'Santosh Shah was born in Nepal'


Santosh Shah, the Nepali who was runner-up in the MasterChef Professional 2020 in Britain last week, made it a point throughout the globally televised contest to highlight the country of his birth.

The dishes he prepared were pan-Nepali, and his momo, yomari, kodo, chhyang, kulfi had innovative fusion elements. His mango dessert, for example, was frozen in a balloon in liquid nitrogen. His lunch preparation for the finals was presented in a tiffin box, and he spoke emotionally about how his mother back home in Saptari brought him lunch while he dug an irrigation canal.

But it was in the finals, when Shah donned a “Nepali hat”, that he got entangled in the fault lines in Nepal about ethnic identity, exclusion and the debate about the symbols of a unitary state.

The भादगाऊँलेटोपी set off a vigorous argument in Nepal’s cybersphere about whether the cap really represented Nepal’s nationhood. While most commentators were proud of this self-made Nepali who elevated himself to the international stage through sheer determination, hard work and talent, others felt he should have promoted his Madhesi identity more.

The cap caper was not the first criticism that Shah had to face in Nepal’s hyper-sensitive social media. Even the fact that his dish in the semi-final round involved octopus prepared Nepali style evoked some disapproval.

“There were negative comments on social media on how my spiced chargrilled octopus dish isn’t our food,” Shah admitted to Nepali Times. “But we need to understand that this is a global competition for a global audience.”

It was for the same reason that Shah got permission from the BBC to don a ढाकाटोपी in the studio kitchen to highlight his country’s significance in the global map. Shah tweeted: ‘This is called a dream come true. Dhaka topi in master chef. Thank you BBC to allowed me to wear my national hat in MasterChef professional 2020.’

But the action got enmeshed in Nepal’s own ‘cancel culture’, driven by increasing access to social media and the anonymity of the Internet in which those whose views do not match the herd are viciously trolled.

One of the first salvos was fired by none other than former Maoist ideologue and avid Tweeter Baburam Bhattarai, who posted: ‘बधाइ सन्तोष साह!फाइनल नजितेपनि तपाईॅले विविध नेपाली परिकारलाई अन्तर्राष्ट्रिय परिचय दिएर हिमाल/पहाड/मधेसका नेपालीको मनमष्तिष्क जितिसक्नु भएकोछ। एउटाकुरा, हाम्रो संविधानले देशका सबैजाति/भाषा/संस्कृतिलाई ’राष्ट्रिय’ मानिसकेकोछ! अत: हाम्रादौरा/टोपी,धोती/गम्छा बराबर’ राष्ट्रिय’ हुन्है!’

After congratulating Shah for winning the hearts and minds of Nepalis, Bhattarai took at his ‘nationalism’ by adding: ‘One more thing, our Constitution considers all ethnicities, languages and cultures as “national”. So, all our costumes are equally “national”.’

The matter might have ended there, but the fiercely republican Bhattarai also went on to deliberately mis-spell Shah as ‘Sah’, possibly to take away the royal connotation of Santosh’s surname. For this, Bhattarai was himself trolled left right and centre.

One of the more civil comments was from Shristi M @sristee44 who wrote: ‘Baburam has not done any productive work or labor in his life. @brb1954’s only skill and achievement is to leech off of people. Yet somehow he has the guts to tell off a highly talented chef @chefsantoshshah for HIS choices. He’s the biggest condescending mansplainer!’

Another Twitter user @Sarvasherstha also endured immediate social media backlash for the comment: ‘Not only Dhaka topi nepalese should show respect to all of the costumes languages castes and cultures of nepal then only this country can develop’.

Santosh Shah may not have won MasterChef Professional, but in Nepal he is considered a hero for having come so far and for having placed his country firmly in the global consciousness through cuisine inspired by his native land.

However, it also showed the ethnic, caste, class, religion and language gap in Nepal between various communities, and especially between the mountains and plains. Although a majority of posts by people in the Madhes were proud of Shah’s success, some did not like it that he had donned a symbol of Nepal’s ‘Mahendra-ist’ unitary state.

Supporting Santosh Shah’s achievement, Bhumi Ghimire [@BhumiGhimir] wrote, ‘Anyone out there still considers people from Madhesh to be lesser Nepalis? NO ONE has represented Nepal and its culture encompassing most ethnic groups as well as this man has in recent times. What a fabulous story, he has done us so so proud. Santosh Shah was born in Nepal.’

The new inclusive Constitution is supposed to provide room for everyone, but the trolling, intimidation and threats have also shown that social media can perpetuate stereotypes, enforce prejudices, and incite intolerance towards those with a different point of view.

Discussion about discrimination of the Madhesi community is not new. When an alum of Budhanilkantha School, Bikash Gupta, published his personal experience of ostracisation on Medium, it set off an intense debate on social media with posts that strongly agreed and disagreed with him.  

Sharing Gupta’s article, Rajesh Yadav @therajeshyadav95 on Twitter went on to comment, “Majority of Kids of Pahadi community are made racists by the Societies and Parents, it's unfortunate that hatred has become a culture!”

Indeed, the cancel culture trend has infected Nepal’s social web as well, leaving no room for wholesome debate and constructive dialogue, so that the sites widen divisions rather than bridging them.  

And it is not just Madhesi or other ethnicities who are targetted. When Arthur Gunn, the Nepali who was an American Idol runner-up, and rising TikTok celebrity Curtis Waters became cyber celebrities, they were mercilessly trolled by Nepalis for taking on Western names.

While Santosh Shah’s performance went viral around the globe last week, back home in Nepal sugarcane farmers were protesting on the streets demanding government action against the sugar industry for not paying them. Some Twitter users drew parallels.

Avinash Mishra @babaubermensch posted: ‘While we are at the whole Santosh Shah episode. Please shift your focus a little on Madhesi Farmers protesting everyday in Kathmandu for what they deserve and were promised by the Government!’

For the most part, however, Santosh Shah was widely applauded in Nepal’s mainstream and social media for his achievement, and for proudly flying the flag. This comment by SuvashThapa @UnitedNep was more representative of the general reaction: ‘I feel sad for people who have problems with Nepalis being proud of what @chefsantoshshah has achieved. Imagine taking offense at other people being happy. Too much black and white around and not enough grey.’