9 MIN READ
I love the way Dr. Mukta Singh Tamang opens his essay: he paints a picture of writing as a way to clarify thoughts that roam “as indistinct clouds” in our minds. What a great image! What a perfect way to show what writing is: not merely a simple act of jotting on paper pre-formed thoughts but an active act of thinking, of reflecting, of lending shape to ideas. Without that process of critical reflection, we remain stuck in a fog of ill-defined cloudy ideas. Mukta sir puts it simply, “Learn through writing.”
This essay mixes poignant reflections about learning with the down-to-earth, day-to-day trials of an inquisitive boy who grew up in a predominantly Tamang-speaking corner of Nepal’s steep eastern hills. Learning English was not the only barrier Mukta faced, learning Nepali posed a high obstacle too.
Along his journey, we learn of Mukta sir’s wise, inspiring mentors — school teachers and his learned grandfather. His grandfather’s story reminds us of Buddhist traditions of literacy and storytelling. In Nepal, books and storytelling come in many forms. Seeing his grandfather helping community members through reading and writing, Mukta sir writes, “I could feel the power of words.”
I love the image of a young boy practicing his writing in letters to his grandfather. It reminds me of my own beloved grandmother — the only grandparent I knew — a high school science teacher, tireless reader, and supporter of education. I used to write her letters, too, and, in one form or another, I still do.
Mukta sir helps us see the many facets of writing. “Writing is about learning,” he writes. Writing is “a meditative practice focused on exploring.” It’s work, too, “a matter of stamina.” The goal is to “articulate ideas in concise words in a coherent manner.” It is fundamentally about change: “knowledge transformation through critical thinking.”
In a hierarchical society where, as Dor Bahadur Bista explained, knowledge is often deployed as a tool to display status, as a way to push some up and others aside, Mukta calls for us “not to write for the sake of writing or to appear scholarly or knowledgeable.” Write “against the grain,” he says. Write “with conviction and purpose.”
Thank you for sharing your journey, Mukta sir. We are lucky we have crossed paths with you on our own writing journeys.
Mukta S. Tamang, Ph.D., is an anthropologist involved in teaching and research and affiliated with the Central Department of Anthropology at Tribhuvan University. He recently completed a study on the state of social inclusion in Nepal and community disaster resilience. He is currently involved in ethnographic study on social history, political transformation, and mountain hazards.
Writing Journeys appears every Wednesday on The Record. Click here to find all previous installments in the series.
Coming next week: Superduper, Handydandy, Easypeasy Sentences
Learning through writing
I started to learn writing as a way of clarifying and crystallizing thoughts that often roamed as indistinct clouds in my mind. Writing is about learning. It is like a meditative practice focused on exploring and explaining a certain topic. Slowly, as a teacher and researcher, I realized that the ability to articulate ideas concisely and coherently is an essential skill. I believe that writing should be more than a recital of memorized content or knowledge-telling. It should be for knowledge transformation through critical thinking. For me, writing is also an inquiry into the languages used as a medium.
Learning writing was an arduous journey for me. I was born in a village in Kavrepalanchowk district currently in Roshi gaupalika. Tamang is my first language. When I grew up in the late 1960s, everyone around me spoke only Tamang. Everybody in the region, including Newar shopkeepers, Magar and Thakuri householders, and Dalit and Bahun neighbors all spoke Tamang. It was not just a mother tongue, a family language for Tamang families, but also the community lingua-franca. Nepali, meanwhile, was the formal language of the state for government offices and schools.
Luckily, a primary school opened in my area when I was five years old. The school’s first teacher, my father’s mit (ritual friend), Keshab Adhikari from Dapcha, introduced me to Nepali. My parents arranged a room for him at our house. We started classes under a big Banyan tree. This was my entrance into the brave new world of Nepali as a second language. As the school was an hour’s walk away, regular conversations with my first teacher en route to and from the school was an adventurous path to begin a long language journey.
The language shift was challenging. Tamang is a tonal language with slightly different vowel sounds than Nepali. I think I could have learned faster if school education had been in my mother tongue. However, I could not afford to do less; I became able to communicate fairly well in Nepali.
I was sent to Dhulikhel for high school. Dhulikhel was the nearest high school in the 1970s — one and half day’s walk away. Being away from family often made me yearn for my parents and village playmates.
I wrote frequently to my grandfather in Nepali — sometimes to answer his letters and many other times to tell him about my situation and ask his advice. My letters to him were my first practice in writing and in finding words to express myself.
My grandfather had been determined that I should study at a school. Before me, no one in my family had the opportunity to get a formal education. But reading and writing were not new to the family. By his teens, my grandfather took part in ritual recitals of Buddhist scriptures written in Tibetan script. I still remember when he invited a team of Lamas to copy the Prajna Paramita sutra for his collection. I am yet to fully explore his archive.
My grandfather also learned the Devanagari script from his friends. He used this skill to write appeals and letters to help village leaders and relatives defend their interests in Rana courts and offices. I was fortunate to grow up in the positive environment he created for reading and writing, even in the all-pervasive peasant setting. He was an interlocutor between the Tamang and the wider world. Seeing him in public, I could feel the power of words. But my journey of education within schools was entirely different from my grandfather’s educational journey.
In Dhulikhel’s Sanjiwani high school, I did lessons in English — my third language. English turned out to be the hardest for me. I struggled to make meaningful sentences and to understand passages. Until I got to my Bachelors, independent writing in English was almost impossible. I wrote and tore up paragraphs. Our school education was primarily about memorizing things; one could learn very little about how to write.
In Dhulikhel, I lived with my teacher and a great mentor — Gopal Krishna Yagol. His guidance and inspiration convinced me that through persistent effort one can learn new things. I spent five years of my life under his guardianship -- from age 10 to 15. Among many important values that I internalized during this formative period living and learning with him, the most precious ones were perseverance and a positive outlook. Learning writing was also one of them. Writing, as I reflect, is as much a matter of stamina to be sustained as it is a skill to be mastered.
I think reading helped my writing evolve. After high school, I spent two full years in my village. My grandmother and mother worked on the farm growing maize, wheat, vegetables, and raising chickens and animals to feed the family. They endured grueling physical labor. My job was to help them. Whenever necessary, I represented our family at weddings, funerals, and other rituals and festivals. As I was enjoying and getting enmeshed into the indigenous lived world, I almost forgot my school life. But inside, I was slowly feeling despair at the prospect of losing my further education. Amidst this, books kept my inner movement alive and kept me connected with the world of learning.
My uncle Jay Man, who at that time worked in the malaria eradication program in Sindhuli, was a fervent reader. When he came home for the weekend, he would bring books borrowed from the local youth club library for me, mostly short stories and fiction. I liked reading BP Koirala and Parijat. As I began to grasp Hindi, my options expanded. Hindi fiction by Prem Chand and others fascinated me. In addition, I could also read the Russian literature in Hindi abundantly available in the 1980s in Nepal. I found the life of Maxim Gorky and the writing of Fyodor Dostoevsky captivating.
When I received an offer to work as a teacher in a primary school, I left the village and continued my post-school education. At the Bachelor's level, I read classics such as Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, and others. These readings widened my knowledge of the outer world and expanded my vocabulary. Besides the ideas, I could also see how authors composed their writing: their rhetorical strategies, storylines, and ways to substantiate their argument. Based on my experience, I suggest to students that reading can help build a foundation for effective writing.
As I entered into social science, I realized that academic writing demands a plan distinct from other writings. Further, writing in languages that are different from my mother tongue made proficiency in writing challenging for me. In 1998, I received a Fulbright scholarship for graduate study at Cornell University. Before the official program began that fall, I got a wonderful opportunity to learn writing: a summer intensive course on English at Columbia University in New York City. This course helped me to see what common mistakes I was making in grammar and sentence structure. I gradually developed my own style of writing. The skills I learned in this course were precious throughout my Ph.D. studies and beyond.
English is a second language for most Nepali students. For those whose second language is Nepali, English comes third. Those of us who did not go to English medium private schools require extra labor to develop the ability to write in English.
Writing is a journey of learning — learning language, style, and ideas. In this journey, I have been influenced by many great anthropologists and social scientists who write with clarity and grace. I am inclined to pursue untold histories and give voice to subaltern collectives and their memories. My writings are concerned with people on the margin: indigenous peoples, minorities, and other oppressed. I like to explore alternative worldviews, meanings, and practices. As much as possible, I weave together textual analysis and ethnographic work.
When I write, I always ask myself, have I avoided reinforcing hegemony or reproducing the status quo? Language is power — those who control language control representation or misrepresentation of reality, ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’. They define themselves and the ‘other’. Writing to power requires reading against the grain.
In my teaching at Tribhuvan University, I suggest to all aspiring students and writers not to write for the sake of writing or to appear scholarly or knowledgeable. Write with conviction and purpose. Every word and sentence that you write must be meaningful to you. I continue to learn through writing — how to write better and engage in a kind of meta-thinking — thinking on thinking while analyzing one’s writing. With writing, I often recall an inspirational Tibetan verse “gomna labar mi gyur bai, ngoi de gang yang yo ma yin.” It means: “there is not a single thing that does not become easier with practice.”
Tom Robertson Tom Robertson, PhD, is an environmental historian who writes about Kathmandu and Nepali history. His Nepali-language video series on writing, 'Mitho Lekhai', is available on Youtube. His most recent article, 'No smoke without fire in Kathmandu’, appeared on March 5 in Nepali Times.
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