A few years back, me and a few friends decided to go on a trip to Chitwan. But just when we reached Aadamghat, in Dhading, a forgettable place along the Prithivi Highway, the microbus came to a halt. There was a protest going on somewhere ahead and no certainty on when our journey would resume. So, after realising we were stranded, we stepped out of the vehicle and walked alongside huge parked trucks, taking pictures, as that would most likely be the only time we would travel so far, together. In every shot, we grinned ear to ear, did something silly with our hands for lack of anything better to do and captured feigned happiness. A friend later uploaded them on Facebook without mentioning the context, and people liked them. It did, after all, look like we had a whale of a time. In truth, we returned to our rooms in Kathmandu, which we had so arduously planned to escape, dejected.
Each day, our Facebook and Twitter timelines are cluttered with such demonstrations of other people’s lives. Most, like our Dhading disaster, are devoid of context. At worst, such displays result in envy and dissatisfaction on part of the viewers. At best, users know that social media is just a selective display of people’s lives. Still there is nothing that can be done about it. Things are different when people are discussing an event in the city open to all, say a film festival at Kumari, a discussion at Martin Chautari or, like last week, the Literature Festival. When too many people engage online in unending platitudes of such programmes, it naturally makes people feel that they should be a part of it too. Who knows what one can learn there, what thoughts could be triggered? The possibilities are endless.
A day before the litfest started last week, I was expressing these precise thoughts to a colleague of mine. She, however, was not at all interested in going to the festival despite being a writer and a voracious reader. Her argument was, speakers, more often than not, are not honest about issues being discussed, so nothing new will come out of it.
Regardless, I planned to attend the event on Saturday, mostly to make up for the social media-induced guilt of missing the festival last year. And I also wanted to believe that my colleague was wrong about it. I expected Khagendra Sangraula to be honest about whatever he had to say of Maun Patal Prawas (there was no way of knowing what the session was about as the schedule did not explain it); hoped Kitabi Kiros had something new to say about reading; that editors would be honest about whether they had editorial freedom when they spoke of op-ed writing. I left home prepared to spend the day at the fest with a bottle of water, a book and an umbrella, alone. My grand plan was to absorb each session like a sponge.
At the start of the Maun session at Dabali, Yug Pathak revealed his plan to discuss with the venerable critic and writer, Khagendra Sangraula, on why he had ‘not’ written anything on his visit to the US. I couldn’t understand why the issue was worthy of a discussion but Sangraula answered as engagingly as one possibly can on such a topic. After a while, it started drizzling. But as we were under a white canopy, I did not think we would be affected. Soon little drops of water began to fall inside the tent and Pathak jokingly warned the listeners that we would face a jharana (waterfall) after sometime. Imagine the surprise to those attending the festival sponsored by one of the richest companies in Nepal. For some reason, I did not believe Pathak at first. Organisers would have certainly been thoughtful enough to spread a plastic cover or something over the white cloth as it had been raining since the past few days, wouldn’t they? Soon, larger drops began pouring in. People around me began taking out their umbrellas, and I followed suit (talk about literally turning into a sponge). Then a middle-aged man came to sit beside me. He wanted to share my umbrella. I agreed.
But the sheer ludicrousness of the situation was not lost on me. Sitting below a tent, under an umbrella, with a stranger, I listened to Pathak elongate his question by adding inane information such as the American Beauty or Pie or whatever movie he watched and how he and Sangraula are like sathis despite the gap in their age. What a waste of my precious one-day weekend! By then, the jharana had arrived, and those without an umbrella were squatting under a long white plastic which earlier covered the carpet they sat upon. A few social media enthusiasts rushed to the stage, where Sangraula and Pathak spoke from, to take pictures of such a sight. A man was holding an umbrella over Sangraula too. “What dedication,” a caption read, when I saw the photos later in the evening. But going by experience, I am certain most of us were just stuck there not knowing where else to go. I couldn’t leave because of the stranger beside me. The rest did not have an umbrella to leave with. Then the thoughtful speaker, not the host, had to ask the latter to stop the conversation.
Imagine the difference between social media ‘dedication’ and ‘what the hell is happening’ reality. The other sessions to be held in the Dabali were automatically cancelled. I couldn’t find a place to read my book and went out for tea assuming the session at the Backyard must have been cancelled too. But when I sauntered into a session there after an hour and a half, I found that the place was dry even as it was raining outside. How was this possible? Waterfall under one tent and not even a drop of water under another! What was the organisers’ logic behind it? Did the time of the people who came to attend sessions at the Dabali have no value?
Then the programme on editorial freedom began giving me much-needed escape from my own thoughts. An editor mentioned the market’s role in editorial freedom but did not elaborate on it. He was not asked to, either. Then they began talking in jargons about how editor’s freedom depended on editorial freedom. More and more talk in journalese, which, at a certain point, made me want to bang my head against the pole beside me, wrapped in a cloth coloured in Ncell purple, and cry in dramatic agony: “Why did I think they would be honest?”
The other session on opinion writing started better, but by the end listeners seemed to focus only on ‘women,’ deviating from the issue of inclusion in Op-Ed pages. A young man remarked: “mahila bhaneko fertile land ho,” among other stupid things he had to say. That was the last straw for me. I had to leave. And as I walked out of the Nepal Academy gates all I could think of was the gap between the hype generated by the event and its actuality.
Social media had succeeded. It had made me come to the event. I had become a part of the portrait of the ‘dedicated’ audiences. But in reality, it was the Dhading disaster all over again.