By Dr Sarobar Upadhyaya, Kathmandu
20 July 2020
It was somewhere around 2009/10, when I was still an undergraduate medical student. I was skimming through my tailored news feed during breakfast when a point of debate caught my attention. It was President Obama’s administration and there was a raging debate about gay inclusiveness within American armed forces. There were fireworks on both sides but it all came down to what the need or demand of the time was. For such a shift in the spectrum of social or even physical change can only be mandated by time. It required a certain degree of maturity on the part of the society to accept such a change – that is, in this instance, making the US Army friendly and more accepting towards men and women of any sexual orientation. If such matters were to be forced, it would require violence or a bloody revolution, and I’m not saying that those don’t have their role in political transition.
When society as a whole deals with issues in the shadows and when such issues prevail for an extended period of time as an underwater current, they are bound to create visible ripples on the surface. Such subtle play of forces brings about strong shifts in social and ideological direction. “Don’t ask, don’t tell”, was the catchphrase, with most arguments dissecting the need to still remain in the closet. Was this an attempt to pull a curtain on a burning social issue? Perhaps. What struck me was not the witty and seemingly logical arguments that radiated from both sides but the very nature of the argument: here we had members of the society who had reached a point where they were truly fighting for their identity based on their individual choices.
Nepal at that time was also undergoing a change, having just come out of the ten-year-long Maoist revolution. Nepal’s struggle at the time was more physical than philosophical. When they begin, these propagandic philosophy sound very alluring, often overshadowing the brutal and bloody physical revolution occurring simultaneously but in retrospect they are only as much. That said, while most of these ideologies don’t pan out, some do, like the non-violence movement or the constitutions of most democratic countries today. They too started off as propaganda but were successful. But even they eventually lose some if not all of their lustre, and rightly so, leaving them ever open to amendments from future generations.
So back in 2009/10, we had just been through the bloody civil war and abolition of monarchy and yet we were still on about the same food, security and shelter narrative. When would we reach a point when “liberty” or “ideas of change” became our popular talking point rather than the “food, security and shelter” debate? It often crossed my mind. I knew that ideological discussions took a backseat when basic human survival was at stake.
Ten years later.
Apart from gender politics, and other isms, there is but some talk of people with mental health problems being convicted for various crimes. Recently, an autistic man was charged in Britain for causing an accident occasioning loss of life. But having realised that the person was autistic, there is general discontent among people. And in an open society discontent is an excellent fermenting ground for discussions. I shiver at the thought of Nepalese prisons that might be holding many of such “misunderstood” individuals. We must all first understand that as early as three decades ago this would have gone unnoticed. Say what you may, the priorities those days were obviously different. Children with extreme restlessness are not “just trying to create a problem” anymore, now they may have “Attention Deficit Disorder”. Children who were withdrawn from others aren’t “antisocial” or “weird” anymore; they may have Autism or Asperger’s. Now I am not trying to say that most human behaviours are pathological but some conditions are incapacitating and they need to be recognized and cared for as such so that these individuals are able to function to the best of their capabilities. And this is not about the nature of the crime committed either, it is about the thought. It’s also about the discussion and the eventual change that it will bring about, the one that we need. In Nepal we have our fancy phones, and internet is ever expanding. We are still stuck with food, shelter and security and discussing anything else might not be the priority right now. But does it have to be this way? Does the progress of a society have to be linear? Can we not have an exponential progress? If Nepal were to discover some hypothetical means of great economic prosperity in the next decade, I think not much would change sociologically. I often look at Middle Eastern deserts for answers. Money came in rapidly, so did skyscrapers, casinos, but women drivers came decades later! That is what happens when physical prosperity without societal maturity happens.
Skyscrapers and equality in society may not go hand in hand, how can it? One is mere brick work, the other a change in human psyche, but the goal is to not let it trail too far behind. Why can we not talk about the mental health issues or the judicial system or sexuality or bias or spiritualty in the same breath? Why must we be bounded by Maslow’s Hierarchy when we have broken free from other shackles?
May be ten years was a short timeframe, may be things would look much different in the next ten years to come! Talking about basic needs as well as other needs can go hand in hand and we do not have to conform to the belief that one has to take precedence over the other. We need to have these discussions instead of waiting for another decade and person to start the talking. I for one remain optimistically hopeful and foolishly so.
An anesthesiologist interested in Critical Care Medicine, Dr Sarobar Upadhyaya is based in Kathmandu where he works at private hospitals.
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