Words have power, everybody should get their shareBhairab Risal, the 90-year-old veteran journalist, critic and activist, is a humble man. Even when you are seated in his living room, looking at the many framed awards that cover two adjacent walls, he doesn’t really entertain the idea of talking about them.
Bhairab Risal, the 90-year-old veteran journalist, critic and activist, is a humble man. Even when you are seated in his living room, looking at the many framed awards that cover two adjacent walls, he doesn’t really entertain the idea of talking about them. Instead, he would rather talk about the Helium-3 fusion fuel and Stephen Hawking. When you ask him for his bibliography to ensure that you don’t get the facts wrong, he demands that you write about whatever you remember of the conversation. Risal doesn’t like to be called ‘sir’, ‘baa’, or ‘uncle’; if you want to get through to him, you need to get used to calling him Bhairab Dai. In this conversation with the Post’s Abha Dhital, Bhairab Dai talks about an era when opportunities were limited, about why he thinks education is powerful and how he rose above adversity to become who he is today. Excerpts:
Why ‘Bhairab Dai’?
I haven’t been able to decode the underlying psychology behind why I like to be called Bhairab Dai myself. Perhaps, it started because I wanted to feel younger than I actually was. Eventually, it just became a part of my identity. Even my own children call me that.
You have dedicated your life to working towards and writing about social justice issues. What pushed you in that direction?
A personal loss and the socio-political environment I grew up in. I was born and raised in poverty. I was very young when I lost my mother. And when my father re-married, his new wife was only four years older than me. Can you imagine what it must have been like? It just didn’t feel right that a young girl was brought in to look after the family. It was also a time when Nepal was still under the Rana Regime. There was a huge divide between the rich and the poor, between the rulers and the ruled. It was a time when nobody uttered a word against the injustices, and how would they? There wasn’t enough education or awareness. I had realised early on in life that the only way to lead a better, dignified life was through advocating and working for social justice.
You are a well-read man. How did you acquire education against all odds?
I used to live in a village called Tithali in Gundu, on the outskirts of Kathmandu. The closest schools, three in total, were miles away. One was in Lubhu and we had to cross a river to get there; the other two were in Thimi and Bhaktapur, which was just unreasonably far from where I lived. Fortunately, my father moved our family to Dadhikot which was very close to Lubhu and I got the opportunity to get the first taste of education.
Now you have to understand that these schools were not the kind that taught English, Science, and Math. Back then, the common folks only had access, if at all, to Pathshalas, which taught only Sanskrit. So I did my schooling in Lubhu Bhasa Pathshala till grade seven, then enrolled at the Ranipokhari Sanskrit Pathshala in grade 8, and I got admission into Teendhara Pakashala. A Pakashala was different from a Pathshala because it was a residential school with free food and accommodation. The education was free and so were two pairs of clothes every year. It’s a funny story how I got into the Pakashala.
Do you mind sharing the funny story?
Like I said, Nepal was still under the Rana Regime. As a penance for their misdeeds, the Ranas were suggested to open up a school where they provided free education to 108 Brahmin boys. Hence, Teendhara Pakashala was founded. The funny thing is the Ranas thought they were emancipating themselves from sin. What they didn’t know was they were paving the path to be ousted. The very Pakashala was also raising rebels that would eventually start the anti-Rana Jayantu Sanskritam Movement.
So how did you move from Sanskrit to journalism?
Back then it was very important to have a clear record to acquire a government job. Because I had already signed up for the communist party, I was denied any and every job I ever applied for. I became a journalist because it was the only way I could be me and practice free speech. I was 28 years old when I landed my first job as a journalist at Haalkhabar Patrika.
Sadhulai Suli is one of your most acclaimed works. Can you tell us about its conception?
I am a socio-political critic, and a very vocal one at that. Back in my heyday, I wrote a critique called Asiali Maapdanda: Mantri ko thagi khaane bhaado about a committee that was supposedly working towards developing Nepal to meet the overall Asian standards. I was obviously on the law’s radar. I was jailed for 10 months. Sadhulai Suli is a result of the time I served in jail and talks about how it’s so easy for the state to punish those who speak out while the real criminals roam free.
What other works do you cherish?
Back then letters were the way to communicate with loved ones who lived far away. We used to exchange a lot of letters; between husband and wife, and between friends. Thanks to my friend Anand Dev Bhatta, who had asked me to save all these letters, a book came out of it: Logne, Swasni, ra kehi Sathiharuko Chitthi.
I also used to run a show called Uhile Bajeko Palama for Sagarmatha FM. It was a way of bringing out unwritten history to the surface. Perhaps, because I have lived to see this world for 90 years, I really value oral history. There are so many undocumented stories that have defined our lives today. For example, one episode talked about the time when Brahmin daughter-in-laws were only allowed in the kitchen with a mere dhoti wrapped around their body, regardless of how cold it was. Thanks to a cold winter night when it snowed for the first time in forever, the elders agreed to allow the women to wear cholos to the kitchen. After we got hold of a good chunk of such stories, we published an anthology of the same name.
Is it true that at a time where traditional gender roles were strongly rooted, you decided to stay home and look after your children while your wife completed her education?
I was ill with tuberculosis for a long time. I needed to take vaccine shots every single day. A compounder visited the house to give me the shots. If I missed one shot, I would have to restart the course again. It was both tedious and scary. One day, as I watched the compounder ready the syringe, I thought ‘Hey, that looks simple; I bet my wife can do this too’. Back then one only needed to graduate grade eight to enrol for an Assistant Nurse and Midwife course. My wife was educated and with me down with the disease, we figured we could use some medical help in the family. Hence, I looked after my children while she gradually completed her education. She even went abroad on a WHO scholarship. Today, she is a retired Senior Public Health Nurse. I am very proud.
You are also an advocate for literacy beyond your home. Why is it so important for you?
Words have power. Everybody should get their share of that power. That’s it, simple.
In your observation, how evolved or different is the younger generation from your own? How much has the society transformed?
We have come a long way. Unfortunately, no matter what generation you belong to, the good people are always few and far in between. And as far as the bad people are concerned, the generation before is to be equally blamed for how the kids have turned out. I personally feel like my generation was incapable of loving fully, or showing love to our children. As a result, the children are distant, disconnected and a little lost. The generation after them on the other hand might have been pampered with all the love that their parents never got.
The younger generation is a capable lot, but they just don’t have enough patience. They are always in a hurry and in the process of getting from point A to B; they are missing out on a lot.
You have been through a lot in life, yet you’re known for your vivacity. What keeps you inspired, what keeps you positive?
I believe in walking towards the light. No matter how dark a place you might be in, you have to aspire for the light. You have to believe that the new day brings with it a new opportunity to start over.