Sat 28th Feb 2004

Happy Families

Once upon a time, although no one is quite sure when, there was a golden age in England, when the spirit of Community was abroad in the land. It was a time when everybody knew their neighbours, and the local bobby knew everybody; when milkmen and butchers boys acted as an informal neighbourhood watch. A time when marriage was for life and children respected their elders and their elders weren't packed off to live in retirement homes. But then things changed: the golden age was replaced with plastic, and the spirit of Community vanished, never to return. People mourn that lost age now. Often they aren't sure exactly what has changed - all they know is that it was for the worse.

Perhaps they should visit Nepal. The country is full of old-fashioned community spirit. Isolated from the rest of the world until 1952, most of Nepali society still functions according to the traditional village unit, which has remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years. Everybody knows everybody, and the concept of privacy is virtually unknown. Instead private lives are acted out on the village stage, and as a result life is subject to an immensely complex set of unwritten rules and customs.

Central to the Nepali idea of society is family. Ask a Nepali to what or whom their first loyalty lies and almost all will say family - as opposed to loftier alternatives such as country, ethnic group or even mankind, although Nepali family units are considerably larger than those we're used to. In fact, family and society are so closely interwoven that the correct form of address to strangers - bus drivers, waiters, people you meet on the street - is familial. Men older than you are called dai (older brother); those younger bhai (younger brother). Older women are called didi (older sister), younger women bahini (you guessed it - younger sister).

Look a bit closer and it gets more complex: for example, when should didi be considered too informal and replaced by bauju (sister in law )? When is bhai condescending and dai over-the-top respectful? How old must someone be before they earn the titles hajur-amaa or hajur-baa (grandmother or grandfather)? A visitor may well have trouble untangling this web of relationships, but it's still easy to assume that Nepal is awash with the friendly 'community spirit' that we miss so much - to believe in fact, that Nepal is one big happy family. But not all families are happy. And all is far from well in Nepal.

I can't pretend to understand in depth the complexities of Nepali family hierarchies. And with as many as sixty separate ethnic groups in the country, each with its own rules and customs, plus the added complications of caste and family name, I'm not going to try. But some characteristics seem broadly true everywhere in Nepal: age and sex are the two crucial indicators of respect and power in the family, so older males are at the top of the tree. The hierarchy of family is rigidly observed: children are expected to obey their elders unquestioningly; wives to bow to their husbands' wishes; sisters to their brothers'. It's even considered disrespectful for a younger member of the family to smoke in front of an elder. Women meanwhile, although they play a crucial role in every family, and have been estimated to have workloads as much as four times that of men, often have little influence and few legal rights. In some parts of the country widowed women aren't allowed to remarry. In most parts they have little or no right to property - either that of their parents or their husbands. They can even face murder charges if a child is stillborn.

If this makes family life in Nepal sound like some kind of mediaeval hell, well it isn't - or at least not for most. Most Nepali families are happy and loving; children and the elderly are respected and cared for; and the large percentage of young people who migrate abroad or to the cities to find work always send something back to their families when they can. But abuses can occur in any family, and the rigid hierarchical structure of Nepali family life makes these abuses easier to commit and perpetuate rather than harder. And when a society defines itself in terms of family relationships this hierarchy moves out of the home and into everyday life. It's no coincidence that Nepal is one of the most corrupt countries in the world - remember after all, where everybody's first loyalty lies. Many of those lucky enough to gain a position of power and influence regard it as a duty to use some of their influence and connections to secure a job for a cousin, or to smooth over a brother-in-law's legal problems. And it's a short step from there to the use of influence within the police or legal system to settle old family rivalries, or to the outright theft of public funds to finish a new family home.

The unquestioning obedience of everyone else to older men, who hold almost every position of power in society, prevents these issues from ever being redressed. Nepalis have been conditioned from earliest childhood to accept what they're told by those higher up in the hierarchy. Unfairness or injustice is simply accepted, neatly encapsulated in the Nepali catchphrase "ke garne?" - "what to do?".

Here's an example: I was staying in the capital, Kathmandu and I walked out of my hotel one day to find a beefy looking security guard who worked at a nearby military office punching and kicking a thin rickshaw driver. Public violence is rare in Nepal and they were surrounded by a crowd of about twenty people. No one looked like they were enjoying the spectacle, but clearly no one felt the urge to intervene, including a policeman who was standing in the crowd. I don't know what the rickshaw driver had done - charged too much for a ride perhaps or run over the guard's foot - but he was making no attempt to fight back. I'm not one of life's interveners either, but something about the sick acceptance on the face of the driver made me walk up to the pair and try insert myself between them. I tried, politely, to ask the security guard what the problem was. He looked straight through me, sidestepped and took the nearby policeman's lathi - a bamboo stick like a truncheon - and began to beat the driver with it. The policeman watched: the driver abandoned his rickshaw and ran for it.

Here a policeman can be risking his career, and possibly his life, if he attempts to arrest the driver of an expensive car for, say, a drink-driving accident. Perhaps the person arrested will be friends with the District Police Chief, or has an uncle with 'connections', in which case the policeman is likely to fall victim to the same system that he upholds: the system that victimises the poor, the lower castes - in fact anyone in the lower reaches of that all-pervasive hierarchy.

Seen from this angle it's easier to understand the abject failure of Nepali democracy between 1991 and 2001 (the year in which the King dissolved parliament, and thus Nepal's experiment with democracy, to appoint his own government). Many Nepalis regarded their country with democracy as, to use a local proverb, 'like a monkey with a coconut'. Nepali society was asked to make an enormous leap, one which no one had prepared it to make. After years of corrupt rule by a small elite, the trough of power was simply opened to a larger group. And after eight governments in ten years, each more blatantly corrupt than the last, Nepal was worse off according to every developmental indicator, and in the grip of a popular and highly successful Maoist insurgency. Not surprising when you consider that the distance between feudal kingdom and modern multi-party democracy in Nepal was less than fifty years. The grandparents of feudalism are still alive, literally and figuratively, and they command respect.

It's an eye-opener as they say. And it makes me wonder just how much worse our own society is now than it was back in that Golden Age. Maybe our much-lamented sense of community was simply the hangover from a traditional society that was effective when we all lived in village communities, but which we have now outgrown. Maybe the fact that kids nowadays don't show any respect is a good thing. Maybe respect is worth more when it's earned. Maybe society seems more anarchic because we have more personal freedom. Maybe we should embrace the changes.