Fragments of Memory

by Satish Prabasi
(from Fragments of Memory: A Nepali National’s Reminiscences)

We Nepalese have always been proud of our independence. The mountain people from the north descended to the malaria-infested southern lowlands in search of timber, oilseeds, and legumes, and they gradually colonized the strip of land called the Terai. Baba was one of the people who came down from the western hill village of Jhiltung, and over the years he acquired a hundred acres of land near the border with India. He called this piece of land “the abode of Govinda,” or Govindpur, named after Vishnu, the Hindu god of prosperity.

In January 1940, when I was born, Nepal was still an isolated, closed, and repressive society, afraid of outside influences and uncertain of its own direction. The Second World War had started in Europe, but most Nepalese were blissfully unaware of it. Thousands of Gurkha soldiers joined the British army to fight British wars, but Nepalese civilians were denied the right to travel abroad without the privileged permission of the Ranas. In those days, the King of Nepal was not powerful. The Ranas were the ruling class of Nepal, and they held absolute administrative and judicial power from the office of the prime minister down to that of the chief district officer. Nepalese citizens from the Terai region had to get a stamped entry – permit called radhani, stamped in order to enter the capital city. Those who wanted to leave the city had to obtain similar authorization.

There was no system of high-school education in Nepal. Against this repressive background and suffocating social system, Baba decided to hire the services of a resident teacher to educate all the boys and girls of the village.

The teacher was a memorable personality named Nageshwor. We affectionately called him Master Sahib, the word sahib being an honorific. He was a tenth-grade student in the northern Indian state of Bihar who had given up his studies to follow Gandhi’s Quit India Movement. Quite successful at first, the movement petered out after a few months, leaving tens of thousands of students suspended from schools and unable to continue their studies. Nageshwor was one of them. He then started walking toward Nepal in search of employment and came to Govindpur. He asked the locals if there was a school in the village and where he could contact the head teacher. They laughed and said there was no school for many miles around. He should go and talk to the zamindar (landowner), who had a young son and was in search of a teacher.

As luck would have it, Baba and Nageshwor met, liked each other, and our village got a live-in teacher who later doubled up as our local health provider.

As a young teacher, Nageshwor started to instill a sense of health and hygiene among the young boys and girls. I remember our shock when he insisted children must come into the classroom, which was the earthen veranda of our house, only after washing their hands and feet. He also insisted that each student buy a slate so that we could write. The parents protested the extra costs at first, but eventually they obliged.

Nageshwor’s presence in our house brought about my education, that of my five sisters, and that of tens of other village girls who otherwise would have remained illiterate. In Nepali society at the time, girls were forbidden to read and write. It was believed that providing reading and writing skills to women was a great sin. My mother, a god-fearing woman, was denied the chance to write the Nepali Sanskrit alphabet. As a young boy, I was astonished to hear her recite many verses from the holy books, notably Nepali versions of the Ramayana and the Bhagavad Gita, without ever having read them.

Nageshwor also started a few physical exercises, which led to much amusement among the kids and bewilderment among the parents. Gradually he won everyone’s affection.

Since education was restricted in Nepal, there were no published textbooks. Master Sahib traveled quarterly to Indian markets in his home state of Bihar to select books appropriate for students in various grades in his veranda-school. He would also bring notebooks, colorful pencils, geometry boxes, additional writing paper, and other education aids. If the journey to Bihar was eventful for him, his return to our village was an occasion for joy and celebration for all of us children. Thus, a system of reading and writing developed in our village. The flip side of it was that we knew more about Indian heroes and history than Nepali ones. We became more proficient in Hindi, the language of our books, than in Nepali, our national language.

Master Sahib held an annual festival, Saraswati Puja, with prayers and celebration for the goddess of learning. On these occasions, there would be a community-wide undertaking to erect a pandal (a special platform), install a statue of the goddess, and create an arch made of green leaves and young banana trees.

In 1949, on Saraswati Puja Master Sahib announced terrible news to us. He said that he would no longer be able to teach us, as he already had imparted all his knowledge and skills.

“Remember,” he said, “I am a tenth-grade dropout from a school in Bihar. I therefore do not think it is right to continue teaching you all beyond that grade. I am sad, but all of you have to find your own ways and means to continue your further studies, if you wish to do so.”

This created panic in many households, including mine. Baba flared up at Master Sahib, almost shouting at him, “How can you discontinue teaching? We brought you to this village to teach our children; while staying in my house, you also became a local doctor providing basic health care to all four villages surrounding Govindpur.” After a lot of arguments and counter-arguments, it was agreed by the village elders that Master Sahib would not teach the elder students but would continue teaching the younger children who had not yet reached seventh grade.

This created a problem for me. Where should I continue my studies?

 

Satish Prabasi was born in Saptari, Nepal, and grew up in Benares, India. His studies took him to Nottingham in the United Kingdom and The Hague in the Netherlands. His varied working life has included time as an activist academic, a United Nations staff member, and an unsuccessful entrepreneur. His work and personal life have taken him across Asia, Africa, Australia, and Europe. He now lives in New York with his wife, where he enjoys the company of his two grandchildren, and delights in browsing in the city’s many libraries.

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