The historic town of Gorkha, located in the hills of central Nepal, takes pride in being the original capital of Nepal. Though Gorkha’s main bazaar is just a stone’s throw away from the district headquarters, fully half of Gorkha district, including the old bazaar, is a mountainous hinterland far removed from the district headquarters. It is populated principally by Newar and Bahun communities.
Gorkha has long been famous as the birthplace of Prithvi Narayan Shah, the founder of modern unified Nepal. But now it is famous for another reason as well. When Maoists launched their People’s War on February 13, 1996, Gorkha was one of the first four districts to be attacked (the other districts were Rolpa, Rukum and Sindhuli). That it is also the birth place of Dr Baburam Bhattarai, ideologue and leader of the Maoist movement, has added to its fame. Bhattarai was born in the small village of Khoplang of Gorkha. To an outsider, the district might seem to be a Maoist hotspot. But here in the district headquarters, Nepali Congress remains strong, even though Bhattarai won a sweeping victory in the CA elections of 2008.
I had the opportunity to visit the historic Luintel School, where Bhattarai spent many years, and ended up staying there for three nights. Luintel School is situated in Palungtar VDC in Ligligkot basin, about fifteen kilometers from the district headquarters. It was established on February 20, 1961 by local social workers. Within a few years of its establishment, it was turned over to Christian missionaries. Later, in 1974, the management of the school was handed over to the Government of Nepal. The school remains essentially unchanged from how it was fifty years ago when Bhattarai enrolled in class grade three on March 4, 1963.
I was keen to learn about this place from PM Bhattarai’s childhood friends, many of whom recounted their childhood memories of Bhattarai. Bhattarai had begun his education in thatched huts. He first received informal education from an ex-army man, Bhakta Bahadur Bhujel for two years in his own village. Later he joined the then Annapurna Primary School (now higher secondary school), and after about three months there, he went to Amarjyoti School (Luintel School). In fact, I visited the very garden where Bhattarai had begun his education at Luintel School. In those days the primary classes were conducted in a mango grove around the school premises.
PM Bhattarai came to national limelight when he topped the nationwide SLC examination with distinction in 1970. He was the first topper of the SLC exam from outside the Kathmandu valley. Today’s top neurosurgeon Dr Upendra Devkota had achieved 10th rank on the same board. They had been classmates and arch rivals even before then. Up to grade 10 Bhattarai had always stood first in his class, and Devkota second. The competition between them was such that the two had stopped talking from grade six. The talk only resumed when Bhattarai and Devkota completed their engineering and medical degrees respectively.
Local residents provided animated recollections of Bhattarai. According to them, he used to live with his uncle’s son and walk two and a half hours to his home every Friday. When he came back on Monday, he would bring back enough rice, ghee, and dal to last another week. Mohan Prasad Shrestha, who just retired from Luintel School after decades of teaching, recounts his memories of Bhattarai with relish. He recalls Bhattarai as an industrious boy who voraciously read every book and newspaper he could find. At school he used to play badminton with enthusiasm. He used to wash dishes and fetch water in his hostel. He used to wear half pants throughout his student days, and began to wear full pants only after he came to Kathmandu for higher studies. One of his childhood friends recalls Bhattarai’s hard days in Thamel, when he used to sleep on nothing but newspapers.
Being an introvert, Bhattarai was not very close to many friends in school. But Baburam recalls an English teacher Miss Eleanor Elkins of USA. He also fondly recalls Thomas and Mary Varghese, the first headmaster couple, and Varghese Thomas and Annama, a later headmaster couple, who were from India.
Bhattarai spent 25 years in continuous formal and informal education. Yet he considered the days at Amarjyoti School to be the most fruitful, exciting and informative. The school building from those days is still standing and recently celebrated its golden jubilee. After Bhattarai, another ten students from this school landed among the top ten in the SLC board until 1977. But no student has managed to get to the top ten rankings since. Now the school has little of the old charisma, and it runs like any other ordinary government school.