Thursday, July 03, 2008

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Bandh!

The first thing to note, I think, is the word, which in Nepali is banda, no aspiration, a word that comes from Hindi, from India, with all the attendant difficulties of Indian politics. In Nepal we—if I can say we—write bandh and say banda, just as we expats jokingly might say phrend for friend or Where are you phrum? for Where are you from?

Bandhs are so much a part of Nepali life that the Lincoln School—the American international school, the most prestigious and expensive in the Kathmandu Valley—actually incorporates bandh days into each year's academic calendar, just as a school in Minnesota or Maine might plan for snow days. This year, in fact, contained an excess of bandh days (in relation to days of bandh), so that the end of the year was a hodgepodge of 3- and 4-day weeks. The students, of course, don't mind: unexpected days off are always a celebration.

There's no other way to do it, though. Bandhs gather like storm clouds, like the anvils of thunderclouds, sometimes far on the horizon with plenty of warning but more often charging the air while you are preoccupied with the mundane repetition of phone calls that do not go through or unscheduled electricity outages, soaking you as you walk in the gloaming along the cratered asphalt roads. You expect them, but never quite expect them in the moment they occur. And while there is even a website dedicated to bandhs—nepalbandh.com—it, like the Weather Service, can only be said to be accurate in retrospect.

Last week's bandh—a transport bandh on Wednesday and Friday, with many buses absent since the prior Saturday, and a full bandh on Thursday with enforced shop closures—was the confluence of calls for bandhs by 3 groups: petrol distributors (service stations and their wholesalers), who are unhappy about the continued shortages and the recent price hike; the transport unions, which are not organized labor but the owners of local and long-distance bus companies and local taxis, unhappy that the government restricted their announced fare increases from about 40% to 25%; and the Nepal Student Union, unhappy that the government-mandated student discount on transit was 43% instead of 50%. My pictures of brick throwing in Chabahil were student clashes ostensibly based on the Student Union's demands; they strike me as utterly unplanned and ill-considered however, more an excuse by kids to effect chaos than policy change.

I might also point out that in Nepal, the police throw the bricks back.

Even in Chabahil, however, the students' targets were localized; that is, they weren't vandalizing shops or torching cars; indeed, the street, littered with bricks half-broken and with red brick dust, semed incidental to everything, unlike Western protests that target an institution, a culture symbol, a corporate outlet, or all three. Outside of the government-called bandh for the Constituent Assembly elections in April, which were marked by a charge of apprehension and uncertainty in the streets near empty of everyone and everything save a police pickup truck bouncing through at speed, the three bandhs I've been through the center of have all seemed to carry an air of good humor and pleasantness, as if the burning tires in the road or ropes across the bridges were normal. Indeed, I've found myself more than once the object of a joke: “Closed!” someone will say sternly, and wait for me to look disconcerted. Then: “No, no, come, is ok,” and the crowd makes a small space, or a rope is lifted, or, once, a small child comes to take my hand. The pervasive cultural assumption seems to be of the best intentions of foreigners; even when we break the rules during a full bandh and hire a taxi, the car is stopped and we have to get out and walk.

There is something similar in spirit, I think, to the way that Nepalis, and the more permanent members of the expatriate community, tolerate bandhs they are not involved in, which is to say with cheeriness and equanimity. “In Nepal time is not money,” say my friend Olivier, a former translator for the Red Cross and drummer in the band Rai ko Ris, and though I find myself frustrated by the loss of a day's work, this is not so much a concern of the permanent residents. They have made their peace with bandhs in a way I have yet to. “Well,” Olivier smiles, “time is not yet money.”

Part of this, I think, has to do with the flexibility of time in the everyday life of Kathmandu. Though this particular concept seems to be slowly passing, everyone still speaks of “Nepali time,” meaning that if you are scheduled to meet at 7:30 you will actually meet around 8. But this, I think, does not get at the heart of the ease with which time is treated here—an ease that makes bandhs all the more tolerable.

On the eve of the Euro 2008 quarterfinal between Italy and Spain, I was invited to watch the game with an Italian jeweler named Alberto Luzzi and his Nepali assistants, a pair of Nepalis who speak Italian and wear designer sunglasses at night and at any time dress shirts unbuttoned in an open V down the chest, at Alberto's house in Patan. The game started at 12:30 am here, meaning that it would conclude about 2:30 if there was a winner in normal time, which there was not. We called the night, jovially, “banda sleepover,” since the transport unions had called for a bandh the next day, though no one knew what its extent would be—in other words, whether the day would see crowds closing streets and forcing cars off the road.

Just after 1 am, a little more than 30 minutes into the scoreless game watched through a gauzy fuzz of static on ESPN, the power went out. As befit Italian-speakers, a Greek chorus of grumbled Che cazzo!s immediately followed, with a few Italian-language rants on the perfection of a power outage during a soccer match. Then came Nepali: ke garne, people said, what can you do, lighting candles and staying near the television, in case the game game back on. Alberto texted friends in Italy, who promised to update us, in the candlelight, if anyone scored.

By halftime we speculated about the outage: the whole city was out, and from Alberto's terrace you could see only lights in Buddhanilkantha on the Valley's north rim and past Bhaktapur to the east. A million other people were left in darkness, but to be fair, the vast majority had been in darkness—sleeping—when the power failed. “Must be the students,” one of Alberto's assistants said, and this became our theory for the night. When the power company said it didn't know why the power was out, and that the system looked on the computer to be working normally, the theory gained strength.

Throughout the game—throughout our banda sleepover—we sat in the dark waiting for the beeping of Alberto's phone. “Spain has hit the wood,” Alberto said, after a tense moment of wait for the rest of the room; and a sigh, and then: “Italy shot cleared off the line.” No one, oddly, left. We had the hope, I suppose, or the faith, that we would see the game again. “Zero a zero, finisce il secondo tempo,” Alberto said.

Three minutes into extra time, the power returned, to a great cheer. We watched intently as the teams played a sloppy, fatigued, open game. What I remember most is Roberto Donadoni's substitution of Alessandro Del Piero, who led the Italian Serie A in goals with his club Juventus—and who, fresh among two teams that had played a game and a half, we saw walk around the pitch when not on the ball.

At 23 minutes into extra time the power went off again, and we waited once more for updates from Alberto's friends in Italy. We got the message that the game had gone to penalties; and when the phone next chirped, to list the Italian misses and announce Spain's victory, the atmosphere was oddly fatalistic, the tension diffused. Ke garne.

“Italy did not deserve it,” Alberto said, “and I say so as a big, big fan. From the way they played...”

“Ke garne,” someone interrupted—and someone else followed with “Hasnu parchha,” which means: you can only smile.

About the bandhs, ke garne? You can only have a banda sleepover and try to watch a soccer game; for if you don't make it to work in the morning during a bandh, everyone understands.

Monday, June 30, 2008

A thoroughly Nepal Day

I am having, as one may guess from the title, a thoroughly Nepal day: The internet's been off, then the power (unscheduled) for much of northeast Kathmandu, where I live; my appointment today was canceled because the man I was meeting with has been in the hospital for the past 3 or 4 days, according to the woman with the shop next door; I've either got busy signals or no-answers for the phone calls I've been trying to make. Eh, it's all okay, but it means no real update to the blog (I'm at an internet cafe instead of posting from my computer). On the other hand, it hasn't rained for more than 20 or 25 minutes, so that's a plus.