Chapter Two – The Early Years (cont.)

Flower stalls, such as this one at Pashupatinath Hindu Temple, would have been a common sight in Kathmandu when Mahabir was a young student.

After Mahabir completed the 10th grade he was sent to Kathmandu in 1971 to continue his education. During this period of evolving Nepal education the 11th and 12th grades were considered college level studies but there were no colleges in the Terai region where he lived. His father did not have the money to send him to school so Mahabir’s father applied for a scholarship from the Indian Army. As a retired Gurkha his children were eligible for educational scholarships. Most retired Nepali Gurkhas were unable to navigate the mine-field of paper work required to apply, but a family friend helped him compete and submit the application. Mahabir did not name this man but I could see he was greateful for the assistance. Mahabir is a humble man and he knows along every step of his journey many hands have reached out to guide him. Some of the encounters are brief and others last from the time of the first meeting, such as Dr. Leonard Skov who you will meet later in the story.

Boudhanath Buddhist Stupa.

Mahabir received a scholarship of 75 rupees/month….roughly one US dollar. That’s one dollar…for a month. Better than nothing but still hard for me to wrap my head around the value. Back then a dollar bought a good bit of rice and lentils, but how did any student live on one dollar when they needed books, paper, pencils, clothes, room and board. Knowing Mahabir I’ll assume the clothing, room and board were not an issue. Even now he wears the same clothes day in and day out because he gives no thought to style and he lives a spartan life with few possessions in the modest home of a relative. He would have walked everywhere as a young student in Kathmandu and his most useful school tool would have been his mind. Mahabir never squandered his time in school and lack of financial resources did not hinder his growth.

Kathmandu back then was smaller, less hectic and filled with western flower-power hippies seeking a simpler life, but it must have been a huge change in life-styles from the country-side of his youth. Have you ever moved from the country to the city? Share your experience by leaving a comment. Return next week and read how Mahabir used his education after leaving Kathmandu to help his siblings.

Chapter Two – The Early Years (cont.)

Looking northwest from Pokhara to Mt. Machapuchare in the Annapurna Himals. Nangi lies on the other side of this mountain locally known as “Fishtail”.

When Mahabir Pun was 14 years old his father, Kisna, moved him to the Terai region of Nepal so Mahabir could attend the 9th and 10th grades. The year was 1969. It was out of the question to have sent him to a boarding school in Pokhara due to costs. Kisna would have to pay a monthly fee for the 9th and 10th grades because the Nepal government only supported education until the 5th grade. It was all he could afford. Pokhara would have been closer and allowed Kisna to continue farming his Nangi lands, but there were no relatives in Pokhara at that time and he would depend on his Terai relatives for housing and work. This is why only Kisna and Mahabir went; the rest of the family followed two years later. It was a huge sacrifice to leave his family lands and start anew…to leave his family once again must have been a difficult decision. It is also a tribute to the strength of his mother, Purbi.

The Terai is the southern most part of Nepal; the plains are as flat as the mountains Mahabir grew up in are high. This land was once a great forest but lumber was harvested in the 1800s for the railroad industry. During the 1960s malaria was eradicated using DDT and the area became the equivalent of the American frontier back in the 1800s. Even now it is reported as the most productive region of Nepal with agriculture as the backbone supporting industries such as tobacco factories and rice mills. During the 1960s farmers from the mid-hill regions came in search of better land for their animal stock and crops. They found the flat plains more fertile and easier to farm then the narrow terraced fields of the mid-hills.

Buddhist prayer flags. West of the Chitwan area is the birthplace of Buddha in Lumbini, twenty-five hundred years ago.

Mahabir recalls walking from Nangi to the Terai region with his father. I know it takes two days to walk from just Nangi to Pokhara and six hours by bus from Pokhara to the Terai. He said they walked for days, but according to Nepali custom they had only to knock on a door and ask a stranger for shelter and a meal along the way. Arriving in the Chitwan area, which is the central Terai, they lived with relatives. Mahabir attended school and helped his father farm. He told me there were trained teachers, not just local volunteers, who taught in the schools and he used textbooks for the first time. Two years later at age sixteen he completed his studies only to be packed off to Kathmandu and what was then called college by a father who would not pause his quest to educate his children.

Do you have a memory of moving and/or changing schools to tell your fellow readers? Share your stories and comments by clicking on the comment bubble in the upper right hand corner of this blog entry. I can still recall sitting in my first college class at age 29. 18-year-old students who were debating the best way to get drunk surrounded me. I knew the best way to get spit-up stains out of a blouse but I didn’t think they would be interested….or maybe they would be after a night of drinking. Join me next week and read about Mahabir Pun’s high school days in Kathmandu.

Chapter Two -The Early Years in Nangi (cont.)

During the 1960’s when Mahabir was attending grammar school there was a shift in the Nepali government’s involvement in education. Consider; the first school opened in the 1850s and was only attended by the high-ranking Rana ruling class children. Over the next century as Nepal was moved towards Democracy by the Rana regime, specifically in the 1950s, students from all societal classes began to attend schools in Kathmandu and other cities. However, progress in rural areas was much slower as there was little government support for schools and education in rural Nepal, which represented a significant portion of the population at that time. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that the government started in earnest to provide free education in the form of building more schools, providing teachers and textbooks all over Nepal. This was known as the “New Education Plan”. Students received free services up to the 5th grade. Students who could afford the nominal fees stayed for 6th to 8th grade. School was not mandatory so the poorest of poor often didn’t attend because they needed to work the fields or if they did, it was only to the 5th grade.

Himanchal Higher Education School students being called to formation exercises before class by the beating of a drum. The exercise prepares students mentally for a day of studies. In the background are classrooms and the science center.

Kisna’s insistence that his son, Mahabir Pun, attend school indicates he had phenomenal foresight and perhaps premonitions of his son’s talents. Mahabir studied in Nangi up to the 7th grade. He recalls an important event during 7th grade when a government inspector came to review the school. It was a solemn occasion with much pomp and circumstance. Actually I cannot recall any school event in Nangi that was not accompanied by formality and a sense of grandeur, as is the Nepali way. It makes any occasion quite memorable, building a consciousness of unity and importance to all involved as illustrated by the start of each school day with drumming.

Life is still hard by world standards for students in Nangi as depicted in this photograph of a 12th grade student carrying water back to his one room hut.

Even though his father thought education was important, Mahabir was first a farmer’s son. When Mahabir talked about his early school years in Nangi he said, “mostly we just spend some extra time in the school…mostly we worked in the fields and lived with the cattle and the sheep that we took to the forest for grazing.” “There was no homework because no pencils or paper to work on.”  I found it peculiar that although his father could read and write he did not teach Mahabir himself. Perhaps he did not have the time or feared his intelligent son would soon outstrip his own knowledge.

Mahabir then attended 8th grade in a near-by village called Mallai but by the late 1960’s he had exhausted all the available education in his small village. His father wanted him to attend what was then known as high school, 9th and 10th grade. This would require a major move for the family…not an easy task for a Nepali subsistence farmer. What would you do if you were Kisna? Share your thoughts by clicking on the comment bubble in the upper right hand corner of this blog entry. Join me next week to see how Kisna continued his quest for his son’s education.

Chapter Two – The Early Years in Nangi

You have read about two of the most influential people in Mahabir Pun’s life, his parents Kisna and Purbi. Visualize them always in the background of this young boy’s life as you read more about his early educational years in Nangi.

All that remains of the original one story school is a few stones and a flattened grassy area that cradles the memories and promises of a brighter future. The building was dismantled and the materials used to build the present school before Mahabir returned to Nangi.

Mahabir attended school as a young child, his father insisted on it, but school back in the 1950’s and 1960’s was a loose affair. According to Mahabir most villages did not have schools. You didn’t need a building to have a school; you just needed someone who would volunteer to teach. If no one took the initiative there was no schooling. Nangi and Ramche, the neighboring village, had schools.                                                                                     In Nangi there was a small one story building on the hill just above his home that served as the “school”. There were no formally trained teachers. According to Mahabir, community members who could read, write and speak English volunteered their time to teach in the schools. Village elders, mostly retired Gurkhas, taught the basics of reading, writing, mathematics and science.  This building was used only during the summer. He could walk to the school easily during the summer yet be available for working in the fields when needed. One year they decided to run the school from 6-9 pm at night so during the day the children could work in the fields cultivating and harvesting the main crops of potato, corn, millet and barley along with their parents. During the winter he walked two hours to the Ramche valley and sat on the ground for school because they had no building.

Part of the early Himanchal Higher Education School built from the reclaimed original one room schoolhouse. You are looking at the 5th grade classroom to the left, office and teachers meeting room on the right.

Mahabir told me: “in a sense it was a school but not a real school because there were no books, no textbooks, no pencils or paper…informal we learned.” Using charcoal from the cooking fires he would rub a wooden board with the blackened chunks to create a sort of blackboard. Then with a soft white stone he would write on the board to practice his vocabulary and numbers. Everyday he would need to coat the board with a new layer of charcoal powder. The stone he used to write with was soft and like talc, almost like chalk. He and his classmates would have to walk a half-day to a large rock in the mountains near Basanat Village and harvest chunks of the white rock.                                                                       My research leads me to believe this is a type of mineral called talc which is found in the Himalayas. It is the softest known mineral and we know it as talcum powder but it does have a slightly greasy characteristic which would hold up for writing.

Mahabir learned in the only environment he knew but what would happen to modern day school children if you not only took away their electronic devices but also their paper, crayons, chalk, pencils, pens, textbooks…if all they had to learn was their eyes, ears and minds to listen and think? Share your comments with the rest of your fellow readers by clicking on the speech bubble in the upper right corner of this post. I’m really interested to hear what educators have to say. Come back next week and read about Mahabir Pun’s grammar school days.