It all began with an innocent packet of cheese balls. You know, the lovely, locally made junk food that has immeasurably enriched our lives in the Kathmandu valley. Or at least those of our children.
As somewhat of an economic nationalist, wherever I live, I try to buy local and think global. So the arrival of Nepali-manufactured snacks in packages that appeal to my children gave me great pleasure. No more Uncle Chipps in over-inflated packages from a certain neighbouring country. No more of those dreadful, poisonous Pringles that are probably a by-product of the American nuclear weapons programme. My children can overeat salty, fatty substances to their heart's content, with only their parents and their doctor to object.
That is, until I tried to buy some cheese balls in Birethanti, the roadhead in Myagdi district. This village is at the beginning of the long trek and trade route to Jomsom, over the soaring ridge of the middle hills and up the Kali Gandaki river valley. It is a cosmopolitan place, home to Gurungs, Magars, Thakalis and other assorted members of the Nepali mosaic. There's even an Englishman whose company is one of the attractions of the place for me.
But the cheese balls set off a furious series of events; most of them in my fevered imagination, which regular readers can attest is in a constant state of ferment. Or perhaps fermentation. No matter. The cheese balls in question were for my son, a between-meals snack to keep him quiet while I read a novel by the side of the Bhurundi Khola. We were each enriching ourselves, in our ways. I went from shop to shop in search of the junk food in question, and was met with a stone wall of monopolistic obstinacy. There were, it turned out, two prices for cheese balls-one for Nepalis, one for foreigners.
I was flabbergasted that something so inexpensive and innocuous could fall victim to this all-pervasive disease of discriminatory pricing. There's no exaggeration in saying 'disease' for such practices are a cancer upon the face of commerce, society and, I daresay, national pride. Okay, okay, it's just a packet of cheese balls, and perhaps I'm miserly. But think about it. In fact, let me refer to a friend in India confronted with a similar situation. Perhaps the reason for my ire will seem more reasonable coming from my friend's experience, from the other side of the discriminatory equation, if you will.
He is a member of the proud Bengali nation, and as such takes no nonsense from anyone. His nearest and dearest is a talented American journalist. The two of them went to an art exhibition at a Delhi museum and were confronted with a sign demanding, as admission, Rs 10 per Indian national and Rs 150 per "foreigner". My friend, as they say, went ballistic and I paraphrase him but slightly in the following lines.
"What the #$%$ is all this about? Are we such a sorry lot that we automatically assume all non-Indians are richer, more easily tapped for funds and by implication, better than us? What about the Ambanis, the Tatas, the IT barons of Bangalore? Will you let them in for a measly 10 rupees and charge my friend here, who earns less than I do by the way, fifteen times more? What kind of ridiculous cringing reverse discrimination do we have here?" And so on. The poor admissions clerk let them both in for free, just to get rid of my friend.
The point is not that foreigners can't afford to pay more for things like entry permits to the Annapurna Conservation Area, or Bhaktapur, or flights to Pokhara. Or even cheese balls. They can. But so can many Nepalis, and why shouldn't everyone pay the same if they can afford it. I suggest, humbly, the plague of discrimination isn't worth the extra money. In any case, I'm back in Kathmandu where the cheese balls are fairly priced for all. And I'm trying to convince my son to eat apples anyway.