I have always found it very difficult to regard a single person as ‘My Mentor.’ It is plainly so because a good number of people have helped shape my life’s path at different times, in one way or another. Picking one and composing a panegyric creates an added burden. An advocate of fairness that I am, I will have to craft one for everyone who came around me at different times.
But, come what may, I wish to ramble about four of my cousins. With solid reasons, indeed.
To me, a mentor is someone (i) who I idealize(d) as a person with some imitable merits and tried to follow, (ii) who has made me learn things and change my points of view, (iii) who has helped or inspired me to overcome challenges, and (iv) who has felt happy or proud in my successes and lent me the sense of personal significance. As I write these lines for my cousins, I also have these mentor categories in my mind. But I do not intend to consider any of them in these types. My unintended typology may be implied in the way I identify them.
I was considered one of the three most promising boys – on both my father’s side and mother’s side – with the potential to prosper in education and profession. Among the Kafles that excelled in education, I was next in popular mention to my senior cousins Shekhar Daai and Sandaai (Ek Raj), sons of one of my father’s cousins. The Kafles of our lineage talked about all three of us with some pride because each of us was good at studies and stood first in our classes in our respective places and times. From mother’s side, I was talked of next to my senior cousins Prakash Daai and Dilli Daai, sons of my eldest and second eldest aunts (mother’s sisters), respectively. Both were also brilliant performers in their respective places and times, with Dilli Daai having the record of ‘topping the grades’ wherever he studied.
Shekhar Daai had earned the reputation of being very intelligent, good-looking and gentle. He was one of the most loved and admired kids among the Kafles of our common ancestry. The eldest among the five children of a moderately earning family, he continued his education after SLC giving tuition classes at odd hours and teaching at schools intermittently. He completed Master of Science in Botany from Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu, returned to Biratnagar and, to many relatives’ utter disappointment, landed on a small position in the Gramin Bikash Bank booming in the east during the mid-1990s. Sandaai, Shekhar Daai’s younger brother, was equally popular among the Kafles for being intelligent, good-looking and modest. He also worked odd jobs during his studies, completed Master of Science in Chemistry from Tribhuvan University, and remained in Kathmandu teaching at different higher secondary colleges before co-initiating a private college in 2001.
Prakash Daai was equally good-looking, cheerful, active, loving, and outgoing. He was one of the most admired among the children of my maternal grandmother’s five daughters. He completed Intermediate of Science from a constituent college of Tribhuvan University based in Dharan and went to India to pursue undergraduate in Mechanical Engineering. Back from India, he worked as an engineering consultant in Kathmandu before moving to a flourishing enterprise of veterinary supplies. Dilli Daai was rather shy, silent, gentle, soft-spoken, studious and intelligent. He completed Intermediate of Science from the same institute as Prakash Daai, and moved to Kathmandu for his Bachelor’s studies at Amrit Science College. As soon as he took the final year examinations, he returned to Hasandaha, his home village in Morang, and started teaching at a secondary school. He did Master of Science in Biology later but continued to work at the rural school while taking care of his old parents and raising his own family. He still teaches at a secondary school, now in Damak, Jhapa. He is an epitome of diligence, persistence and sacrifice of life’s potential (It is a pleasant coincidence that the first syllable of ‘diligence’ carries his first name, Dilli.)
I remember Shekhar Daai for a number of reasons. He taught me mathematics and science for some months when I was in grade ten and tutored me during the send-up and SLC examinations. His joining Kalika (the School where I studied grades 1 to 10) was a boon and rescue to our batch that had languished in mediocrity in the absence of good mentors. I learned what an ‘all-rounder’ would be like from the way he could comfortably help us in almost all subjects. He revived in me an interest in mathematics and science, which I had lost because of being deprived of optional math. Later, it was he who encouraged me to go for Master’s studies when I went to apply for a lower position at the Gramin Bikash Bank. In particular, in family gatherings, he talked about my potential and advised me to study ahead, offering to lend support when required. I took him as an idol of persistence and self-reliance, and I was confident I could grow up to his belief in me.
I was not in much communication with Saandai during our school days except for meeting on occasions when he visited our village. But I heard from our common relatives that he marked my school performances during those days and took pride in my being at KU later. I knew him as another embodiment of hard work and progress, as someone to have risen in reasonable prominence despite limited parental support for higher studies. We started communication and made plans to see each other more frequently. But we could never make it.
Prakash Daai inspired me to move further when he knew that I would end my study any moment and get stuck teaching at lower levels. He lent me books while I was struggling with basic mathematics during my intermediate studies. I got all the love and blessings one would get from a senior cousin. While in Kathmandu, we two celebrated Bhai Teeka together at Dhana Didi’s (his sister) place every year until 2011.
Dilli Daai was a guardian and a sponsor during my unsuccessful job hunts in Kathmandu in April-May 1993. Apart from tracking possible placements in the Kathmandu crowd, we went around trying to fix me here or there. Since my qualification then was too little to secure a job of merit, he advised me to go back home, complete my Bachelor’s and return to Kathmandu for Master’s studies. I obeyed him. I returned home, completed Bachelor’s and came to Kathmandu in January 1997, qualified and equipped for more solid opportunities. If I had lingered in the Valley in 1993 ignoring his advice, I would probably not have reached this status today. I would have bumped here and there in Kathmandu’s labyrinths so badly as to lose all zeal for study and professional uplift.
You may not appreciate being compared with your own siblings. I never did. But you surely love being counted among the promising cousins. I always do. I am where I am because I was gathering the motivation to grow amid limited resources where Shekhar Daai and Sandaai from father’s side and Prakash Daai and Dilli Daai from mother’s side were carving their own tracks in education. We were running our races as every fellow who had the motivation for academic and occupational prowess.
All these cousins landed where they were not expected to. Everyone thought a very intelligent and handsome person like Shekhar Daai would end up winning a senior post in government services or acting in cinemas. His younger brother, they thought, would go for a similar career. We thought Prakash Daai would choose to continue engineering, and Dilli Daai stay in Kathmandu and secure a high-paying career somewhere after his Master’s studies. I learned from their lives that life would not necessarily find a linear path just to meet the expectations of your well-meaning kin.
Only Dilli Daai and I frequently meet these days. We talk about families and children when we meet. He stopped after Master’s and focused on teaching and family. I moved on and completed PhD, for the fortune (and obligation) of being at a university.
Shekhar Daai, Sandaai, Prakash Daai and I never meet. Because we cannot meet. I have heard some oldies say that nice folks have very short lives on earth because the almighty likes them so much that he steals them away early enough. Shekhar Daai was crushed by a truck in Kanchanbari in the summer of 1998. He had just been promoted to a senior post and the family were going to believe that he had made the right choice of office. Sandaai was found dead in a swimming pool in Kathmandu around 2003/4 when he had reached the zenith of his career as an educational entrepreneur. Prakash Daai met with a mysterious bike accident in Lalitpur in December 2011 while he was being counted as one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the veterinary sector.
Dilli Daai and I have lingered on earth probably because our progress has been slow and steady and disguised and unappealing, and we are moderately good-looking and modest and less pushy. Who knows! I cannot say anything about what Dilli Daai feels about his position now. I feel rather stripped off the fundamental right of filial guidance, particularly without Prakash Daai and Shekhar Daai. But what is my loss compared to that of their nascent families, who had to swallow their infinitive absence with so much patience and forbearance?
The third tragedy, which snatched one very loving brother from me, shook my notion of career and struggle. It was after this that I stopped making big and distant plans for my life. The annoyance which earlier used to surge at the mention of death dissipated gradually when Prakash Daai left this world. My new sensibility on life’s brevity and mundaneness sought utterance in the following poem titled “Aryaghat Spectacles” I wrote after I returned home from Prakash Daai’s funeral on 30 December 2011:
Golden head of the deity,
Magnificent carvings in old shrines,
Melodious hymns, harmonious rhythms,
Intermittent chants and knells.
Tourists chancing to click the splendid heritage,
Lovebirds strolling to and from the woods,
People busy babbling, sobbing, wailing,
And chocking with grief and smoke;
The splendid, the commonplace,
The old, the young,
The rich, the poor,
The living, and the dead.
Corpses brushing past bystanders,
Corpses washing up in the Bagmati,
Corpses waiting for pyres,
Corpses singeing in lousy fires.
Cremators poking at smoky heaps,
Vagabonds warding off vagabonds,
Drunkards cursing unknown molesters,
Monkeys groaning at trespassers,
Dogs sniffing leftovers,
Flies flying from dirty ground to dead faces,
From dead faces, to living faces;
Thick smoke from half-baked cadavers,
Filthy holy water of the Bagmati.
There you are,
A speck in the spectacle,
Lost in chaos, yet relieved in epiphany
That all worries end here
Singeing with your cadaver;
Your darlings and kinfolks choke with smoke
Oozing from your pyre;
Devotees, priests, tourists, lovebirds, vagabonds,
Drunkards, monkeys, dogs and flies
On their usual errands,
Cremators poking at your remains;
The rush, the wails,
The ritual attendance and nonchalant gossips;
The spectacle is eternal!
There were apparent differences in the contexts in which we four grew. All of them were more privileged during their schooling by being based in the cities – the Kafles in Biratnagar and others in Damak. I was in Tandi, a remote and resource-hungry village in Morang. They studied in relatively richer schools. I did in a toddling secondary school founded largely upon the labor and donation of villagers and their obedient kids. They went to colleges in Biratnagar and Dharan and Kathmandu, and even India. I went to Damak and Urlabari and finally Kathmandu. For me going to college was a sort of rebellion against stagnation and uncertainty because I was in a financially retarding situation. For them, it was a convenient natural transition because they could juggle moderate and good alternatives.
I was obliged to choose economics and geography because my school’s administration showed the inability to appoint a new teacher to teach optional math. If I were allowed to study optional math and science somehow in the ninth grade nine, there would be Shekhar Daai in the tenth. In that case, I would work even harder and secure higher marks in SLC, high enough to qualify for a scholarship in college. That would mean two years added to my professional life. I was in fact detained one year after SLC because of the lack of guidance and financial support and one year after/in Intermediate because I failed Nepal Parichaya in the second year.
My cousins were thriving in science/technology in Dharan, Biratnagar, Kathmandu and Madras, while I was struggling to make myself visible in arts in Damak and Urlabari. A haunting hearsay of those days was that arts would push anyone into oblivion while science or engineering put almost everyone in the limelight. In popular parlance, therefore, I was on the path of disappearance while they were going to glimmer. The desire and determination not to disappear, if not to shine, held me on my faithful track with English literature.
Among the four cousins, Saandai appears to be the least connected with me, with no apparent influence on my growth. But I can’t help giving him some space in my life. Saandai was a hardworking fellow, no doubt. Not pampered but eager to explore his avenues and more responsible after the untimely demise of his brother. How he grew least bothered me, but the mention of my name along with his was both a motivation and a challenge. That I was on the list of promising young Kafles suggested some challenge for my father as well, in the sense of being obliged to help me maintain the image I had earned in the filial circle. If I could not move ahead, it was unfortunate as much on my part as on my father’s. If I lagged much earlier and the other Kafles rose, it would be considered my father’s incompetence to provide me with similar avenues. The fact is their father and my father had grown together as two of the promising Kafles of their time. Theirs was neither more talented nor more fortunate except for having a house in town and earning from irregular clients in the premises of the land revenue office. Father was neither incompetent nor unfortunate, except that he had quit teaching to attend to his extended family and subsequently fallen into the trap of political quandary and financial limitations in the village. The idea of not letting my father down among his relatives was another boost in my pursuit of education in those days.
Rising ‘invisibly’ in the indigent domestic and social settings of Tandi with an awareness of distant imitation was a meaningful adventure and opportunity. Other lads in my village were no source of competition and moral boost. I did not want to outsmart anyone in the given conditions. Education simply had to be among a few priorities our parents had set for my siblings and me. And I was determined to give that priority the optimum justice. I was largely mentored by my lived realities, which included very limited people who took an interest in propelling my optimism.
I still choose to claim that I rose largely on my own. But I have traces of my cousins in my character. I always looked up to them as good, guiding guardians. And that I was one of the top three in both sides has always reminded me of one thing: I would have been devoid of intuition and motivation to struggle and come to this stage if not counted among the promising cousins.