Revolutionary tourism


Revolutionary tourism (notes for article for a Canadian magazine).

I am watching television and Nepal is on screen. It is unusual to see anything other than documentary curios from the land locked Himalayan kingdom, but this week the place is news. Strikes, curfews, shoot to kill, the King forced to promise elections, a new interim government and an ongoing series of protests and demonstrations by the people in the streets. Each night for two weeks another glimpse of Nepal on the evening news. Globalising Asia right here in my living room. I want more.

I have long been a revolutionary tourist. Years spent in Kolkata where the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPI-M) has been the ruling – democratically elected – party for over twenty years. There even the opposition parties are mostly communists too, though sometimes this has lead to fratricidal conflicts as comrade kills comrade, I was out on the streets souveniring red flags and photographing political wall slogans, demonstrations and million person rallies. The wall slogans have been banned in West Bengal’s present election – a blow to political expression most agree, but Kolkata is still the city of politics, I visit every twelve months. Its an easy place to travel, despite the reputation it has abroad, as a site of Mother Theresa-enhanced, reputation distorting, photogenic poverty. I have written on this imaginary urban pathology elsewhere, especially in The Rumour of Calcutta (Zed books 1996). But despite what everyone usually hears of Kolkata in global media, when it appears as news it is either as curio or as another kind of politics, as sight of impoverishment or as ‘the longest freely elected communist democracy’, none of the representations seem to measure up to the reality.

I cannot help but think the same of Nepal. Today the revolution was called people power on the BBC. Pictures of a rally dominated by the red flag, I swoon before the telly with anticipation, but its merely a fragment. There are no interviews with revolutionary leaders – Prachanda, or even the more moderate UML spokesperson Madhav-Nepal. Instead, the camera turns to a sadhu (a Shiva devotee) looking on bemusedly as youths smash the windows of a Royal hostel in Kathmandu. This is not to say one cannot find interviews with the leadership, even on the BBC – at least on the web version of the BBC – a full transcript of an interview with Prachanda in February 2006 includes some judicious assertions, for example on the future of Nepal: ‘With the unity that has developed between the seven political parties, us and the civic society, and the way that the autocratic monarchy and the royal army have been cornered, with this very shortly Nepal will become a republic.’ And on the future of the King: ‘The king I think will either be executed by the people’s court or he might be exiled. For the king, today’s Nepal has no future. We don’t see a future for him and the Nepali people don’t either’ (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/4707482.stm).

So should the King flee now? Seems not a safe place for him, but the scene seems more coherent and determined than might be suggested by comments such as the BBC default presentation of ‘riots in shangri-la’ and the Guardian’s characterisation of Nepal as ‘a country gone awry’ (Guardian April 22, 2006). What chance for a less hypertronic discussion? Instead, stereotypes and routine – concern about safety, about the economy and geo-political worries – ‘terrorism’ a word that crops up over and over. There are a few western tourists in Nepal just now, but they are mentioned as having avoided the firings, that have killed 14 in two weeks as I write, though the Police held back somewhat today. Phew! Why this angle and spin if not just for the reassurance of viewers, and capital, at home. The caption to a photo showing a westerner at Kathmandu airport reads: ‘Tourists hoping to visit a mountain Shangri-La have been surprised’ (BBC Paul Reynolds, April 22, 2006 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/4933866.stm). More substantial news is harder to come by.

Was it always like this – that the view from afar was like a postcard from Everest – recognisable but somehow mute? Its there, and can be visited, but most will never go so far and get so close. Those that do, are they/we condemned to rehearse perspectives and conventions that we/they carried with us in our heads like the packs they carried on their backs (the Sherpas carry the packs, the backpackers carry the traps)? Visions of Nepal have long been a matter of contest.

I turn to other versions of Nepal I have seen on screen recently, and I want to concentrate on, in particular, the six part special Himalaya presented on British television last year by Michael Palin, the former Monty Python comic and now respected travel compare (can such a category be deployed?)….. [There follows an extended trashing of Palin's show Himalaya.... well, an easy target... but its also a chance to further discuss the revolution in Nepal, wonder aloud at just what the Moaists are up to in the hills, and why it still seems strange to see them on my telly...]
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(pic by Sarah Kate Watson – the repainting of the Modern Lodge, Kolkata)

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Comments

  • Liv  On 23/04/2006 at 8:04 am

    The interview with Prachanda was aired constantly on BBC world, I had wondered whether it’d be the same case in the UK, I guess not. Here in People Power Philippines, coverage doesn’t extend much past BBC reports either, which is surprising. Thai people power on the other hand was picked up by all the channels/papers. A closer neighbour I suppose.

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  • Anonymous  On 23/04/2006 at 1:43 pm

    Prachandra’s granted only one interview to date i.e. with the BBC. Otherwise it’s hard to track him. Madhav is under house arrest. We couldn’t even speak to him from the streets. But everyone’s going for the last lap. Lal Salam! e xx

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  • Anonymous  On 03/05/2006 at 11:15 pm

    hey john, i was in nepal last year. got there the day the maoist general strike began.

    although it was very difficult to see any of the country, i really enjoyed my time there.

    politically, i don’t know too much about the situation, but sensed that ideally both the maoists and the government should lose!

    a very few disorganised pix from my travels are at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/electrotrash

    have fun and get in touch when you’re back in blighty!

    vikramahl[a]gmail[dot]com

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  • John Hutnyk  On 17/05/2006 at 8:17 am

    Cross reference – from: http://advant.blogspot.com/

    Hiya
    Greetings on the 40th anniversary of the start of the cultural revolution in China. I am watching to see what commemorations there are in Nepal… I’ve been watching a while, since being there in mid 90s when the UML won power. Since then just occasional visits, but I tried to write on the recent events for a Canadian magazine called Orange Life (out about now) – part of which you can find here: http://hutnyk.blogspot.com/2006/04/revolutionary-tourism.html

    The King looks likely to last not so long, and will be lucky to hang onto his life. The kind of state the Maoists manage to construct (some worry tis a forced labour regime, others are more optimistic) will depend upon neighbours, as you say. Even geographically Nepal is squashed between India and China – and so we have the Himalayas – and that’s a plausible metaphor for thinking of the political prospects also.
    Lal salaam – John

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  • John Hutnyk  On 22/10/2006 at 8:24 pm

    Revolutionary tourism. (from: Orange Life Magazine Canada 2006)

    I am watching television and Nepal is on screen. It is unusual to see anything other than documentary curios from the land locked Himalayan kingdom, but this week (written mid-April 2006) the place is news. Strikes, curfews, shoot to kill, the king forced to reopen parliament, a new prime minister (Koirala again, for the third time) and an ongoing series of protests and demonstrations by the people in the streets. Each night for two weeks another glimpse of Nepal on the evening news. Globalising Asia right here in my living room. I want more.

    I have long been a revolutionary tourist. Years spent in Kolkata where the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPI-M) has been the ruling – democratically elected – party for almost thirty years. There even the opposition parties are mostly communists too, and though sometimes this has lead to fratricidal conflicts as comrade kills comrade, I was out on the streets souveniring red flags and photographing political wall slogans, demonstrations and million person rallies. The wall slogans have been banned in West Bengal’s present election – a blow to political expression most agree – but Kolkata is still the city of politics. I visit every 12 months, and it’s an easy place to travel, despite the reputation it has abroad as a site of Mother Theresa-enhanced, reputation-distorting, photogenic poverty. I have written on this projected pathology elsewhere, especially in The Rumour of Calcutta (Zed books 1996). But despite what everyone usually hears of Kolkata in global media, when it appears as news it is either as curio or as another kind of politics, as site of impoverishment or as ‘the longest running democratically elected communist government in the world’. None of the representations seem to measure up to the reality.

    I cannot help but think that some very old routines are being played out in these travellers’ tales of Nepal today. The revolution was called ‘people power’ on the BBC news. Pictures of a rally dominated by the red flag, I swoon before the telly with anticipation, but it’s merely a fragment. There are no interviews with revolutionary leaders – or even the somewhat more moderate UML General Secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal (under house arrest until April 20) . Instead, the camera turns to a sadhu (a Shiva devotee) looking on bemusedly as youths smash the windows of a Government office in Kathmandu. This is not to say one cannot find interviews with the leadership – even on the BBC (at least on the web version of the BBC) a full transcript of an interview with Prachanda in February 2006 includes some judicious assertions. For example, on the future of Nepal, a quite different vision of ‘people power’: ‘With the unity that has developed between the seven political parties, us and the civic society, and the way that the autocratic monarchy and the royal army have been cornered, with this very shortly Nepal will become a republic.’ And on the future of the King: ‘The king I think will either be executed by the people’s court or he might be exiled. For the king, today’s Nepal has no future. We don’t see a future for him and the Nepali people don’t either’ (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/4707482.stm).

    So should the king have flown? Nepal appears an unsafe safe place for him, with helicopters on standby in the Palace grounds. But the scene seems more coherent and determined than might be suggested by comments such as the BBC default presentation of ‘riots in Shangri-La’ and The Guardian’s characterisation of Nepal as ‘a country gone awry’ (The Guardian April 22, 2006). What chance is there for a less hypertronic discussion instead of stereotypes and routine: concern about safety, about the economy and geo-political worries, and about ‘terrorism’, a word that crops up over and over. There are a few western tourists in Nepal just now, but they are mentioned as having avoided the firings that have killed 14 in two weeks as I write, though the Police held back somewhat today. Phew! Why this angle and spin if not just for the reassurance of viewers, and capital, at home. The caption to a photo showing a westerner at Kathmandu airport reads: ‘Tourists hoping to visit a mountain Shangri-La have been surprised’ (BBC Paul Reynolds, April 22, 2006 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/4933866.stm). More substantial news is harder to come by, even as reports come in of the king’s ‘offer’ of a restoration of democracy and his consideration of a ceremonial role. The Maoists will maintain the blockade of Kathmandu. There are debates about how far the coalition of opposition parties has bought into the king’s last ditch gambit to maintain the monarchy. News reports focus on jubilant celebrations in the streets, with tourists joining in the dancing; we have surreal lurches from violence to joy, and all of it seems unreal.

    It seems unreal, perhaps because these are mere images. Was it always like this – that the view from afar was like a postcard from Everest – recognisable but somehow mute? It’s there, and can be visited, but most will never go so far and get so close. Those that do, are they/we condemned to rehearse perspectives and conventions that they/we carry with us in our heads like the packs we carried on their backs (the Sherpas carry the packs, the backpackers carry the traps)? Visions of Nepal have long been a matter of contest.

    I turn to other versions of Nepal I have seen on screen recently and on which I want to concentrate; in particular, the six-part special Himalaya presented on British television last year by Michael Palin, the former Monty Python comic and now respected travel compare (can such a category be deployed?). No apologies that this discussion is coloured by subjective viewings of the screen/world (my world view has always been framed), but to make a critical assessment of Palin’s program in the context of the revolutionary eruption of Maoists onto my news this week is, I think, worthwhile. I watched four hours of prime-time high-demographic mainstream-Palin (352 minutes on the DVD version). The show I take as typical, ‘representative’ and symptomatic of much foreign documentary on Asia. Documentaries about Nepal most often focus upon trekking and the Sherpas, or the trafficking of Nepalese girls to the sex trade in Mumbai, with obligatory section on the girl-god of Kathmandu. (For text on the Sherpas, see Fisher 1990 Sherpas: Reflections on Change in Himalayan Nepal University fo California Press). But here, in Palin’s view, Nepal is presented as a trekkers’ paradise, medieval, glacial, remote and timeless. Twenty million people, but it is still mostly Sherpas we meet. Which is ok, but I had hoped for news of the reds.

    The mountains are the backdrop to a much bigger story: and in many ways Palin’s travel show works as if his adventure is our own. There is a slippage, of course, in that the programme Himalaya is not all set in Nepal, and though the main focus is on that place, there are parts of the Himalaya also in Pakistan, India, Tibet and Bangladesh. The cascade of representation is also that the entire subcontinent is too often seen through the avalanche of images of India alone, so perhaps other angles are welcome. But the other angles – mountains instead of deserts and camels, the ‘remote’ rather than the urban clutter (of Kolkata) – these elevated scenes are still too often repetitions of stock imaginaries. These are the platitudes of populist ‘documentary’ of the exoticist type, represented, most recently, in the adventures of a British comic in the Himalayas.

    The mode of production of both news and documentary on Asia for Western consumption is, at best, economical: freelance, semi-feudal, on a budget. Palin actually tells us nothing that is new, and he even seems careful to avoid doing so, concentrating on story and curio; but his team is not unlike the BBC stringers and crews that are responsible for more weighty versionings of the subcontinent. There is a camera crew, presenter and researcher contact person, and a series of not very well remunerated contacts, who, through serendipity, or accident, provide the story and colour for the presenter’s narrative. Palin stumbles across the Himalayas with a team of six, and is lucky to be invited to various arcane events or visit lesser or greater local rulers, personalities of living deities. His discussion with the Dalai Lama ponders bowel movements.

    Palin’s epic presents what London academic Paul Gilroy calls a ‘postcolonial melancholia’ (Gilroy 2004 After Empire Routledge). Palin holds a candle, as they say, for the good old days of the British Raj. This is a Raj of nostalgic fantasy, where enemies, subjects, and infuriating lackeys, are now renovated and romanticized in a battered picture book of faded glories. Yet there is the semblance of ‘news’ reportage built into this picture. Episode three, for example, begins with an announcement from Palin that disavows the tranquillity that a romantic traveller might well expect, and he will soon learn that: ‘things in Nepal are not always the way they look, as communist insurgents have been waging war against the government’. After a spectacular micro-jet flight across the mountains, Palin arrives first of all in Lekhani in the company of a recruiting agent for a British Ghurkha regiment. The irony of arriving with the military is lost on him (‘this has been a tradition for over 200 years’) and the ‘problem’ of ‘the Maoists’ is made manifest only when the stiff-lipped British Gurkha agent, Lieutenant Colonel Griffith, does not return to the village in which Palin is camped. Understanding that the Maoists have ‘kidnapped’ Griffith, the crew and entourage nervously depart a place that had previously ‘seemed like a rustic backwater’, but now ‘friendly villagers seem like potential kidnappers’. There is a rush for the main road and it is only in Pokhara that it transpires that the agent was unharmed. This reassurance coming not before Palin has an encounter with three Israeli budget travellers who tell him that at the start of their trek they had been stopped by Maoists who demanded 1000 rupees and issued them with receipts, with a red flag stamp, that authorized travel in the region. Palin’s budget does not extend so far, and there is no need to name, or interview, any really existing Maoists, but he has the drama his story needs.

    In Kathmandu, Palin’s interview with the journalist Kanak Mani Dixit, publisher of Himal magazine, is less revealing than it might have been, especially as the journalist was subsequently held in detention from the beginning of April. In Himalaya, the clearly well-informed Dixit makes the relevant point that no-one wins in the war scenario, but Palin’s interview offers no chance to explore issues such as US and UK military support and armaments supply for the royalist Rana regime, nor any chance to ponder the uncertainties of an increasingly militarised city. Why would Dixit later be arrested – he is hardly a Maoist? We do not find this out from the documentary, but Himal also operates an impressive film festival that provides an antidote to Himalaya: ‘Film South Asia is a competitive biennial festival of documentary films on South Asian subjects that provides a quality platform to exhibit new works and to promote a sense of community among independent filmmakers. It is organized by Himal Association, a not-for-profit institution dedicated to spreading knowledge and information in Nepal and South Asia.’ http://himalassociation.org/fsa/. Instead, Palin’s programming prefers to segue into a sequence on the several sadhus who congregate around the main temple complex in the city (there they are again, which is, I guess, no surprise – I wonder how they collect their appearance fees). We are treated to an extended discussion of the dreadlocks and callisthenic achievements of an 87 year-old Shiva Baba, who Palin pictures, but does not interview. A mildly amusing sexual innuendo, then a cut to the burning ghat and soon on to Red China with another wry irony: ‘from the land of Maoists, to the land of Mao’ and ‘the red flag flies above the frontier’.

    It is here that the travel story is compromised by the leader of the trek. Palin as tour guide directs us down the exoticist-curio path, and turns revolutionary reality into a side-story, into a stage prop that is not even the backstory that triggers contemporary awareness of Nepal via the evening news. What would repay extended study is the role of the narrator as controlling agent. Not just Valmiki, the narrator of the hindu epic Mahabharata, but also the media and mediating figure of the presenter Palin who is here on a quest. He carries the viewer into the mountains in a way wholly unlike the load bearing Sherpas who carry our kit. The Himalaya is a fantasy image for such a quest, promising a vaguely understood notion of enlightenment, satori, moksha. This is why the sadhus must displace the Maoists in the mediated sequence of Palin’s narrative. The sadhus are there (in the film) to affirm a timeless devotional aesthetic, unaffected by the iniquities of contemporary politics, or by inequalities and conflicts that might rather be wished away.

    Faced with news media versionings of Nepal, I am reminded of watching late night television in the privacy of my own fantasy Asia. For example, The Razor’s Edge, originally a Somerset Maugham tale first filmed during the second world war (in 1942, starring Tyrone Power, where clunky sets were indicative that it was not filmed on location), and then for the second time in 1984 with Bill Murray in the lead role. Our hero, the shell shocked WWI veteran, is seeking an answer to his alienation and has travelled, reading the Upanishads, to Himalayan Shangri-La. The head priest of the monastery where he ends up recognizes his problem as an attachment that must be broken and he sends Murray up the mountain to a snow-bound hut for a week. Murray has firewood, and his holy books of scripture in which he seeks the goal of his long search. Only when the firewood runs out and the cold forces him to burn his beloved books to stay warm does he have his realization. The pages burn one by one in an elegant scene—cue uplifting raga—and Murray is then able to return home, rejoin the world, and take his place in America once more. This narrative of self-fulfilment is a common Western projection of ‘India’ as a place of spirituality in which the lost soul can find itself. What is unusual in this case is the passage through the burning book. Instead of the Lonely Planet guide to outline the predicted experience of the intrepid visitor, here a more spiritual stereotype achieves similar ends. Between the chakra-branded National Socialists in Germany burning the books of degenerate communists and Jews (in the mid 1930s) and the book-burning protests of Salmon Rushdie’s Satanic Verses (in the late 1980s) — the first approximately coinciding with the date Maugham wrote The Razor’s Edge, the second just a few years after the (re)making of the film version – this enlightening textual conflagration confirms yet again a phantasmatic Asia.

    Books with fire scenes are legion and I see them as prototypes (or pyrotypes) of Palin’s film. What we have here is a rerun of the epic traveller’s mission – a la Frodo and Gandalf from Lord of the Rings – with each day marked off one by one as ordeal, in the ‘tie-in’ book of the series. Palin promptly dispenses with the guides however, interviewing the Dalai Lama about his toilet habits seems more amusing than anything esoteric. No surprise that the holy leader laughs heartily through the interview up until the poignant moment when he pauses to consider seriously Palin’s impending visit to Tibet, wistful that he cannot go himself.

    Politics does raise its ugly head here, since the issue of Tibet is an oft-screened one, as filtered through celebrity advocates like Richard Gere and the sometimes sari-clad musician Madonna. We are again spared any hint of political journalism that might raise questions about Western armaments sales to Nepal (or for that matter Indian military support to the Royal Nepal Army). Instead we are left to affirm the hegemonic pro-Llama views of the anti-China lobby. No wonder I am surprised that my viewing is interrupted by a snippet of news that underlines the discrepancy between the example of Palin/Llama and the wider critical view of television versions of Asia that I want to consider. The incendiary incident that intervenes is one I find on the internet:

    Nepal Maoists bomb TV station (February 26, 2005 10:35 IST)

    Heavily-armed Maoists torched and bombed a regional station of the state-run Nepal Television, causing damage worth over Rs 4 crore and disrupting the broadcast indefinitely even as the security forces gunned down 10 rebels and lost four of their own men in a clash in the west of the kingdom. The regional station of Nepal Television at Kohalpur in Banke district of mid-western Nepal was torched and bombed by hundreds of Maoists on Friday, NTV sources said. The regional broadcast of the NTV has been disrupted indefinitely after the explosion. … The Maoists also looted seven cameras and several other equipment from the station. However, no one was injured in the incident, the sources said. (http://www.rediff.com/news/2005/feb/26nepal.htm)

    This description contrasts with Palin’s travels, but I read his role as travel compare as symptomatic, as an example of what Raminder Kaur calls a ‘combined media and political performance’ (Kaur 2003 Performative Politics and the Cultures of Hinduism, Permanent Black). Although Palin travels through Nepal without a spiritual guide, he has various local guides – a British military recruiter, a Sherpa, a tout, a journalist – and he himself is our guide. In both geographical and ideological terms, the presenter is a point of view characterization who is an emblematic performer of the refracted visitor’s conception of Asia. Geopolitical military intrigue is smuggled in with the scenes as the presenter mediates our orientations along an already well-trodden trail. The surprises on the way, like the eagerly anticipated 360-degree views, are not so surprising after all. Yet after 10 years of insurrection, the BBC can still preface reports on Nepal with mock astonishment: ‘Just when it seems that revolutionary communism has all but disappeared in the world’ (Alistair Lawson BBC 6 June 2005 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/3573402.stm).

    Where on-screen images of Asia more often than not come with car bombs, detention camps and body counts, militarism is directly implicated here with the reputation of even the landlocked tranquil Hindu kingdom of Nepal constructed through violence. Last time television turned this way it was to report curio-horror in the form of the death of King Birendra and family at the hands of the prince in 2002. Portrayals of the massacre by the prince soon fell into a predictable pattern, foregrounding Nepal as timeless wonderland, subject to weirdness. Ancient culture distorted by partial modernity provokes a death craze, followed by repressive military crackdown and despotic rule. Birendra’s brother Gyanendra become despot. Armaments sales from the west again overlooked in support of counter-insurgency against the Maoists. On the one hand the spiritual kingdom, on the other the militarisation of the mountains – the razor’s edge is sharp indeed.

    Even in the scene where Palin emphasizes Nepal as the home of the Gurkha, though, he notably keeps the discussion limited to the cultural level of age-old traditions of militarism, fostered by British pluck, rather than the far more brutal and exploitative aspects of colonialism, running right up to the present. Is it surprising to link the supply of guns to the handling of cameras? The Maoists pose a challenge to Palin’s unexamined imperious eye as they both burn the station and steal the cameras – a radical democracy is the cathexis of insurgency.

    What then, for news and documentary of Asia in the Palin type? The quest for knowledge is stalled on the mountain top because commercial and military imperatives govern the way in which Asia is known – a backdrop to the extraction of products, trinkets, icons, terror. This too is not merely ideological but relies upon an identified market segment characterized by passing interest in a natural – exotic – nostalgia inducing subcontinent. We might call the ideological context colonial melancholia (after Gilroy) and note that the dominant tropes on the screen are of time past and practices arcane. A kind of pseudo-popular historical programming that sells relatively cheap product on relatively expensive airtime (Palin was on at 9pm Sunday) for substantial gain (advertising revenue for ‘new’ products, inclusive of promotional tourism).

    My beef with the travel story version of Nepal is that here South Asia appears on the world screen most often as a ‘realist’, but usually tragic, news item. Images of villages awaiting rescue from cyclone, flood, earthquakes, riot, famine. Images of high mountain military stand off or besieged temples, mosques, cave complex and Al Qaeda training camps: tourism and television are particularly well suited to containing tragedy in a box. On the small screen it is images, stereotypes or clichés that move. ‘Things happen to images, not people’ as the French theorist Gilles Deleuze once said (and I quote this like a souvenir, which equally contains). But representation of Asia indicates a corresponding nether side to the tragic image – there is also a simultaneous positive gloss that is equally ideological – the fascination with tradition. Sound bite emotional containment fuels the global rumour of a mythical third world Asia that is both traditional in dress and architecture (the Taj Mahal, camels, rustic musicians) and is a modern mess born of a debased modernity, that perhaps (the argument implies) only the restitution of colonialism could redeem, (in the mindset of the imperialist powers).

    The double visage of South Asia abroad is fantasy and sensation. On the one hand, the Hindi film glitz or traditional exotica of temples, rich fabrics, and pantomime handlebar moustaches. On the other, disaster, war, cotton-clad politicians discussing nuclear weaponry, Maoists and pantomime handlebar moustaches. This doubled representation follows an ideological investment that eases and erases imperial guilt. From abroad, it is clear (the wish is) that the vibrancy (temples, fabric) of South Asia has not been destroyed despite the (rarely or reluctantly acknowledged) impact of 300 plus years of colonialism and more recent structural adjustment programmes. Reassured by tourist brochures and travel reports that most of the temples and holy sites remain, the disasters are attributed to contemporary dysfunctions: poverty, corruption, mismanagement and revolutionaries. Such reasoning, sometimes explicit, affirms that South Asia’s problems are South Asian, and that the departure of paternal colonial rule was perhaps premature. A self-serving ideological psychic defence, to be resolved by more ‘development’ aid…

    The sheer diversity of a continent of images is thereby channelled into a narrow ideological repertoire that rehearses the routines that (maybe) only revolutionary tourism might (uncomfortably) disrupt.

    I am of course also waiting to see what use the Maoists make of the seven video cameras looted from the Kohalpur television studio while the station was burning. The utilization of video by political groups becomes much more disturbing when executions and beheadings are measured up against US military documentation (say of smart bombs) and the videographic war on terror is seen not only as a public screen. But this is another essay, and these are not explorations but implorations of television; this investigation is merely a demand to begin to think the ways television is in our thinking linked up with where we visit and who calls the shots. What would a Maoist travelogue look like?

    I return to my revolutionary tourism and the various red flags I collected. There are still many questions to be answered and I am disappointed television storytelling and travellers tales do not address, for example, the degree to which the Maoist tactics might be productive of something more than ‘people power’. I want to know what sort of Maoism will triumph in Nepal, and how will the lessons of Cambodia be learned by a people enamoured of freedom? What then of the class structure of Nepal that leaves some intellectuals, and indeed some members of the opposition party alliance, in a quandary as to which ‘side’ to support (fear of red mountains)? What of the journalists and others who were under house arrest or detention, and how does this link up with the global abuse of ‘anti-terror’ legislation everywhere? There are many ways in which the fantasy romance of Asia makes it difficult to address these basic issues, but surely they are the necessary moves in a context where travel is no longer innocently disconnected with geopolitics, the war of terror, the neo-liberal transmutation of all culture into product for sale. This is of course not the usual theme of televisual documentary or traveller discussion, even as a romanticising revolutionary tourism must confront the danger of also commodifying political desire. In my most optimistic mode, I want to ask if we could become the critical travellers who might offer an informed assessment of the events in Nepal? What prospects of us – visitors, storytellers, tourists – learning a politics from Nepal? From televised versions, or from visits and treks? And then what prospects for a revolutionary democracy ‘at home’ today? What chance is there that the critique of monarchy and exploitation might be extended – not just via the communists in Bengal, or the other Maoists in India, but for social justice everywhere? What chance for a people’s power that wins, rather than one that only fills guidebooks and media time slots? What chance for a radical storytelling documentary form?

    John Hutnyk

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