Though our individual day starts much earlier, our journey together usually begins at 10.20 in the morning. Balu finishes his classes at a private college in Kamaladi, and I finish mine at a community college in Dillibazaar. We then meet at Putalisadak Chowk, and speed towards Kirtipur on his motorbike. Our classes at the University Campus begin at 11.
“Have you eaten anything?” I shout into his ears as I adjust myself comfortably behind him. “Nothing yet, dai,” he says, “but we’ll eat something in the canteen before the class.” “Yeah, if we ever manage to reach there a few minutes earlier,” I shout back. We laugh, as we move ahead. We repeat this routined exchange every day, and both of us know very well that we don’t usually reach there before time to stuff our rumbling empty bellies.
Our classes begin at 6.30 in the morning. Just until two decades ago, schools and colleges used to run mostly in the day and sparsely in the evening. But now it has changed drastically: more than half of the total college-going students in the valley attend morning classes. When I told one of my friends from US that my teaching job begins at 6:30 am, she exclaimed, “I can’t imagine, either as a student or as a teacher, going to college at such early hours!”
If you ask the students why they prefer morning classes to those in the day, most of them will tell you that it keeps them free, so that they can work in the day. But almost none of them works, or even gets a job. However, one thing is for sure, attending morning classes gives them freedom throughout the day. They can go to movies, hang out with friends, plan a date, go for a round of window shopping, take a relaxed nap in the afternoon, spend hours surfing the internet, comment on friends’ Facebook statuses, chat for hours, search for a job (though deep inside they know that they will hardly get one), or visit abroad studies consultancies and plan for their further studies in USA, Australia, Canada, UK, or some other European countries, or Japan (usually in this order of priority).
So, our classes begin at 6.30. I wake up at 5, shave, take a bath, have a glass of warm water, then a cup of black tea — my diet for the next 4, or 5 or sometimes, 6 hours — as I get ready to leave. If I get some time in between my classes, I grab a piece or two of aaloo chop or samosa in the college canteen. But you can’t expect that to happen on a regular basis. I don’t even know whether Balu gets to eat anything at all in the morning or not — most likely not. As we stop at the traffic-light near Singha Durbar, or at Maitighar, or for the longest at Thapathali, we continue our talk, punctuated by the noise around, and think of reaching Kirtipur at least around quarter to eleven and eat something before going to the class. But, as usual, the traffic is too heavy today, and our plan doesn’t seem to work.
When I came to pursue my further education in Kathmandu about a decade-and-half ago after my School Leaving Certificate exam, I had come to an entirely different city — fewer houses, fewer vehicles, less garbage and pollution, and almost no traffic jams. But during these 15 years, many things have changed. I started teaching at different colleges immediately after completing my MA, and my salary, fortunately, has gone up by nearly hundred percent in the last five years. But everything else including the daily expenses and the house rent too has soared up by at least 200 percent.
The short trip from Putalisadak to Kirtipur is punctuated by a number of traffic jams and halts, and we manage to talk of everything under the sun in that quarter of an hour. Balu is a true film bug, and has hidden a dream deep inside to do something on films someday—write a good script, or even direct or produce one. Every day we talk about movies, and this actually starts when we see the huge billboard at New Plaza displaying the latest movie in the town. Every time we pass by it, we feel sorry for the deteriorating state of Nepali movies with every new release. A few bright film-makers have appeared in the scene recently, but a film that would truly signal a change for better is yet to be made. I, too, love films, and try to make time to watch the talked-of Hindi and English films (or, sometimes, movies made in some other languages), but I cannot recall what was the last Nepali film I watched.
A Landrover speeds past almost hitting us, but we don’t panic: it happens every day and it happens many times each day. Sogel Rinpoche, in his famous book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, talks of some elaborate meditation techniques, practices on the phowa, to create an awareness of death in each moment – a key to a better living, and the ultimate release from the cycle of life and death. But I think one needn’t take the trouble of finding an old meditation teacher and sit in for long, tiresome sessions to generate that sense of awareness of death. Just a day’s ride in the wild streets of Kathmandu is enough to activate your phowa! Balu is still thinking of the Landrover. “Sometimes I really get surprised at the chances of our survival, dai,” he turns back and says, before speeding ahead of the Bagmati Bridge.
By the way, you won’t believe me if I say we talk of owning a car, too! Balu has fallen in love with the latest model of Hyundai’s SUV called Tucson. I tell him I would be content even with a relatively smaller car, a Hyundai economic range called Getz. We laugh—we know it’s not entirely a joke, but we also know very well that none of us will be able to buy any of these in years, at least, not in our present state of affairs.
Well, we are crossing the Bagmati River. To the left, you can see the proposed UN Park at the bank of the once holy and plentiful, and now miserable, river. The bank these days harbors a few hundred make-shift huts set up by sukumbasis, the landless.
“Are these really sukumbasis?” I shout into Balu’s ears as we take the short-cut diversion along the banks of the Bagmati river, a relatively less crowded, though much stinking, road that takes us to Balkhu Chowk in much less time. “What do you think?” Maybe he is still undecided, and shouts back at me. I think some landless people really do exist in certain parts of the country, especially in the plains, owing to the massive floods or the centuries-old tradition of bonded labour that left them landless. But these certainly are not, at least, most of them are not, sukumbasis, and that is what I tell him.
I don’t know how much Balu earns in a month, but it should be somewhat equal to what I earn. I make a quick calculation in mind. The land by the bank of Bagmati river should cost at least 30 lakhs per ana. And, even if the sukumbasis receive some two anas in a few years just by erecting a shabby hut and keeping a guard of it, that’s more than what these busy university teachers will earn in their whole life. Balu seems to like my calculation. “Should we stop our errands to these colleges, and start erecting some huts around here? That appears to be the only way to own some precious piece of land in Kathmandu,” he chuckles. We laugh and move ahead.
Many of our friends have left Nepal—for the ‘States’, that is how they like to put it, or Australia, or England, and, lately, many of them have gone, or are going to Canada. Some of them spent years preparing for GRE, applied for their doctorate in the universities there, received a Teaching Assistantship and left; others chose a PR (permanent residence), and settled down. Some joined musical bands or theatre troupes and disappeared there, and few others applied for a tourist visa, and chose to remain a permanent tourist in the new land. Many people ask us – Balu, me, and others alike – “Why are you wasting the prime of your career in this mess? Go, fly away.” Yes, we have been odd-men-out. But we have been obstinate in remaining in this mess. It’s not that we are big patriots and love our country so much that we can’t think of leaving our motherland. It’s not even that we have clear plans for ourselves or for our country, and that we want to stay back to fulfill them. Nor is it the case that we are concerned of the impacts brain-drain is having on the country, and we would make some difference by staying back.
Why are we here?
Why are we still here?
We really don’t know!
Perhaps, we have a fear deep inside that things may not be any better there either.
May be, we are content with whatever achievement we have made here, amidst our small circles that are slowly getting wider, so we lack motivation to begin everything anew in a distant unknown land.
May be it is something else we haven’t yet realized…
One of my senior colleagues says, “When the boat is about to sink, it’s wise to jump off.” Though our obstinacy might be melting down gradually as the political and academic scenario of the country gets worse, I still haven’t been able to mentally prepare myself to ‘fly away’. We still believe we should do something here itself, though we have not yet been able to figure out what that ‘something’ is. We may remain here forever. Or, we may not be here the very next year. Let’s see!
My students, too, ask me why I haven’t flown away. For many of them, there must be something wrong with a teacher who cannot make it to US or UK. I give them different answers at different occasions. I often take reference from the metaphor of ‘roots and wings’ used by Paulo Coelho to answer them. We need roots, says Coelho. There is a place in the world where we are born, where we learn a language, where we discover how our ancestors overcame their problems, and we become responsible to that place. But we need wings, too. They show endless horizons of the imagination, they carry us towards our dreams, they lead us to distant places. They are the wings that allow us to know the roots of our fellow human beings and to learn from them. Coelho says, blessed is he who has wings and roots, and wretched is he who only has one of the two.
I believe my parents have given me both, and I would like to give my children both.
My meditation breaks when I hear Balu honking the horn to frighten the dogs, the shameless beasts that have chosen the middle of the road to consummate their love. There was a joke widely circulated among Kathmanduites few years back that if you climb Dharahara, the tall tower at Sundhara, and spit down, it would fall either on a dog or an engineer. These days it could fall on various other people too: a graduate in English, or Sociology, or Rural Development, or if you are lucky enough, it could even fall upon one of the members of the Constituent Assembly, who are so many in number that they seem to be loafing around everywhere all the time.
So, to get back, we don’t talk much about going abroad.
We rather talk about writing a book that would make a mark in the little Nepali literary world, or maybe beyond that.
We talk about establishing a journal that would begin a serious research tradition in Nepal, something we seriously lack.
We talk about starting a talk series with profoundly erudite scholars like Professor Lohani, from whom we could learn more than from any book.
And, we talk about establishing a college that would resemble the traditional Gurukul system of education, or that would resemble the ancient Eastern schools at Nalanda and Vikramsila, or that would form a bridge between our rich ancient heritage and the modern innovations of the West.
Balu talks of opening a decent, cozy restaurant that could be a hub for artists and scholars. I talk of opening an institute that conducts writing classes, talk programs, trainings on research, and what not…
Or, we rather talk about a permanent teaching job at the university. Even Professor Lohani fails to convince us when he says, “Why do you need a permanent lecturership at TU? Does it give you anything more than a false sense of security and false sense of identity?” We don’t disagree with him, yet we dream, like thousands of other young lecturers, of being a permanent lecturer of TU someday, an associate professor some day, a full professor someday…
It’s quarter to eleven and we have arrived at Balkhu Ring Road. We are not late yet but the queue of vehicles extends as far as your eyes can see, and we can be sure this jam is not going to end soon. The traffic policemen blow their whistles and swing their arms in frenzy. Poor guys, they do have a job much tougher than ours and an earning much lesser than ours, I think.
“What’s the time, dai?” Balu shouts as he dodges a few motorbikes and cars, and winds the accelerator. It’s almost eleven, I tell him, and he speeds even more. We pass by the university gate, we pass by the bank, we pass by Tinkune, we give a glance to the canteen, that is so meager in reality but that looks so alluring now, but pass by it, too, and as we reach the department, the tower hits eleven.
Half a day has been spent. I also realize, half a life has been spent already.
We hurl our bags on the table in the faculty room, grab a handful of chalk pieces, and rush to our classes, rubbing the dust off our eyes. I see the students rubbing their buttocks on the rough benches as I erase the blackboard and start rubbing the chalk on its rough surface.
I clear my throat and start my one-hour lecture on the debate of colonial issues in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and the students note down everything furiously.
There is a rumble in my stomach, and I remember the shanty university canteen again. But all we get to eat for the next two or three hours is just a handful of chalk dust.
(Published in Of Nepalese Clay, April 2011)