Print Edition - 2015-07-12  |  Free the Words

Freedom and loss

  • The loss of Bungamati’s wooden universe is a stark reminder of our responsibility
- Abhi Subedi
Freedom and loss

Jul 11, 2015-The Nepali state and its people are seriously reviewing the loss caused by the April 25 earthquake. A calamity of that scale naturally shatters the values of both a tangible and intangible nature. An earthquake strikes both physically and mentally. Getting used to aftershocks in Nepal is not as easy as it is in Japan, where the structures are quake-resistant. I used to be surprised to see Tokyo University students and academics walking and working, even as the earth was shaking. But there too, stories of havoc were wrought in memories.

When a huge earthquake struck the northern region of Japan, the colossal disaster in Fukushima and Tohoku prefectures shook me to the core. I had visited Sendai and other regions in connection with my research on Ekai Kawaguchi’s Nepal and Tibet collections, which I had undertaken with the help of a Japanese friend of many Nepalis named Seiji Ichibori. Though the objects that I saw and recorded in visuals and narratives remain safe, I was filled with a sense of horror when Ichibori-san told me about the big loss of cultural heritage. The search for the intangible appears to be the most serious part of a post-earthquake situation.

Free media

As Nepal is hectically engaged in the assessment of the loss of both a tangible and intangible nature, a visit to the closing of an exhibition of traditional sculptures at the Nepal Arts Council on July 5 made me mightily pensive. The calamity has left our minds shattered, though people are gradually trying to recover from that experience. What I find important is the pace of assessment undertaken by people who run the state, which includes politics—the executive, the judiciary and the army. That assessment is backed up by what is called ‘fast-track action’, including the writing of a long overdue constitution of the land, which is under serious public scrutiny.

In this situation, everything is under the process of assessment. But what should be noted with some seriousness is that a few fast-track schemes of the government about intangible matters call for people’s vigilance. The state, even in many countries including the so-called powerful democratic ones, takes a few swift measures to curtail the freedom of the people when some disasters happen. Though an earthquake is not a human terrorist attack, governments put in policy declarations saying that they will have to meddle in media matters. People who fear this say that such measures clearly show that governments want to take the opportnity to hit a free media. We can recall how post-disaster times in many developing countries have given rise to such situations.

I am only repeating a sense of displeasure and misgiving created by the Nepali government’s proposal to reshape the media’s structure in its policy statement. Indeed, shaping its structure is the sole responsibility of media organisations. The government’s role comes, but only as a protector and facilitator of media activities.

A promise to intervene does not bode well. Why has a free media become a target at a time when the entire country should be working together? Political and economic analysts may know the answer. But the following position makes us think about this matter seriously. The country will and must engage in the reconstruction task that involves a huge amount of money and physical support from outside. That will generate problems and prospects. Many irregularities may occur during such times. A free media can play a very crucial role at such moments.

The fear of a free media, though I don’t want to stretch it too far, does not bode well.

Losing the intangible

Incidentally, this subject comes after a responsible WFP official was blamed  by the Nepali media for spreading what he called lies about rotten food being served to earthquake victims here by the UN agency. We know the media was carrying news of the findings of the Human Rights Commission and the parliamentary committee. The official’s statement that the rotten food would be diverted to feed war victims and refugees in Syria and surrounding countries also reminds us of the degree of priority that human misery receives from responsible world bodies.

That also shows how ineffective the UN and world powers have become in matters of helping human beings in dire need of food, shelter and security. In his critique of Western politics, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben famously calls that state of human existence “bare life”, which is increasingly generating negative connotations. The official’s declaration and his attack on a free media, which may sound burlesque, is nevertheless a sad reminder of how those who reveal cover-ups are targeted by responsible persons, and how the world is becoming intolerant of those who speak for the victims.

Assessing the overall loss is a very complex subject. What you have lost is, first of all, a painful topic to discuss. And how you are faring is another difficult question to answer. As a literary person and art and theatre dabbler, I look seriously at the nature of the loss of the intangible culture.

I met a young sculptor from the ancient town of Bungamati at the aforementioned exhibition. Amir Shakya first showed me his wooden sculpture titled Bhairava Face. He introduced me to all the wooden and metal sculptures one-by-one. But what struck me was the power of the wooden sculptures of the artists of Bungamati, most of which lies in ruins now. The entire town was a museum, a “serious place on serious earth.” All the wooden artworks are buried under rubble; some are permanently gone. I left the exhibition struck by the scale of loss that we have suffered in this big earthquake. The loss of Bungamati’s wooden universe is a stark reminder of our responsibility.

I returned overwhelmed by a mixed sense of freedom, art and uncertain futurity.

Published: 12-07-2015 08:16

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