Bangalore, Balram Halwai and the Nepali Identity

Late December last year we were staying at a hotel in J.P. Nagar,Bangalore. We were three in number including one man and two women. So, on this particular evening before the day we were to leave for Delhi she wanted to have paan after dinner. There was a small ‘Paan Pasal’ just in-front of the hotel and when the shopkeeper handed her the ‘Paan’, she looked at it and said “Yesma ta kei chaina” (It doesn’t have anything). Then a person emerged from the other side of the stall told something to the Paan Pasale in a different language. The Pasale started adding ingredients in it, handed the pan back and she exclaimed “Oho feri kati dherai haldeko!” (He’s put too much of everything!) . The person emerging from the other side of the stall introduced himself as a Nepali. He was from Baitadi. It had only been 3 months in Bangalore and he was working at the hotel as a guard during the nights. ‘He’s also a Nepali’ he said pointing at another guard. “Maile chineko manche vanera dherai halde jasto cha!” he said explaining the extra ingredients in the Paan. And they talked for a while during which she said ‘She was from Baitadi’ too. It was such an interesting situation for me. Two people from both from Baitadi, a relatively underdeveloped district in the Far-West of Nepal, both in the same hotel, same place, beside the same Paan Pasal yet leading lives as different as Black and White. It could be the most simplistic explanation Nepal’s Gini Coeffient as well.


A Nepal where inequality is on the rise.

Some have the choice to take “Jet Airways” and not “Jet Lite” while the others can only dream of flying. He travelled a week to get to the place. I was in Kathmandu, New Delhi, Bangalore all in one week. Some Nepalis women go on short business trips to India. Most chinky eyed Nepali girls are sold to brothels. Some men go to India to initiate Regional Programmes (yeah in those meetings, you won’t see a bit of Indian highhandedness). Other men spend a lifetime as guards, gurkhas, household helps, become victims of cases like the “Arushi murder” and die ‘Bahadurs’. We have our own Nepal that has a ‘choice’ and a Nepal that doesn’t.

So, it is but obvious that a character like Balram Halwai in Arvind Adiga’s “The White Tiger” mentions a sly, slant-eyed Nepali guard (unnamed) and gorgeous Nepali women in red petticoats that make Indian men go mad. The book isn’t about Nepal nor is it about the Nepalis. It is only a work of fiction about a ‘White Tiger’ in school turned ‘tea-shop helper’ turned ‘driver’ turned ‘ murderer’ turned ‘Business cum social entrepreneur’ man named Balram Halwai. With that background I wouldn’t expect any Balram Halwai to know Nepalis beyond guards and commercial sex workers either. Of course, he seems to have read poetry and known a few things by his own research which doesn’t include the knowledge that Nepal was never ruled by foreigners in addition to his list of China, Afghanistan and Abyssinia too. (Didn’t the U.S.S.R rule Afghanistan for sometime? I am confused). But no matter how we Nepalis are proud of our non-colonial past I wasn’t least bothered about the sentence in Page 5 either. Its fiction after all.
tigernovel
Talking in the same vein the news report titled “White Tiger Raises Nepal’s Hackles” caught my attention. My view of the book differs so I would like to explain why it did not raise my hackles. Firstly, its fiction. Secondly, it states that a Booker Winning writer should have been more responsible in his portrayal of Nepalis. But I am sure, Adiga did not write the novel with the “Booker” in mind and obviously now that it has been awarded he can’t alter it. And if any reader of this fiction thinks Nepalis are a ‘race’ found in India , whose ‘male population’ work as guards and ‘female population’ are engaged in prostitution we should be able to forgive the lazy ‘tourist’ whose IQ amounts to nil rather than resorting to our ‘Protest Techniques.’ The underlying assumption seems to be that such stereotyping of the Nepalis portrays ‘Nepalis’ in bad light. The concern obviously is the ‘White Man’s’ perception of our country. My two cents worth suggestion is that we shouldn’t dwell on it. Any ‘Bideshi’ ( foreigner) if really interested in Nepal would surely learn something on ‘mountains’ if not the ‘People’ and a visit to the country would add one more person in the list of foreigners who ‘stereotype’ Nepalis as ‘Friendly’ / ‘Innocent’ people. Obviously we can’t completely break free from stereotypes.

And if we seriously wish NOT to be stereotyped in these novels by Indian writers then we should rather be able to do something about the millions of Nepalis in India who confirm to the same stereotype. So, the greater question is if we are able to accept that reality or not.

Acceptance is the first step. And identities thereafter are always subject to change. Sometimes I wonder why we Nepalis are so ‘Identity Conscious’. The argument till the point that Nepal gives us our identity so we feel strongly about it is convincing but we seem to be ready to wage ‘Identity war’ for all the wrong causes only. Everyone is entitled to one’s opinion but what is the point it debating a work of fiction and meaningless Bollywood movies ( Chandni Chowk to China) when there are other issues with India which need more attention. What of the Bhutanese problem? What about India encroaching Nepali borders? In cases like that the government is unable to negotiate at all. Politicians go around barking that Nepal doesn’t have a clear map! Gawwd. And of all the things in this world it’s going to make a diplomatic effort to make amendments in a crappy Bollywood movie? Given a situation like this Pinky Madam would undoubtedly say “What a ….. Joke!”

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7 comments

  1. Couldn’t agree with you more about the non-issue discussion re: Nepalis’ portrayal in The White Tiger. And the irony is most of the (elitist) media reviews of The White Tiger (and now the Slumdog Millionaire) have been fairly negative in India itself – they say both these works portray India in negative light. It seems to me that it’s the South-Asian trait to “sweep under the carpet” the things (particularly the bitter truths) we don’t want others to see/know about. Same with identity – overly conscious, but mostly for no good reason or positive energy. Heard of that “protest” about some bollywood movie, just because it tells Buddha was born in India. I was thinking if they start protesting about that issue, there would be protest(s) on that issue alone everyday. Thankfully those who have nothing doing but watching some bollywood flick and protesting about it (and protesting without watching as well) don’t read all those books that mention India as the birthplace of Buddha!!

  2. haven’t read ‘the white tiger’ yet but i agree that the article Stereotyping Nepalis was stupid in saying “…a Booker Winning writer should have been more responsible in his portrayal of Nepalis”. that ‘portrayal’ is just how the Halwai guy thinks, not the author! how else are writers supposed to create characters without giving them thoughts n perceptions of their own? he further whines “…surprisingly, all of them have been left without names” would it have been better if they’d been given names? maybe then our nepali daju-bhai didi-bahini would be out on the streets protesting that their names matched the guards or prostitutes in Adiga’s book!

    his article starts with “as fellow South Asians, we may take pride in the achievement of Arvind Adiga who won this year’s Man Booker Prize for his novel The White Tiger” . duh! what difference does it make to us really?

    these ‘i care abt nepal’s identity, i’m a nationalist’ sort of articles r really getting annoying. as if nepalis aren’t doing enough on their own with their protests n bandhs n blame-games – i don’t think it takes an indian writer to ‘portray nepalis in a bad light.

    great job D. u put it beautifully. loved your take on that one.

  3. A brilliant take on the issue. We need more writers like you to explain things in such an easy way.

    Its useless to have discussion on topics like how Nepalis are portrayed badly in a book by an Indian. First, fix your house. Solve the problems in your society. If you become rich, no one will write you off as poor chaps. Moreover Indians themselves have significant Nepali (Gorkhali) population.

    I think its more of an issue of inferiority complex (which, by the way, could be seen among Indians too. Remember the hohalla that was created when a British women participant in a reality show in London said something to Indian actress Shilpa) than the real problem about identity.

  4. yae u r so right

    these people outside in west is treated like inferior
    but 2 a smaller neighbour it wants 2 treat the same
    with more dirt and stupidity

    but i,m in hyderabad n i feel proud 2 say that no nepali here no matter his age or sex works they dont sit around and beg or loot

    AWAYS PROUD 2 BE A GORKHALI

  5. I am preparing a research paper on White Tiger and my focus is on names and titles in Adiga’s book. Anyone knows any source, I would appreciate if you let me know. This article was useful. Thanks for posting.

  6. Such a good piece of writting!
    I’m basically from nuwakot, nepal and currently stay in bangalore, india both working and staying…any nepalese-male of female, staying in nepal or india, if wanna get in touch wid me, pl mail me at shivad_4@yahoo.com

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