Nepal, a Shangri-La? Narratives of Culture, Contact, and Memory

Saumya Shivangi

The book attempts to give an overview of Nepal as a country being represented by memories of people who lived in there, and the cultures that have shaped the country. The book is divided into eight sections. Each section carries a chronology of events shaping Nepal as a nation and attempts to show a comparison between the past and the present. The basic question that the book tries to analyze throughout is whether Nepal can be considered a Shangri-La, an imaginary, beautiful, pleasant space, a place that can be faultless, heaven on earth.

The introduction of the book gives a brief overview of the history of Nepal as a nation, “from pre-modernity to a globally-connected society, from primarily agricultural, pre-industrial to  capitalist economy, and from feudal, monarchical polity to federal republicanism (2008 onward) with a brief spell of constitutional monarchy (1990-2008) and violent Maoist insurgency (1996-2006).” This part also discusses the memories of authors through which they demonstrate the “emotional-laden experiences,” and a sense of nostalgia can be felt about their homeland. The publication tries to highlight the unique experiences of people and give ‘authentic voices’ to the population, exhibiting the feelings of the Nepali diaspora and giving an overview of present-day Nepal.

In the chapters that follow the introduction, Nepal, A Shangri-La? gives a very unique explanation of ‘Landmarks,’ which keep on changing as the city develops. The author Khem K. Aryal beautifully explains the living (trees as signposts, water springs, ravines) as well as non-living things (roads, storefronts, certain stones) as landmarks, and how different it appears from childhood memory to someone who has grown up there and revisits it after a long-time. To the author, “Landmarks are bound to change, and as they change, we become strangers to the lands and people that we call our own.”

Further, the book discusses not only the artistic memories but also “two acute human senses” of smell and sound through which these authors have developed fond memories. As Nepal has a rich artistic heritage, the smells of smoke and raksi in Khokana (depicted by Sarah Chevallier) encompasses the cultural practices of Newars. The sound of dhime, a large drum played with a curved stick as a part of Guthi tradition (depicted by Deepak Shimkhada) reflects the unique identity of the Newari culture. This association to sound is also politicized, as the authors explain how old traditional music is employed as an agency of identity.

The next section, entitled “Living through Turbulence: Revolution, Reconciliation, and Trauma,” depicts the transformation phase of Nepal from the Rana oligarchy to the Jana Andolan—in other words, the transition from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy, and the author’s memories of the challenges and opportunities that came with it. The illiteracy, lack of development of the infrastructure, and access to education, transportation, and communication became the hallmark of this time and place. This section gives insight into the democratic setup and its advantages for a developing country. One example is how medical care, which is now treated as a fundamental right for everyone, has been denied to the people in the transition phase.

One of the important contributions of the book is explaining nature from the perspective of those who have suffered its wrath in the form of natural disasters. The example of Asha, who survived a devastating landslide and lost all her family, was portrayed by Subodh Ghimire with a statement about water, which is a natural gift, most essential for survival, and how it can appear as a tool of destruction for some. 

The other contributions of the book include different stories of different people, beholding love for Nepal in different times and spaces. The “deterritorialized identity” can be defined as the sense of experiencing one’s cultural identity more when one is not at home. It has been the crux of the book, giving an impression of how it feels to celebrate Dashain and Maghe Sagranti away from home. The book has attempted, time and again, to portray the social hierarchy. In “Finding a Closure,” Sonya Dios pictured the caste category which has nothing to do with educational or financial excellence. This has remained a part of our society despite moving towards a more mature country. This view has been contrasted with “Dhakre Life,” by Iswari Pandey, where majhi-dai (a so-called lower caste person) did the cooking for others on their journey outside the village. An attempt has been made to differentiate the traditional system of education of the 1970s and 80s from the contemporary education system in the age of COVID-19. However, the traditional system not only imparted education but values for life, which is lacking in the contemporary system. The book also establishes the fact that we should be uplifting our language and culture as they highlight our shared humanity and heritage. In a capitalist society, people tend to imbibe western practices while losing their own roots, values, and customs. 

The book helps in understanding the complex realities of Nepal through narrations, but it can be only sensed by those who know the history of Nepal and its present circumstances. The narratives used in the book hold the reader to finish the segment with an eagerness to know the other side of the story. However, there are many references to different sites in the book, so it would have been better if, in the initial chapters, one or two maps can be shown to locate them. The book is certainly a masterpiece in connecting the land of Nepal to different memories.