I am Interested in the Stories of Hindu Mythology and Their Characters: Vishnu Singh Rai

Writer and educationist Vishnu Singh Rai (1951) was educated in India, Nepal, and the UK. He taught English at Tribhuvan University for three decades and retired as Professor of English Language Education. Rai writes both in English and Nepali. He has written stories Martyrs & Other Stories (English), play Realities (English), travelogues Nau Dandapari (Nepali), and a novel Paheli (Nepali). But above all he is a poet and he has published Sudama (a semi epic in Nepali), Jeevan (a collection of poems in Nepali), Vagabond Verses (a collection of poems in English), and Tritiyaki joon (a collection of songs and gazals in Nepali, and his English poems are taught in Nepal and abroad. Rai is known as a poet of human emotions. Uday Adhikari, an avid reader and interviewer of high acclaim found time to peek into Mr. Rai’s individual, educational and literary life. Published herewith is an edited version of a longer interview.

 After reading your travel memoir Nau Danda Pari (Beyond Nine Hills), I came to know that you can write very intimately about places. Your sketch of India Tour is full of emotions. I heard you were brought up in India. What was your childhood like? How was your early education?

Well, yes, I was brought up in a village – a village with no access to any road, no means of transportation. Villagers, except a couple of families who rode a horse or a bicycle, had to rely on their two solid legs for transportation. The nearest bazaar was a three-hour-walk. In the monsoon, the village was flooded with the Koshi water, and filled the paddy fields with innumerable varieties of fishes which became the village’s main food for a month or so.

I was very much attached to my mother. My mother was not educated: she couldn’t read and write, but she knew a lot of shlokas of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata which she often recited. She was a quiet person, never raised her voice even when she was fuming inside. In fact, she became quieter when she was boiling inside. Her whole world was the kitchen, and her family. My mom was very shay by nature: no camera could allure her. So, there is not even a single photograph of her anywhere in this world. I wish I had at least one of her photographs! My father was quite opposite of my mother. I never find ‘dad’ in him: he was always father to me. We, my elder brother and two sisters, never wished to face him. I called him ‘father hard stone’ which I had borrowed from a book. We always put our demands to our Mom: we could never dare put to our father. You see, I was raised by a very loving mom and a very strict father.

My early education started in the village school. It was a house, or you can call it a long hall with a thatched roof. The solitary piece of furniture was a three-legged chair for the teacher – a tall lanky man with dense forest of hair all over his body. Students of all the classes (classes 1-3) sat in the same hall – each class separated by a little space in between. There was no school dress: we, students went to school in kattu and ganji carrying a piece of old jute sack to sit on, and a piece of slate to write on. No books, pencil or notebook – nothing. We were taught to read and write ‘ka’, ‘kha’, ‘ga’ etc., and to write and recite multiplication table, which we didn’t understand why.  Neither tension of homework nor the fear of examination. I have written about my early education in my story, ‘Why did Makhan Steal the Mango?‘ which is in the book, Martyr & Other Stories published by Oriental Publication.

You are a good writer. You write in Nepali and English. How did you come to the world of books? When did you realise you wanted to be a writer?

Like I said, my mother was not educated but she knew the importance of education. What I am today is because of her. She always encouraged me. I did not like school books much, but I did like literary books. My mama, maternal uncle was an educated man, and he had started a public library at his home. Although he became a professor of physics, he had interest in literature. Actually, it was he and his library that introduced me to the world of books, and once I entered into the world of books, there was no going back. I started with detective novels, then romantic, and then more serous ones – both prose and verse. By the time I was doing my BA honours., I had already read the all-time greatest epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in Hindi, Rabindra, Sharat, Bankim, Nazrul, Mahashweta (Bengali writers);  Suradas, Tulasi, Kabir, Mira, Prasad, Nirala, Pant, Mahadevi, Premchand, Yashpal, Bharati, Agyeya, Rakesh and many others (Hindi writers); Devkota, Bangdail, Sherchan (Nepali writers); Ghalib, Mir, Khusro, Manto, Krishna Chandar, (Urdu writers); Sir Arthur Canon Doyle, O’ Henry, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Dickens, Naipal, Rushdi, and Khushwant Singh (English writers), and translated versions of Tolstoy, Gorkey, Chekov, and Dostoevsky. I still read a lot.

They all impressed and inspired me to write in one way or the other. I first wrote in Hindi, mainly poems. I always wanted to write but life didn’t allow me until late 90s. I started writing in English which were published, liked and some of them were included in the national curriculum of English, and English courses of TU and Mid-Western University. My Nepali writing started quite late around the new millennium. Perhaps I am the only Nepali writer whose first book was published when he was already 60. As I am retired now, and free from family obligations, I have more time to write.

Your book titled Nau Danda Pari or Beyond Nine Hills is from Master Mitrasen’s famous song. It seems you like music a lot especially folk song. You mention somewhere how you did a collaboration with some friends in Scotland. It is extra benefit for creator. How did you come into contact with such tuning world?

Yes, I like song, but who does not? My father was a singer – singer of Indian classical music, the ragas and all, you know. Actually, he tried to teach me classical music, but I didn’t pay much attention to it at that time. I wish I could! So, I have fair knowledge of tal, sur and laya. I love all kinds of music, classical (ragas), semi-classical (ghazal, thumri, etc.) folk songs and modern songs. Very often, I spent my evening listening to Ustad Rashid Khan, Shobha Gurtu, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Mehandi Hasan, Ghulam Ali, Jagjeet Singh, Abida Parveen, and others. If I may say, there is nothing more pleasing than listening to these singers with a glass of beer. As evening matures into night, pleasure becomes ecstatic.

I can play tabla. The jugalbandi you mentioned happened in Edinburgh, the UK where I went to do my Master in TESOL, in mid 1990s. It was not a Jugalbandi actually for jugalbandis happen between the maestros – we (neither he nor I) were maestro of sitar or tabla, but yes, he played sitar and I gave him ‘sangat’ (company) with tabla. We also played in a Church during Christmas time because he was Christian, and when we finished a white woman came to me and gave me a one pound coin – my first and last earning as a tablavadak or the first and last appreciation for my table-play. It’s still with me. His name was Birendra Rongong, and I called him Biren dai. He married to a Scottish woman, tall and graceful. bhauju spoke excellent Nepali, and welcomed me with typical Nepali food, dal-bhat-tarkari-achar which she herself cooked. Biren dai was blind and yet she fell in love with him and married him – the proof that ‘love is blind’. It was one of the greatest examples of love, more beautiful than the love of Romeo-Juliet, Laila-Majnu and Sheeri-Farhad because they could not marry each other whereas Biren dai was happily married and had two children — a boy and a girl.

A river is alive and vibrant
until it meets the ocean
then it dies:
love is alive and vibrant
until it turns into marriage
then it’s crushed to death
under the burden of household chores.

I was happy to see that Biren dai and bhauju proved me wrong, but there are very few people who are as fortunate as dai and bhauju.

The title of your book Children of Khumbuwan reminds me of a funny incident with Shrawan Mukarung, a famous poet. We were enjoying an evening session and were in jolly moods. A conversation about federalism was going round and round and reaching nowhere as we were all in a drinking session. All of a sudden Shrawan raised his voice at an alarming pace and declared: “Listen! You are talking to the Mahakabi or great poet of Khumbuwan.’ Then a momentarily silence followed and then laughter. What led you to write such a book?

The book is a historical document written in a fictional style. As the title of the book suggests, it describes those Khambus or Rais of majhkirat who were defeated by Prithvi Narayan Shah during the expansion of his kingdom east to Kathmandu. After the defeat, they fled to British India and settled there. The book is about their struggle to survive far away from their homeland among alien people and their culture. These Rais, they wanted to be part of their community in Nepal. Upon their request, I took some of the Rais from Nepal there and Shrawn was one of them. The book became immensely popular among the Rais and the historians, and recently its 3rd edition has made its appearance.

You seem to be keenly interested in Sanatan or Hindu philosophy. Kale Rai alias Swami Prapannacharya made his name by writing Vedma Ke Chha or What is there in the Vedas? And time and again many people from other religions interpreted Hindu texts and offer new interpretations. What interested you there deeply?

I was introduced to Hindu myths by my mother and her father, my grandpa. She used to tell me stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata. I was sort of hungry for stories: mom told me stories of Hindu mythology, and my grandma told me the stories of Kirat mythology, and I liked both kinds. When I was able to read, I read those great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata which my grandpa used to read. I was not interested in the Hindu philosophy but in the stories – stories and characters. Characters such as Krishna, Karna, Sudama, Bhishma, Eklavya and Barbarika, Radha, Draupadi, Kunti and Gandhari, Sita, Urmila and Ahilya, Vishwamitra, Ram, Hanuman and Kumbhakarna, also Shiva, Bali, and many others.

Swami Prapannacharya was a great scholar of the Vedas and the Hindu philosophy. I know very little about Vedas and frankly speaking I have little interest in them. I have neither the knowledge, nor interest to interpret Indian philosophy. As I said earlier, I am interested in the stories of Hindu mythology and characters – and they appear in my works in different shades and shapes. I try to see them with the eyes of a rationalist, known as ‘revisiting the past’, and their relevance in our time.

You are a good poet. Your long poem ‘Sudama’ tries to explore miner feelings of the human heart, observes deep friendship and demonstrates how it crosses every barrier of business world. How writing on such a theme crept into your mind?

Sudama is my pet child. I wrote it during the time of Civil War in Nepal. I was looking for a mythical character for what I wanted to say – and that I found in Sudama. Sudama, a teacher torn between the two horns of dilemma: whether to be on the side of downtrodden and justice or to murder his self-respect and be a part of status quo.  I found in him a representative of intellectuals who know what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s just and what’s unjust but either take the sides of the oppressor for some rewards in form of money and post or do nothing. They don’t raise their voice against the unjust and immoral works because they are afraid. They keep quiet – good people never raise their voice against, and are called ‘gentlemen’. I quote here few lines of my poem ‘Gentlemen’.

Gentlemen are those
who maintain the status quo
they don’t ask questions
and keep themselves to themselves.

The perfect gentlemen are those
who don’t raise their voice
who accept everything
like cold tombs
which receive everything
that are thrown into them

This is what happens in our world, and Sudama is all about it.

Second thing, I always wanted to write about Krishna. His dynamic personality both as a lover and as a kingmaker fascinated me. He was a great lover but his love was always ignored, overshadowed by Radha’s love. I found in him those of us, who are forced to forget their love for different reasons. Krishna left his love and went away for a better career. Then he became so busy in politics that he could not go back to Gokul – to Radha. We do the same. We reach at the height of our career at the cost of our love, which never leaves us – it is always there in a corner of our heart in a dormant state.

I still want to write about Krishna’s love. Probably I will someday.

I taught your story ‘Martyr’ some years back and now there is your poem ‘Corona Says’ in English course. You write in English beautifully. In Nepal writing in English requires certain efforts but in your case writing seems effortless. How did you get such command over a foreign tongue? What are the challenges of writing and publishing in English?

It’s a very difficult question for me. The answer is, “I don’t know how I write so beautifully or with ease”. However, I take it as a huge complement. I think other writers’ (Nepali writers who write in English) knowledge of the English language and grammar is better than me. I don’t have a big store of active vocabulary. I learned English as a foreign language from Grade six through grammar translation method. I think two things helped me. One, I read and still read a lot – anything and everything, not only ‘classical’ or serious literature prose and verse but also light romantic and detective ones. I even read cartoons, and every kind of reading materials help my write some way or the other. I have no allusion. I know I can never be Manjushree Thapa, Samrat Upadhyay, or DB Gurung: they can handle English better than me. What I am sure about is that I write for common people, I want to reach them, and hope that they understand me. The paradox is simple writing is difficult – I try to keep my language simple.

Nepali publishers do not want to publish books in English on the ground that there are no enough readers of English literature. Probably they are right. Nepali writers do not have access to the foreign (Indian) publishers, and although you can send your manuscripts to them, they never publish an unsolicited manuscript. They prefer and publish only established writers. One can approach these publishers through an agent but a Nepali writer cannot afford an agent who is terribly expensive. There are not only limited number of readers, but there are also very few writers. However, their number is increasing. We can only hope that publishers would recognize the talent of the new writers and publish them.

The feather of being a writer has been added to your hat very late.  It seems you started writing very early but I wonder why you kept this secret hidden for such a long time.

I started writing from my school days (I think everybody tries their hand in their school days) and some of them were published. They were mostly poems in Hindi. The reason for this was that I was educated in India. I had to quit writing as it could not feed me: it couldn’t be imagined that one can survive solely by writing. Still today, there are very few Nepali writers who can survive by writing alone – if they are not dirty rich, wealth that they inherit from the parents. The responsibility of my family didn’t allow me to indulge myself in writing. So, I buried it deep down in my heart, found a job and spent my time in all those activities that could help me to feed my family and send my children to school. Even in those days, I wrote books alright but those books were not what I wished to write, they were what I should have written. They were textbooks on linguistics and ELT for school and campus levels. The readers of those books said that they had literary flavour – it was my way of consoling my love for literary writing.
I could pursue my love for writing only when my children were settled. This is the reason why I started writing late. Probably I am the first Nepali writer who was published at the age of sixty. I used to write in English first. I had no confidence that I could write in Nepali as I was raised in India, and Nepali was never a subject in my school and college. It took some time to develop the confidence. Now I write both in English and in Nepali, in fact, more in Nepali because Nepali books have more readers.

Now writes on the board
Now walks around looking lost
New English teacher

I have quoted a few lines of one of your short poems here. You had had a long career as an English teacher. What is you experience of being an English teacher in Nepal where most of the students don’t have good English?

This haiku along with others was presented at a conference organized by Nepali English Teachers’ Association (NELTA).  I think English teachers enjoy more prestige in Nepali society – it’s another matter whether they are good teachers or not. As you said because most students are poor in English, English teachers are feared and revered by students, which is not good.
To say students are not good at English or they fail in English is correct but it’s not their fault. English is given undue importance in Nepal, and therefore it is being imposed. It is being taught right from Grade 1 which is not only unconstitutional and unethical, but also against the pedagogical principles. There are five major fallacies about ELT in Nepal. Until and unless we get rid of these fallacies, situation will remain bleak.

English should be taught from Grade 1 because sooner the better. Several researches claim that it’s completely false. Firstly, children best learn when they are taught through their first language. So, the medium of instruction must be their 1st language up to Grade 3, and only then a foreign language should be introduced. Secondly, as children are forced to learn a foreign language from Grade 1, neither their foreign language nor their 1st language improves. They can communicate in the foreign language, but they won’t be able to deal with abstract concept, and cannot do critical thinking. Lastly, our constitution guarantees the rights of children to get the basic education (up to Grade 3) through their first language. Contrary to these research findings, and constitutional provision, English is taught from Grade 1 in Nepal.
English must be taught through English. Children’s 1st language must not be used in an English class. This false notion is rigorously followed in schools so much so that if a child happens to speak their 1st language, they are scolded openly in the class, ridiculed and even physically punished. Using mother tongue in an English class is considered as a crime. Actually, using mother tongue to help clear the concept, instructions, etc. help children understand better. It’s good to know that this situation is being changed slowly.

We should follow British pronunciation (RP). This is ridiculous firstly because no teacher in Nepal speaks RP. Students learn pronunciation by listening to their teacher. Nepali teachers of English have Nepali English pronunciation (Nenglish), naturally Nepali students will learn and speak the same. I did research on Nenglish (Nepali English) which shows that Nenglish is not only different from the English of Native speakers, but also from Hinglish or Indian English, both in written and spoken forms. Later many people explored it further including two American professors who supported my findings. Secondly, why should we teach and follow British pronunciation, why not Scottish or Irish, American or Australian pronunciation? In fact, we do not need Oxbridge English. What we need is that English speaking people understand what we say. When I was doing my MA TESOL in Edinburgh, the issue of pronunciation was discussed, a Nigerian class friend said, “Why should we teach British pronunciation: we’ve our Nigerian pronunciation.’ It may sound boastful but it contains the truth that we don’t need any particular pronunciation, British, American, Indian or Singaporean – pronunciation should be intelligible among the interlocuters.

There should be no literature in a language class. This was rigorously followed in English teaching in Nepal until the beginning of the new millennium. I remember that the English Gurus from Faculty of Humanities and Faculty of Education never saw each other eye to eye on this matter. Actually, using literature for language teaching breaks the monotony of the classroom, brings fresh air in, and learners learn the target language with fun and pleasure. I remember that in late 1990, some of us (I and Dr. Govinda Raj Bhattarai) tried to introduce literature in MEd courses, which was outright rejected by our seniors.

Only authentic materials should be used to teach English. Most people take authentic teaching materials mean textbook written by the native speaker. This is the reason that private schools in Nepal use textbooks written and published in the UK or America, or at least textbooks written and published in India, and end up teaching about Halloween. They do not know Nepal and Nepali students. Only writers from Nepal know, and since they know the students better, the textbooks written by them will be better. It’s good to see that now schools have started using books written and published in Nepal except a few who consider themselves superior and try to allure parents by advertising the textbooks published by foreign publishers.

Communicative approach should be followed. This means oral skills, listening and speaking should be given more emphasis and taught. But this could never happen, because students do not have practice their oral skills except in the classroom, and in the class, they hardly get an opportunity to practice these skills. Even in the private schools, listening and speaking are never taught. We (old generation) learned English by reading supported by writing – the situation is still the same. The students are never taught oral skills: they learn English by reading supported by writing. So why make fuss on this communicative approach. We should give more emphasis on reading, particularly in extensive reading.

Until and unless we get rid of these fallacies, ELT is not going to work in our country.

You visited different countries and observed education systems closely. How different our teaching is from theirs’?

As a postgraduate student I found it very different. It was in early 90s, Moray House College, Edinburgh the UK. The teachers never gave lecture. We were given project works, books and articles to read and asked to present in the class, to participate in debates, and so on. They helped us to find materials, and facilitated discussions, put us on the right track if we went astray. The most interesting thing was that after the exam, they asked us if we were satisfied with the marks we obtained and the comments we had, and if we were not satisfied, we could discuss with them. One day, a Chinese friend whispered into my ears, “They never teach us, do they? We’ve to do everything ourselves.”

As a coordinator of a joint project between the Faculty of Education, TU and JAMK University of Applied Science, Finland I had the opportunity to observe their school education system. Finland was at the top in school education ranking at that time, and remained so for many years. The first thing I noticed was the teacher’s qualification – Master degree holders for early or primary schools. They knew child psychology, and therefore were able to give children a solid education foundation. Look at our situation: primary school teachers are SLC or Grade 8 pass. We neglect basic education which should be given more attention. In my experience, lower the grade more difficult to teach: higher the grade easier to teach. It’s because young children’s comprehension power has not been developed fully, they are easily distracted, and they have short memory power, and so on. So, a teacher must have a lot of patience, an ability to understand the children, and the knowledge and delivery of teaching techniques to make children understand what s/he wants to convey to them.  As children grow their comprehension power also grows stronger and therefore, they could understand what teachers are trying to say.

We only focus on to teach and ignore how children learn: they try to understand how students learn and change their teaching technique accordingly. Our curricula and their delivery are also very different from theirs. Our schools and teachers seldom read or understand curriculum. Their prime focus is to finish the textbook, and get their students pass in the exam mainly because our teaching is dominated by the examination – we teach to get our students through the exam. In Finland or Germany or in many other European countries, the focus is to develop interest about education in children. Children in early education seldom have textbooks. They just go to school, play and learn. Here, in Nepal, our children walk to school staggering under the large bags. The homework, the examination and many other things create a bad taste in our children. Children are happy there – they learn with fun; here they are not happy because they are crushed under the heavy loads of books.

You spent a long time teaching English in education department where pedagogies are preferred to literature. How did a creative writer in you cope with such a situation?

Teaching was my profession, my duty: creative writing is my interest, my love – that’s the difference. I had to do my duty but I could not forget my love. How could I! As I said earlier senior colleagues were dead against literature in MEd courses. Some of us (Govind Raj Bhattarai and I) tried to convince them that literature makes learning language interesting and fun, that we are not teaching literature for literature sake but for language teaching, and so on. But they never listened to us. It was very frustrating of course. We could do nothing but waiting. Later, some of them got retired and we could include bits of literature in the MEd courses. The English Subject Committee selected some of my stories and poems for the new courses which are still being taught.

I don’t know why
Even a cup of coffee with you
Gives me kick
And I fly high.

These lines of yours tell that you are romantic by heart. How romantic are you? You autobiographical pieces tell you are a bohemian too. What is your take on life?

Romance is the salt of life – take it out, and life would be tasteless. Without romance life is a barren land. Yes, I also write romantic poems, but it doesn’t mean that I behave romantically all the time at home and at the workplace. That would be disastrous.

I don’t know whether I am bohemian or not. May be. But people find me different perhaps because I speak less, like to travel alone, prefer mostly to be alone, disappear from home for a few days without informing anyone where I am going, fear government offices, do not like formalities, do not like name droppers, and nomadic life attracts me. I think the Urdu word ‘aawara’ (the nearest equivalent English word ‘vagabond’) suits my nature.

Life to me is not just to live but to enjoy. There is nothing after death, nothing at all. After I die, I don’t give a damn whether I am buried or cremated, whether people appear at my funeral or not, and whether my books are rewarded or not because I won’t be there to see. All these things are immaterial after death. I only wish that my books bring a little smile to the readers when I am no more.

In one of your stories, Professor Parajuli, a professor, refuses to take bribe though he is desperately in need of money. We say literature is the mirror of the society and it sounds true too though the mirror fails to reveal the hidden side. A mirror may both show seen and unseen aspects, and such bicameral definition perhaps suits it. How much of Professor Parajuli’s character is present in you?  What is literature for you?

Usually, I do not discuss my books and their characters. I believe that once the writer finishes his book and submits it to the world, then it is all of readers. They are the judges, who either like or dislike it, praise or condemn it. A writer’s job is finished – he is not supposed to defend the characters of his books. I could only say that mankind is not bad at heart, even a person whom we call ‘bad’ has goodness in a dormant state inside him, and some incidence stirs this goodness to walk on the right path. Professor Parajuli is just one example. It’s true that literature reflects society that society is the base of literature, but it’s also true that literature influences society.

Literature for me is finding myself which is very difficult and at times frustrating too. So I quote:

I go about everywhere looking for myself, O Iqbal
|         As if I were the wayfarer as well as the destination. (Translation of Iqbal’s sher)