I stumbled across Mutual Regards in a library several months ago, and I have been talking about it ever since. It is a unique work co-authored by two Tamangs from the Nuwakot region (Surya Man Tamang and Bhim Bahadur Tamang) and two American anthropologists who work on Nepal from Cornell University and are married to each other (David Holmberg and Kathryn March). It is not an anthropology study or a travelogue but instead is what the authors call a “travel dialogue.” The book is made up of impressions from Surya Man and Bhim Bahadur’s visit to the United States, followed by notes written by David and Kathryn during their first fieldwork stay in a Tamang village. Mutual Regards is not, perhaps, as well known as it should be, especially in view of its novel attempt at Nepali-Western collaboration, its accessibility to a wide range of readers, and its humorous exploration of cultural difference.
Unusually, the book contains something of interest for a wide Nepali and Western readership. In large part this is because of the focus on understanding each other’s cultures and because each section of the book has been translated into Nepali and English, which face each other on the text. It is also because the language used is relatively simple and largely free from theory, extensive footnoting, and references to other books. The accessibility extends to providing different footnotes for Nepali- and English-speaking audiences. Nevertheless, elements of the anthropological lens subtly emerge in an afterword written by David and Kathryn (Surya Man and Bhim Bahadur have the very final word).
Mutual Regards was published over twenty years ago in 1994 but relies on notes from even further back. David and Kathryn’s notes are from their fieldwork period (1975–1977), mostly among Tamangs in Nuwakot district. Bhim Bahadur and Surya Man’s notes come from a visit to the United States in 1988, when they stayed with David and Kathryn in Ithaca, in upstate New York, and visited New York city, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.
Encountering each other
Surya Man and Bhim’s impressions in the book are oriented by looking at what is, for them, new and unusual in the United States and tend to focus on families and relationships, food, technology, dress, and infrastructure. David and Kathryn’s notes reflect the interests, frustrations, and joys of American graduate students experiencing fieldwork in a remote Nepali village.
David first met Surya Man by chance on a bus to Trisuli in 1975 when David was searching for a PhD field site, which ended up being Surya Man’s village. This chance encounter began more than 40 years of research between David, Kathryn, and Surya Man on the Tamangs. Mutual Regards was written together in the United States by Kathryn, David, Surya Man, and Bhim several years after the events described, with the aim of raising money to help disadvantaged children in Rasuwa and northern Nuwakot. Subsequently David and Kathryn published their own monographs arising from their PhD research and have been involved in numerous research and collaboration programs with Tamangs, including a Tamang Study Center, as well as collaboration with Nepali anthropology faculty and students (especially through Tribhuvan University) and collaboration between American and Nepali students on formal exchange programs, not to mention supervision of multiple PhD students, Nepali and American, working on Nepal.
For me, one of the most interesting aspects of Mutual Regards is the way that it highlights important differences in how Americans and Tamangs view the world. For example, the afterword suggests that Surya Man and Bhim had difficulty in conceiving of a world populated by unconnected individuals. Even when traveling in America, Surya Man and Bhim were sure that they would be recognized. This is shown, with humor, in the main text when Bhim and Surya Man leave a Washington, D.C. nightclub (in which naked women had danced on a stage) and write with concern,
“What did those people who saw us coming out of there think? Even if you go into a bar and drink only milk, when you come out they will say you had been drinking liquor . . . who will believe me? Well, when anyone comes to count up the troublemakers, saying we’re among them, we’ll be counted too.”
But in Kathryn and David’s notes, general types (“a poor woman” in “a neighbouring village”) exist. When the co-authors sat down to write the book, Surya Man and Bhim wanted to know which poor woman was Kathryn describing in her notes, from which village, from which house, whose daughter was she? This contrast in understanding is not derived from or placed into an elaborate theoretical backdrop but it is still interesting to read. Mutual Regards is filled with similar examples. Attempts at writing about cultural differences between Nepalis and Westerners in travelogues often appear crudely orientalist or highly romanticized. Mutual Regards is one of the few books on Nepal that takes care when handling difference and does so in a way unburdened by theory.
A time capsule
Mutual Regards is now also valuable as a historical document. The photos in the book of the authors in Nepal and America appear as though from another age. From Surya Man and Bhim’s description America looks to have changed a lot too. Surya Man and Bhim’s visit took place before outward labor migration from Nepal massively increased. Social scientists doing fieldwork in the same Tamang villages today are, perhaps, not likely to find many working-age men and women left. Kathryn and David’s notes come from the Panchayat era before multi-party democracy and the rise in cultural and ethnic consciousness among Tamangs. They discuss several cases of discrimination against Tamangs by officials. In one case Kathryn writes a less than favorable account of a Back-to-the-Village meeting led by patronizing visiting government officials. (The Back-to-the-Village campaign was started by King Mahendra in order to mobilize people for national development at the grassroots level.)
Comedy in culture
Humor plays a central role in Mutual Regards. Part of being in unfamiliar cultures involves laughter—laughing at unusual things in the new culture and laughing at oneself. In an unrestrained fashion among foreigners this can easily become an expression of power relations: namely condescension, racism, and jokes directed at poor people. Equally, portrayals of Nepal that do not include any humor seem unreal, earnestly seeking sentimentality, ancient wisdom, and spirituality in the mundane while (the reader imagines) jokes occur between locals unrecorded and offstage. A different kind of humor in Mutual Regards begins from the very beginning when Surya Man is traveling by plane to America. Never having traveled outside of Nepal before, he finds it difficult to distinguish sky from sea inside the airplane and quotes a Nepali proverb:
Just as we say “On a dog’s body, which is ‘fur’ and which is ‘pubic hair’, in the same way, it has become difficult to tell sky and sea apart.
Kathryn’s account of a pilgrimage with Tamangs includes frustration at getting woken up “well before dawn” by the first to wake who “seems to regard it as his or her right to roust everyone else with exceptionally loud talking . . . ” A footnote says that villagers did this so as to ensure that the sleeping person’s souls reassembled after a night’s wandering, but Kathryn says, “I still never got used to it.”
I found that most of the laughter in David and Kathryn’s notes comes from what they do not know and cannot yet do in the village while most of the laughter from the two Tamang’s impressions comes from things they say, often in Nepali proverbs, to re-describe familiar Western scenes. In an American restaurant, the Tamangs observed customers cleaning up their own mess after their meals. They compare the scene to people doing what a Brahmin priest says, even if they do not understand it themselves,
“It seems too . . . you must pick up your own used plastic plates and, taking them away, throw them into the garbage can yourself. So it was [like the proverb] (in Nepali) juso juso bahun baje use use swaha; we did just exactly whatever anyone said.”
Inevitably the respective authors sound funnier in their mother tongues and the book is accurate at capturing distinctively Nepali and American passages in their words. When Surya Man and Bhim Bahadur are driven back from Washington to Ithaca by Shambhu Ojha (a lecturer in Nepali at Cornell University) they say,
“Brother Shambhu concentrated on driving like a bull wearing blinders and we drove quickly back.”
Similarly, after reaching Gupteshwor Cave in Dhading on a pilgrimage, Kathryn says, “As a natural wonder, it is no Carlsbad Caverns,” which a footnote in Nepali explains is a large cave in America. The humor in the book does not exist to infantilize an individual or paint a culture as good or bad (as in Broughton Coburn’s Aama in America) but instead arrives as part of respectfully different ways of looking at life. The authors’ collective humor and their obvious enthusiasm for the project also transmits itself to the page.
A collaborative context
Most works by social scientists are not jointly authored or part of group projects, despite the practice of ethnography being inherently collaborative. Mutual Regards is again unusual by, firstly, being co-authored with two Tamangs. In a typical researcher-informant relationship Surya Man would have remained the research assistant that he only briefly was. Secondly, the book is unusual by being written through back and forth discussions between the authors (in the winter of 1992–93). This meant that when Surya Man and Bhim presented a draft that was full of “times, dates & places, Kathryn asked that more of the original reflective material not be edited out.” Similarly, Surya Man and Bhim requested that “more of the details about people and places be reinstated” in Kathryn’s account. This example of writing and rewriting together suggests that advances and innovation in social science methodology are not always found in the very latest works and can, instead, be recovered from a book written well over twenty years ago.
Mutual Regards has many things to teach us today but it also comes out of a particular context. It cannot be separated from political radicalism among American graduate students after the 1960s. The civil rights movement inside the United States and opposition to the Vietnam War affected David and Kathryn when they first came for research in Nepal. David has written elsewhere that
“I set out on my ethnographic project shortly after the end of the Vietnam War (April 1975). I was, as was all my cohort, very much steeped in the anti-war movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. We were, as many in the American Anthropological Association at the time, involved in a broad critique of American and western colonial and imperial practices that extended to critiques of western development projects and a reassessment of the colonial era of anthropology, all of which led to the intense ethical debates of that period” (Ethnography, Vol. 15, 3).
Kathryn and David’s identification of Tamangs as their research community was arguably linked to this reflexive and politicized background as well as a critique of the extractive and colonial past of anthropology. It was also, arguably, part of a view that the purpose of doing anthropology was to initiate dialogue and develop cross-cultural understanding and solidarity with different communities. Kathryn and David later defined their jobs as also supporting the institutional development of anthropology in Nepal. It is easy to imagine that the initial warnings David and Kathryn received in Kathmandu about Tamangs being uncultured, backward, and dangerous only strengthened their resolve to work among the community.
For Surya Man and Bhim Bahadur the book is linked to national development goals and, specifically, a wish that profits from the book would help poor children in Rasuwa and northern Nuwakot. Their impressions in the book end with their journey home and humiliation at their shoddy treatment by customs officials in Tribhuvan International Airport. They write an impassioned plea that, having seen the United States, now
“Nepal too, would become developed . . . at least so that every village would have the comforts of education, transportation, electricity, communications & water.”
The method used to produce Mutual Regards is also indicative of Kathryn and David’s more academic work on Tamangs including their own monographs, ongoing collaborations with Surya Man, and work with and support of Nepali anthropologists and their own PhD students. Among many books and articles coming out of this rich stream of long engagement, my own particular favorite is a Studies in Nepali History and Society article from 1999, in which Surya Man Tamang is once again a co-author with Kathryn and David. The article (“Local production/local knowledge: Forced labour from below”) looks at the local histories of state-imposed forced labor regimes on Tamangs in the Nuwakot-Rasuwa-Dhading region, drawing heavily on interviews with Tamang elders as well as archival research. The post-1990 changes in Nepal and the rise in cultural and ethnic consciousness among Tamangs has led to Tamangs drawing on David, Kathryn, and Surya Man’s work for the purposes of ethnic pride and to supplement political narratives detailing state oppression, something which none of the authors could have predicted when they began work together in 1975.
Kathryn and David’s engagement with Tamangs is exceptional and, to my mind, perhaps impossible to replicate today. Firstly, for many reasons, not every academic would want to support a marginalized community in the same way or for as long as Kathryn and David. Secondly, in the current political economy of academia in the West very few academics working on Nepal are in a position to secure the funding or have the time to invite Nepali co-researchers to their home country, let alone consider the production of a book like Mutual Regards. The typical post-fieldwork encounter with a community remains the delivery back to the community of a revised PhD monograph in English, not extended revisits and reconnections over many years. A book like Mutual Regards also appears less favorable in an academic resume than a single-authored, theory-heavy manuscript.
One reason I enjoy the book is because it is an expression, in a fun and highly readable form, of what collaboration between researchers and those who are traditionally the researched could look like. Tamang notions of reciprocity appear to inform the production of Mutual Regards. In the village, David writes that when Kathryn joined him “we began cooking in our own house and because I now had a wife villagers expected their hospitality to be returned!” In the same vein Surya Man and Bhim’s first visit to the United States appears to have happened because David and Kathryn wanted to repay the hospitality they had been shown in the village (and not because they had a book in mind).
Despite what may be hard, time-consuming, or institutionally difficult to do today, there are still ways of collaborating, exchanging, and giving back that can occur both inside and out of the university. The existence of inherently unequal power relations when extracting information cannot be ignored. The principles motivating Mutual Regards can teach something to all of us who extract information from Nepalis, not just anthropologists and not just Westerners either. As Kathryn and David’s afterword says,
“. . . all our work should involve more of these back-and-forth processes of writing, exchanging, reading, replying and rewriting.”
Note: Professors Kathryn March and David Holmberg are on my wife’s PhD dissertation committee. This article was completed on April 24, 2015, the day before the earthquake. The spirit of collaboration in Mutual Regards remains more important than ever.
Mutual Regards/Dohori Namaste: America & Nepal seen through each others’ eyes
by Surya Man Tamang, Bhim Bahadur Tamang, David H. Holmberg and Kathryn S. March
Cover photo: A Tamang woman in Langtang. Marc Lopez/Flickr. Republished under CC license BY-NC-ND 2.0.