A teacher for the timesThose who left their families and came here to teach a generation of Nepali children deserve a salute
Tuesday was Guru Purnima, the day to remember and celebrate gurus, our teachers. This day is much more significant among Hindus than among any other communities. In the classical Hindu tradition, guru is Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwar, the trinity. This teacher-pupil relationship is sacrosanct in this tradition. Even in the reformist saint tradition, the iconoclast Kabir values gurus more than even Govind because it is the guru who shows the way to god.
But in the Western Christian society that emerged from missionary or even secular convention which stemmed from the Renaissance humanist and 18th-century Enlightenment tradition, a teacher is not put on as high a pedestal. Mentors have a special place in an apprentice’s career but it is the process itself that shapes the outcome rather than the person of the mentor himself or herself. If the process is sound, the product, too, would come out fine. But, as they say, you can take the boy out of the village but you cannot take the village out of the boy. So I went to a nearby Kriya Vedanta Gurukulam today just minutes away from my house in suburban Chicago and sat listening to the saffron-clad swamis of the yoga tradition performing guru-puja, teacher worship, and reflected on the mentors I have had in my own journey from my village in Morang to the American Midwest.
If it is the village that raises a child, it is the contributions of many people in one’s life that helps one successfully navigate the path to knowledge from ignorance, light from darkness, truth from falsehood. Today, I would like to remember one such teacher who inspired me to march ahead in the face of obstacles by constantly encouraging me to do well—a man who was adrift from his own cultural moorings and had adopted another culture, living, marrying and dying in that culture yet upholding the standards of excellence in what he did.
It was in the mid-1970s when I saw a man walking back and forth in our village bazaar. He had daura suruwal-kamiz and a Nepali cap as dress, the cap to cover his balding head perhaps and the rest for convenience. He was said to have come down from Bhojpur in the eastern Nepali hills and was said to be settling in the village bazaar. I was home from my state-subsidised vernacular high school from across the border in India and was merely curious about the man as one would be in that small village bazaar if anybody of any distinction showed up. My father then told me a few days later that I should go and meet him and learn English if I wished. He had done that more than once before. Whenever someone new showed up in the village—a wanderer, a passerby, a Maulwi to teach Urdu/Persian/Arabic to Muslim children or this man from the hills—my father would ask me to meet them. When I went to see him in the abandoned wooden house of a boy named Bishu who would later become my friend, the man introduced himself to me as Adya Prasad Verma. I told him my name and said that my father had met him and had asked me to go to him to learn English.
By way of teaching, he assigned me then, and for years when I was home during summer and winter breaks from school and college in India, chapters from a translation textbook by Rajendra Prasad and I dutifully translated one assignment after another from Hindi into English. I am sure he taught me some grammar too. But what I learned most from him was the value of education itself as a goal worth pursuing for its own sake. He also offered me, without trying, a glimpse of complexity that life could be.
Commitment to teaching
Like elsewhere in Dharan, Bhojpur and Dingla, where he had founded a school and taught figures from prominent Chhetri families, here too he had gathered a handful of local children from settler hill families and tutored them in the morning and/or evening before and after school and on weekends. In later years, he had brought together a group of high school-age students way up in a newly cleared forested area a few miles north of my village where he had bought some land or was given some by the local people. He taught the students all the subjects himself, including Math, English and Science privately and arranged for them to take their high school exams in the hills of Dingla because by then our village high school had collapsed and there was no education after grade five. No matter where he moved, I went to him for the translation lessons.
In the midst of lessons, he would speak of his work in Dharan, Bhojpur and Dingla. He once said he was from Muzaffarpur district in Bihar and had come to Dharan as a teacher. It was a revelation for me. He had learned Nepali, married a Newar woman, and had five children—two girls and three boys. I wanted him to talk more about his life growing up in India but he never did except that he had once visited it with one of his sons. I wanted to know why he left India, why he did not work in Nepali government high schools, why he did not visit his family in India. I also wondered how many people like him came to Nepal in the early days of Nepal’s entry into the modern world to teach Nepali children, especially in the mid- and upper-hills and mountain regions. Even in the short-lived Laxmi high school that I had attended for two years (grades six and seven) in our village, half of the teachers were from India and half from different places in the hills.
Salute their work
Mr Adya Prasad’s life and work expanded my imagination about migration, adaptability to new cultures, estrangement and exile from one’s own culture, devotion to teaching and learning and, above all, inspiration and encouragement as powerful motivational tools of pedagogy. Although I had more than one guru then and later in more than one country, nobody’s life became a lesson as much as Adya Prasad Sir’s and nobody’s life and work touched me as deeply. I wish I had known a little more about his life but he passed away before I was old enough to ask.
So, on this Guru Purnima, I would like to celebrate all the teachers like Adya Prasad Verma who left their families, villages or towns in Bihar, Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere and came to Nepal to teach a generation of Nepali children in the second half of the 20th century and helped build Nepal’s educational infrastructure. Let us remember their lives and salute them and their work.