March 1, 2016 Sujeev Shakya

Learning Through Culture

Last month, I attended many social functions—from weddings to rice-feeding ceremonies to coming-of-age ceremonies. These ceremonies are complex and take a really long time, which gives one ample time to chat, understand, observe and reflect. What happens at these events can reflect why Nepal is undergoing a phase where everything seems to be moving backwards and not forwards.

The One That Is Heard
In one of the functions, I was watching this man continuously directing everything that was to happen at that function. He had a loud voice that could not only be heard by all but drowned out all other comments as well. An old man standing next to me was telling me how the ritual is not done that way and that the scriptures say otherwise. He tried to intervene, but could not be heard as the loud guy continued to take charge. Everybody revered the loud guy. They were worried that he would be upset and that the ritual would get affected. The priests listened to him as he practically choreographed the entire event. It made me wonder—does this not reflect how things move in Nepal, perhaps in the whole of South Asia, in everyday life?
At board and annual general meetings, someone who may not know how to read a balance sheet speaks the longest as he (generally it’s a man) is the loudest. Qualified professionals just watch as the proceedings go on and all sorts of resolutions get adopted. We see this in many board rooms and discussion rooms. People with little educational qualifications will don robes and speak at graduation ceremonies where PhDs are graduating. Those who cannot read a prescription and do not understand the difference between a generic name of a drug and its chemical name and brand name will tell you how pharma companies or medical colleges should run. The list can be endless. Perhaps the acceptance of these people in the society in our everyday lives stems from the fact that we inherit an oral tradition and referring to documents, learning about scriptures and working through manuals alien to us. Perhaps the day we start having manuals for our rituals and actually following the manuals like the way we follow the manuals for our electronic gadgets, we will be able to understand that the loudest is not necessarily the most correct. Perhaps then we will have bankers planning the strategies for banks and academics running academic programmes. Of course, it is not about qualification alone, but correct knowledge and its application.
World Of Short Cuts
People sometimes ask me why people jump queues in many places in Nepal—be it physically or by using multiple networks. The only explanation that I have been able to come up with is that perhaps most of us hill people like to find short cuts to get from point A to point B. Perhaps the constant quest for short cuts makes us explore shorter ways of getting things done. In my book Unleashing Nepal, I talk about the tendency of Nepalis to have little interest in areas where there is competition. It is hard to find many Nepalis who want to study management or medicine in India by competing in examinations; rather they find solace in quotas and other easier ways to get admission. To get a degree in medicine, we are going to all sorts of places. It is common for us to hear of people taking all sorts of short cuts to get an educational degree, including buying it. I keep meeting students who want to study in the US or Europe without having to sit for a competitive exam.
I wonder if it is a fact that we are so used to finding short cuts in religious rituals that we do not find it difficult to find short cuts in other spheres of life. If you can find short cuts in the processes where the almighty is involved, it is much easier to find short cuts where mere mortals are involved. Religious rituals are very well documented and have a history of being used for centuries.
In a globalised world, you can create short cuts like apps on your desktop. Every sphere of our lives is changing dramatically due to technology. However, the more we become attuned to fulfilling procedures and avoiding short cuts, the more sustainable will be our knowledge, competence and success.
Rather than trying to blame everything on the politicians and the politics of the country that is reflective of our society, it is time for some real work to understand the underlying cultural and social issues. Love to collaborate with people to observe more and learn more!

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