One of the first books I fully read that wasn’t part of my school curriculum or a fictional story that interested me was ‘Hamro Bagmati Sanskriti’ (Our Bagmati Culture) written by my great-uncle and noted author and culture expert Madan Mohan Mishra. I was 11 years old and was staying at late Mishra’s house for my Hindu sacrament (Bratabandha) when I saw the book on a shelf.
Nothing about the tome particularly stood out to me, yet I still picked it up, perhaps out of childhood intrigue, and began reading. And by the end, my worldview had changed.
The book showed me how Bagmati was so much more than the river and its tributaries. It taught me that Bagmati was made Bagmati by the temples, shelters, Ghats and monuments along its banks.
It gave me a glimpse into the grandeur of our past and provided me with a benchmark to measure our present against. But most importantly, my great-uncle’s 98-page tome gave me the realisation that our civilisation was more than the idols we consecrated and the rituals we carried out.
Over the years, when friends and acquaintances have asked me what got me interested in culture and heritage, I have often cited this incident and credited Mishra, celebrated as the Khyali Ratna (Jewel among Humourists) of Nepal Bhasa literature for his side-splitting satire. And I do stand by that. But upon deeper reflection, I now think it was more of an impetus than a stimulus, a spark for fuel already there.
This is because I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in heritage and history. Perhaps, it was my multicultural upbringing (my father is a Kathmandu native while my mother was born and raised in the Terai), my parents’ deep love for and immense knowledge of their familial roots or both or neither that brought me into this field, I don’t know. I just know that I am, have always been and will continue to be fascinated by our nation’s history, culture and traditions.
But, in all honesty, who isn’t? Over the course of my admittedly short journalistic career, I have found that all of us are curious about who we are, where our ancestors came from, why we live the way we do and what is the meaning of our deities and places of worship.
All of us have, at some point in our lives, wondered about the festivals we celebrate and the reason to celebrate them. Even if to criticise and demand change, we have sought to understand the values that guide our behaviour and compare it with the values of others. Yes, I am interested in culture and, in my observation, so is everyone else.
The thing is, we are not given the resources at schools to pursue these interests. We are taught the bare minimum about ourselves and our history, and even that too lacks context and nuance. Our textbooks teach us about the Dashain in the Nepali month of Ashwin but not about the Dashains of Asar, Poush and Chaitra.
Our students learn about the Lichhavis and Mallas but not about the other ruling dynasties that ruled the numerous states within the present-day borders of Nepal that also did great things and achieved great feats for their kingdoms and peoples.
We were taught to take pride in Sita as the daughter of Mithila and Gautam Buddha as the light of Asia but were given little information on the families they were raised by and the communities they lived in.
In this context, I guess I have to count myself privileged. I had access to knowledge that many others do not have. I had Madan Mohan Mishra as my great-uncle. I have my father to talk to about Patan’s temples and festivals and my mother to ask about the vibrant customs of Terai. I have also been fortunate enough to have met exceptional people who have guided me to the right resources and archives.
I also could not have chosen a better profession. Journalism allows me to meet new people and gain unique insights and then, tell others about them. I get to immerse myself in stories and I get to take others on the ride too.
I am neither a researcher nor an activist. That requires effort, experience and expertise that I do not possess. I am, however, an enthusiast, full of enthusiasm for the heritage around me. I do not know why that is, I just am. The most I can tell you is who helped me act on this passion. I apologise if this has been a self-indulgent piece but this is something I felt I needed to get out.
To tell me, as much as others, what culture means and what got me here.