Experiences of solitude

  • When compared with the West, in Nepal, family ties still prevail over trajectories of solitude
- Gérard Toffin
Experiences of solitude

Oct 7, 2014-

It is often assumed that in a country like Nepal, as in other traditional South Asian contexts, society prevails over the individual. Such an assumption relies on theories that were formulated long ago by Western sociologists and anthropologists (Tönnies, Durkheim, Dumont, among others). But this applies not only to pre-modern Asian societies but also to pre-capitalist, pre-industrial European countries. It is implicitly stated that individualism first emerged in Europe at a period that fell, according to the authors, between the 13th and 18th centuries. Christianity, the development of capitalist forces, the philosophy of freedom, and social criticism are cited as among the main reasons for this evolution. According to this view, large sections of the rural population in India and Nepal are still subject to a somewhat tyrannical communal rule. It is believed that confrontation with the modern world will gradually strengthen individualities.

I myself experienced this iron law when I lived in a Newar village in Lalitpur district during the period 1971-72. It was the first time that the members of this remote community welcomed a Westerner (I was referred to as desi, foreigner) among them. Though the inhabitants maintained religious and economic relations with their neighbours, they thought of themselves as different, unique. Traditionally, they intermarried exclusively within the village and over the ages, even developed their own Newari (Nepa Bhasa) dialect. They were not economically self-reliant but socially and mentally introverted. Such introversion (‘confinement’ would perhaps be a better word) was associated with strong organic unity in the community, strict marriage rules, and the undisputed authority of the eldest over the youngest. The “I” of the individual could not claim to rule the world.

In such a situation—where family, lineage, and local religion are practically everything—a solitary individual who

abandons his family, friends and culture to settle in a totally different place is immediately an object of suspicion. Though I had been accepted, it was not as a solitary individual; in fact, I was assigned friends and putative hosts who were in some way responsible for me.

Examples in isolation

I have never experienced such an uncompromising denial of personal autonomy in any other Nepali village or town. In subsequent studies, I nevertheless discovered that nearly everywhere, lineages, clans, castes, sub-castes, local ties, and ethnicities are essential social parameters that impose a number of constraints on individuals. These elementary groups offer few opportunities for the individual to escape social regulations. The strength of communal bonds provides substantial support to individuals in the event of disease, natural disasters, or ill-fated situations, but it compromises any private aspirations. Yet, people do readily accept exceptions to the rule, and admit a need for privacy and for being alone.

Paradigms of individuality and isolation are clearly recognised in Indian and Nepali traditional society. Sannyasi renouncers, hermits living in caves, in pits or alone in the forest, imprisoned in their silence, have existed for a long time in the Himalayan and Indian social landscape. They are accepted and highly valued, even though they have severed links with their family and consider all human beings to be their relatives. They are believed to have acquired extraordinary powers thanks to an extremely long and strictly observed isolation. The transgression of common social rules and isolation from society can therefore have a positive effect. Yet, solitary mystical renouncers are rare. Most sannyasis, jogis, in fact live in communities of their own, in ashrams, maths (monasteries) and so forth. A number of them have even married and nevertheless retain their renunciatory status.

Modern life and growing globalisation engender new claims for self-autonomy and create more occasions for being alone than before. Hedonist demands and the rejection of ancient moral codes are on the rise, sometimes creating conflicts within families. In extreme cases, disaffiliation and an intensification of the relationship with the self may lead to drug addiction, depression, or severe mental illness, all processes marked by a rapid depersonalisation.

Family first

Yet altogether, when compared to the West, family ties still prevail. The high rate of individuals, whether male or female, who live alone in modern Europeans cities after a divorce, for instance, has no equivalent in Nepal. Economic difficulties often cause people to join forces; a deep sense of solidarity between generations still prevails. Contrary to Western society, grandparents are cared for at home, and in many cases, the custom of brothers leaving the family home and going their separate ways at a late age continues to predominate. Nepali individuals still live at the crossroads of a multiple set of social relations, whether elective or inherited from parents. And up to the present day, the regular performance of festivals such as Dashain and Tihar maintain close familial and social ties.

Trajectories of pure solitude are rare. Even the new wave of modern artists, mostly painters, that has flourished over the last decades in the Kathmandu Valley has more often than not been sustained by a communalisation of their work place—if their workshop has been set up outside the family home. Expanding individualism does not therefore automatically rhyme with isolation and a loss of identity. Individual itineraries have hardly led to solipsism; they are still regarded in collective terms.

With these matters in mind, it is important to differentiate between loneliness that is imposed against one’s own freewill and freely chosen isolation. Historically, they have both existed in Nepali families, the first making life a misery, the second being more compatible with luminous horizons. To give just one example, single women, whether divorced or widowed, have often endured an arduous life within their family. Social integration may conceal loneliness, mental isolation, and personal anguish. Sexual minorities that deviate from the standard law may also be mentioned in this respect. If rejected, their members may face dereliction.

Gurkhas and labourers

What about the experiences of migrants abroad? Interestingly enough, new associations and mutual aid groups are often set up in foreign countries, providing fellow Nepali migrants with a new social life. In the same way as Gurkha regiments were formed on the basis of ethnicity or caste in the 19th and 20th centuries, Nepali labour migrants in the Gulf, who are buffeted by the winds of history, recreate their own social links. Nepali expatriates in the West, for their part, form fresh ethnic cultural associations, maintaining social bonds and a firm sense of identity. There is, therefore, a lesser sense of suffering and of total uprooting. Old social ties are reformulated, but are preserved.

Toffin is Director of Research at the National Centre for Scientific Research,  France

Published: 08-10-2014 09:42

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