DE­VEL­OP­MENT DILEM­MAS

In her lat­est, Man­jushree Thapa pens a deft, read­able tale of con­tem­po­rary Nepal. It is an in­side look at the mon­eyed world of the in­ter­na­tional aid in­dus­try, ca­reer ac­tivists, donors and ben­e­fi­cia­ries, says Minu Jain

DNA Sunday (Mumbai) - - FRONT PAGE - Minu. jain@ dnain­dia. net, @ dna

he De­vel­op­ment Set is bright and noble

Our thoughts are deep and our vi­sion global; Al­though we move with the bet­ter classes Our thoughts are al­ways with the masses.”

Ross Cog­gins’ satir­i­cal and oft- quoted verse writ­ten four decades ago runs like a re­frain right through the read­ing of Man­jushree Thapa’s charm­ing novel that un­folds in a Nepal of in­ter­na­tional aid, global do- good­ers and chang­ing lives.

In telling the sto­ries of Ava Ber­ri­den, the Cana­dian lawyer who was adopted from an or­phan­age in Nepal and finds her­self back in the coun­try she was born in, Indira Sharma, the gen­der ac­tivist cop­ing with the machi­na­tions of the in­tensely- com­pet­i­tive NGO world and also the pa­tri­ar­chal con­struct of her own home, and the brother- sis­ter duo of Sa­pana and Gyanu, mak­ing an ef­fort to make a go of their lives in the vil­lage, Thapa pens a tale that is both read­able and iden­ti­fi­able.

It’s a story of yearn­ing and rest­less­ness. Ava leaves On­tario, the cor­po­rate rut she was in and her mar­riage for a new job in the in­ter­na­tional aid or­gan­i­sa­tion, In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment As­sis­tant Fo­rum ( IDAF). “I’ve fi­nally found a ca­reer I can be­lieve in… ,” she says as she heads to Nepal, which “re­lies heav­ily on aid”. In Kath­mandu, she runs into Indira, look­ing for a level of com­fort at both her job and her home, where she is re­duced to the sta­tus of just a daugh­ter- in- law who can’t drink even wine with guests. On a quest to get out of the con­fines of Kath­mandu and out into the “real Nepal”, Ava meets the spir­ited Sa­pana, who be­comes a fo­cal point for what women’s em­pow­er­ment pro­grammes can ac­tu­ally do and how they help. And there’s Sa­pana’s half brother Gyanu, who comes back from Dubai af­ter their fa­ther’s death, but is un­able to make the pic­turesque vil­lage his home again.

The char­ac­ters are easy to con­nect with. There are also re­mark­able cameos that stand out in this nar­ra­tive of in­ter­con­nected lives that moves from Canada to Nepal, from con­fer­ence venues in Europe to air­con­di­tioned of­fices in Kath­mandu, from the city to the vil­lages. There’s Vishwa Bista, for in­stance, the smarmy US ed­u­cated Nepali pro­gramme staffer at in­ter­na­tional aids or­gan­i­sa­tion IDAF, and the en­gag­ing Rama Bhauji, the sin­gle mother and mem­ber of the vil­lage women’s com­mit­tee un­com­fort­able with the ac­count­ing that comes with the fund­ing.

They rep­re­sent the two ends of the aid spec­trum in Nepal; a world of SUVs, Mont Blanc pens and sunny of­fices jux­ta­posed against the re­al­ity of ev­ery­day life in the vil­lages, which is brought to life by Thapa’s deft writ­ing. The IDAF, she says, is “her­met­i­cally sealed, as though to keep Nepal out”, the staff neatly di­vided be­tween the lo­cals and the for­eign­ers. It ap­pears to be a per­versely- struc­tured world of “de­liv­er­ables, quan­tifi­ables, mea­sure­ments and ma­trixes” and the IDAF it­self is de­scribed by To­mas, an­other ex­pa­tri­ate in Nepal, as a “col­lu­sion be­tween in­ter­na­tional and na­tional elite”. When he tries to per­suade Ava to move from Nepal to Myan­mar and she de­murs, cit­ing the size of the an­nual bud­get for her IDAF pro­gramme, he says im­pa­tiently, “F** k the aid in­dus­try, all it does is en­rich the global elite”.

It’s an in­sider look at the mon­eyed world of donors, lenders and re­ceivers. The cyn­i­cism of life in Kath­mandu con­trasts nicely with Thapa’s de­scrip­tives of vil­lage life. In­ter­est­ingly, the au­thor puts in the 2015 earth­quake and the cri­sis over a con­sti­tu­tion in the coun­try to give the full pic­ture of con­tem­po­rary Nepal.

Is­sues like hu­man traf­fick­ing are also slipped in with­out too much of a big deal. In a con­ver­sa­tion with Gyanu, Ava ex­presses con­cern over young girls go­ing to In­dia for work and dis­cusses the high risk of traf­fick­ing in the area as well as the fact that more than 10,000 Nepali girls are traf­ficked an­nu­ally.

Notwith­stand­ing the machi­na­tions and cut and thrust of the ‘ al­ter­nate world of NGOs and ca­reerist ac­tivists, All Of Us… ends with Sa­pana and a pro­gramme that works, that ac­tu­ally per­co­lates to the com­mu­nity it is in­tended for.

The ‘ de­vel­op­ment set’, you see, can make a dif­fer­ence.

Au­thor Man­jushree Thapa

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