Reading history is often depressing, because it's essentially a record of human failings-tales of those who could have changed the course of history for the better, but didn't. They let the opportunity pass, and allowed the society to fall into another morass.
Edward Gibbon says in his tome on the Decline and Fall of Roman Empire, "History...is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind." But then, it is history again that shows that the survival instinct almost always triumphs-despite the setback that it has to suffer on its way to eternity, or apocalypse, depending upon the way you look at the destiny of humanity.
But hunting for the past does have its rewards for hard-core aficionados. Rummaging through the dustbins of history in contemporary memoirs of persons in public life, you occasionally stumble upon dry bones of nostalgia. You try to chew upon it until the throb of your cerebral vein threatens to burst. And then you weep. To be born is to suffer, said the Apostle of Peace.
Turning the pages of Dr Jagadish Chandra Pokharel's The Days of Shame and Pain is excruciatingly painful for anyone who played even a small part in the thirty-year struggle against the tyranny that went by the name of Panchayat in this country. Remembering the agony is bad enough, but it's the sadness of what the leaders of those exciting times have turned out to be that makes the memory even more difficult to bear.
Back then, there was hope to help you endure the hardships. Grief was just a sacrifice for a higher cause. But with the faith in the infallibility of leadership all gone and dreams of building a new society almost dead, the struggles of the past look like days wasted in chasing a mirage. It's the shame of the present political mess that makes the pain of the past even more intense.
Dr Pokharel makes an attempt to return to those days of high hopes and harsh realities. In a language that will not please even a secondary school teacher of English language ("He had killed too many birds with one stroke" and "Their economy was not strong enough to support them"), but will be of immense delight to researchers looking for cultural variety in expressions ("We had felt the real taste of sugarcane after having tasted the bitterness of neem"), Dr Pokharel remembers the days of suffering that he endured as a child in Tanahu and in exile in India.
For Dr Pokharel, it is a pleasant journey back in time. He has exorcised the ghosts of his past and is one of the more successful professionals to come out from families with a Nepali Congress background. He studied in India, went to Greece for a degree in architecture, and then got a doctoral degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States. After that he spent time at Hawaii for post-doctoral research. Those are impressive credentials, and Dr Pokharel probably deserves the opportunity that the state has given him-he is an Honourable Member of the National Planning Commission.
It must be very tempting for Dr Pokharel to swivel his chair and reflect about his childhood while looking down at the vista of Singha Darbar Gardens from the huge window that washes his room with winter sun. After all, bliss is nothing but remembrance of pain and shame in the times of glory and happiness. The satisfaction of having overcome fills you with pride, and achievement is a powerful aphrodisiac-it impels you to dig deeper to reach higher for the fruits of success.
In that sense, Dr Pokharel's book is not just a trip down memory lane, it is also his road map for a future career in politics or diplomacy. The book may not have a political agenda, but it is not difficult to spot traces of advocacy for Subarna Shumsher faction of Nepali Congress in it. When a learned person like Dr Pokharel makes an attempt to pursue an agenda, extra care is always taken to shroud the intention in the veils of impartiality, sincerity and spontaneity.
Dr Pokharel will not take offence if I were to suggest that his experiences were of the less extreme kind compared to the children of many other Nepali Congress supporters all over the country. Subarna Shamsher had the reputation of being more generous to those who were personally loyal to him compared to the activists that were reckless enough to persist with their loyalty to BP Koirala. Memory is always selective, and Dr Pokharel refrains from remembering the way Subarna Shumsher loyalists were given kid-glove treatment even when the minions of the Panchayat ruthlessly prosecuted Koirala supporters in the seventies.
What makes this book more important is the way it depicts the failure of armed struggle waged by the Nepali Congress. I think there is lesson in it for Messers Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Baburam Bhattarai. They need to ask themselves: isn't it history repeating itself in the Peoples' War, but this time as farce? Dr Pokharel and Dr Bhattarai were colleagues for a while at the Department of Architecture at Tribhuvan University's Institute of Engineering. Shouldn't they come together and prepare a blueprint for a new Nepal where Manasi, Dr Bhattarai's daughter, would not have to write of her days of shame and pain twenty years hence?
Warning for prospective readers: while it's rewarding to plough through the book, its language can put your power of perseverance to test. You realise the real worth of something when it is not there-Dr Pokharel's book demonstrates the importance of a good copy editor. Perhaps that is the other thing Dr Pokhrel should have done: given the draft to Dr Bhattarai to polish before sending it to the printers. It would have done both of them a load of good, and it would have been less of a strain on readers.