Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Mastering Kathmandu

As a teenager, Rajesh had gazed upon the horizon of his ambitions and spotted what it is that he wanted.  Rajesh hated people who pushed him to do things he didn’t want. The worst kind of person someone could be is being kicked around by everybody. He knew that he didn’t want to spend his whole life in fighting that battle. What he needed was to put himself in such a position, from where, he didn’t need to fight.  
Rajesh knew that village life wasn’t for him. He was cut for bigger things in life. He was going to define himself in the city. He was going to Kathmandu and going to prove himself against the mettle of capable men.
He invested in concreteness. He knew that in Nepal words meant nothing. It was a nation that had spent its time talking and talking. And in talking had sucked itself into a lethargic whirlpool of ineffectitude. He understood that in Nepal concrete symbols mattered. That is why he had made himself into a man of action. That is why he had invested in his education to get the international scholarship. The scholarship had enabled him to get the Phd. The European Phd he dangled in front of the faces of friends and relatives made their jaw drop. As expected. He chuckled inside, faked indifference, and focused on the future.
Rajesh sought to make an impact. He was going to be someone that the people in Kathmandu would look up to. The Phd gave him entrance to the kind of position he wanted in an international NGO in Kathmandu. He knew exactly the kind of impact that his position and salary would have on the people around him. They seemed to stand back and watch, their mouths unwillingly parted by a force greater than them. He didn’t want to enjoy it too much, but couldn’t help it.

In the months that followed, the riff-raff office politics in Kathmandu, even in an international NGO, was like a tidal wave that constantly sought to engulf the lone island that was him. Rajesh knew that it took more than good intentions to not be drowned in the murkiness of the chaos around him. The lack of back-bone in the supplicating society around him needed him to be grounded in something solid. That is what it took to not be dragged by the waves of gossip or kissing up politics. It required Rajesh to create his own rules. Rules that he created and demanded those around him respect. He was stern where he needed to be and tactful at other times.
The chaotic ocean of Nepali office culture would always seek to drag him down. That was its dharma. Rajesh knew he had to fight against this erosion if he was going to show them that he was different. His power lay in securing his island from all the subversive forces seeking to tear his beaches. It wasn't easy to survive in Kathmandu without the “social networking” of the culture of chakadi. If Rajesh was not going to play by its rules, he needed to be strong enough to establish his own game. First and foremost he had to be strong in his profession. It was from here that he derived all of his other strengths. Only then could he demand respect. More importantly he had to make others respect the rules by which he played. Rules, Rajesh knew, from watching people flouting the laws in Kathmandu, are, after all, only as strong as the power that demands it be obeyed. 

In a land of over-familiarity and lack of respect for other people's spaces, Rajesh found a lethal weapon in being a blank slate. No one could read him. He had different approaches. One was anger. Anger, lit from his fire-cracker like tongue, firing in rapid succession to those that hesitatingly crossed the line, thinking they were above his law. Snap. He would put them in place, where then they would watch from a distant, nursing the wound to their slighted ego, not quite sure where the electric fence between him and them stood. But in the process Rajesh inevitably created enemies as well. Having enemies in the right places was not necessarily always a bad thing.
But he was no fool. It was hard to survive the phenomenon that is Kathmandu on only one’s own strength. Rajesh had a carefully manicured social network built on his terms. 

As his income from his job grew, Rajesh hired an architect to create a well-modeled house. It was a house with a garden in one of the busier streets. People would gaze walking by. Even with his eyes closed, Rajesh could see the worshipful hush with which they looked at his three story home in one of the more expensive neighborhoods in Patan. This was just another nail that he had pinned to the ground to make sure the ocean would never reach his doorsteps. All around him Rajesh watched those who drowned in Nepali society. To not be someone with money, power, and connections in Kathmandu was to drown. The weak flailed, screamed, yelled. But unfortunately those who cried just drowned faster than those who didn't.
Rajesh would never be one of them. He knew that Kathmandu was separated into two kinds of people: those who lived on land and those who drowned in the ocean. When it came down to it, those who couldn't afford to stand on the expensive land found themselves dragged into the oceans. He had planned way too diligently and had worked too hard to be one of those. He didn’t rub it in their faces. He didn’t need to. Life and their own failures had done that dirty work for him. He simply watched from a distance and smiled to himself, wiping his hand with a white handkerchief.

Rajesh had observed for a long time that those who lived on land made sure to pull what they needed from the ocean. The rest of it just drowned. The way out of the ocean was to get attracted by the gravitational pull on the land. You had to be attractive and wanted enough to get fished out of the waters. And that is what he had done by being strong in his profession. He had done what it took to be an attractive enough of a fish to get hooked and pulled. His diligence had been his ticket out of the dark dangerous deep and constantly swirling waters that were unpredictable.

Rajesh liked to sit on his balcony and meditate on this. He too was in that scary ocean once. He thought of his friends from grade school back in the village. And now look at where they were and where he was. He, who had once been in the ocean had managed to secure himself a solid piece of ground by living on his wits, hard work and his unpredictability. No one knew him. No one would ever know him. And in not knowing who he was, they would keep their distance. A distance that was necessary for the ocean to realize what it was, and more importantly, what it was not--him.

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