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Nepalese Anthropologist Disillusioned : West Seen as Having Little to Offer

February 05, 1989|RAYMOND GIJSEN | Reuters

AMSTERDAM — Nepalese anthropologist Rajendra Pradhan believes the developing world has little reason to copy Western culture, which he studied extensively during two years of living in the Netherlands.

Born in the Himalayas and a resident of India, Pradhan says he is one of the first anthropologists from a developing country to study the West in the same way that Western anthropologists have studied Third World society for decades--by living with the natives.

He came here as part of a Dutch government-sponsored project to allow India to study how the Dutch welfare state takes care of its elderly and see what India can learn from it.

Visit Not Very Relevant

"I doubt whether my stay here was as relevant for Indian policy-making as Dutch officials hoped it would be," he said, noting that India could probably never afford the Dutch welfare state and should be wary about imitating it.

"India and Nepal have long been brainwashed by the idea that modernization equals Westernization. . . . But we are realizing more and more that that idea is perhaps wrong," he said.

He said that in 20 years India would have problems caring for the elderly as more people move to cities, where cramped quarters and changing social habits erode traditions of the extended family.

"At the moment (in India), parents who live separately from their children are still exceptions. But there will be more," Pradhan said.

Elderly Kept at Bay

But the privacy-minded Dutch welfare state, in which the elderly receive generous state welfare but are often kept at bay by their children, does not seem to provide the answer to that problem, he said.

"In India, you always talk to other people, even in the street. Here, everything happens indoors. Old people are often very lonely because of that."

Pradhan came to Amsterdam in early 1987 to learn Dutch. He moved to Schoonrewoerd, a village of 1,500 less than an hour south of the capital, where he lived for about a year.

"There are so many contradictions here. People claim they're all equal, but they aren't," Pradhan, 34, said.

Free but Selfish

"People are more independent, but only at the expense of relying more on the state. People have more freedom but tend to be more selfish," he said.

He went to church services to get to know the villagers, who are split into two separate Protestant sects.

"In India, people live face to face. They communicate with each other, and they fight each other. Here, people live back to back. There is peace but no contact," he said.

On Sunday mornings, he prayed with the Protestants, conservatives who split from the mainstream Netherlands Reformed Church last century. In the afternoon, he went to a service with the Reformed Unionists, an even more stern group.

"Western anthropologists often offend people by being rude, like making notes during religious services. . . . I always prayed during service here," he said.

"Some villagers first thought I was the new vicar. Others thought I came from Africa," he said. "When I said I was an anthropologist, it didn't mean much to them, but when I said I was a student or a trainee, they could place me."

Each to His Own Circle

"Everyone had his own circle, even young people. . . . When you asked them if they knew someone from the other church, they said they didn't.

"If you don't belong to one of the churches, it is difficult to belong at all. . . . They read different newspapers and they have separate schools. Every church has its own Bible club, women's coffee club and youth clubs," he said.

"In the past, some villages like this one even had separate bakery shops, butchers and grocery stores," Pradhan said.

Although aware that he was studying an unusually conservative village, he still played down differences between towns and villages. "Towns seem open and spontaneous, but that is often only an appearance," Pradhan said.

"At large, religious parties in Nepal, everybody participates and each has his own task. . . . At parties in Amsterdam, they only invite people who think alike."

Recalls Apartheid

It reminded him of apartheid, South Africa's system of racial segregation set up by Dutch-descended Afrikaners.

"Apartheid is a Dutch word . . . what is different has to be separate. You can see it in the neat arrangements of the houses here. Photographs of the children are displayed separately from those of the elderly. Everything has to have its place."

People were friendly but formal, he said, noting their habit of leaving the curtains of the living room open in the evening created a deceptive image of openness.

"I always felt that, whenever I was on a visit, there were unspoken limits as to how long I could stay and the sort of things I could ask. . . . People never talked about sex or money but a lot about the weather," Pradhan said.

Personal Bonds 'Fragile'

"Here, you can always choose not to have relationships. Personal bonds are more fragile. . . . Perhaps there is too much privacy," he said, adding that he left with a feeling that he had not learned all he wanted about Dutch society.

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