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…]
(pic by Sarah Kate Watson – the repainting of the Modern Lodge, Kolkata)