How's that Working Out For You?

In order to translate the core assumptions of collective bargaining for Vietnamese undergraduates, I have had to turn my attention to the way democracy is actually practiced in our own country.

Chekhov’s Three Sisters at One World Theatre in Kathmandu — March 30, 2018

Chekhov’s Three Sisters at One World Theatre in Kathmandu

One World Theatre is a performance group that puts on a regular season of plays in English and Nepalese in Kathmandu, Nepal.  We came to Nepal because my friend Deborah Merola, founder of One World Theatre, is taking a production they did a year ago — The Diary of Anne Frank –  from Nepal to the Eighth International Theater Olympics in India. This is the first time the Olympics have been held in Southeast Asia. The One World Theatre submitted a video of their production and it was accepted at this huge festival, along with plays from many other countries. We believed that this would be a unique opportunity to see something of India and Nepal through the eyes of someone who is working there and knows the people and the country.

We met Deborah in Nepal, where her theater had another production, Chekhov’s Three Sisters, running at the time we arrived.

We went to see it our first night in Kathmandu. I found it hard to concentrate, so I asked if I could come again the next night and watch both the play and the rehearsal. Even through my jet-lag haze, something about the production struck me as especially moving. Perhaps it was because my expectations had to adjust to seeing dark, young Nepali actors with strong accents playing Russian characters from the 1900s, overtaking this very pre-revolutionary Russian situation and claiming it for contemporary Nepal. The characters were dressed in contemporary western costumes appropriate to a middle-class family and their friends of a professional class like teachers and government officials, but they could have been Nepali, too. Masha, for example, the married sister, wore her hair in a kind of punk, pointy cut.

Chekhov is one of my favorite writers and Three Sisters especially is a favorite play, for reasons I will explain below. So I was excited when the director, a young woman from Minnesota named Rose Schwietz, said I could come to  rehearsal the next night, see the play a second time, and take some photographs.

Warm-ups, exercises, crises and other preparations before the show starts

Rose and Raj

Actors warming up before the evening’s 5:30 pm performance of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, done in English, Friday March 16, 2018.  

The way Chekhov writes a scene, the drama (in the sense of the story or plot) moves forward through side comments and sudden brief speeches that seem to come out of no-where. At any given moment, some characters are paying attention to what is going on and some are oblivious, in complete denial but going along with their lives. For example, in Three Sisters the threat that is uttered by Solyony in the first act is disguised as a joke and no one seems to pay attention; then in the last act, it becomes realized in the duel between Solyony and Tuzenbach.  In order to keep so many people on stage from being just a crowd or a jumble, the actors have to know where the story is being told, who is carrying it at that moment, and follow it, playing against the very true-to life, realistically fragmented dialog. It is not like creating a stage picture; it is more like keeping a flow going.

Rose Schwietz opened the rehearsal with a warmup exercise  for the actors that seemed intended to create this feeling of flow and awareness. Later, she explained to me that she based this exercise on an approach called Viewpoints. She began by telling the actors:  “Start by walking fluidly and entering the spaces, finding doors; find doors and step through them. You have the possibility of changing direction, stopping, starting…” The effect was to create spaces that were not only the spaces on the stage; they were the spaces between and among other actors and they changed constantly. The actors moved in different tempos, sank, scuttled, followed, hopped and dropped, avoided each other, blocked each other, walked in fast or slow motion, copied each other, huddled up. First the whole company did it, then five together, six together, and another five.  The photo at the top shows this exercise.

Putting so many people on stage together and encouraging them to move swiftly among each other requires them to be highly aware of each other and respond to each other. This seemed particularly useful for a Chekhov play, where there are often seven or more people on stage.

Then came vocal warmups, with everyone standing in a circle.  Then makeup and costumes.


The actors apply makeup for each other. 

As the play opens, the characters Masha and Irina are found lying on the couch. It is Irina’s 20th birthday; funny hats are on the table and balloons float around and roll across the floor. Olga, the oldest sister, will be with them. Masha hardly says a word for pages and pages in the script; everything about how she is feeling is communicated by her gestures.


Here, shortly before curtain, the actor playing Solyoni (the character who later shoots and kills Irina’s husband-to-be in the last act) participates in a discussion of a crisis that has emerged: the person in charge of sound has not arrived yet. He has to be replaced. The stage manager stepped in as lighting technician. 

The Characters and the Cast

In a town in Northern Russia, somewhere colder than Moscow, live the three Prozorov sisters: Olga, the oldest, played by Kurchi Dasgupta; Masha, the middle sister, played by Kavita Srinivasan, and Irina, the youngest, played by Samapika Gautam, who is really only 18. Masha describes the town as being “somewhere where it’s always about to snow.”

They have a brother, Andrei, played by Bijay Tamrakar and an elderly house servant, Anfisa, played by Surabhi Sapkota. Surabhi is the person shown in the photo above, getting her makeup done.

A friend of the family, a long-ago admirer of the sisters’ deceased mother, the doctor Chebutykin, is played by Rajkumar Pudasaini, a Co-artistic Director of the theater and principal actor. His still-alive love for the girls’ mother, often emerging as sudden and sometimes excessive tenderness toward Irina the youngest daughter, is one of the forbidden passions in the story.

A regiment of soldiers has been stationed in the town. Some of them treat the home of the Prozorov girls as a social gathering place. Among them is Tuzenbach, a Baron, played by Utpal Jha, and Solyony, played by Sandeep Shrestha. Sandeep is the actor standing behind the couch in the photo above. The soldiers come, eat, lie around, flirt and bring a breath of the big world, including Moscow, with them. Then they leave.

A new commander of the regiment arrives and pays a visit during the first act: Vershinin, in this case Vershinina, played by Rose Schwietz. In the original, of course, Vershinin is a man; in this production, after four actors dropped out of the role for different reasons, Rose decided to do it herself, making Vershinin a woman and her love affair with Masha a lesbian affair. This was an astonishing but completely credible choice, and it shifts the emotional center of the play because there is a scene, covering a set change, in which the two women embrace and kiss each other. This is the only happy, tender sex that takes place in the play. All the other passions are repressed: Solyony’s hungry, hyper-attentive adoration of Tuzenbach, Chebutykin’s unrequited love for the girls’ mother, and even Tuzenbach’s unrequited love for Irina, all of them fail to be fully expressed, shared or even acknowledged. Of course, there is Natasha’s giddy affair with Protopopov but as played by Pooja Lama, the affair is more like revenge than love or passion.

Then there is the headmaster of the local school and husband of Masha, Kulygin, played by Hemanta Chalise. The fact that Masha is having an affair with another woman makes Kulygin’s desperate insistence that all is well and that he is happy even more poignant. There is also local official, Ferapont, played by Sandesh Shakya, an almost completely comic role except that he is quite deaf (which is treated as a joke by the other characters, and then reversed and made pathetic by the kindness of Anfisa who takes him into the kitchen and gives him things to eat.)

Andrei, the brother, has a girlfriend. His sisters make fun of Natasha’s clothes and speech, and scorn her as a village girl, but he marries her and she becomes the mother of his children, taking over the management of the house in the process. She is played by Pooja Lama. Pooja pushes the greediness and bossiness of this character to the very edge, and becomes the actor who carries the play the most in the direction of comedy. Her character becomes quite horrible, but not in the way the sisters foresaw. Andrei himself says of her, on the one hand, that she is a good woman, but on the other, that there is “something not quite human” about her.

Smaller parts include Emily, played by Anu Dahal; Fedotik, played by Rajen Thapa; and Rhode, played by Kundoon Shakya.

An important person who has a role in the action but never appears on stage is Natasha’s lover, one Protopopov, head of the County Council. She carries on with him behind Andrei’s back and perhaps they have happy sex but given her attitude, probably not; probably something more like a cat fight.

All the actors are Nepalese except for Kurchi Dasgupta and Kavita Srinivasan, who are Indian, and Rose Schwietz, who is from Minnesota.  Most are young, in their twenties or early thirties; the oldest is Rajkumar Pudasani, who is in his early forties. Some are students, some work full-time at regular jobs, some do film work or perform with other theater groups.


Kurchi Dasgupta, who plays Olga, the eldest sister. This photo was taken after a long hot day painting on Bev Hoffman’s Wall of Hope mural at the Himalayan Hotel. 


Rajkumar Pudasaini carries the role of Chebutykin as if it was a heavy coat of suffering. At the same time, he can make a laugh line out of nearly nothing; he invites the audience to laugh at him as a form of relief even while being pathetic. He is a very physical actor — often leaning far to one side or the other, crossing the stage quickly at an angle, swinging his legs open and spreading his arms as he sits on a couch, cocking his head sharply. He is only in his forties but he is playing a doctor in his sixties who drinks too much (in one scene, is is actually drunk and out of control). The character no longer trusts his own skill as a doctor; with the loss of his skill, he loses his trust in the meaning of everything else. For Irinas’ birthday present, he gives her a samovar, more appropriate for a wedding present than a 20-year old girls’ birthday. He’s aware and deeply embarrassed by his gift as soon as he sees his action through the eyes of the others at the party, as if he knows it reveals the way he has mixed up his love for the mother and the daughter. Later in the play, when Masha asks him if her mother loved him back, he pauses a moment, lifts a hand as if to touch a butterfly in the air, and shrugs, saying “I don’t know.” This line draws a laugh out of the audience but loses none of the pathos of the truth he is admitting.

In the last act he says “It’s nothing,” over and over again – another example of a character saying words in the dialog which both the character and the audience know to be lies. In fact, what is “nothing” is the critical act of the whole play, the consummation of Solyony’s passion in the challenge to the duel which will kill Tuzenbach. Rajukumar plays against the literal meaning of the words “It’s nothing,” in a way that requires the audience to distrust him even as he speaks emphatically.

Rajkumar is in the green T-shirt in the center of the first photograph, above, doing the warmup flow exercises. He is forehead-to-forehead with Rose Schwietz. In my previous post there is a link to the YouTube video of Arjuna’s Dilemna, in which Rajkumar played Arjuna.

The Story Itself: Four years go by and what happens?

The story is told in four acts. In the first act, the three sisters are celebrating the birthday of the youngest, Irina, who has just turned twenty. She is bursting with happiness and hope, but all three sisters really yearn to go back to the big city Moscow where they spent their early childhood. Their father died last year; their mother has been dead a number of years. Masha, the middle sister, is frustrated with everything. Olga, the oldest sister, is teaching at the high school and is tired all the time. Their brother Andrei, a heavy set loner who plays the violin, is in love with Natasha, whom the sisters laugh at for her unsophisticated taste and speech. Tuzenbach and Solyony have come to celebrate Irina’s birthday, along with Chebutikyn.

In this middle of this first act, Vershinin, the regiment commander, drops by to introduce himself — or herself, in this case. She talks in a sophisticated and elegant manner, and Masha suddenly realizes what an attractive person this visitor is. This is the situation at the end of the first act. In this production, there are two same-sex passions. Masha and Vershinina seem to slip easily and unchallenged into a passionate, physically consummated relationship, and the ultimate outcome is a sad farewell but not the end of the world for Masha. She says, “You get your happiness in bits and pieces.” She at least has had the experience of passionate love. By contrast, Solyony harbors a desperate but completely closeted love for Tuzenbach, expressed only through his twisted, annoying jokes and infantile remarks, tolerated but mostly ignored by Tuzenbach, and the ultimate outcome is the duel in which it is in fact the end of the world for Tuzenbach, who is killed.

The fourth act is four years later. What has happened? That is, what is the story? Irina is four years older and not happier. Olga is now headmistress and even more exhausted, Masha has been having a love affair with Vershinina right under the deliberately unseeing eyes of her husband Kulygin, and Andrei’s young wife, Natasha, who in this production wolfishly gloats over her control over the household, has thrown Anfisa out. Luckily, Olga gets a place to live along with her new job and Anfisa has moved in with her and has her own bedroom. In a very sad scene about the lessening of expectations, Olga persuades Irina to marry Tuzenbach, who has proposed to her, and Irina acceeds, although she is not in love.  Tuzenbach plans to resign from the military and become a manager of a brick factory in an even smaller town. The regiment is leaving; the soldiers, who have formed the social world of the sisters, are going away. Vershinina is going away, too, and has not apparently encouraged Masha to run off with her. Somewhere off stage, between the acts, there has been an encounter involving threats and violence: “It’s nothing!” exclaims Chebutikyn.  But it’s not nothing.  Solyony has decided that Tuzenbach has insulted him and has challenged him to a duel. Tuzenbach leaves to go to the duel without telling Irina where he is going; he asks her to order him a coffee. This is another minor, even trivial line, that carries much emotional weight. Then we hear the pistol shot and he has been killed. The soldiers leave. End of play.

Without any direct storytelling, in other words, many stories get told. If it weren’t for the title, we might not know which ones to follow. But it’s above all the story of all three sisters, the life chances of young women at that time and place, who are all still alive and together at the end. Irina has been saved from marrying a man she did not love, but only because he is dead; Masha has had the experience of great passion, but is now back with her husband, who accepts compassionately what has happened to her; Olga can be said to be materially better off, but her new job as headmistress is even more likely to be exhausting than her previous one as just a teacher. Natasha, of course, has gone from a shy village girl to the bossy, selfish mistress of a large house, although a house burdened by a mortgage. Perhaps what is most important about this play is the obvious fact that the main characters are women, and that it is about the life opportunities of women in  a society where property and violence belong to men.

bambooOne World Theatre doesn’t own a space at the present time; it finds and rents spaces for performances. Three Sisters is being done at the Kunja Theater, a black box 100-seat theater in what appears to be a bamboo-construction compound called Thapagaun, used for writers and artists workshops. The theater space and entrance are behind me; I am standing on a terrace above the rest of the compound. 

Three Sisters Thirty Seven Years Ago

When Deborah told me that she would be going back to Nepal in March and that her theater would be producing Three Sisters, I remembered the production I saw in 1980 at American Conservatory Theater (ACT) thirty seven years ago, with Elizabeth Huddle playing Olga. The play as I saw it then seemed to be about women trying to find meaning in their lives through work, not love. I had also just begun to be personally shaken by the tremors of the women’s movement. To me too, work was the way out of a trap.  In the first act, Irina, the 20-year old, says:

Work is the meaning of life — it’s goal, happiness, and joy. The worker getting up at dawn to break stones on the road is happy. So is the shepherd and the teacher of little children, and the engineer in the railway…God, it’s easier for a man. Better to be an ox, a horse, anything than a young woman who wakes up at noon, has coffee in bed and spends two hours dressing. That’s dreadful. I need to work, just as I need to drink water on a hot day.

Although I had already had many jobs, I was just discovering “my work” at that time, and Irina’s words hit home.  But Irina is talking about herself individually; when she talks about work, she is really talking about getting a job. Tuzenbach, the soldier of the regiment who is himself a Baron, grew up with a servant who would pull off his boots when he came home from a day at school. Tuzenbach responds to Irina’s mention of work by talking about the stark inequalities of the society in which they all live.

 A powerful storm is brewing — a good one. ..Our whole morbid, boring society will be swept away. I’ll work, and in twenty five or thirty years, everyone will work.

For her, work is individual liberation; for Tuzenbach, it’s revolution. The two themes fused for me into vision of what my own work could be.

The powerful storm that Tuzenbach foresaw actually did happen, of course. Chekhov, who lived from 1860 to 1904, wrote Three Sisters in 1900 for the Moscow Art Theater. The  first Russian Revolution began a mere five years later, involved worker strikes and peasant uprisings, won a constitution but did not get rid of the Tsar. The second Revolution started in 1917 and established the Soviet Union, a communist country in which one way or another, everyone really did work.

Mt work at that time was not only teaching but producing theater. I had produced a series of cabaret evenings at Rosenthal’s Deli in Berkeley, drawing on the culture of Yiddish theater, Second Avenue in the early 1900s, and the many talented Jewish performers, storytellers and singers around Berkeley. This led to an invitation to produce the first season of the Berkeley Jewish Theater, where we did five short comic one-acts from the Second Avenue repertoire. These sold out, especially to  groups from old-age Jewish residential facilities, but also got myself and my co-producer, Harriet Herman, accused of blasphemy. I learned something about the difference between what was funny before the Holocaust and what was not funny afterwards. The problematic play was The God of the Wealthy Wool Merchant.

During this time Three Sisters was being produced at ACT and I went twice, maybe three times, once even walking out of a class taught by Jim MacKenzie (a class for aspiring producers,  which I was taking with Christine Taylor). He was the ACT Executive Producer, much loved. He said, as I got up to leave, “You need this class,” and I remember saying, “I need to see Three Sisters more.”

I remember that production as very period, lots of red and gold, not so much Russian as high-middle-class British. Eliabeth Huddle played Olga, the sister with the headaches who becomes a headmistress as the acts go by. I could feel in my own bones the sense of frustration and constraint that the sisters suffer from, and I could understand how Masha, who is married, might fall in love with Vershinin, the commander of an artillery battery that has been temporarily assigned to the small town where they live. But I did not harbor the illusion that my escape to Moscow would come as a result of falling in love with someone. For me, it the combination of finding work, work in something that would contribute in some way to the storm. At first, it was theater; then teaching, and soon, teaching and activism in the labor movement.

Chekhov is Hard to Do Right

Chekhov’s plays are not single-actor star vehicles with only one, or even one main story. Going back to the exercise with which Rose started the warm-up: they require an ensemble, which is why the warmup exercises that the company was doing are so important. The multiple stories in a Chekhov play are sketched in, one hint at a time, as characters talk to each other or speak their inner thoughts in a way that feels more real than real life. This means that everyone on stage is important all the time. Even if a character is silent or has very few lines, the way that character listens to what others are saying, or responds physically to what is going on, carries the story forward. When there are many characters on stage at once, each one has to be responding to and propelling forward the emotional content of the moment. Sometimes that content comes in the lines of dialog and sometimes it comes in other ways.

This is so hard to do right; it was amazing to see this close, small group of actors fulfilling the demands of this kind of ensemble work.

Chekhov was hard even for the Moscow Art Theater. I found this in the Introduction to Sharon Marie Carnicke’s translation of Three Sisters (Hackett, 2014):

When Nemisovich-Danchenko insisted that Stanislavsky co-direct Chekhov’s The Seagull, Stanislavsky admitted that the work initially presented him with “a difficult task, becuase, to my shame, I did not understand the play…According to Olga Knipper the entire Moscow Art Theater company reacted “unenthusiastically” an with “confusion” when they first read Three Sisters. Another actor recalled, “We didn’t know how to play our roles!”

Olga Knipper became Chekhov’s wife and played Masha in Three Sisters.

When Rose Schwietz first read the play, she says (in the program notes): “I hated it. I found it boring, impossible to follow, and full of whining and complaining.”

Chekhov tells the story through the reactions of the characters to each other — or through their failure to react. For example: late in the play, Kulygin stands up in front of everyone and exclaims about how happy and satisfied he is (“I am a happy, happy man!”) and the other characters look at him and say nothing. If the director was relying on the dialog to tell the story, here, how would they know what to do? Instead, the story gets carried by the very blank looks on the other characters faces, and their silence as they acquiesce in Kulygin’s denial.

Another example: in the first act, Masha, the middle sister who is married to the High School Principal and who has been lying on the sofa the whole time so far, reading a book and hardly paying attention, gets up when Vershinin, the commander of the regiment comes to pay a visit and introduce himself (actually, herself in this production). There are now seven people on stage: Olga, Masha and Irina, the three sisters; Tuzenbach and Solyony, both soldiers; and Chebutykin, the old doctor. Vershinin knew the girls in Moscow because he knew their father. At first they don’t remember him; then they begin to. They called him “the lovesick Major.”  Suddenly Masha remembers: “How you’ve aged!” she says. “How you’ve aged!” she repeats, but now she’s crying. Something has happened to her between the first time she says that line and the second.  It’s Irina who notices, a few lines later, and asks her, “Why are you crying?” If Irina didn’t ask that question, we might not notice that Masha has just realized how old she too has become, and how desperate she is for something new and wonderful in her life.

Girls in Russia, Girls in Nepal and “Global People” 

This is a play about three girls — they are all over 20, but they are girls in the sense of young women who have their lives ahead of them, and their dreams of future happiness. It is being performed in a Nepal, a country where violence against women, especially against girls, is a recognized major problem. Do Nepali girls, for example girls in small cities or mountain villages,  have dreams of going to a cultural center somewhere far away and leading an exciting life? That would be an ambition of so many of our students in Viet Nam, who may be the children of farmers and come from villages, but dream of being “global people.” So this play about the destiny of young women is being performed in a milieu where the consciousness of the challenges facing women is very high.

Hemanta Chalise, who plays Kulygin in Three Sisters told me that in fact, Nepali girls do dream of being “global people,” but to them this means often means going to Australia or the US and studying. Australia is the Moscow for Nepali youth. Being “global” is valued by parents: Hemanta said that if a father is looking for a husband for his daughter, he will prefer a young man who has been to Australia or the US worked, to a young man with a college degree who has never been away from Nepal. However, this is a male actor talking about husbands and fathers, not daughters and girls. Just looking at the women in the theater troupe, we can see that they are making a step toward being “global people,” working in English, performing, forming collectives and producing magazines and films, often against the wishes of their families.

The other side of the story, Nepali girls, especially from impoverished villages in the western mountains, get sex-trafficked all over Asia, especially into India. Even in the cities, girls are likely to be violently abused in their families.  During the short time we are here I’ve seen newspaper articles about the murder of girls by their husbands, fathers and brothers.  One article was about a girl who was refusing to marry the man her father wanted her to. So she was stabbed 17 times, then her body was taken to be burned (ghats line the river through the city) to destroy the evidence, but the men were arrested before the could complete the cremation.

Bev Hoffman, the husband of Deborah Merola, is currently organizing and participating in the creation of an 80-foot mural, “The Wall of Hope,” along the retaining wall that faces the street below the Himalayan Hotel, one of the fanciest hotels in Kathmandu (I saw UN and USAID cars parked in their lot). The mural depicts the recovery of a woman from abuse, presumably trafficking or violence of some sort. As we walked along the wall while it was being painted, we saw young Nepali student-age men and women stop to be photographed beside the images on that wall, as if it was likely to become a famous landmark – a photo-op site for upcoming “global people.”


One small part of the 80-foot long Wall of Hope, in front of the Himalayan Hotel. 

On to the next

Even while Three Sisters was running, some of the actors were in rehearsal with Deborah for the reprise of The Diary of Anne Frank, which is to be presented next week at two sites in India under the auspices of the Eighth International Theatre Olympics. Rose Schwietz will play Mrs Frank, Rajkumar Pudansaini will play Otto Frank, and Pooja Lama will play Miep.  Hemanta Chalise, who played Kulygin, will be the stage manager. Rehearsing one play while performing in another created difficulties for concentration, to say nothing of making a schedule for rehearsals and getting people into the same room together. In addition, the young woman who would play Anne Frank, Rojita Buddhacharya, was scheduled to join a team to summit Everest immediately after the final performance. She was in intense physical training and could only get away to rehearse for two hours a day. On top of that, Rose got seriously sick, possibly from exhaustion both directing and performing in Three Sisters.

This double-schedule is all happening in an economy and society that does not provide the kinds of cushion and back-up that even people who live as precariously as actors do in the US are used to. One World Theatre pays actors $300 dollars for two months of work; the director and artistic director gets the same as the actors. The budget for the whole production is likely to be $7,000. They only make $1500 in admissions, keeping ticket prices low enough so that students and ordinary people can come (500 rupees or less). Actors have to work at more than one theater or take film work in order to live. Then there are the health problems that come from living in a place where you can’t drink the water; troupe members go to the hospital frequently with infections or other problems. At least the tremendous problem of daily electricity load-shedding has been improved. Up until one or two years ago, there would be a period of time every day when there was no electricity. This might happen in the middle of a production. When the electricity went off, the house would go dark, someone would say “We are pausing for technical difficulties,” and you would hear steps in the dark while someone went to turn on the generator. Then, after the generator got going, the lights would come back on and the actors would start up again. During rehearsals, everyone would bring in their cell phones and plug them in to charge them on the theater’s electrical system.

Of course there are also the normal personal crises.  Just before Three Sisters opened, one actor had a death in the family and had to miss rehearsals while participating in three days of funeral rituals. Another troupe member, the stage manager for The Diary of Anne Frank, got mugged and had some ribs broken. In addition, three of the potential locations for Three Sisters fell through before the Kunja Theater site came through. Rose Schwietz made the decision to play Vershinin as a woman, herself, only after four men who had been selected for the role dropped out.

Nonetheless, the preparations went forward to take The Diary of Anne Frank to India. What could possibly go wrong?










What’s going on in Nepal? — March 18, 2018

What’s going on in Nepal?

night market

Things shut down early in Kathmandu; this was a lone shop open at about 8 pm on Friday night. You can’t expect to go out and get dinner after a show. But you can buy newspapers at news-stands, some in English and some critical of the government. Nepal has a parliamentary system led by the CPN-UM (Communist Party of Nepal – Unified Marxist Leninist) with the Maoist Centre coming in second and the Nepali Congress Party coming in third. It was a monarchy until April 2008, when the monarchy was abolished and King Gyanendra was “demitted” following a surprise electoral victory by the Maoists.  This was following about 15 years of internal conflict, the last ten years of it quite violent. The country was said to “be at war with itself.”

Padan gate

The Patan Dhoka Gate

On Saturday people do not work. We walked around Patan Dhoka and saw families in festive clothes out for a stroll. Here is a young couple in a tea house with their baby daughter. The four men in the rear are going over copies of some kind of document together. On a different street we walked past a tiny tea house where five middle-aged women were sitting around a table in deep discussion. It was striking that they were not multi-generational and family; it was women age 30-40, having a meeting of some sort.


There is at least one good bookstore, near the Patan Dhoka gate, called the Patan Book Shop. And there are the remains of posters on the walls that appear to be warning people against interfering with elections, or at least with the practice of freely voting. The words “Election Committee” were in English up at the top of this poster.


Taxis and Tickets

We have had a great time getting tickets from Kathmandu to Pokhara, Monday, where we will go tomorrow just for the fun of it and to be in a different place. Getting visas to enter India on Friday was a separate project that involved going to an expediter near the Indian embassy and paying $75 each. It has also been a challenge to get tickets to Delhi and then from Delhi to Jammu in Kashmir. The Safeway travel agency down near the airport does  not take credit cards, but this is the agency that is booking the tickets for the theater troupe.  The Eva travel agency fairly near our guesthouse (I found it just when wandering around) does take cards, but had only one swipe machine shared among its several offices, and I had to go on a motorbike with the travel agent to pay for the tickets. But here is a picture of the assistant to the travel agent.


His name is Sudeep Lama. He will be 21 in a few days. He did not do well on his IELS (international educational level test of English, Math, etc); he got a 400 out of 1,000. Therefore he decided that he should apply to be a Gurkha. He says the British accept 300 young Nepali men every year to become Gurkhas, part of the British army. (In Prashant Jia’s book — see below – she says that many Nepalis serve in Gurkha regiments in the Indian Army.) But there is a test for that too, including a physical test in which you have to do sit ups, weight lifts, and running. It was a hot day when the test was given and therefore many Nepali boys did not do well on the running. In the meantime, he had spent all his energy preparing for the Gurkha test and not on the IELS and did not do well that time either. You are allowed to try three times, between the ages of 17 and 21, to become a Gurkha, and he will soon be too old. So he lives with his parents and they give him some money. He earns $45 per month as an assistant at the travel agency. He says “It is my destiny.” He also works as a coach for an athletic society in return for which he is allowed to use the gym.

Selling land to get a car

The complexity of scheduling and paying for tickets and visas put us into taxis quite a lot. One driver talked to us while we went out to the Safeway agency near the airport which had done our Delhi-Jammu tickets. He paid $20,000 for his car, which is what a car that costs $4,000 in India costs when it gets to Nepal, because of taxes, if you are going to use it for commercial purposes. If it is only for personal purposes, the cost is $16,000. The medallion that lets him use it as a taxi costs 500 R but he says you have to pay 1,000 to get one. To pay for his car, he sold some land that his family owned in their village: land for a car.  “My father is very disappointed in me,” he said, several times. His father and mother were left with just a little bit of land for a garden. The driver got $6,000 for the land.

He then took out a bank loan, a seven year loan. He has now paid two years on the loan. “In five years this car will be mine,” he said. The government confiscates vehicles over 20 years old; in the newspaper today, it told about confiscations of old cars in other cities, and old school buses. They are sold for scrap. So with a car life expectancy of 20 years, he may drive it free for 13 years. His brother also drives it. The roads are mostly terrible so how a car can survive 20 years is beyond me. However, he drove us along one windy road through the city that he said had been paved only the day before, and it was beautifully smooth.

This driver, whose name was Kumar, was willing to talk with us about the government. So far everyone we have talked with says “corruption” immediately and then laughs or says they don’t pay attention to politics. But we were able to get a bit further with him. As we drove, of course, he pointed out places where the road was dug up, piles of bricks and pipe were lying around, and yellow tape ran from one barrier to another to keep cars from falling into holes. This project was started two years ago and just stopped, the money’s all gone! But also: there is now electricity, and two years ago there was not electricity in the middle of the night. And water is coming — there will be pipes coming down from the mountains bringing water that you can drink. That’s what many of these big pipes are for, that you see lying along the road, along the fresh ditches. He points out the road we are on, with its fresh asphalt. Schools? The schools are terrible. There are not enough good teachers. Whenever they can, people send their children to private schools but they are very expensive.

Labor unions? He said that there are many unions but they belong to parties, and there are twelve active political parties right now. For example, there are taxi drivers unions. They do not talk to each other.  (There is a General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions,  associated with the CPN-UML.) Taxis are supposed to — according to the government — use their meters, but the price on the meter has not changed in seven years and it is too little, impossible to live on what you make on the meter. So they go to the government and ask the government to raise the price on the meter, and the government says “Yes, we’ll think about it,” and then nothing. So he is not active in the taxi drivers union.

The government is pretty good right now, he says. Fifteen years ago it was terrible. This was when the war was going on and the Nepalese army was killing people and the Maoists were killing people.  Now the Maoists are the second most powerful party in government. But the government is unstable. So they can’t get anything done. But it’s pretty good. When he votes, he says, he votes for the king.

We are reading a book we bought at Dixit Bookstore near Padan Dacca: Battles of the New Republic: A contemporary history of Nepal, by Parashant Jha. Although it was published in 2014 I am counting on it to bring me up to date as much as possible.

Corruption: an example, with punishment?

In the March 1 Kathmandu Post there was an article on page 2 about “activists” of the Netra Bikram Chand-led Communist Party of Nepal. These two activists – men — stopped their motorbike in an intersection (a “chowk”) and intercepted Gokarna Sapkota, the legal officer at the nearby cancer hospital, as he was returning from a hairdressing salon. They poured diesel on him. He was able to escape by running. The assailants also got away. They are being tracked. An investigation is under way to determine whether or not the assailants lit a match or made any other attempt to kindle a fire. If they only dumped diesel, but did not light it, perhaps the event should be considered a threat. Pamphlets with the name of CPN Chitwan were recovered from the incident, explaining why Sapkota should be punished. Evidently he was unfairly promoted to a post at the hospital and used a vacancy to hire some people in an irregular manner. This party is a 2014 split from another Maoist party. It is registered but has no representation in parliament. Its base is in the far west of Nepal in an area often cut off from the rest by monsoon and snow. It achieves its goals though direct action and banda (strikes).

I include this story because it struck me as such an extreme and desperate response to what looks to me like petty corruption. In my world,  irregularities in promotion and hiring happen all the time; if they attract attention the person may get fired or shelved off into a position where they have no power any more. But there is a process that can grind along slowly and take care of things, as long as there is someone to set it in motion (and complain or file a grievance or write a #meToo message). The culprit typically does not have to fear having diesel fuel thrown on him while crossing the street. However, if there are no alternatives that can be trusted — well, I can understand why something more direct might be necessary. But there must have been a discussion in the planning stages about whether or not to light a match.

Does control work? And Nepal at last — March 15, 2018

Does control work? And Nepal at last

This is a picture of the airport in Guangzhou, China, where we had a 4 hour layover between flights on China Southern to Kathmandu. Dark, cavernous, empty. Of course it was the middle of the night.


And this is a picture of people trying to get a password to do their email with.  Unlike in an airport in the US, where you simply sit down next to your luggage, open your computer and click through a few links (of course, one of them is “I agree to the terms and conditions…etc.”) – in China, you sit down and try to open wifi; after a while you get a bright orange banner but no instructions whatsoever about what to do and nothing to click on. Eventually someone says,  “You have to go down there,” and  way down the hall a cluster of people will be huddled around a bank of kiosks.


These kiosks are where you get your password. You have to not only insert all your flight information (on a keypad); you also have to scan your passport and put in your home phone number in the US and your email address. What else could they possibly ask for? It is as if they are collecting all the information they possibly can from everyone coming through the airport. The instructions are badly worded and the scanner is not intuitively designed, and the keyboard is slow to come up, so many people tried it (after standing in line while others tried) and failed and just said “Oh well” and went away. Eventually one person made it through and a password came spitting out on a piece of paper, like a movie ticket, from a slot low down on the kiosk. Then that person guided the others through the process.

Once I was into my email I also found that I could not open most links. Links to news sources would simply jam while loading. For a while, incredulous, I tried waiting. Eventually I tried Google and it jammed; I can’t remember if Wikipedia was blocked, but other things were. And yes, I couldn’t get into Facebook either.

Well, this is what we’ve heard about China, isn’t it?

I began looking around and noticing something about other evidences of technology. There was a whole lot of it, but it was not designed to be user-friendly or intuitive. It wasn’t designed with a strong sense of trying to make things easier for the user, of trying to an invisible mediator between a communicator and a receiving listener (What a concept! But so much of communication theory takes this as a basic assumption about the purpose of electronically assisted communication). The luggage carts have touch-screen ipad-type things between the handles, but they’re showing ads. There was a drinking water source where you could get cold, warm or hot water out of a faucet, but there were two sets of controls for each choice and you had to push them both at once in order to get any water at all, as if one was a lock/unlock for the other. This design would have been laughed out of the room in the Bay Area. Clearly, we were in a place where technology is cheap and easily deployed, but that no one cares or even thinks about what the users need or prefer. Instead, there is some creativity (the double controls for the water) but mostly, in the service of control.

By the time Joe had spent $9 for a cup of coffee I was in a bad mood. I wouldn’t have been surprised to be asked for my social security number when pressing the button for a paper towel in the ladies’ room.

All this is to be viewed in contrast with my previous post, about wide-open, bottom-up efforts in the US that we hope will  influence higher levels of society and government through local organizing. I want to mention that high school students all over the country are marching out of school to protest the failure of my generation to achieve gun control — this is after the latest shooting, in Parkland, Florida. I also see that there are widespread plans for registering young voters. These are kids who started learning about climate change in kindergarten, adopted at-risk-for-extinction animals or plants in the fourth grade, etc. And they don’t like being shot.

I am proposing these two extremes: the porous, bottom-up open-to-everyone “trust the crowd” practice of popular democracy, with its disasters like Trump, in the US, versus my glimpse of the level of control of specifically communication that I have heard and read about in China, which corresponds to what I have heard about the control of political or politically sensitive activity there.  I am thinking about these because, of course, the issue of what is politically sensitive and what level of control is necessary or tolerated is alive in Viet Nam. We certainly encounter it frequently. For example, as we discuss preparations and organizing for the big international conference that is to emerge from the Minimum Wage conference, we have to consider what is politically sensitive and what is not.

Nepal at Last

But so much for China; we are now in Nepal, quite a different story. A glimpse:  Here is a photo of a public event, some kind of award-giving ceremony, that is part of a trade fair being held in Patan Durbar Square. Patan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Patan is known as the City of Arts; it’s one of the three original cities that are now blended together – there’s Bahktaphur, the City of Agriculture, and Kathmandu, the City of Trade, which is where the government is.

trade fair

The three-story brick building on the left (which was renovated and earthquake retrofitted after the 1934 earthquake and therefore did not, unlike a lot of buildings in central Kathmandu, fall down in the 2015 earthquake), is the old palace. The second floor with its carved lattice windows is where the king’s wives spent their lives. The monarchy apparently was nowhere near as exploitative as the Rana oligarchs, a group of elites that ran the country like a private estate and were overthrown in 1951. So the monarchy by itself, with a Parliament and a Constitution, was an improvement over the Ranas. The monarchy itself was only abolished in 2008 after the Maoist uprisings that began as student uprisings in the 1990s. The Maoists became part of the government beginning in 2007 and the Maoist party chairman, Prachanda, became Prime Minister in 2008. Then party splits, interethnic rivalry and efforts to create a new constitution seem to have characterized the next six years, which is as far as the book we bought at the Paten Book Shop takes me. I understand there is a new constitution and a very new Prime Minister now.

So far, we have not met anyone who can talk to us in an informed way about the situation. The word “corruption” is used freely. There is a lot of international money moving around, however. There are a lot of NGOs and there appears to be a steady stream of people from Europe and the US who come to volunteer in various capacities: house-building, for example. And we have been told that one third of the national income comes from workers sending back wages from overseas, mostly men and mostly from the Gulf. In fact, the night we left, we saw this with our own eyes at the airport: three flights to the Gulf going out at the same time, and the passengers lining up were all young men with backpacks. Their attitude seemed to be excited. They were jostling each other and laughing. They looked healthy and notably strong. It was hard to match this sight with what I have read about working conditions in the Gulf.

The ubiquitous hats are Nepali men’s wear; you fold the peak to represent whichever mountain you want to contemplate today.

Another city view of Patan Durbar:

cornder dust

One World Theater in Patan Durbar Square

In 20016 One World Theater did a production of Arjuna’s Dilemna, which is on YouTube. The set was built right in the Patan Museum. There are eight sections on You Tube. Raj played Arjuna. You can see Alize dancing in this. Rajkumar is on the left, bare chested and gold.

Back at the Amore Guesthouse

Here is a picture of the guesthouse’s excellent cook, making a beans, rice and vegetable dish for us to eat later.

cook 2



Does democracy work? — March 7, 2018

Does democracy work?


I took the train to Los Angeles along with a team of cheerleaders who were on their way to a national competition in Las Vegas. They were both boys and girls, but these girls sat at the table across from mine. I asked if I could take their picture. They asked, “Why?” I said, “So that I could post it on a blog that I share with Vietnamese friends.”  Then one of the girls piped up: “I’m Vietnamese! Do you speak Vietnamese?” I said, “Toi hoc tieng Viet,” and she broke into giggles. “You said that almost right!”

She and one of the others spent the entire rest of the trip — 6 hours, from Richmond to Bakersfield — doing makeup, taking it off, starting all over again.

She herself was born in the US but speaks Vietnamese becuase her parents speak to her in it.


Two more pieces of the puzzle. One, a new play at the Strand theater in San Francisco — one of the ACT theaters, on Market Street. It’s called VietGone and the image is of a motorcycle headed west — this is the bike on which the main character, a young Vietnamese man who left his wife and two kids in Saigon in April 1975, tries to ride west from the refugee camp where he has landed to California. From California he hopes to find a way back to Viet Nam, but of course, at least a that point in history, it is not going to happen. This young man is the father of the playwright, who is trying to tell his parents’ story. It’s a good play. Like Hamilton, it uses hip-hop and rap to engage the audience directly with songs that emerge out of the dialog. It will probably be a commercial success.


The other is a link that was just posted on the VSG list. Part of this program is a good long interview with Bui Diem who was the Ambassador from South Viet Nam to the US during the war. This interview is from 1981.  I found his words riveting. What he says about the impact of the American presence between 1965-1975 explains a lot of what we saw in South Viet Nam ourselves, over 40 years later.

It is part of the Open Vault collection at WGBH in Boston.

When I paste the link above into a new tab, I get to the interview immediately. But the item below is also interesting:

Joe and I are going traveling next week, this time on a completely different tangent, although also in Asia.  I have not decided at this point if I am going to include that trip in this blog.

I put up the title of this blog, “Does Democracy work?” because that question has become louder and louder in my corner of the world. My past posts try to show examples of what freedom of association looks like at the bottom level: the Vermont Workers Center annual meeting, with its fishbowl discussion; the Women’s March, with its organized and unorganized marchers; the Democratic Socialists of America meeting in Oakland, where I put up the photo of people voting; the hotel workers who push the Cal OSHA Board to pass the musculo-skeletal injury standard.

All of these are organizations that are very porous at the base. To join the Women’s March, step off the sidewalk. The regular meetings of the VWC are open to everyone and probably every member would be welcome at the annual membership meeting. True, only members of DSA were able to vote; they were given red cards upon registering at the desk. And you had to have a reason to be at the Cal OSHA meeting, although when Joe and I registered at security we identified ourselves as “Community,” meaning that as part of the public, we had a vested interest in the well-being of workers generally. But the effort in these  bottom-level organizations is to encourage participation, not control access. This has significance for the concept of leadership: good leader is someone who can get a lot of people to do things. But it is enormously time-consuming and hard work: someone like Ellen Schwartz at the VSC is constantly educating, organizing, listening to personal stories, making connections, day in and day out. You can only do it so long before you burn out. And it’s slow. My question is, if the bottom level of a society is organized in these loose, porous bodies that require so much energy and take so long to get something done, does that make such a society just more vulnerable when it is attacked by elements that are tightly, hierarchically organized?