Dr. Professor and HMG Secretary Narsingh Narayan Sinha passed away on Tuesday, July 12, 2016, at 85. He was Professor of English at the Department of English, University College, Tribhuvan University (TU) at Kirtipur, where he taught us, the 11 MA students – the ‘Group of 1969-71.’
Chances and changes had it that Dr. Sinha was the first Madhise (colloquial, now officially ‘Madheshi’, of the ‘Madhya Desh’ lying between the Nepal Himals and the Ganga Maidan) Master in my life. The other Tarai teacher was Prof Yugeshwor Prasad Verma.
In my native Darjeeling, I was taught by many nationalities at my schools: most of them Nepali caste and ethnic teachers and Scottish Mems at the Sunday school. At college, our professors consisted of two Bangalis, three Madrasis, two Goans, two Anglo Indians, and one Jew, one I suspect of Arakan-Andaman ancestry, and half a dozen American and Canadian Jesuit priests of Irish stock.
Though Darjeeling was once a part of the Bihar Directorate under the British Raj in the early 20th Century, the Madhise presence was nil in our times, save for Bihari baniyas and modis in the district. So it was my first experience of being taught by two Madhise Professors, that, too, at the highest level of education and in a different country.
We knew Professor Narsingh Narayan Singh as Dr. Sinha at TU. He was fair, tall, slim and handsome. He was a constant teacher, mild in manners and approachable. I remember him teaching us William Shakespeare, with special emphasis on Hamlet. The question of whether Hamlet’s madness was real or fake, in today’s Facebook lingo, was an important topic quite likely to appear as a question in the Board examinations itself. So Dr. Sinha would place the same question to us in his next Internal Assessment, a periodic test that carried 20% or points of the 100-marks final examinations in those days.
During that very week, I was having some family and work contingencies and I even missed a few classes. An unwritten Rule of Expectations in our points-driven and quotes-ridden system of education even at the Masters level was to study as per the anticipation of our teachers. This can be explained in the following principle:
Suppose Hamlet was critiqued by ten world-famous propagandists, so our learned Professors expected us to have studied all the ten prescribed critics and serve suitable dollop of each of them in our answer papers. You miss, for instance, Middleton Murray or FR Leavis or Alan Tate in your ‘According to’ quotes, and you had three marks deducted from the total you would have otherwise garnered.
Due to my abovementioned domestic and professional situations, I missed out on reading certain critics on the speculated ‘Insanity’ of Hamlet, and yet sat for the mandatory test, though ill-prepared as I was.
I didn’t attend Dr. Sinha’s next class where he would distribute our examined answer papers. A questions-answers session was a natural happening on such an occasion. While explaining his judgment on each answer paper, he reportedly said something to this effect regarding my copy:
‘This student obviously hasn’t read all the critics who have dealt with Hamlet’s mental condition. But, and perhaps because of this very shortcoming, he has expressed his own opinions on this topic which I find imaginative, intriguing, interesting and original. Therefore, I’ve awarded him 11 points.’
This was news for the times! To score 55% on an academically inferior performance was most possibly unfair to my classmates who studied eight to ten hours daily on average. Everybody – Ramesh Shrestha, Sheila Roka, Trailokyaman Singh, Meera Shrestha, Haribhakta Khoju, Krishna Shrestha, Bhuwan Koirala, Indrabilas Adhikari et al – read my copy. What were their comments? I don’t remember today, nor do I have that masterpiece. I don’t remember what I wrote, either!
British Literature was most sadistically examined and equally stingily rewarded at the MA level of TU in those days of the New Education Plan (NEP). Only one student, Jyoti Tuladhar (who taught us!), had graduated in First Division, but with a miserly 60+%, albeit her record remained unbroken for many years until every Masters-in-English student scored an automatic 80% in the New Dispensation of the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal.
But a far more personal point to me is this: Dr. Sinha perhaps saw in me a fellow traveler in de-canonizing the rigid British Establishment of Literature & Letters and lighting out for our own newfound territories.
This conviction finds yet another uncanny proof in yet another Madhise Master. He was Prof. Yugeshwor Prasad Verma, a newcomer to our faculty. Prof Verma’s own Internal Assessment that very week, after Dr. Sinha’s test, was on Geoffrey Chaucer, with The Canterbury Tales on our critical anvil.
My personal emergencies were still continuing, and in the same state of half-preparedness, I tackled Chaucer Baje for Prof Verma. When the results were out, however, I had scored 13/20, an unprecedented 65% – a Super First Division achievement befitting a Platinum Medal!
Prof Verma caught hold of me on the outside greens and praised my treatment of Chaucer from my angles of looking at the poet raconteur’s musicality and lyricism in his Olde English masterpiece of Engelond. Verma Sir went sentimental over the music of Nati Kazi, Amber Gurung’s lyrics, Bachchu Kailash’s singing, leaving my classmates dumb and jealous.
I specifically mention these two teachers from Nepal’s Madhesh Tarai in this section for their collateral recognition of the literary aspirations that were taking roots in me. I was an eastern Himalayan Roma who had roamed into the Valley of Kathmandu to join the MA Program in English at TU of Kirtipur with one definite ambition, and it wasn’t scoring high marks in my Masters or a place in Nepal’s academic Castalia later.
It was my sole intention to write a novel in Nepali, germinated from a seed theme that I had brought with me from Darjeeling. To write this vaunted novel, I needed method teaching and learning in literature and creative crafts. For this purpose, for days I eavesdropped into the Nepali Literature classrooms of the TU Campus. But I found the lectures by some Tripathis and Thapas so terrifyingly and unintelligibly Sanskritized that it was all Aramaic to a mod hillbilly from Darjeeling that was me.
So I opted for the Department of English, then headed by Dr. Alan Davies and so ably buttressed by such teachers as, after Profs Sinha and Verma, Prof Kamal Prakash Malla, Dr. MP Lohani, Prof TR Kansakar and even participated in by Prof Surya Bahadur Shakya, the Principal of the University College who, in addition to steering the administration and facing student strikers and rioters, managed to teach us Metaphysical Poets on schedules.
In gist, taking up MA in English in 1969 was a strategy, my own brand of what became known as MFA Program, invented as such in the US in the mid-’70s. I was greatly animated by Dr. Sinha and Prof Verma, both of whom inadvertently, and thanks to my own preparatory inadequacies during that crucial week, recognized the flighty waywardness in me which led me eventually to creative writing in both Nepali and English.
Instead of failing me for my inability in adhering to the strict canons of hardcore British Literature – we also studied American Literature, Linguistics and Language which, understandably, aren’t parts of this narrative – as prescribed in our curricula, the two teachers rewarded me for my anarchic poetic license which, for better or worse, has made me what I am today, from the 1970s onwards.In this, the two Madhise teachers heard a definite ‘voice’ in my answer papers instead of the usual trumpeting of British, Canadian and American literary critics in others. In the then ‘view from nowhere’ times, someone at last had a ‘lens’ in their classrooms. Dr. Sinha first and Prof Verma later thus nudged me to strike off the safe and beaten track and cut a trail in the mountains.
The untimely departure of Prof YP Verma escaped me when it happened. I try to make up by dedicating these humble words to this greatly unassuming and friendly teacher from the Tarai.
One off-classroom literary experience at TU I still remember was the Charles Dickens Centennial held in 1970 where Dr. Sinha’s discourse on the Victorian novelist revealed the master narrator’s literary gems which the British Council representatives listened to in rapt silence. A Nepali knew his equal lot of a western literary giant.
Once we visited his quarters at Jamal. I found his finesse in the Nepali language with his careful and polished Tarai inflections quite unique in the Kathmandu airs of aristocratic Durbariya corruption and feudal Sarkari accents. He knew the inner politics of Tribhuvan University and he set himself in a proper place.
The time to leave the University itself was also nearing. The Board examinations would be upon us, and it was the last month for students and teachers alike. We would never see each other in the classroom, the library or the canteen again.
I saw Dr. Sinha shopping for vegetables and fruits at Ason in the evening. Living in the Professors’ Quarters at nearby Jamal, it was a regular outing for him.
This sojourn had to stop once Dr. Sinha reverted to his previous position in His Majesty’s Government (HMG) of Nepal where we later saw him as Secretary heading the Ministry of Education at Keshar Mahal. As a senior bureaucrat, he moderated national, regional and international meetings.
I last saw him sometime in 2000 at the inauguration of a book by a retired secretary of the Narayanhiti Durbar. I heard him advising a senior professor of Nepali on his excessive smoking.
In his youth, Dr. Sinha lived among a strong coterie of Madheshis in Kathmandu. It was a time when the Doctors Trio of Jogendra Jha, Radharaman Mishra and Tulsi Giri was an automated tricycle moving around and shaking the capital. Babuwan Thakur was the no-nonsense administrative caretaker of the Kathmandu Valley and other Zones.
Vedanand Jha occupied his slots in the Rashtriya Panchayat and the Royal Nepalese Embassy at Bahrakhamba in New Delhi. The Marwaris of Biratnagar – the Golchas, Kedias and Mittals – conducted their mercantile operations along with the Valley’s Shresthas, Jyotis and Amatyas. Inder Malhotra, Pasang Goparma and Dr. Mohamed Mohsin oiled the propaganda machine of King Mahendra’s Panchayat vehicle.
But I more fondly remember Dr. NN Sinha and Prof YP Verma who minded their own businesses without being Panchayat Panegyrists.
There were also foreign Himalayans in inclusionary Kathmandu of those days. Beginning with Randhir Subba, the list includes Lainsing Bangdel, Surya Bikram Gyawali, Parijat, Nirmal Lama, Bhimdarshan Roka, Amber Gurung, Haribhakta Katuwal, Gopal Yonzon, Louis Banks, Ranjit Gazmer, Banira Giri, Chandra Pandey, and, if I may, this humble scribe himself. On our part, I can vouch that all of us did our best to repay Mother Nepal for her kindness and hospitality. If I forget other names, it’s because the Welcome List is rather long.
I take Dr. NN Sinha’s last years as a quiet period affected by the stimulated Otherization of Nepal’s own Madheshis, Dalits, Adibasi Janajatis and other minorities and marginalized nations in the subtle rise of mono-caste-ism of the PEON in Kathmandu along with the new dispensation of the rigid Hindu-only KhasArya Combo from the hills. The entrenched juggernauts appear as some bad moonrise in Nepal which Dr. NN Sinha, happily, doesn’t have to witness anymore.
When I joined TU in 1969, the University was but ten years old. However, it already looked one hundred years old in decay, directionless and malign negligence. The almighty power of the Panchayat Polity was nil on the campus. Young politicos of various colors were its permanent students and boarders in the hostel. They were ready to foment their respective political party’s menacing manifesto at a moment’s notice instead of attending classes. The jerrybuilt main campus complex had the configuration of the English letter E, as seen from the heights of Kirtipur. It stood for Education. In reality, it had transuded grim Eradication and Extinction before long. I see us and teachers such as Dr. NN Sinha in that twilight time and marvel at the fact that we negotiated the passage and managed to engineer our exit before it would be too late.