I'm so old that I remember a time — back in the hoary 1990s — when you couldn’t expect flair, or at times even fluency, from Nepal’s English-language media.
My grasp of the Nepali language was poor then. I had to rely entirely on the English-language media to understand my society. This put me at a distinct disadvantage vis-à-vis my peers who could read the Nepali-language press. They understood not only what was happening in the nation, but how everyone—and they—felt about it. Their intellectual lives were rich with nuances I could not begin to grasp.
The Nepali Times stands as testament that those days are gone. Thanks to this paper, The Kathmandu Post, and more recent publications such as The Record, English-language media has finally come of age in Nepal. And we are all more intelligent for it.
Nepali society has always suffered from a cultural chasm between those who are fluent in the national languages and those who are limited to English. The former group is grounded in the complex lived reality of this society, and can draw upon local histories, languages, knowledge bases, and intelligence systems to understand and analyze the contemporary moment. The latter group has money.
English has been a hothouse language here -- the language of diplomats, aid industrialists, expatriates, foreign academics, travelers, and a handful of nationals educated in private schools or, like me, abroad. Together, these people wield vast power.
It would seem obvious that they try to learn the national languages, but this has not been the case. Neither has it been easy. When I decided to learn Nepali, I took year-long lessons and diligently pored over shelves of Nepali-language literature. (I then began to translate what I was reading for a biweekly column in this newspaper.) This investment of time and effort paid off for me: reading the work of my peers in the original language has enriched my own writing.
To expect everyone to do the same is unrealistic. What the country needed — and has now produced — was a critical mass of bilingual Nepalis to help bridge the chasm between English and the national languages. This could happen only after the 1990s, with the proliferation of English-medium schools and, crucially, with the right to free expression.
Today, when I read the Nepali Times , I do so for the multifaceted examination of a complex society. I read Muna Gurung’s interviews with contemporary women writers whose work I crave to read. I linger over Diwakar Chhetri’s smart, stylish cartoons. I scan through the listings to pick out cultural events that interest me. I read about the latest political fiasco and ongoing outrages, and, inevitably, I marvel at The Ass: how does the Donkey maintain such a robust sense of humour after all these years?
I also always stop to appreciate the diversity of voices in the Nepali Times, and in particular, the vibrant presence of women writers, reporters, columnists, and editors. It is the presence of all of these women that has always made this paper feel like home to me.
This, truly, is something the paper can teach the Nepali media, which, like Nepal’s polity itself, suffers from a vast overrepresentation of men, particularly of the so-called high castes. The resulting group-think, echo-chamber uniformity, and insularity do great harm in politics. In the media, they prevent the public discourse from reflecting Nepal’s extraordinary diversity of experience.
Freedom of expression — so late to arrive in Nepal, so hard won, so very precious—only strengthens from vigorous exercise. As in many other parts of the world, in Nepal, the polity is giving in to authoritarian impulses. It falls on Nepal’s media to defend the rights and freedoms of citizens. This is best done when all of the media—in all languages — speaks out in its diversity.
Manjushree Thapa wrote the fortnightly ‘Nepaliterature’ column in Nepali Times 2000-2004 with translations of Nepali-language writers.