I’m often in the company of the ‘been-to’ people. I’m one of them myself—the ones to go to the West and then return. The phrase was invented by a man born on the western shore of Africa, Ayi Kwei Armah from Ghana, who wrote novels about the difficulties faced by the ‘been-to’ people. As Armah wrote, in books like The Beautyful Ones Are not Yet Born (1968), these difficulties become moral mountains. The pull of materialism in the West, and home, the overwhelming prodding to earn, buy and satisfy—getting in the way of a moral life, and to not to give in to what one has already rejected once. I suspect many ‘been-to’ people have stared at these moral issues and chosen to act in ways that satisfied neither their family nor themselves.
Hanging out with the ‘been-to’ people in Kathmandu (they all live in Kathmandu) I almost always sense it: their ambitions somehow are a little greater than those of the ‘never-been-to’ people. Their success and failures take on different proportions. Their disillusionment, anger and cynicism come with a tragic flavour.
This is most apparent when talking about politics. Keeping up with politics being a professional obligation, as well as a professional health hazard, somehow, I’m always dragged into it (unless I voluntarily jump in) at parties. Not that I dislike it, especially after a few drinks. There are a few joys of working in a newspaper. One of them is that people expect you to be privy to secrets and raw, half-baked conspiracies (yes, Kathmandu is indeed like Vienna during the inter-war period, full of spies from competing powers). I have very few secrets and none of them are political, but I act as if I have many, on occasion, just to amuse myself and the company. Delivered correctly, even the banner news sounds like top secret. Doesn’t matter if everyone from here to Achham knows it already.
The experience is best summed up by a small one-act play. Been-to A is a friend, I’m Been-to B. The venue is the wedding party of a common friend’s sister.
Been-to A: Don’t you get sick of interviewing politicians? They’re so useless.
Been-to B: Not all of them are bad.
Been-to A: Name one who isn’t.
Been to B: Look, it doesn’t matter, even if they were all bad, they’re the ones running the country so whether you like them or not, you have to listen, and understand them. Anyway, there’re some good politicians. B Bista did good work while at the Ministry. Do you know who he is?
Been-to A: Is he a ‘been-to’?
Been-to B: No, a ‘never been-to.’
Been-to A: Is he a Maoist? I’ve heard you’ve become a Maoist? Maoists are evil.
Been-to B: Well…
Been-to A: Have you talked to Indra Rijal? He’s a been-to, Columbia PhD. We need people like him running this country.
Been-to B: He said on TV, “I’m a been-to, I’ve sacrificed my American earnings to serve you people.” But the audience didn’t really dig that.
Been-to A: (a pause) Hey, why don’t you come to the been-to meetings? Excellent place to network. We have them in Thamel every month. There’s even a Facebook group, The Been-to Nepalis Networking Group. That’s how I got my job at the Banko Mundial. Turns out, the boss there is also a been-to. Priya Wosti, do you know her? Class of ‘93, UPenn.
Been-to B: Yeah, I’ve heard about her. Maybe I should meet her. I like my job, but it just doesn’t pay.
Been-to A: Really? How much do you make?
Been-to B: I’ve been told I shouldn’t disclose this kind of information. But off the record, it’s less than X
dollars per month.
Been-to A: No shit. You know if I’d stayed in the US, I’d have made XXX dollars a month. Do you know how much Roshan makes? You wouldn’t believe it, twenty thousand dollars a month. Wall Street. VP at Goldman Sachs.
Been-to B: I’m speechless. What can I say? I’m doing public service.
Been-to A: Yes, you can at least make a claim to that. But look at me, I’m not doing public service. I don’t particularly like it either.
Been-to B: So why do you do it?
Been-to A: You know how it is for us people outside the Valley. Got to buy a car, a house, the wife is demanding etc. Gotto build class. Can’t kick my father’s dreams out the window, can I?
Been-to B: I suppose not. You’re doing very well. And the Banko Mundial is pretty much the government’s advisory bureau. So, you know, you’re indirectly doing public service.
Been-to A: Bullshit. Let me tell you about my programme. We give financial incentives for parents to send their girls to school. About 1,200 rupees per year. Last month I was in an advisory meeting with the Ministry. They served momos from Yak and snacks from the Snow Man. Do you know how much each plate cost? One thousand rupees. It’s all a hustle. Everything is a hustle.
And so it goes…the ambitions and quandaries of the ‘been-to’ people. For Armah, searching for his roots, the roads led back to the great white invasion of Africa. Asia, too,
suffered, and will continue to. This is Armah in The News, written in 1988:
They dream of substituting another small tight group for the one serving its bitter time at the tip of the overripe colonial abscess on this sliver of our continental home we’ve been connected into calling
Adhikari is Op-Ed editor at the Post
Posted on: 2012-12-08 11:08