Always Have Dreams and Keep Following until You Achieve Them: Jiba Lamichhane

In conversation with Uday Adhikari

[Jiba Lamichhane, a resident of Padampur, Chitwan is a renowned businessman, entrepreneur and industrialist. Alongside business, he is also a writer of high repute. His fame as a writer rests in his two travel accounts: Sarsarti Sansar and Desh Deshawar. As a literary enthusiast and activist, he has sponsored the English translation and publication of many works of Nepali literature including poems, essays and short stories, and has managed international tours of Nepali many writers of high repute. Founder of Khemlal Hari Kala Foundation, he has been awarding Padmashree Samman and Pursaksar to writers and books of high acclaim every year. He has also been awarding people with commendation social contribution. Uday Adhikari has had a detailed conversation with author-cum-industrialist Lamichhane. Presented herewith is the edited excerpt of the interview.]

During one of Padma Shree award distribution ceremonies, you briefly shared your experience of crossing the flooded Rapati River in your village Padampur – a story which changed your life forever. Please tell us more about the experience and how it transpired.

The morning of September 20, 1986 is the most memorable day of my life. Despite taking place over 35 years ago, I still remember this time as if the event took place yesterday. For me, this was arguably the most important and riskiest moment of my life. Before delving deeper into how the day unfolded, I would like to first provide some background information.

I was 20 years old then. After finishing my high school education and briefly serving in the Small Farmers Development Project under the Agricultural Development Bank, I applied for a university scholarship in the Soviet Union through the Ministry of Education. Upon acceptance into the university program, I traveled to my home village of Padampur, Chitwan to bid farewell to my family members, and receive their blessings.

I stayed home for just two nights before I had to return to Kathmandu in order to catch my flight to Moscow on time. However, it just so happened that on the same day I was set to travel to Kathmandu, the Rapati River had accumulated dangerous flood due to heavy overnight rain. I recall many of the villagers claiming they had never seen a flood of such magnitude ever in their lives. Unfortunately for me, crossing the Rapati was the one and only way I could get to Kathmandu and catch my flight to Moscow on time. This meant that my future was at stake if I did not cross that river. I absolutely had to cross it- but who would help me do such a thing? As I pondered over this thought, I wave of grief overcame me as I realized all my hopes and dreams were potentially about to go up in flames.

Fortunately, our old family friend Channu Dai, who was a skilled boatman, felt pity for me and courageously agreed to take me across the river. My mother cried as she tried her best to convince me not to go. Meanwhile, my father insisted that he would come with me even as I pleaded with him not to. He was adamant when he told me “Chhora, you have the brightest future of anybody I know and yet this is how you choose to go. If that is the case then so be it, but know that I will come with you.” I have never forgotten those words – only the power of parental love could be strong enough to compel even the most rational person I knew to cross that river with me.

With much hesitation, we decided to put our lives in the hands of Channu Dai and boarded his tiny wooden boat. The river roared like an angry elephant as the waves carried us, getting worse and worse the further we traveled. The boat seemed to have no control over its movements and we were at the complete mercy of the river. My father and I held each other as tightly as possible, determined not to be separated as long as we remained alive. Even though we were drenched by the waves, we were so scared that not a word came out of our mouths. As we got closer and closer to the other side of the river, we saw hundreds of people standing on the bank eagerly hoping we would make it. To everyone’s great relief, we eventually reached the shore and made it out alive. To this day, I am both surprised and grateful that we survived this treacherous journey.

My father and I did not speak much even after crossing the river and while traveling to Kathmandu. There was a major conflict going on in my mind about whether the stubborn decision I had made was the right one. I realize today that no matter what had happened that day, the decision I took shaped the future of our family.

Are there any interesting childhood memories that you would like to share with the Nepalese Diaspora? What was village life like at the time and what difficulties did you face? 

I recall many memories of my childhood having grown up in a large family in the Nepali countryside like many other countrymen at the time.

For instance, I remember one time when I was seven years old, I returned home early from school because there was a Teej celebration going on at home that I did not want to miss. Seeing me return early from school, my father brought out his cane and beat me repeatedly. While I was badly hurt and obviously did not appreciate my treatment at the time, my sense of discipline grew ever since that day and has never declined. Strangely enough, (and of course there are far more humane methods to instill discipline in children) I personally almost feel glad that my father instilled this discipline in me because I know that without it, I may never have pursued my education to the extent that I did.

I consider myself fortunate enough to have parents who valued education. While my mother was unable to read, (I do not want to use the harsh term “illiterate” here), my father could read and he clearly understood the value of education, even though he did not receive much of one himself. My parents (usually my father) always encouraged my studious habits and looking back, I am immensely grateful for everything they provided for me and my siblings.

Life was not easy those days compared to today, but I cannot say that it was miserable. From a young age I used to help my parents and my siblings on the farm. During holidays, when I wasn’t in school, I used to graze cattle, harvest crops and often read books that lay in my hands. Frankly speaking, out of all these activities, I only really enjoyed the latter. Farming was extremely taxing on the body, especially in the scorching heat in Chitwan while reading allowed me to sharpen my mind and learn more about what this world has to offer.

This perspective was certainly an anomaly as most people in my village tended to engage themselves with farming more than reading and there was little drive to pursue education beyond middle school. Most people dropped out of school after learning basic reading and writing to join their families in taking care of their farms.

Despite the laborious work with which I engaged in from an early age, my life was not too different from that of my fellow villagers. I would eat two meals a day and had the privilege of eating meat once a month. Some of my less fortunate peers did not have this same luxury and I distinctly recall them telling me about it on multiple occasions.

Many years back when I started reading translated foreign literature, especially Russian literature in Hindi, I found your name associated with these translations. You made a huge personal effort to translate Nepali literature into English, investing your time, money, and effort into this much needed but often neglected area. What led you to embark on this project? Could you share more about your work in this field?

Back when I started this project, I realized that Nepali literature could not become truly global if it didn’t have quality translations into other languages. Unfortunately, while there are many world-class Nepali compositions in Nepali literature, there has been little interest and investment from the state or the private sector to bring this literature to the eyes of the world. I felt that high quality work from authors such as BP Koirala, Parijat, Shankar Lamichhane, and Laxmi Prasad Devkota could and should be translated and shared at the global level.

Therefore, in 1998 I undertook a project to translate Nepali poetry into English and bring it to the attention of readers around the globe. At that time, the project involved translating the works of 25 poets, from Mahakavi Lakshmi Prasad Devkota to Dinesh Adhikari, into English. The work was eventually published and titled Selected Nepali Poems. Around the year 2000, with the help of translator Rabin Sharma, I also helped translate lyrical poems into English and publish them under the name Selected Nepali Lyrical Poems. Moreover, in 2005, we published a collection of essays titled Selected Nepali Essays, translated by Prof. Dr. Govindraj Bhattarai. Dr.  Banira Giri’s famous novel Karagar was translated by a native English speaking translator named Anne Hunkins and published in 2007. In 2021, we published Selected Nepali Short Stories, a collection of 25 masterpieces of the genre translated by Mahesh Paudyal. Separately, we also successfully translated a number of Nepali works into Russian and vice versa.

The Non-Resident Nepali Association has done much work towards globalizing Nepali literature. The Nepali community has been engaged in the promotion of Nepali literature around the world through the NRNA’s Literary Language and Heritage Promotion Committee. The association is also working with the Nepal Academy in this effort.  Recently, some 200 poems by different poets have been translated into the English language. The NRNA has also held literary programs in various places.

Despite this abovementioned progress, I still believe the process of translating Nepali works has been slow when considering the sheer amount of quality Nepali literature which exists out there. There is much work to be done. I believe I have much more to contribute when it comes to this endeavor, and thus plan to resume translation projects soon.

You went to the USSR as an adult without any prior exposure to Russian culture, Russian language, or Russian traditions. Please share with us your transition into life in the Soviet Union.

The circumstances that led me to the Soviet Union started long before I departed on my flight to Moscow.

I was known as a studious boy at my high school in my hometown in Chitwan. After completing my SLC receiving my School Leaving Certificate board exam results, I went to the capital, Kathmandu, to join an engineering college in Pulchowk, Patan. I achieved distinction honors in my two-year pre-engineering course but seeing as there were not many opportunities for higher education in technical subjects in Nepal at the time, I had to broaden my geographic horizons.

I knew at the time that the USSR supported developing countries through several practices, including building infrastructure such as roads and hospitals. The one practice that stood out to me was the USSR’s policy of granting merit scholarships to foreign students who aimed to pursue their higher education and eventually become skilled professionals. I applied for this merit scholarship and in 1986 I was lucky enough to receive a government scholarship to study in the USSR.

With just 150 US dollars in my pocket that I had received from my father, I departed on my flight to Moscow, Russia. It was not easy adjusting to this completely new environment, and I learned a lot in the subsequent months. To illustrate just how steep my learning curve was at that time, allow me to recall an anecdote: during my first flight arriving in Moscow, I remember receiving the food from the air hostess and before I proceeded to eat, I decided to just wait. I waited until the passenger next to me would start his meal first before I would start mine. The reason for my waiting was not out of politeness as a Westerner might assume, but rather because I wanted to simply observe the eating habits of the passenger next to me. I quietly observed small details of how the passenger would eat— this ranged from the way he would grab his fork with his left hand and his knife with his right, to the observation that the large spoon is to be used for dessert and the small spoon for tea. To me, all these eating habits were completely foreign as I was used to just eating with my hands in Nepal. Considering this was my starting point before even entering the country, I realized I had a lot left to learn about this new land and was excited about what more I would learn over the coming months.

Books must have had a special place in your life that helped you shape what you are today. Please tell us about any specific books that left a special impression. Please mention a few books including foreign ones and explain why you like them.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – This book completely altered my understanding of some of the most prevalent concepts which permeate human societies, ranging from religion, to economics and money, to even human rights. By breaking down these ideas of shared imaginations, Harari details how we Homo Sapiens developed such concepts in order to ultimately outcompete not just other animals but also other forms of humans who used to walk our Earth just a few thousand years ago. This book made me truly understand that the likely reason Homo Sapiens dominate the planet today is far from us simply having “larger brains”, as is typically thought to be the case. It has also made me far more appreciative of the complex societal structures and forms of communication which we take for granted every single day.

Long Walk to Freedom – Every page of this autobiography reveals Nelson Mandela’s patience, knowledge, and humanitarian spirit.  In the book, he vividly depicts the sorrows and pains he experienced during the anti-apartheid campaign, the activities of the African National Congress, and his long time in prison. As an ambassador of the traditional South African tribes, he was a threat to the white supremacist government.  Even though he had to spend 27 years in prison as a result, he never wavered from speaking in favor of the oppressed.  He was accused of sabotage, treason, and violent conspiracies against the South African government.  After his release from prison, he earned great respect and was known as a moral leader.  The tolerance he showed even towards the same white people who tortured him made him a great politician and statesman.  As a symbol of power in the struggle for human rights and racial equality, Mandela succeeded in becoming the first black president of South Africa.  This book by Mandela, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his relentless struggle for inclusive democracy and peace, is not only a personal story, but also an official document of the anti-apartheid movement and documents the society and culture of the time.

Zero to One – This non-fiction book by former Paypal founder Peter Thiel is a must-read for anyone interested in entrepreneurship, business strategy, or innovation. Thiel’s unique perspective and practical advice make this book a valuable resource for aspiring entrepreneurs and seasoned business leaders alike. Thiel’s positive take on the idea of a monopoly may sound baffling and controversial at first, but his thought-provoking argument for why monopolies are not only helpful for innovative businesspeople but also for society is one worth hearing out. I personally try to incorporate some lessons from this book in my own professional career, especially when it comes to scaling a business.

The Good Earth – The novel The Good Earth, by Pearl Buck is a biography of Wanglung, a Chinese farmer from a hundred years ago.  This character is a true reflection of the world’s farmers.  This novel describes the social, economic and political environment of China at a time when countries such as Britain and America had commercial dominance and influence over the country.  China was sharply divided into the elites on one side and the proletariat (working class) on the other.  The vast majority of people were under the rule of a few elites and the gap between the rich and the poor was increasing further. Wanglung represents a feudal character living among the rich. He is a Karma Yogi who eventually joins a rich family’s estate. An important theme in the story is his love and struggle with Susare Olan, a rich woman.  Wanglung, who has no parents, fights his poverty day and night.  He is devoted to agriculture and has a deep love for the soil.  Wanglung eventually becomes rich through constant hard work but is overcome by the evils of money. He falls into the company of the wrong woman, choosing a servant over his wife. He neglects Olan even though she supports him when he is in dire straits, having fallen into a gambling addiction.  Wanglung’s masculinity prevails over Olan, who digests all hardships like the earth and eventually dies. On top of all this, his family members deceive him too. Little by little he has to bear a mountain of unimaginable sorrow. From Wanglung’s life journey we learn the lesson that history and struggles should never be forgotten.  The Good Earth was banned during the Chinese Revolution on the charge of supporting American imperialism.

Seto Dharti – Set in a white land, this book creates a sharp satire on social evils such as child marriage. This novel written by Amar Neupane is based on the real life story of Tara Ammi who was widowed in her childhood and living her life in Devghat.  Neupane’s writing is a dense mixture of simplicity and imagination and provides a glimpse of philosophical sentiments.  Tara, who was married at the age of seven and became a widow at the age of nine, does not know much about family life.  The novel depicts the hardships and rejection of society that child mothers and widows have to bear.  Being widowed staying with her in-laws, witnessing the death of her mother, getting married off by her father at an old age, observing her stepmother’s hurtful behavior, and finally spending time in Devghat are among the many ups and downs of Tara’s life.

While widowed, Tara’s sexual desire flare up and she has secret imaginary relations with men.  It seems that the novel is trying to spread the philosophical message that physical purity may not always be what it seems and may not have much meaning. The events described in the story may seem imaginary or from a bygone era to the new generation of readers but White Earth should almost be considered a historical report to understand the injustice, oppression and pain inflicted on women by the then patriarchal society. It therefore has great value even today.

The Mahabharata – I developed a habit of reading this ancient epic during my childhood, when reading materials other than textbooks were not readily available. As my dad was very spiritual and religious man, he had a wonderful collection of legendary religious scriptures like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The words and melody of the verses in the former book had a great influence on me as I used to read those scriptures by myself when my father was away. Its themes of love and hatred, good and evil, family relations, karma, and dharma continue to resonate with readers even today. The book’s purpose is to teach the four goals of life as per the Hindu sanatan tradition, and it contains battles, major incidents, and family intrigues with many surprising twists and turns. These, along with its diverse range of characters, including kings, sages, demons, and gods, teaches readers the four goals of life as per the Hindu sanatan tradition: karma, artha, dharma, and moksha. I believe Shashi Tharoor’s quote still stands true to this day – “What is in Mahabharat is everywhere, what is not there is nowhere.” I indeed have also found throughout my daily life that many situations are analogous to certain tales within the Mahabharat.

What motivates you on a day-to-day basis? How do you motivate others who aren’t close to you and how do you help them understand your vision? Which specific qualities of your own do you consider attributive to your entrepreneurial success?

I am motivated first and foremost by my duty to provide for my family and the people that have supported me─ my community members in Chitwan and my fellow Nepali countrymen.

My advice is to always do the things that you fully enjoy. If you do these things with honesty and full dedication, then your definition of success will become reality. Always have dreams and keep following them until you achieve them.  I was able to rapidly expand my business despite with just a limited amount of seed capital at the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey. Contrary to what a lot of people may say, I have experienced that luck is not the only factor when it comes to business success, far from it. I believe opportunity is all around us; we just have to be brave and reasonable enough to both see, and act on it. For those in dire situations it may be extremely difficult to see this opportunity, but I genuinely think it exists among each of us 8 billion humans as long as one is patient and able to think long-term. After all, it could have been easy for me to deny the existence of opportunity and stop furthering my education after middle school to join the sizable number of my fellow village peers engaged in full-time farming. However, I chose a different path and only after many years did the ‘click’ finally happen which allowed me to capitalize on an opportunity I saw. Once I started capitalizing on the opportunity, I noticed three key traits that were crucial for me and my groups to continue entrepreneurial success: honesty, hard work and dedication. It is important to note that from my observations being “smart” has been far less important than these three traits.

The trait of honesty worked in my business’ favor when we worked honestly with our suppliers. We proved ourselves to be trustworthy by communicating honestly with them, paying them on time, and showing mutual respect. These factors established mutual trust and was further strengthened by the next element: hard work. We put in the hours to figure out logistics. We worked tirelessly by cold-calling (and mostly getting rejected by) different potential suppliers. We made sure our customers left their interactions with us with a sense of satisfaction every time. The final element, dedication, proved useful during times of uncertainty. The Russian currency Ruble fluctuated like crazy every hour on days such as “Cherniy Vtornik” (Black Tuesday) which seemingly appeared out of nowhere and completely sank the economy. On certain occasions some of our shipments of electronics were lost or stolen on their way to us, and we even had to experience extortionists who came knocking on our doors. The only thing that kept us going during these difficult times was dedication— a retaining belief that prevented us from giving up on a venture with massive long-term potential.

You received your higher education in Soviet Russia.  You saw with your own eyes the suffering in the country at the time.  How did you feel about the Soviet regime at that time?

As many of us have already learned in school, much can be said about the negative aspects of the Soviet regime.  However, not much is shared about some of the positive aspects of that system which I witnessed myself.  I felt that people in the Soviet Union were disciplined and there was a relatively high degree of social harmony and orderliness.  People felt generally safe, basic things were guaranteed by the state, and citizens were filled with patriotism. Public transport was efficient and reliable. There existed free education and health services. Barring the elites of course, this lifestyle was more or less the same across the board and I honestly cannot say it was a bad lifestyle even though it could obviously have been better. After all, many forget that the USSR was still a global superpower, and it could not have reached that status without a somewhat adequate lifestyle for its citizens. Of course, I am not saying that there was no social discrimination, but I felt it was very limited. The citizens believed in the dream that their children’s futures would be bright even if theirs were not necessarily so.

However, I certainly do not forget that the negative aspects outweighed the positive. Political opponents were brutally suppressed in this autocratic regime.  People felt that they were not valued by the state according to their abilities, especially in academia – not only at the central level, but also at the district, city and rural levels. Common people were dissatisfied because the elites of the Soviet Communist Party had special privileges and access to facilities that they did not have.  Materials considered basic in other developed countries were considered luxury materials in the Soviet Union.  In the later part of the communist regime, shortages of daily necessities in all villages and towns became commonplace. People also incessantly complained that the state did not pay attention to the fact that daily life was exceedingly monotonous.

You have traveled the world.  You wrote two books based on your experiences. Why do you think people should travel and read?

In my opinion, there are two things that are guaranteed to broaden your horizons and enrich your life: reading and traveling. When you read, you delve into a world full of imagination and possibilities. Your mind can roam free, exploring new perspectives and ideas. But when you travel, you get to experience the world first-hand, and nothing beats that.

Ibn Battuta, a medieval Moroccan traveller, once said that travel makes you speechless, but after traveling you turn into a storyteller. And I couldn’t agree more. When you visit new places, you’re exposed to new cultures, new people, and new ways of thinking. You see things you’ve never seen before, and your mind expands in ways you never thought possible. It’s no wonder that people say traveling relieves the stress of everyday life.

But I believe there’s another reason why we’re drawn to travel. It’s in our nature to wander. Our ancestors spread across the world from Africa, and we Nepalese are also continuing that tradition today by moving to places around the world. Maybe it’s because we’re searching for something, or maybe it’s just part of our nomadic nature. Either way, it’s clear that traveling has become ingrained in our modern culture. In fact, many people in Western countries take weeks-long vacations just to explore new places and let their minds wander.

And yet, as much as I love to travel, I also recognize the importance of reading. Reading is a journey of its own, and it’s just as important for mental fitness as physical exercise is for physical fitness. When you read, you’re transported to different worlds, different times, and different perspectives. It’s a treat for a playful mind, and it’s shaped the lives of people for millennia. In fact, people who read habitually are less likely to develop amnesia later in life.

But perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned from both reading and traveling is that the world is full of teachers. Classroom teachers teach book-based knowledge, but the teachers of the outdoor “open” classroom teach life. I’ve learned countless lessons from my travels that I could never have learned in a classroom, and those lessons have helped me become a better businessman.

So if you ask me, I encourage everyone to read and travel as much as possible. Explore the world and the pages of a book with an open mind, and let the teachers of the world guide you on your journey. Who knows? You might just turn into a storyteller yourself.

How did Jiba Lamichhane, a successful businessman, become a literature enthusiast?

I opened a Facebook account in 2009. When social media became popular, I began adding friends and sharing anecdotes and experiences from my travels. I used to write about what I saw during my visits to different places and about things that caught my attention. Social media provided an excellent platform for me to share my travel experiences with my friends and family. I was encouraged to write about my experiences in greater depth after getting favorable comments from my friends and family.

Everybody encouraged me to write, saying the travel stories would turn out to be very interesting. These comments gradually boosted my confidence and I embarked on a passionate mission to develop in the craft of writing. I am a firm believer in the adage, “If there is a will, there is a way.” If a person is enthusiastic about something and wishes to pursue it, they will find a method to do so. To me, this passion is literature.