Winds of fate

  • Aftermath of quake provides hope that fatalism’s hold over Nepalis is loosening
Winds of fate

May 11, 2015-

A stroll among the temporary camps that sprung up in the wake of the April 25 Great Earthquake and conversations with strangers would eventually veer into the fatalistic. The dead were ‘meant to die’ because it was ‘written’. As proof, they would cite examples of those who had perished even as those literally next to them escaped unscathed when the 7.9 magnitude quake hit. Those who were rescued alive from underneath the rubble after days were ‘meant to live’ because it was ‘not their time’. What could one do, many would lament, if it was your lot in life to perish under an unstable building.

Certainly, fatalism is not unique to Nepal, but here, its roots run deep into the social fabric. As Dor Bahadur Bista pointed out many years ago in Fatalism and Development, fatalism is the belief “that one has no personal control over one’s life circumstances, which are determined through a divine or powerful external agency.” Bista pointed to fatalism’s roots in Hindu culture, especially the Brahmin-Chhetri combine, for having propagated this sense of externality, wherein individual choices have little to no effect on the greater scheme of things. The external most often is the divine and the supernatural, but just as often, manifests as a ‘foreign hand’. Such a belief, argued Bista, detracts from an individual’s sense of responsibility; it severs the link between action and outcome so that no one person feels accountable.

This mentality can still be found in much of Nepal, in the bureaucracy, in the actions and statements of political actors, and in neighborhood gossip. Take, for example, what the Kathmandu Chief District Officer told the Nepali Congress lawmakers who had gone to see him to get a sense of rescue operations after the April 25 quake: “The ones who were meant to die have died. Those who are alive were meant to be alive.” It was, perhaps, this mentality that led many to construct and live in unsafe houses despite knowing all-too-well the near risk of a massive earthquake.

There is, however, a sign that things are changing. The wave of volunteerism, especially among the young, in the aftermath of the Great Earthquake provides some hope that perhaps fatalism’s hold over the Nepali psyche is loosening. More and more people, on both traditional and social media, are taking responsibility—not for the disaster but for the response. The massive loss of life and property in the earthquake seems to have galvanised Nepalis in a way no inspiring rhetoric from an influential figure managed to in the past.

There is now reason to hope that fatalistic resignation will be tempered with a desire to take charge of one’s own destiny. This can manifest in ways as simple as adhering to building codes while constructing a home. The important point before us is, of course, while we can do little to stop such powerful natural calamities like earthquakes, we can most certainly prepare ourselves well.

Published: 12-05-2015 09:32

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