I first went to central Nepal, with my wife Gill, to study the Gurungs for my Ph.D. in anthropology, in December 1968. We stayed there until January 1970. The preparations, reasons for going, experience of fieldwork and the writing up period are described in a forthcoming volume, currently titled Becoming an Anthropologist, which will become available on the web. In 1986 I returned with my second wife Sarah. Since then we have been back almost every year until 2003, when there was a gap of three years because of a Maoist insurgency, and then we have been back four further times. The visits were for between two weeks and one and three months. Not all of the time has been easy, physically or emotionally.

The on-going Nepalese experience has influenced me in inumerable ways, many of them difficult to estimate. Yet two areas immediately strike me as important. One is the emotional involvement with our family in Thak, the closest I will ever get to knowing what it must have been like to live amidst the insecurities, physical hardships, but compensating warmths of a pre-industrial society. We can, at least at second-hand, feel what a 'normal' Malthusian world would have been like. In the context of this book, where the central motif is the miraculous escape from such a world, without having experienced it, if only vicariously, it would have been impossible to write the book. Parts of the English/Japanese past would have been literally invisible because one had no experience of them - a point made by Collingwood about Roman religion, but even more the case with the material/demographic world. Most historians, however hard they try, cannot begin to comprehend what was important.

The experience has profoundly influenced the way one looks at almost everything and in particular strips away a coating of cotton wool from the historical accounts. To take just a few simple examples. It would have been impossible to appreciate the importance of human labour without the experience of back-breaking work in Thak. Or the importance of fertilizers and what is done with human faeces without that experiences. Or the importance of flies. A thousand questions would not have sprung to one's mind and hence the book would have followed in the jaded and unsuccessful track of so much social history. The Thak experience has thus enriched us immensely, though at considerable cost - not in time and money, but above all in the dangers of involvement and the pains of loss (Dilmaya).

A second way in which it has been essential, which is of course linked to the above, can best be described as the back-drop effect. England and Japan are both, in their own ways, extremely 'peculiar'. Thak and Nepal are much more the norm. The difficulty is that now the 'peculiar' has become the normal - and hence invisible. To recover and see the air around us, it needs to be seen against something. The contrast of England and Japan partly serves this function - in so far as there are major differences. But very often the two cultures overlap so much that the tension of difference is lost. It is at this point that Nepal acts as a kind of dark background, to make the foreground cases shine out.

Thus looked down from our mountain village, which in many respects represents the position of most human beings for the last 12,000 years since the development of tribalism, both England and Japan are peculiar, but in different ways. This increase in comprehension is a central feature of the book. Although in many chapters the evidence it taken from larger societies, for example famines in India, China etc. the basic schemata can be derived from our felt experiences in Nepal. In essence it is a comparison of the life and expectations and pressures on a Premkumari and an English child, or as between a village like Thak and a village like Earls Colne, or between the whole of Nepal and the whole of Japan/England.

The Nepalese case shows the deep difficulties facing people trying to escape from 'illth', a concept I played with half-way through writing the book. The natural tendencies towards, 'illth', towards all those processes of agricultural, technological, political and other involution which Malthus and many others have chartered are very visible in Nepal. Dor Bista has seized on a few of them, but our experience in Thak have shown many others.

Without this intellectual and emotional experience, therefore, the dynamic of the book would have been missing. The sense of the narrowness of the exit, as Gellner would put it, would have not been obvious. Nor would I have known what it was like not to have found an exit. For those of us who can both live in pre-exit and post-exit worlds, the contrasts are so enormous - merely in monetary terms something of a ratio of 100:1, that it would indeed be a dull-brained person who was not intrigued and puzzled about how certain societies did escape.


SEE ALSO: The Gurung Databases

SEE ALSO: writings on Nepal and the Gurungs