Each time I am back home* after a hiatus of a year or more (two, in this case), I find myself constantly trying to reconcile the Kathmandu in my head (from my last visit) with the Kathmandu of present. What makes this more difficult is my own evolution as an individual under a western ecosystem.
When I first returned home after having stayed in the States for 1.5 years (in an uber-liberal college, I might add), a wise man told me- 'right now you are an out-of-tune instrument. When you go back home, people will try to play you and realize that you don't produce the right notes. They'll tune you up, and send you back.'** Five such trips, and plenty of tuning up later, I have come to accept the fact that I don't fully belong anywhere anymore. So, I will never produce the right notes. But I am not trying to paint an ex-patriate's emotional struggles here- that has been overdone for a while now.
My experiences have led me to question the fundamental difference between the two worlds that I am a part of. Although I don't have an answer, like any good PhD student, I have come up with a hypothesis. To explain this better, let me start with a story. Back in the day, when Pratap Malla was the king of Kathmandu, he built Rani Pokhari (a pond with a temple at the center) in the heart of Kathmandu to mourn the loss of his young son. To get his nation involved, he demanded that all his subjects take a bucket of milk and pour it in the empty pond during one particular night. He wanted a milk pond to commemorate his son's life (yeah, don't ask.). But, what each of his subjects thought was this - 'Everyone else will pour milk. So, if I pour a bucket of water during the night, no-one will see. Besides, a bucket of water will get lost within the pond of milk. So, no-one will suspect anything.' The next morning, the king proudly went to the grand artifact with his wife only to find a pond filled completely with water. For those familiar with economics, this is classic case of marginal thinking, and the effect is known as the tragedy of commons.
So, this story (and the concept, more so,) is relevant because I believe the presence of this mentality is the fundamental difference between a country that becomes a Nepal and a country that becomes the States. People in a less developed country are constantly thinking and making decisions on the margin. In simpler terms, they are separating themselves from their society at every decision point, and acting for their individual benefit. To illustrate this, suppose you are driving and the light turns red. If you are in the States, you stop; no questions asked. Sub-consciously you have calculated that the risk of running the light is not worth it- you might be ticketed, embarrassed, or worse, your action could create a ripple effect causing an accident that involves other people. So you follow the law. You might also claim you stopped because that is the right thing to do. Anyway, at that decision point, you have not only done your personal cost-benefit analysis but have also thought of its impact on other people. In Nepal, you just run the red light (without fail! without fail- you will run it), because you think you are the only one and the fact that you didn't follow the rule doesn't matter in the bigger picture. At that decision point, you have succumbed to marginal thinking, and have calculated your personal benefit and loss, and made your decision based on that accounting. The problem is that this kind of thinking results in a pond that is full of water. This kind of thinking permeates all aspects of our life- from business, to government work, to police work, construction, restaurant service- you name it.
Now, on to the million dollar question- what is it about us as a society that keeps us thinking on the margin and acting for personal benefits only. Is it something ingrained in our culture ? Or is it that all societies think like that but western societies just have a better system in place for check and balance ? Is society truly Hobbesian whereby the lack of fear will cause it to collapse to a state of anarchy (much like Nepal ?). The fact that people in Western societies are more likely to act for the greater good even when no personal consequences are involved (recycling, for instance) would suggest otherwise. I am sure our culture ultimately shapes our attitude, which in turn affects the way we act. And that clearly affects our progress as a nation.
*The concept of home has evolved over the years as well, and for someone whose life fits in two suitcases and a carry-on, home is nothing more than a feeling. But then, that's a whole different blog post.
**Paraphrased for dramatic effect, of course. For best results, read in Gandalf's voice.