Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Guff-suff With Sushma Joshi | The Buzz | Book | wavemag.com.np

My interview in Wave Magazine, Nepal's youth magazine.
Guff-suff With Sushma Joshi
In numerology, Sushma means inspiring, intuitive, and creative. These characters define Sushma Joshi, writer of a collection of short stories entitled The End of the World. She talked to Wave about her fascination with Paul, the future telling Octopus.
FROM ISSUE # 176 (August 2010) |

Who do you write for: you or your readers?
I write because the story begs to be told. I don't think about myself or the readers.

How do you choose the names for your characters?

Sometimes I take them from myths, sometimes newspapers.

What is the most hurtful thing people have said to you?

I can't remember now, so they can't have been that hurtful.

What is the strangest thing you have done while researching a book?
I took an acting class in graduate school. Strangely enough, it helped me get into the minds of the characters, much faster than taking a class on how to write fiction.

Which five people would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Ang Lee, Oprah, William Dalrymple, Virginia Woolf and Tin Tin.

If you were deserted on an island, which book would you like to have with you?
Rumi's Rubaiyat. Am I allowed to take a few comics on the side?

Which fictional character do you resemble?

I played Catherine in "Proof" and people said I was the spitting image of her—more so than Gwyneth Paltrow. I guess I look like a genius mathematician and she looks like Shakespeare's lover.

What distracts you from writing?

Kathmandu. It's a big whirl. I need to go to some quiet, deserted island.

Who is your hero/heroine outside of fiction?

Paul the octopus. I am deeply fascinated by beings that have the ability to foretell the future. 

Are you happy with where you are in life?
Ask me in 2.2 years, and then I'll tell you.

New Asian Writing: ‘I Woke Up Last Night and I Cried’

‘I Woke Up Last Night and I Cried’ by Sushma Joshi (Nepal)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

“I will be researching the stories of Nepali migrants in Burma and Thailand.”

Interview with Sushma Joshi by Voicu Mihnea Simadan


Sushma Joshi is a Nepali writer and filmmaker who was born in 1973 in Kathmandu. She has published The End of the World (2008), a collection of short stories, Art Matters (2008), a books of essays about contemporary art, and New Nepal, New Voices (co-editor, 2009), a selection of articles. In this interview she talks about her books, writing, Nepal and her future trip to Thailand.

Mihnea Voicu Simandan: Your collection of short stories, The End of the World, has quite a few references to politics, especially the Maoist struggle for power. What is the relationship between fiction and politics?

Sushma Joshi: Politics can be an incomprehensible beast. How better to describe the complexities of the cotemporary moment than through fiction?

MVS: Your concern with injustice and the tough life of poor Nepalese is an obvious theme in The End of the World. Does literature have the role to raise awareness of social injustice?

SJ: No, I don’t think that’s necessarily the job or obligation of literature. I love this Leo Tolstoy quote and I subscribe by it: “The aim of an artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably, but to make people love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations. If I were told that I could write a novel whereby I might irrefutably establish what seemed to me the correct point of view on all social problems, I would not even devote two hours to such a novel; but if I were to be told that what I should write would be read in twenty year’s time by those by who are now children and that they would laugh and cry over it, and love life, I would devote all my own life and all my energies to it.”

MVS: How was the book received? Is it still available in bookstores? I bough my copy at a secondhand bookstore in Bangkok.

SJ: I am one of a handful of authors writing and publishing in English in Nepal, so there was great deal of interest in the book. Unfortunately, the publishers did not give me royalty, and so we parted ways. It is currently out of print (if the bookstore sells you one, it’s a pirated copy). I am planning to publish it myself in case I don’t find another publisher outside Nepal.

MVS: What is your writing routine?

SJ: I write between jobs. I take a month or two off every year. I edit multiple times!

MVS: When will you publish another book of fiction?

SJ: My new novel is a love story set in Nepal’s civil conflict. I was working for the UN during the conflict—I realized the scope of the stories could only be captured by fiction. I’m trying to find publishers in the UK and Europe. Hopefully you will get to read it soon.

MVS: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

SJ: Keep writing. Don’t give up hope. Take pleasure in the writing process. Keep fighting for your rights as writers.

MVS: Apart from being a writer, you are also a filmmaker, telling stories through a different medium? Is there a strong connection between ‘the writer’ and ‘the filmmaker’?

SJ: Film is a visual medium in which you tell stories without many words. It forces you to visualize. Being a filmmaker makes you a better writer, and vice versa.

MVS: You have been awarded the Asia Fellowship and will travel to Bangkok in October. Give us more details.

SJ: I will be researching the stories of Nepali migrants in Burma and Thailand. I am excited at this opportunity to learn more about my own people and the way they moved throughout Asia, and also excited at the chance to live and learn about two other Asian countries. I’ve lived in the USA and England, but not in any country in Asia.

MVS: From a literary point of view, where does Nepal stand today?

SJ: Nepal is at the crossroads between India and China. We have almost 30 million people. Nepal is full of mythologies, histories, stories. But publishing in Nepal is run by a small number of publishers who rarely pay writers, and booksellers who pirate books. Writers become dispirited and are not motivated to work in this environment. I think if there is less tolerance of copyright violations and piracy, more young people will produce exciting work in the coming decades.

MVS: Give us three reasons why a trip to Nepal would be rewarding.

SJ: Nepal has amazing artistic traditions, from painting to sculpture to architecture. Nepal has incredible geography—it amazes me even though I was born here. And most of all, it has amazing people. So come see for yourself!

MVS: Thank you for your time. I’m looking forward to reading your next book.

SJ: Thank you Mihnea!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Un piatto di zuppa in El-Ghibli

Il nano che mi serve il piatto di zuppa così bollente da infuocarmi le guance e riscaldarmi il cuore, è basso e tarchiato, con un ampio sorriso benevolo. La tovaglia è di cotone, a quadretti rossi e gialli. Il tavolo è coperto di oggetti di vetro, sembra la bottega di un farmacista. Il giallo dell’olio d’oliva e il rosso dell’aceto brillano lucenti dentro eleganti bottiglie. Bicchieri da vino di differenti fogge e misure stanno l’uno accanto all’altro. Tovaglioli color giallo sole giacciono arrotolati tra le pieghe dei loro contenitori in legno. “Roma! Roma!” Il cameriere si mostra impaziente mentre cerco di scoprire di più sulle origini di quest’allettante zuppa. “Genova? Sardegna?” Dal brodo spesso sale del vapore.

 El Ghibli's archives show my story in both English and Italian.

You can still read the archived story here at Wattpad:


Shelling Peas and History Lessons

My story is now out in Mascara Literary Review in Australia. Check it out!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A bowl of zuppa in El-Ghibli

A bowl of zuppa

sushma josh

The dwarf who serves me the bowl of heart-warming, cheek-blushingly hot bowl of zuppa on that cold winter’s evening is short and squat, with a warm, stretched-out smile. The cloth on the table is cotton, checked with red and yellow. The tabletop is filled with glassware, like an apothecary’s shop. Olive oil and vinegar sparkle with red and yellow clarity inside elegant bottles. Wine glasses in different shapes and sizes stand side by side. Sunshine-yellow napkins nestle in the rounded depths of wooden holders.

My travel memoir about my visit to Roma was published in El-Ghibli's Anno 7, Numero 28 issue on June 2010. 

The story is now archived in Wattpad, here.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

ECS Review: Home / Page Turner/ New Nepal, New Voices

ECS Review

New Nepal, New Voices... new writers, new ideas, great reading. That’s my first take on this book of short stories edited by two Kathmandu-based Nepali writers, Sushma Joshi and Ajit Baral, each of whom has an enviable background in the expressive arts. The anthology features 15 story tellers and all but one story takes place in Nepal, the exception being ‘The face of Carolyn Flint’, about the (fictional?) American acquaintance of a Nepali living in California. Most of the authors are Nepali, some with familiar names on the Nepalese writing scene (e.g., Manjushree Thapa, Sushma Joshi, Sanjeev Uprety and others). Two are long-term Nepal-resident expats (Greta Rana and Wayne Amtzis). Maybe some of the authors use pseudonyms. That’s okay, for talent does not stop with one’s name, or nationality, or political persuasion. Art is universal, as this collection clearly demonstrates.

In this moment of tremendous change and great hope for Nepal (yet to be fully realized), this is a timely book, for it shows off one area where many artists in, from, or about Nepal excel: in creative writing, despite (or perhaps fueled by) trouble in the streets and the political malaise.

The stories here cover a diverse array of ideas and issues, including character sketches, social traumas, personal imperfections, psycho-drama, family troubles—but don’t misunderstand, the themes are not all negative. Most appear here in print for the first time, but at least two have been published before to prior critical acclaim. Some story titles are provocative; e.g., ‘Love and lust in the Maoist hinterland’ by Ajit Baral, ‘Dark Kathmandu sideways’ by
Peter John Karthak, ‘Heroes and onions’ by Sanjeev Uprety. Some titles look plain, even mundane, like ‘The hill’ by Greta Rana—but don’t be fooled, this particular hill packs a powerful punch! And check out the short-titled ‘Tattoo’ by Soham Dhakal, ‘Downpour’ by Madan K. Limbu and ‘Rent’ by Gyanu Sharma. The shortest of the stories in the anthology have promising titles: ‘Walk Fast’ and ‘Scorpion’s Sting’.

The editors wanted “effable, humorous, beautiful stories,” for this book. “And we got them,” they say. That they received more good tales than they could publish, and that choosing which to print here was not easy, is encouraging, for it means that there are more good writers out there for future anthologies...

According to the Contributors list, some of the authors are full time writers and some work in other professions and simply like to write. Dhakal, for example, is a software professional who happens to enjoy poetry, screenplay and short story writing. And while Amtzis is a writer and poet, he’s also a photographer. Karthak undoubtedly gets grist for his stories from his past engagements as a rock bandleader, studio musician, croupier/casino inspector, highway builder, lecturer, travel agent and tourist guide. On the other hand, ‘Tara’, we learn, is simply “a writer from Kathmandu.” Okay. All are talented, and I’m impressed knowing that for some of them English is undoubtedly a second or third language.

The editors are also kind to the non-Nepali readers in the audience by providing a Glossary, ranging from abhor (vermillion) to yogini (female yogi) and including kuire, Nepali slang for a Caucasian or white person; it literally means “foggy eyes”. So it does The stories here are good reads, and this anthology is recommended to all who appreciate good writing.

Published by Rupa & Co., New Delhi, 2008. 187pp. Available in Kathmandu bookstores for NRs 312.

Monday, June 07, 2010

The Mammoth Book of Apocalyptic SF

About a year ago, I got an email from Mike Ashley. Would I, he enquired, give him permission to reprint my story "The End of the World" in an anthology about apocalyptic fiction?

Sure, I said. The idea of being published in an apocalyptic anthology thrilled me (as those of you who know me knew it would).

And so here it is: The Mammoth Book of Apocalyptic Sci-Fi, at #393 in the Amazon.com ranking in the UK, which is not a ranking to sneeze at at all. Even if you have just been dosed with Anthrax.

The Mammoth Book of Apocalyptic SF
The last sixty years have been full of stories of one or other possible Armageddon, whether by nuclear war, plague, cosmic catastrophe or, more recently, global warming, terrorism, genetic engineering, AIDS and other pandemics. These stories, both pre- and post-apocalyptic, describe the fall of civilization, the destruction of the entire Earth, or the end of the Universe itself. Many of the stories reflect on humankind's infinite capacity for self-destruction, but the stories are by no means all downbeat or depressing - one key theme explores what the aftermath of a cataclysm might be and how humans strive to survive.

About the Author
Mike Ashley is a leading authority on science fiction, fantasy, crime and weird fiction. He has written or edited over 90 books, including The Mammoth Book of King Arthur, The Mammoth Book of Extreme SF, The Mammoth Encycopedia of Crime Fiction and Starlight Man, the biography of Algernon Blackwood, which, in total, have sold over a million copies worldwide. He lives in Chatham, Kent with his wife, three cats and over 30,000 books.

To buy this Mammoth Book, go to:

Just don't blame me if the world comes to an end...

Sunday, May 02, 2010



The sun hot and drowsy, the mat with the faint musky fragrance of new straw scratching under my skin. My grandmother, slowly peeling the membrane of an orange and popping them in my unresisting mouth. I am absorbed, absorbed in my playmate Parvati, a strawdust stuffed rag doll slightly taller than me. I try pushing little orange bits in her mouth too, but they just fall on the ground, squelching on the clean ochre straw, getting coated with a layer of white powdery dust of the ground. It is warm and drowsy, and the hum of bees is in the air.Then red silk everywhere, and glittering sequins. A wedding. My mother is carryi ng me. There is loud music and laughter, and the air is weighed down with the heavy smell of perfume, tears and turmeric. Turmeric mixed with cream, and rubbed on the soft white body of the bride. And I am crying, my tears loud as my inarticulateness. My mother gets angry at me, because I am incapable of explaining with my two year old vocabulary that the tiny, glittery stars on her sari are rubbing my skin raw. Green, everywhere would be green then. Lime green of the magnolias, dark green of the bamboos. Wheat, ripe in the sunlight, waving under the load of its ochre grains. The sky a bright blue stone. I’d run, running barefoot over the hot tin roofs, chasing the string as what seemed like hundreds of colorful kites filled the air, tying the sky together in one giant web. I’d be holding my cousin’s hand. Clapping my hand in glee as our brothers’ kite cut off a rival one, and it floated slowly away from the sky. Then the battle would start all over again. And again. Again. Again. Again... until the night caught us unawares, when a coalblack sky would take over the turquoise and we could no longer distinguish the colors of the kites from the light of the burning stars. (Text by Sushma Joshi, ECS Magazine, 2010)

Monday, April 19, 2010

VOW Top 10 Women Competition

KATHMANDU, April 19: I was one of the panel of judges for the sixth VOW Top 10 Women Competition. I was a judge for graduate level students. Singer Robin Sharma and businesswoman Seema Golccha were also on the same panel.

The final 10 winners were awarded prizes at a ceremony held at the Hotel Radisson in Lazimpat on Sunday.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The End Of The World 作者:Sushma Joshi 分类:生活感想 in rongshuxia


My story "The End of the World" has been read:
  • 总点击数:5549

times in Chinese literary website rongshuxia.
  • http://www.rongshuxia.com/book/5046892.html

Friday, January 29, 2010

Himal South Asia blog on the Jaipur Literature Festival, February 29, 2010

I eat god, I drink god, I sleep on god...

I eat god,
I drink god,
I sleep on god…

It is the first day of the Jaipur Literature Festival and Girish Karnad, who is supposed to give the keynote lecture, along with heavyweights like Wole Soyinka and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., are missing in action. They are possibly lost in the Delhi fog, or the traffic, or maybe they didn’t even depart their home cities and countries in the first place. The roads, you know, says one of the organizers. Apparently this is a good enough explanation and the crowd asks no questions and asks for no explanations—we start off the day with a remarkably serene and unhurried shift to readings of Kabir instead. The day is beautiful, the sky is blue, there are long runners in pink, yellow and orange fabrics above our head and two dhol-players are causing a tremendous ruckus and making us all feel invigorated. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra is on stage and goes from Kabir to Arun Kolatkar with effortless ease. And that is why, instead of a lecture on “Entertaining India”, we are listening to a lovely poem that eats god and sleeps on god and talks about how the poet hopes his mother-in-law (plus all his other in-laws) would drop dead so he could be alone with his lover.

So starts the day. I have never heard of Arun Kolatkar but I am ready, at the end of the reading, to run out and buy his book. The bookstore is full of books by the authors who are present at the event, but first a writer should look around and check out the people who are present—a colorful assortment of women and men dressed in drop-dead gorgeous Indian fabrics, and where the Westerners look rather plain and pale unless they invested in some Indian fabrics and trinkets. No doubt the place is teeming with literary celebs—the problem with spotting them is that everyone looks the part, right down to little girls who carry their books around like devoted readers and writers. I spot is a group of local Jaipurians who are looking at the schedule with deep concentration. I savor this scene for a while—locals immersed deeply in their own literary event.

Then a minute later I realize why people are concentrating so hard on the schedule—basically, half the speakers are absent, there has been a drastic change of plans and nothing is going according to schedule. The people who have arrived early are asked to be on panels, and before long I find myself listening to Vikram Chandra (scheduled to present on the last day) talking about his latest book about the underworld, as well as the banality of evil. He talks about criminals and murderers that he met. The most horrific thing that he came to learn, he said, was that most people who did these terrible things were ordinary people like you and me. They were not monsters. They were religious, god fearing men who kept shrines at the back of their homes, and yet they were able to commit horrific acts that the ones that occurred during Partition. “The frightening thing is to realize that the people who are murderers and criminals are not so different from us,” he said. “There’s two degree of separation between criminals and people in the audience.” I had met Vickram Chandra when he was teaching at the Breadloaf Conference in 2002. I noticed that eight years in the United States seem to have trained him to become more charitable to the world than condition of the rest of the world allowed for.

Claire Tomalin (scheduled to speak on Saturday) gave her talk on Jane Austen promptly and with joy. There is nothing more delightful than a Jane Austen scholar who loves the writer and treats her with the greatest respect. Claire talked about the conditions of Austen’s life—her poverty, her lack of money, her lack of publishing success, her ten years of depression and being unable to write—all of which added up to a literary phenomenon. Austen talked about taboo topics that other writers didn’t touch, she said. Tomalin gave her talk with humor and intelligence, and the audience responded in kind. Jane Austen appeared to be required reading for women in India, from the questions—half of the questioners also insisted that Claire MUST see “Bride and Prejudice”, which was the final word on the book. Claire insisted, politely but firmly, that she did not see these adaptations. ““Bride and Prejudice” made me realize a lot of things I hadn’t learnt from the book,” gushed one reader enthusiastically. I belched. One reader, however, did add an interesting tidbid—Austen’s horrid Mrs.Norris had been reincarnated as a cat in Harry Potter.

Then we went on to see Geoff Dyer and Amit Chowdari, moderated by Amitav Kumar, talk about “Visible Cities”. Geoff talked about his latest book on Venice and Benaras, and read a short chapter about a monkey who steals a man’s sunglasses in Varanashi and holds it hostage, while the man tries to get it back from him by bribing him with bananas. All would have been well and good and we’d have thought it was just a good piece of comedy if he’d not read about how the monkey could “evolve” (be careful with that word, writers!) as a species if he gave back the sunglasses, and if he didn’t, he’d always be a monkey. Then he talked about “history”, just a line or two but enough for an audience member to wonder if he didn’t know, as a smart man of the twenty-first century, how colonial culture categorized Third World peoples as “monkeys”…Hmmm… this bit of monkeying around was possibly smart of him, or maybe it wasn’t. Not in a tent full of people who are too aware of post-colonial criticism. Amit Chowdari read about Calcutta—a beautiful and evocative piece. Then he referred to Susan Sontag’s “Under the Sign of Saturn,” and how Walter Benjamin had talked about how he was a man born under this sign, therefore he never finished any of his projects, and this was the line she’s picked up and written her essay on. A literary throwaway aside, kind of like strolling through the streets of an old city as a flaneur.

The afternoon ended in the front lawn with the delightful Mr. Alexander Mc.Call Smith talking about his “#1 Detective Agency” and how he came up with this idea. He and William Dalrymple, who was interviewing him, had a good laugh at the expense of the Scots, who apparently indignantly protested the ten thousand pounds allocated by the Scottish government for the festival—the money, suggested the critics, could have been better spent on fighting illiteracy in Scotland. “There are actually Scottish secret agents out there in the audience, dressed in kilts, trying to keep track of this money. They think we don’t see them, but we do,” chucked the writer, as he burst out in a fit of laughter.

Himal South Asia Blog for the Jaipur Literature festival, February 2010

The Jaipur Literature Festival : Twenty-First Century Identities

Kancha Iiliah, writer of “Why I am not a Hindu,” talks about how Dalits are not just outcastes, they are “outwriters.” Their literature is not seen to be valid, people are not interested to read what they write. People ask and say: Can there be such a thing as Dalit literature? If there can be Vedic literature, and Bhakti literature, and Marxist literature, and Gandhian literature, why can’t there be Dalit literature, asks Iiliah.

Om Prakash Valmiki also picks up on the same thread: “We are not Hindus, we are Dalits.” The violence still faced by the majority of Dalits in India and other parts of the subcontinent is directly caused by Hindu thought. God cannot be touched by the untouchables in Hinduism, and this, says Kancha Iiliah, is spiritual fascism.

P.Sivakami, a Dalit female writer who shook up her community with her critiques of patriarchy within the Dalit community in her book The Grip of Change, talked about one incident in which she was in charge of distributing bicycles to Dalit schoolgirls. The girls chosen, the government bureaucrats exclaimed, couldn’t be Dalits—because they were too beautiful. What they meant, explained P. Sivakami, is that they expected girls who were poor, malnourished and ill-dressed.

Iiliah couldn’t resist taking a dig at S Anand, the khadi-dressed organizer of the panel—and a Brahmin. “Look at him, he’s still wearing Hindu clothes while we wear these suits that Ambedkar told us to,” he joked. “Give me your coat!” responded S Anand, pulling at Iliah’s coat in mock dismay. Illiah also points out that caste has a distinct racial history. “Why do you think he looks like this, and we look like this?” he asks. After a bit of discussion, the panel agrees that caste has become pretty mixed up and there is no longer any racial purity left–however, discrimination is still deeply entrenched. “A group of Dalits changed their names and started to use Sharma,” said Valmiki. “And now the Brahmins in that area no longer use Sharma.”

“How can you people be so backward,” exclaimed one foreign-returned Indian, who cited South Africa and his puzzlement that Indians were apparently the only people in the world still practicing such racial apartheid. Of course, this enlightened gentleman’s observation immediately brought to the room the sense that the Dalit case was not unique–indeed, racial and religious discrimination still existed all over the world still.

Next out in the front lawn, Wole Soyinka, Nobel Prize winning author from Nigeria, gave a beautiful rendering of a praise song. “Praise songs are meant to be hypnotic and mesmerizing,” he said. “Sometimes people who return from foreign countries and hear praise songs of their lineages and they become dizzy. You feel your head expanding.” I for one had to press down on the top of my head for a few seconds to make sure nothing was exploding out of there after that mesmerizing moment. Wole explained that he had staged a play with a praise song and certain suggestible actors had to be asked to leave since the drumming, the incantation and all the other powerful forces was getting too much for them and they were getting into a trance. It was better, he explained, that they be off the stage. The oral storytelling power that Wole brought to his reading, the sense of a griot out on the podium hypnotizing the crowd with metaphors of the road, the search, the constant dissatisfaction…It was almost as if, like a line in his poetry, that “strange voices were guiding my feet” and the horseman galloped on to a new sense of being as I listened to him read.

Wole Soyinka, asked about the religious conflicts in his country, said: “This is a virus.And it has spread all over the world.” Two hundred people died recently, he said, in one of these incidents. He grew up, he said, listening to church bells next to the muezzin’s call for prayer. Muslims sent over meat to their neighbors on Ramadan, and the Christians sent over rice and other gifts on Christmas. “I’m right, you’re wrong has now become I’m right, you’re dead,” he said dryly. He sounded bewildered, a little bit, that those tolerant times seem to be past.

Soyinka then talked about his year of solitary confinement, and how he used bones to make pens, and coffee as ink, to write poetry in the margins of books people brought in for him and then smuggled out. “I believe in forgiveness and reconciliation,” he said. “But sometimes you have to be careful since these people are incorrigible, and you can’t be too forgiving. But most of all, I believe in restitution.”

An audience member, responding to his beautiful rendition of a poem in Yoruba, asked him: How do you maintain your Yoruba identity in this age of contamination? “You must maintain a core identity even in a contaminated world,” said Soyinka.

In the Mughal Tent, Isabel Hilton and Tenzing Tsundue debated another fragment of the global story on how to hold on to an identity in another kind of pulverizing force—a nation state intent on wiping out the identity of a people. Hilton talks about Tibetan nomads who are being resettled in barracks in the middle of the desert, with no work. They are given some compensation which they finish within the year. Then they are stuck there, with no work. Herding has been made illegal, and not just a way of life could be gone. Tibetan nomads are to be “settled” within the next two years. “It could be too late very soon,” she says. There is silence in the audience as we digest this.

“How can Obama dare to give our country away?” Asks Tsundue, who has just been asked by William Dalrymple, moderator, about that famous President’s statement that Tibet will always be part of the Republic of China. “What right does he have?”

Hilton had different views. Since China will never give up Tibet due to its strategic location, its water resources, and the sense of it being a part of larger China, she said, it may be more practical to think about ways in which Tibetans can have an easier life, and how their way of life can survive, in this reality [See The new relationship in Himal December 2009 for the evolving political relationship to Tibet in the region]. This is what we should be negotiating about, she said. “The Chinese government is not a monolith,” she said. “As somebody said, government is often a big issue run by little people.”

Tsundue, with the undying hope of the exile, didn’t agree. “Freedom cannot be given: it has to be taken,” he said simply. “It has to be worked at. It is not what China will give or not give. They will leave when their interests are exhausted.”

“It is very dangerous for Tibet,” Isabel Hilton said, “To see the Dalai Lama as the embodiment of Tibet. After his death, there will be a big void. We need more secular voices. Where is the cultural Tibet–the writers, artists and thinkers? We need to work to create a new cultural idea of Tibet.”

And this, perhaps may have been the food for thought for today—that all the discrimination faced by Dalits, all the religious terror wrought on minorities in Nigeria, all the persecution faced by Tibetans–all of this could perhaps be moderated, perhaps even shifted to another level, by bringing down the religious volume and putting more secular voices on the dias. And by creating new cultural identities of what it means to be a Dalit or a Bhramin, a Nigerian Christian or Nigerian Muslim, or a Chinese or a Tibetan of the twenty-first century.

Himal South Asia magazine’s onling blog, February 4th, 2010

Freedom for sale

Why are people willing to trade freedom for prosperity and material comfort, asked John Kampfner. His book, Freedom for Sale, looks at eight countries as examples of places which have traded in freedom for material security and prosperity. He was born in Singapore and lived in China and Russia—where except for a group of “fearless troublemakers,” most people have bowed down to the imperatives of prosperity in exchange for public freedoms. The UAE and Dubai have a Disney quality about them, says Kampfner, where everyone is trading freedoms for other things, including slave labor. In India, pollution is the tradeoff, while in Italy, Berlosconi has dismantled the independent judiciary and media. In the UK, the ascent of the Left has dismantled civil liberties, and in the USA, self-censorship after 2001 is at an all time high, with people trading in public freedoms for public security.

Niall Ferguson tried to play the Oxford don and questioned Kampfner about his assumptions. Ferguson brought up Tocqueville. He said that there was a tradeoff between liberty and equality. He talked about totalitarianism. The Oxford questioning (in a nutshell, he said that some freedoms had to be given up for material prosperity, and that material prosperity in turn brought freedom) brought forth quick retorts from the author, who pointed out that his questioner didn’t seem to have read the book. “I am not talking about totalitarian regimes—North Korea, etc. I am talking about liberal democracies. When a government says: we need to do whatever must be done to protect you, that’s fishy,” he said.

Steve Coll, jumping in this fray, said that one freedom he was glad of was the freedom from an Oxford education! The middle class is always trying to protect itself, he said. He said he was recently in Saudi Arabia, a place with no culture of public freedom, no free press, no human rights organizations, no tenured professors, and no Constitution other than the Koran. Even though people were consigned to these private spaces, they still talked about public freedoms because the discourse of it was global, and it was everywhere. In the USA, private security took over public freedoms after 9/11, he said. Americans were deeply frightened. Like India, Americans are now learning to deal with the notion of persistent terrorism, he said. Despite everything, there is a pervasive culture of redress in places like India—people speak out fearlessly even when the state is murdering its own citizens. In the USA, people don’t challenge the state as much as in India, he said.

Tarun Tejpal of Tehelka concluded the session by saying that “India needs a lot of activism on the part of its elites. I’m agnostic, but I was born a Hindu, and philosophically we have to do what has to be done. India has a social contract but it’s still a country in progress. The promise of democracy still has to be delivered.”

Himal South Asia blog on the Jaipur Literature Festival, February 29, 2010