As early as the 1980s, Aama had noted that young people were losing interest in subsistence farming, and home-grown skills such as roof thatching, or hand-hewing a wooden plough, were no longer being taught. How, I wondered, will the youth recraft a subsistence when the demand for foreign labour ends?
My resistance to the future, and the present, was beginning to seem idealistic and futile. The ancient bari terraces were being reclaimed by weeds and shrubs. In places, tall trees had emerged where corn used to grow. Trees are not a bad thing, Nepalko dhan. The countryside was a semi-natural landscape, courtesy of limited markets and opportunities.
Some spoke of the potential for cash crops such as coffee or walnuts in the fallow fields. If hillside farming were someday mechanised, might the land be converted to commercial agro-enterprises?
“Nepal imports approximately a billion rupees worth of food products every day,” Ganesh Gurung had told me. “Now, even China is looking to export grains and other food products to Nepal.”
I recalled what Resham, my student from the 1970s, had told me, that in the old days, hill people were embarrassed to be seen buying rice in the district centre. It was an admission of defeat, signaling that they were unable to support themselves. Nowadays, that sentiment has flipped: if people are tilling the field and growing their own food, it means they do not have relatives working overseas to send money to buy provisions. They are regarded as failures.
Resham said: “One day, just maybe, as people retire or become weary of towns and cities, they will return to the peacefulness of the countryside.”
The reverse migration trend may not have quite begun, but the abiding sentiment will make it forever possible. Perhaps out of my own nostalgia, or hope, I sensed that Resham, Maita, Kanchi and Sainli shared a vision of village revival too — the return of family, and the re-engagement of the cycles of rituals, festivals and seasons.
The present moment might be something of a holding pattern, a bardo or transition following death, prior to rebirth in a very different incarnation, one humming with commerce and commodities. And hopefully community.
Preaching on high, Broughton Coburn
A true tale, Broughton Coburn