Visiting Kyrat!

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In the past five years, I have travelled to many places. Each time, however, when there was a conference to attend, sightseeing and doing my own thing was limited to a rushed half-day after or before the conference. This time I decided to travel for the sake of travelling. A vacation, nonetheless. As the plane crossed over from India into Nepal and I saw the high Himalayas in the distance, I knew I had been here before. Not deja vu this. This was Kyrat - the little mountain-country that is the locale of Ubisoft's videogame, Far Cry 4. Later, in the course of my journey I would spot many similarities between the sites of Nepal and Kyrat - the chorten or small stupas that are scattered in the landscape, the winding Himalayan roads, the muted Buddhist chants, the little villages so characteristic of a third-world country and finally, even the ultralights that fly rich tourists towards vistas of the high mountain peaks all make their appearance in the Kyrat of Far Cry 4. The name Kyrat, I was soon to realise, is no figment of the Ubisoft story writers' imaginative powers.

In Sanskrit, Kyrat  means 'crown' and Nepal and its neighbouring Indian state of Sikkim both have links to the historical and mythical Kyrat. Situated at the 'top of the world' in the high Himalayas, this claim to crowning glory comes as no surprise. In the 6th Century Sanskrit text, Kiratarjuna, the Pandav hero Arjun shoots a boar and then discovers that a Kirata man has also shot the animal. In the contest that ensues, Arjun is nonplussed at being unable to defeat the man and the tale ends with him discovering that the Kirata is none other than the God Shiva in disguise. The Kirateshwar temple in West Sikkim is said to mark the spot of their encounter. Arguably the same as the Kirata of the Indian epic, the Kirati people today comprise multiple tribes - the Limbu, Kaccha, Sonwar and others. Ubisoft's Far Cry 4 has combined all of them into one people living in a country that resembles Nepal in more ways than one. 

Like the Maoist struggle in Nepal of not-so-long ago, Kyrat is experiencing civil strife. The government is under the dictator, Pagan Min  - strangely, the name is the same as that of the Burmese emperor whom the British hounded out of Burma after committing gross acts of aggression in the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852. The key architect of that war was Lord Dalhousie, governor-general of India and arguably, also responsible in part for the events of 1857 in India. Now  why the villain of Far Cry 4 should have the same name as a Burmese king who opposed British colonialism is something that eludes me. There is an obvious inference that one can make though: the powers that defy the European rules of the game, are to be cast as villains and the name Pagan also, of course, has distinct non-Christian echoes. In the game, Min has seized power after the fall of the country's royal dynasty and now styles himself the king of Kyrat.

Pagan Min in Far Cry 4 shares his name with a former king of Myanmar

Gamers in Nepal responded quite positively on the whole to the game's setting but complained that the Kyrati people speak Hindi instead of Nepali, which is a different language altogether. The Kyrati people are shown as following one religion, quite comfortably avoiding the multi-religious complexity of the region, where Hinduism and Buddhism co-exist. The people worship the god Banashur and his daughter, Tarun Matara, who is worshipped as a living goddess. As Ajay Ghale, the non-resident Kyrati who returns to Kyrat from the USA after his mother's death, the player-protagonist has a lot to take in. Not least among them is how the game's developers have introduced various complexities and hinted at a plural culture, only to end up perpetuating the set of oriental stereotypes that belie the initial potential of the game. 

The player will most likely join the Golden Path (there is a possibility of choosing otherwise but of that later), which is the armed resistance to Min's government and was founded by his father Mohan Ghale.  The two leaders of the Golden Path have sharply contrasting world-views. Sabal, the traditionalist is described by the Far Cry Wiki thus:
He sees great value in his heritage, race, culture, history and legacy and believes that Kyrat needs the stability of traditions to bring peace to its people. Sabal often seeks moral guidance from the religious texts and teachings of Kyra. He is also smart enough to know how to use religion as a political tool. These views are in direct conflict with Amita's world view.
Amita has a different agenda:
With tensions rising between the two leaders, Amita is now head to head with Sabal over the installation of Bhadra as the next Tarun Matara. Amita sees the practice as superstitious, old, and ultimately sexist, objectifying young women and robbing them of autonomy, a good education, and social life. She believes that intellectual, social, and financial progress is the only way to ensure a stable future for Kyrat.
Ajay can let either of these two agendas prevail when he liberates Kyrat. There is also the more complex world-view of Pagan Min that seems outright evil at the outset but is complicated by his criticism of the practice of having a young girl consecrated as the Tarun Matara, exposed to the leering gaze of the gathering of men around her - exactly what Amita preaches. Min also continually points out problems with the religious practices in Kyrat and goes to the extreme of  closing down the sacred Jalendu Temple and stopping religious worship altogether. 

Although Min may have shut down the temples, he has barely dented the religious beliefs of Kyrati society. The role of religion in the game is one that game researchers have not focused on so far. Coming from a Hindu background myself, I was somewhat surprised at the amalgam of Hindu and Buddhist rites shown in the Kyrati religion. The importance of religion has already been underscored as one of the reasons behind the people's dissatisfaction with Min's rule and as the key factor in determining the events beyond the game's ending. Evidence of religion in practice abound all over the landscape with many locations showing shrines to some god and usually these places have fresh garlands and flowers on them. Many of them have religious names, especially connected to Banashur (incidentally an asura or demon in Hindu mythology who has, rather irreverently, been turned into a god in the game) and there is also the Chal Jama Monastery, where Ajay goes on a pilgrimage, 'which includes spinning a mani wheel, adding powder to fire, lighting a candle and lighting a stick of incense', hinting at a complex mix of Hindu and Buddhist religious practices. Adding to the controversy is the figure of the Tarun Matara - despite the disapproval shown through characters as disparate as Amita and Min.

The Tarun Matara, in the game, is the daughter of the God Banashur who is embodied in a living child selected by the community for this purpose. Those unfamiliar with local traditions will fail to see the clear similarity to the Kumari in Kathmandu, Nepal, who is still worshipped as a living goddess. The Kumari puja is a longstanding tradition among Hindu communities across the Indian subcontinent and it is popular among all sections of society. Indeed, the abolition of the tradition as a way of upholding women's rights might be considered problematic even in South Asian Feminist discourses. For example, here is an alternative point of view:
Chanira Bajracharya, a 19-year-old Nepalese student, was a Kumari of Patan, a city within Kathmandu Valley. Fulfilling the role from age five to 15, she says she still looks up to the goddess: "I feel I'm blessed and a lot of my success comes from those blessings." She says the tradition encourages respect for women in a male-dominated society. (for the full article, click here).
There are many views on the status and role of the Kumari and they present a complexity that cannot be easily described. The straightforward option of choosing to ban the tradition by either siding with Amita or letting Min rule is way too simple if one believes that abolishing the Tarun Matara custom, will be a major pro-women reform. The game seems to suggest this as a solution but then again, like any open-world game, it leaves the final choice to the player. 

Anyone who knows the history of Nepal would recognise  in Pagan Min's usurpation of power a reference to the end of the Nepali Royal Family (the Shah dynasty) that ruled the country for centuries until in the previous decade, the Crown Prince gunned down his entire family and the country ended up facing civil war involving Maoist rebels and government forces in the years after. This also effectively closed the country to tourists for a long time. A BBC report from 2003 states "While the Maoists are not targeting tourists, the war has started directly hitting the tourism sector - Nepal's most important industry." Ajay is also shown as entering Kyrat at a time when tourism has all but closed down. While reflecting the recent history of the region, the Kyrati civil strife also helps the designers to set the context for the adventures in the gameplay of Far Cry 4. 

The parallel history that Ubisoft constructs is intriguing on many other counts. There is a conscious attempt at thinking through the history of South Asian nations and Kyrat is a composite of the cultures of Nepal, India, Burma and even parts of China. As mentioned earlier, the developers, however, managed to completely ignore the fact that the Nepali people have their own language, which is somewhat different from Hindi, the language spoken in Far Cry 4 . Hindi is spoken in large sections of Northern India and is also the popular language of Bollywood - no wonder the Nepali fans of the videogame were left dismayed at the developers' decision to make the Kyrati population speak Hindi in a setting that largely resemble Nepal. Maybe Bollywood has to be the stereotype for all things South Asian. There are other stereotypes too - all the villains in the story are foreigners. Pagan Min is Chinese and so is his chief general and adopted sister, Yuma Lau. His other governors, Noore and Paul Harmon "de Pleur"are both foreigners and they are both people who came to Kyrat either as tourists or as human rights workers. There is also a corrupt CIA agent and a couple of hippie drug-dealers. Ajay Ghale himself seems to be an American citizen but besides him, Kyrat does not seem to have any outside influence on its political climate. The UN, the USA and even the nearby powers such as India and China seem happy to leave it alone. Finally, the outlook on the country's and indeed, the region's history is bleak. If the player supports Sabal and let's him take over the government, a series of pogroms against the other faction begins and the country goes back to its orthodox religion that deprives women of their rights. If the player hands over the government to Amita, eventually Kyrat becomes a drug-producing state, where all the energies of its population go into cultivation narcotics and in building an army. Just as Far Cry 2 sees no happy ending for the nameless African country it is set in, Far Cry 4 too has the same fate in store for Kyrat. Another formerly-colonised country doomed to a continuing state of confusion and suffering. Clearly, the people aren't capable of looking after themselves after the European colonial powers leave. Once again, the game characteristically attempts to present plurality and complexity but ends up with extremely predictable stereotypes that seem to hint that things were better off under colonial rule. Resistance either creates villains like Pagan Min (as his real-life Burmese namesake might have seemed to the British East India Company) or confused bigots and ideologues such as Sabal and Amita, all of whom lead the country to destruction.

Crab rangoons!

The best metaphor for describing the game's attitude perhaps lies in a faux-oriental dish that is part of American Chinese cuisine: as much an American invention as General Tso's Chicken, this is a type of fried wonton (Chinese dumpling) made with crab-meat or imitation crab-meat and is called Crab Rangoon. At the very beginning of the game, Pagan Min offers Ajay a plate of crab rangoons. Just like Min, the recipe also claims a dubious connection with Burma (hence the 'rangoon' in its name - Rangoon or Yangon is the capital of Myanmar). In a very strange gameplay device, the whole outcome of the game depends on what the player does with the crab rangoons. If the player ignores everything and sits for long enough eating the crab rangoons, the game takes a very different turn to its alternate ending where there is no meeting the Golden Path rebels, the player is able to immerse his mother's ashes and life goes on undisturbed under Min's rule.  Not eating the crab-rangoons will lead to all the adventures and bloodshed that make up the gameplay of Far Cry 4. 

The crab-rangoons, for me, are quite important because they symbolise how the local culture is treated in the game. Just like the dish is a mix of many Asian cuisines and at the same time, a very North American fabrication, Kyrat in Far Cry 4 is kind of similar. With its hotch-potch of South Asian and Western influences, the game seems to struggle with representing an unfamiliar (to the West) and exotic part of the Orient and to end up with a very Western notion of the place. Kyrat itself is like a crab rangoon - a Western impression of a mix of South Asian cultures. Although most would like their money's worth and play out the game battling Min's forces, the hidden message is that whatever heroics Ghale performs, Kyrat is doomed anyway and perhaps the best way is to let Min continue his rule and keep supplying the West with heroin and slaves. Eating the crab rangoons and opting for the status quo would mean not rocking the boat at all - it would also mean accepting a very  Orientalist (in the sense Edward Said uses the term) notion of South Asia, where the next best thing to colonialism is the perpetuation of colonial codes within the so-called postcolonial nation-states. As for me, I do not like crab-rangoons much so I naturally ended up upsetting the apple cart (or the plate of crab-rangoons, as it were). Then again, I guess there are a lot of people who'd prefer the crab-rangoons. Who knows!

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