The border crossing years roll on in Kathmandu
My Master’s classes at Tribhuvan University (TU) in Kirtipur continued regularly, despite the disturbingly recurrent strikes mounted by one banned student group or called by other rival cliques. All students’ unions were affiliated to their parent political parties which were, in turn, driven underground by the Partyless Panchayat Polity. On the very first day of our academic semester, one group of students hijacked and dragged the official limousine of the Vice Chancellor, Dr Trailokya Nath Upreti, from the VC’s office complex downhill, and the flimsy light blue Russian sedan remained on the grassy knoll outside the windows of our classroom for a month.
After classes, I usually left the simmering campus for Radio Nepal. My night job at Casino Nepal from 7 in the evening to 4 o’clock in the morning did not allow me adequate hours of sleep. But being young, hale and hearty, I trudged on, day in and night out.
The new curriculum for MA in English at TU was the most interesting program one could ever have hoped for. It rivaled even the best university curricula of South Asia, the jewels among the British dominions in these parts of the world where the English language and literature were concerned. Designed by Dr Alan Davis, the Welsh Professor and Head of the Department of Linguistics at Edinburgh University, the British government had loaned him to Nepal through the British Council to overhaul the English syllabus under the aegis of the much vaunted NEP (New Education Plan) which was in the pipeline. He divided the two-year Master’s syllabus into three parts: Six papers on the literature of the British Isles, with required side studies of its social sciences bearing on the centuries concerned with the literary works in our study list; a half paper (50 points) on American Literature – a new concept for the Department of English at the MA level at TU! – and another half paper on Language Studies; and a full paper on Linguistics – another couple of unprecedented coups, again! – thus totaling eight papers for the two year-course covering the postgraduate studies of English at TU. Had I joined the Department of English the previous year, as I had intended to, I would be stuck with eight full papers of English Literature only; so my compelled procrastination was a godsend: I pat myself on the back to this day for my good fortune!
Illustration: Sworup Nhasiju
I had joined the two-year MA course as my own kind of MFA program with the sole aim of writing a novel at the end of it. The book, incidentally, would be written in Nepali. This I eventually did, thank you very much, and the maiden work was awarded the Sajha Puraskar in 1977.
But I am digressing here; so I must retrace the main tracks my story.
At the University, I befriended some fellow students who have remained my kindred souls, colleagues, associates and lifelong friends, sounding boards and mutual punching bags, despite occasional distances and separations. Among my ten other MA mates, distilled from the original thirty-three students by Prof Surya Bahadur Shakya, the Principal of the University College and our Metaphysical Poets teacher, are Ramesh Shrestha from Bhojpur, SB Thakur from the Tarai, Haribhakta Khoju from Dhulikhel, Nirmal Man Tuladhar from Ason in Kathmandu and many others, including Indra Bilas Adhikari of Lamjung. Other closer classmates included Sheila Roka (now Desai) and Trailokyaman Singh (now deceased) as well as students from other faculties. Abhi Subedi, already teaching at Patan College, often visited Ramesh at TU, and that was how I got to know him since, circa 1969/’70.
We had great teachers at the University College of TU. Dr Davis (Head of Dept, Language and Linguistics), Prof Surya Bahadur Shakya (the Metaphysical Poets despite his tremendous administrative loads during those strife-torn and politically polarized years at the campus), Dr Mohan Lohani, Prof Kamal Prakash Malla, Dr NN Sinha, Prof Yugeshwor Prasad Verma, Prof TR Kansakar, Madam Jyoti Tuladhar, Dr Purcell, Mr. Arbuthnott et al were our teachers, guides, philosophers and spoon-feeders. Mr. Mishra and Dr Jha were our other professors from India under the extant Colombo Plan.
The fortnightly Internal Assessment system, which carried 20% of the total percentage of 100 points in the board examinations, had us always on our guards, and we were forced to be up-to-date with our academic preparations.
The most educated musician at Radio Nepal
At Radio Nepal, meanwhile, people began to notice me as a bookish musician, the most educated in the semiliterate lot. I had my course books and reference volumes with me and I “studied” the moment I was free from rehearsals and recording sessions in the studios.
I was pulled aside one afternoon by Mr. Ramraj Poudel, the recently arrived Director of Radio Nepal. He checked the books I had: FR Leavis, Middleton Murray, John Donne, The Waste Land, Huckleberry Finn, Noam Chomsky, BF Skinner, etc.
“I see that you read all the time,” he began. “I’ve observed you for many days.”
“Yes Sir. I’m doing my Master’s in English, and so………”
“I trust you’ve rehearsed already?”
“Yes. I’ve finished practicing with the singers and musicians.”
It was my usual routine to prepare my notation of guitar chords or double bass notes – depending on which of the two instruments I would be playing – for the next song to be recorded. Having perfected my parts during the rehearsals, I would move to my corner of the studio to read my books and wait for the studio in-charge and the recording engineer to tape the “take.” During the lulls and the resultant cacophony of chatterers, I would again retire to my corner to study. This had been observed by one and all, including Mr. Poudel, the ideal-minded “Burmeli Nepali” who was known as the Mister Manners of Nepal, having written books on etiquettes as well as journalism. Sadly, both callings were considered quite worthless in Nepal in those days: Who would care about universal manners, pray? And why aspire for journalism when the monopolistic political system discouraged honest, fearless and critical scribes by throwing them into the absolute monarch’s dungeons, indefinitely, without charges and habeas corpus rights while the same System rewarded those editors and commentators who kowtowed to the “Jai desh, jai Naresh!” codswallop and toed the Line of “Hindu Raja, Hindu desh; Nepali Bhasha, Nepali bhesh,” or something easily manipulative, loose and liquid loquacity like that?
Another time, when I was well into my final Master’s year, Mr. Poudel stopped me again at the circular garden pond facing Radio Nepal’s main building.
“I plan to create a special post for you here,” he said. “Radio Nepal must induct young Nepalis as special officers, including you.”
I thanked him, solemnly, and that was it. As I saw it, even then, it was a most futile dream. Nobody encouraged and admired dreams and visions in Nepal: Such gems were displayed only by the Royal Palace as national edicts. Personally, too, I was yet to be a postgraduate. Technically as well, I wasn’t yet a Nepali citizen, and not wanting to be one, either. And there would also be the Public Service Commission to contend with for Mr. Poudel’s honorable stakes on me. Even more importantly, as far as I was concerned about myself as a recent border crosser, I was in my late twenties, and I would rather go places than remain in this valley of utter uncertainties and empty, dry dreams. Even more sensitively, Mr. Ramraj Poudel was merely a civil servant of His Majesty’s Government of Nepal. However seasoned, proven and a senior veteran he may have been by then, he was, like all bureaucrats, subject to summary transfers to some other department of the bureaucracy or to some godforsaken gulag like, say, Taklakot. He was simply a football to be kicked around. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Poudel ceased being seen at Radio Nepal after some months, and that was about it all, just as I knew in my guts, about the special-officer prospects he had envisioned for me!
Even then, I had my heroes in those early days in Kathmandu. Ramraj Poudel, Prof Yadunath Khanal and Hrishikesh Shaha cut as special national figures on Durbar Marg, the recently macadamized Broadway in front of the main entrance to the newly built Narayanhiti Raj Durbar. Among Nepal’s Young Turks then, to my mind, were Dr Harka Gurung, Pashupati SJB Rana and Dr Prakash Chandra Lohani. I have already mentioned out illustrious Professors who shared with us information and knowledge which became the bedrock on which our wisdom germinated as we matured.
To be continued in the next edition of The Week.
The writer is the copy chief at The Week and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org