Chapter One – cont.

Kisna Pun, father of Mahabir Pun and husband of Purbi. Photograph from his Nepalese citizenship card.

I had planned to talk about Mahabir’s siblings but it seems proper to first talk about his parents. Last October, when I stayed with Mahabir’s family in Pokhara, Nepal, we sat for two days and talked about his life. I took copious notes but at times I was so drawn into the conversation I stopped writing and simply listened and watched his face….regretting my lack of audio equipment. Each time he spoke about his father there was a passionate respect in his voice. He would glance away and I could see memories pass over his eyes…so many memories of his father because they farmed together for many years and his father clearly was the most influential person in his life. He told me; “My father was a visionary man and he is the only person, who understood the importance of education even if he did not have any education. He could write and read a little bit but not much. He used to tell me to study hard in the school and always worked hard to send me to school.”

Ipoh, Malaysia Gurkha camp where Kisna was stationed. Mahabir lived with his family in the camp as a young child.

In 1960, when Mahabir was three years old, his father moved the family to Malaysia. Mahabir doesn’t remember anything about the journey or those years spent in Malaysia.  According to Mahair’s mother, Purbi Pun, they stayed for three years in a place called Ipoh where his father was stationed as a Gurkha. The journey took weeks and was made by foot, train and steamship. First they traveled by foot from Nangi to Bhairahawa, Nepal which was along the border with India (now called Siddharthanagar, this is the gateway to Lumbini; birth place of Gautama Buddha). From there they traveled by train to Calcutta then onto Singapore by steamship. Ipoh is another 348 miles north of Singapore through the western frontier of Malaysia and this was probably done partly on foot and partly by train.

There are few photographs from Mahabir’s childhood but his younger sister provided their only photograph of Kisna Pun, Mahabir’s father, from his citizenship card. Mahabir and his younger brother, Ratna Pun, visited Ipoh in 2008 to see the army barracks where his father was stationed with the family from 1960 to 1963.

Join me next week and meet Mahabir’s mother, Purbi Pun. I had the honor of meeting her last year during my visit to the Terai. Do you have a memory of moving as a child? Share your experience with your fellow readers….for me, I was born and raised in the same town in northern NJ…something to be said for stability, but makes me wonder whose vagabond genes I inherited.


Chapter One – cont.

A toddler enjoys the comfort and safety of a back sling.

Mahabir told me his early childhood was unremarkable and ordinary. Like all Nepali children he was first carried in a shawl tied to his mother or nestled in a basket transported by his mother using a forehead strap until he was a year or older. The strap, called a namlo, attaches to the basket at both ends, then the mother slips the strap over her head centering it on her forehead before standing and lifting the basket. Babies are padded with layers of rags, organic matter and a shawl is thrown over them. Every once in a while one will protest and a little hand will shoot up batting at the covers, but most are content. Everywhere his mother went he would have been at her side. Babies and toddlers will sit for hours, content in the large baskets nestled among the fields, as they watch their parents cultivate, plant and harvest. I don’t see infants playing with toys in Nepal. It’s as if life is one big playground, they watch, they learn and they start working when they can walk and carry.

Bipen is tucked into his traditional basket by his mother Mina.

During his childhood Mahabir’s extended family would have helped care for him because generations lived under the same roof or nearby. Before the introduction of healthcare workers and midwives, the husband’s mother, grandmother and aunties attended deliveries and guided young mothers. Traditionally, in Magar communities, a husband brings his new wife to live in his parent’s home. The family adds a room onto the home if affordable or simply continues to share a single dwelling…generations melted together for companionship, utility and survival.

A young boy carries firewood using a head strap “namlo” for the household.

Mahabir’s mother, Purbi, was from Ramche and as a young bride she would have left her family and walked the three hours to Nangi. She then became a member of her husband’s family. She would not have traveled home regularly to see her parents or siblings due to her new responsibilities as a wife and daughter-in-law in her new family. Most women only see their families once a year during religious festivals when families travel for the purpose of visiting and celebrating together. Sometimes this can result in abusive conflicts between in-laws but Mahabir does not recall such conflicts between his mother and her in-laws.

Although the number of American households with three or more generations has tripled in the last several years I think it’s a safe bet that most of my readers are not from extended family households. If you were or are from an extended family household please share your stories with your fellow readers. If you are not, then what do you think about the idea? Join me next week and meet Mahabir’s siblings.

Chapter One – cont.

Jitman (left) and Chitra talk about Mahabir’s early life while standing at the old home site.

The land Mahabir’s father cultivated was on the opposite side of a small valley in front of their home. This small valley sweeps down and joins the deepest valley in the world, the Kali Gandaki Gorge. The gorge separates the major Nepali peaks of Dhaulagiri, towering at 26,795 to the west, and Annapurna rising at 26,545 feet to the east. Local villagers simply call these majestic mountains, Himals; which means snow covered mountains.

The majestic peaks have tales to tell of pilgrims trekking to sacred pray sites and mountaineers who risk life and limb to reach their sacred peaks. But the stories of everyday life in Nangi village that molded Mahabir’s early years can be found on the terraced fields and in the modest homes. He watched his parents toil day after day farming their fields with little choice in life other than to grow food to survive. To stand at the old home site and look out at the valley was to see the same mountains and villages Mahabir gazed on as a child and teenager and understand the impact they had on his development. How can you not be inspired to reach for the stars when you have the Himals to help you climb.

Kisna’s terraced fields which are no longer farmed by the family.

One day while visiting the old family home site, Jitman, a life long neighbor to the family, told me a story about Mahabir’s father, Kisna Pun. Jitman stood on the edge of a stone wall and pointed to a ramshackle dwelling and abandoned terraced fields on the hillside opposite the old home site . He told me this was were Mahabir’s father had an old shed-like house and his farmland. That house was torn down and rebuilt many years ago but Jitman said Kisna used to stay there and guard his fields from roving bands of monkeys. I have never seen the common Nepal rhesus macaques monkeys in Nangi over the ten years I have been visiting. I can’t recall anyone complaining about badly mannered, grain stealing monkeys, but apparently fifty years ago they inhabited the area stealing grains and fruits. They are still found in the adjacent Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve which is the only hunting reserve in Nepal.

Do you have a story to tell about where you lived and how it influenced you as an adult? Personally speaking my adulthood preference for rural locations can only be attributed to growing up in smog ridden, traffic choked northern New Jersey. Share your story with your fellow readers and join me next week for more stories about Mahabir Pun.

Mahabir Pun: The Book – Chapter One

I have wondered about the meaning of the name Mahabir and why his parents chose the name. A number of ancestry websites list it as a surname derived from the given name Mahavir. In Sanskrit it comes from “maha” meaning great and from “vira” meaning hero…“Great Hero”. Mahabir would never embrace the term but to many Nepali people and to his admirers around the world he is a hero.

I found the name spelled out in Morse code, Marine flags, bar code and sign language. You should try it sometime…look up your name on Poke My Name According to the website Mahabir is the 21,258th most popular name in the USA. Although we can assume it’s more popular in Nepal and India I haven’t come across any other Nepali men by that name during my travels. One web site ranked it midway popular as a first name choice; a place he shares with the likes of Romeo, Rudolf, Baily, Darryl, Walt and my favorite…Frodo.

From here on out I’ll be writing the book. It’s broken into chapters but I’ll just continue to write blog style…

Chapter One

Mahabir Pun’s original house site is now occupied by a newer dwelling.

In a mud plastered house, protected by a thickly thatched roof, a baby boy named Mahabir Pun was born in January 1953. He was the first of five children birthed by the wife of a subsistence Magar farmer in the Himalayan village of Nangi in western Nepal. A small landlocked nation, Nepal is surrounded by China to the north and India to the south. A diverse nation Nepal was populated over centuries by great migrations from Tibet, India and Central Asia. Like his ancestors this baby spent his early years living in this small village of a few hundred inhabitants guarded by the massive Himalayan Annapurna and Dhaulgari mountains before moving to the Terai region as a young teen. The beat of everyday life thumped around him and drew him into the fabric of the farming community. Yet something different was in store for this boy. Although he walked the same trails as his ancestors his path rocketed into the future and changed the course of an entire country.

Old Nangi Village, childhood home to Mahabir Pun, is located in the lower left corner of the photograph.

Present day Nangi is spread over the top and sides of a wide but steep sided ridge of land, that, along with multiple similar formations, form the mid-hill region of central Nepal. Simply stated Nepal is divided into three topographical regions: the flat tropical Terai region, which lies to the south; the mid hills region which covers about 50% of the country and is known for terraced fields and green landscapes; and the Himalayan region which is home to the highest peaks in the world. It is a country diverse as it’s altitude ranging from 230 feet at Kanchan Kalan to 29028 feet at Mount Everest and it’s inhabitants ranging from humble farmers to the fabled Buddha.

Back in the 1950’s when Mahabir was born his parents lived in what is now known as the old part of Nangi village in the mid hills region of Myagdi District. Carefully terraced fields of corn, millet and wheat surrounded these early homes that were closely clustered for protection and kinship. Like thousands of Nepali villages scattered across the mid hill region of Nepal it clings to the side of the hill just far enough up the side to find suitable land to terrace but not to far from water sources nestled in the high valleys. His father’s land, probably handed down for centuries, was composed of separate plots. Mahabir recalls the land where his home once stood was actually occupied by two homes and shared by multiple family members. I don’t know about you, but I’m finding it hard to imagine exactly which extended family members I would envision co-habitating with if my livelihood depended on it.

I would love to hear your stories…from all around the world. Share memories with your fellow readers about where were you born and an event that characterizes your home life and country. For example, I grew up in north New Jersey….far from the wilds of a country like Nepal, but an empty lot across the street became my Everest for sleigh riding and snow forts during the winter. Join me next week for more of Mahabir Pun and the early years.