From a Nepali Village to Connecticut College and back

28-01-15_UML Sindhuli_0066WS

Nayan Pokhrel substituting the office secretary in the CPN-UML office in Sindhuli.

My excellent Nepali assistant Nayan Pokhrel has quite a life story. He was born in a small village some 180 kilometers east of Kathmandu, in the hills. For Nepalese, hills are anything between 3,000 and 12,000 feet; only above 12,000, they speak of mountains.

Nayan is the youngest of eight kids. He was mainly raised by his mother, as his father was away most of the time, working as an immigrant worker in coal mines in north-eastern India. Village life was just above subsistence level, with hardly a money economy. To spend 20 rupess on instant noodles, candy, the equivalent of 20 dollar cents, he had to walk two hours to the nearest shop. Still, Nayan had a very happy childhood.

He went to elementary school in a very basic government school in his hometown of Teenatan, Sindhuli. In an entrance exam to the nationally renowned Budhanilkantha School in Kathmandu, he did so well that he received a government grant to study from 4th grade through high school (A-levels). So at the age of 10, he went to live in a full boarding school in Kathmandu.

Initially, he felt really homesick. There was no phone connection with the village, all communication went via snail mail which took several weeks to arrive.
In elementary school, his lessons had been in Nepali, so in the beginning, he was struggling with the English language he had to use now. And there were more culture shocks: among them minor ones, such as the proper, daily breakfast; he was overwhelmed by so much focus on extra-curricular activities and sports, discovering new sports like softball, handball, cross country.

Usually, he went home twice a year. To reach his village from where the bus stopped, he had to walk six to eight hours up and down a hill. Occasionally, during the monsoon, when roads were blocked due to flooding and landslides, that became a day and a half walking.

During a gap year, after finishing his A-levels high school, he worked as an editorial intern for Himal Southasian – a famous Nepal-based magazine on Southasia. He applied for several American colleges, and ended up with a full scholarship in Connecticut College, studying international relations and economics.

There, he was in for new surprises, from automatic doors to disciplined traffic and a decent road system. He was struck by the informality: the ease with which he could talk to professors, and how you could show up in shorts and flip-flops to classes. And the idea of an honor code: as students could self-schedule exams at their preferred time, some would take the same exam on different days and supposedly, no one was leaking the questions.

Now in his late twenties, he works in Kathmandu as a freelance writer of journalism and poetry, as a translator and as an editor for Nepal’s first bilingual literary magazine. Occasionally, he teaches a seminar on ‘critical thinking and global perspectives’ at a reputed Business School. And he socializes with writers, photographers, painters, poets, a film maker, journalists – from Nepal and from the US, the UK, France, Germany, New Zealand etc.
The village boy has come a long way.

Nayan is a brilliant young man, and I’m delighted to work with him: he is an excellent fixer, a very pleasant person and we have great discussions about Nepal, the US and life in general.