The tension between development aspirations and conservation was a key theme. Towards the end, Bawa remarks that only an authoritarian regime can decisively and conclusvely act towards the environmental, conservation and development challenges. Democracies aren’t as capable. I could see that Bawa was acknowledging the strength of a democratic system and at the same time speaking of its strong limitation in being able to address the challenges in a short span of time. In its long drawn process of addressing societal and environmental challenges. However, what democracies come up with are equitable solutions, if not entirely sustainable.

Though on a tangential topic, this insight is useful as one sees Nepal struggling with laying a foundation for a strong democracy since the democratic Constitution of 1990. Until democratic form of governance finds its root, there might not be an end to the frequent clashes and shutdowns of various regions that are fighting for rights and representation.

Journalist Prashant Jha writes that “instability has remained the norm, with a government canging every nine months.Nepal democratic trajectory is framed succintly in his book “Battles of the New Republic” –

From war to peace, from monarchy to republicanism, from being a Hindu kingfom to secularism, from being unitary to a potentially federal state, and from a narrow hill-centric notion of nationalism to an inclusive sense of citizenship – Nepal’s transformation was, and is, among the most ambitious political experiments in recent years in South Asia.

4. Public policy in fragile states must engage with and respond to political reality:

While some debate whether there can be any semblance of policy in a fragile state (politically), I argue that if it engages with political reality and respond to it within the extremely short time that an incumbent government has, that can lead to a minimal core of polcies. Every incoming party tends to pick up reins from the past and improvise on it. If the template is engineered such that it formalises priorities, there might be hope for continuity. This is arguably difficult. For instance, labour policy in Nepal can benefit from this. Almost every government in the last decade has seen its youth migrate to Middle East, South Asia, South East Asia and to Europe for work, any kind of work. The country now earns substantially from remittances. A policy to regulate and channelize remittances and at the same time care for its migrating workers’ rights in distant lands, could have earned the government a major support group. As it now stands, the migration is largely driven by distress at home.

The above are visceral responses to the state of public policy in Nepal. On a deeper engagement, it could be true that some or all of these are unfounded. However, it helps my learning that I put them here as they emerge in the head.

A way forward for aid agencies that work in Nepal could be to look at interventions that enhance governance and policy-making capacities of the government as a priority. This involves the danger of transplanting ideas from elsewhere into a different context and see things getting messed up, however, this is arguable. There still exists a core set of ideas that are useful and effective in helping an economy make best use of its resources and enhance living conditions of its people.