Budhanilkantha School Died For Me On The Kanchenjunga Balcony

English: Pumori House
English: Pumori House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
One detail I note about Sanjay Dutt and Salman Khan's brushes with the law is both are half Muslim. To be Muslim in India is to be black in America. Every country seems to organize itself around The Other. Maybe in Nepal that has befallen upon the Madhesi. I identify with the blacks in America because I grew up Indian in Nepal.

I started my education at home in my homevillage. I did attend the local village school. Then I shifted to Janakpur where my father had set up shop after his training in Muzaffarpur; his shop years later became the largest radio and electronics shop in town. After trying a few schools, I became part of the first batch of the first English medium school in town. It was launched by a transplant from Kathmandu, a Hemraj Tamrakar. His brother/cousin would be Ratna Tamot, who headed the Nepali Department at Budhanilkantha School. Now deceased. By the time I ended up at Budhanilkantha School I had been part of so many schools. Maybe half a dozen. But my father did not learn about Budhanilkantha from Tamrakar. And years later when I went to see him, he bemoaned the fact that I had moved. He would have liked some good SLC results for his school, he said. 

The only reason I got into Budhanilkantha School is rather tangential. At this Janaki School there was this teacher Durga Chhetri. He was from Nagaland. The credit for my cursive handwriting goes to him. And there was this Mohan Sir. Both of them liked this Miss. But Miss liked Mohan Sir. One day Durga Sir misbehaved. He pushed Miss. Miss was crying. 

Later that day I went to the school's hostel to see Binesh Yadav. I was a day scholar. My house was very close to the school. But Binesh had nobody in town. His father, like my grandfather, were politicians. His father was a Wada Chairperson. My grandfather was the Pradhan Panch. Binesh was from an adjoining village. 

When I went to see Binesh, Mohan Sir saw me. He called me into his room. I must have looked empathetic to him. He told me how wrong it had been of Durga Sir to push Miss, and that I surely agreed with Mohan Sir's assessment. I don't remember saying anything. But he must have been impressed. He took it upon himself to go see my father to tell him that his son was too smart for this school and should be sent to a much better school, maybe some place like Darjeeling. 

Darjeeling was not on our map. People did not go to Darjeeling. It felt too distant. But my father came to know of entrance exams to some school in Kathmandu. He was aware of Sainik Schools in Bihar that also had entrance exams. 

I was not the top student in my class, although I managed to be among the top five. The top guy - "First Boy" - was a Sandip Giri. He has now launched the company Gham Power in Nepal. Before that he was in California. But I don't think I have had any contact with him after the primary school days. I sent him a message on Facebook a few months ago when my primary school best friend Rajesh Gupta (now in Augusta, Georgia, USA) told me about him. I never heard back. 

I was made to sit the entrance exams for Budhanilkantha School multiple times. The papers showed me a student at the primary school in my homevillage to enhance my chances. My father had a Honda motorbike then. He said later the credit goes to the bike. How else would we have gone to all these various exam centers?

Sandip's father was a "Hakim." His family lived in a government quarter. 

I took to Budhanilkantha School like duck to water. I was the top student in class from the get go and I stayed that way year after year. One year in Class 6, I had the highest marks in every single subject. There were very few people who did that. There was a Bishwa Limbu two years senior to me. He was like me. He was top of his class every year. Otherwise it was not true there was that one person in each class. But Bishwa had only one other thing. He would act in plays. Otherwise he did not have anything else. My other big thing was I would take leadership positions. And these were teacher appointed things. I was House Captain in Class 5, again in Class 10. In Class 11 I was unanimously elected by my classmates for the "BOSS" event. I was nominated to be School Captain, although they took it away from me within a month, and very unfairly so, but more on that later. 

I won a best actor award in middle school. I also became the school mental arithmetic champion in middle school. They put you on stage in front of the entire school and they would ask you math questions. You had to calculate in your head and blurt out the answers. It was quite a spectacle. In Class 10 I got a poem published in Nepal's top poetry magazine, Royal Nepal Academy's Kavita. I was what they called an all-rounder. I was not a star athlete, although it was not for lack of participating. I did manage to get on the teams. I remember doing Division A pentathlon in Class 10 and winning something. It will be my eternal regret I was not taught better soccer skills. 

Most important was being top in class academically. Because that is what most mattered to my father. Everything else was bonus. And teachers became happy when you did all that. And the only thing people in my homevillage cared about was that I went to school with the future king. Dipendra was three years Senior. Paras was a classmate. Nirajan was a few years junior. One day I was sick and all alone in the school's clinic. It was in the evening. And Nirajan showed up all by himself. He had not come to see me. He would not have known I was there. He said he just came to see if anyone was sick. 

I was a high energy person, I still am. I lived a full life. But once a year I would fall sick. It would come out of nowhere. It has continued to this day. Once a year I fall sick. I have to sleep and sleep and sleep and then in a few days I am back in business. A long time ago my greatgrandfather said it is good to fall sick one time a year. That is how the body cleanses itself. 

I "get" the Pahadi-Madhesi thing. I "get" the white-nonwhite thing. To some extent I "get" gender. As in, I "get" women's perspectives. But I don't "get" caste. And I sure don't "get" class. At some level I have always been a monk, you could say. After I got out of Budhanilkantha, I went to live in Sanepa, because that is where most people from my homevillage were. After crashing at this guy's place for a few days, I found myself a room. It was hard to find. It was tiny. I think it might have been windowless. A Bhagat from my homevillage remarked "Your family does not even keep its animals in a place like this!" Another guy whose house was adjacent to mine in the homevillage noted, "It is amazing how you can move from a place like Budhanilkantha School to this room and be equally happy!" Monk, I told you. Even today all I seem to care about is having internet access. I have to think of things like global poverty to want to become a successful tech entrepreneur. I can't think of my needs. My needs seem to be already met! They are modest needs!

My greatgrandfather had more land than anyone else in the village. No, he was not a zamindar. He was a self-made man. I would like to at some point have outdone him in wealth creation. I have not done that yet. I feel like I have not even started on the journey of wealth creation. But that's okay. Sam Walton was older than me when he launched Walmart. There are three people from my homevillage in America right now. Me, my sister in Boston, and the third guy just showed up a few months ago. His father had more cash than anyone else in the village, and his family had an elephant. You guessed it, a moneylender. The elephant was business for him. He would buy a baby elephant in Sonpur mela. In the village people did not mind if the elephant ate some of your green. When the elephant grew up, it was sold for a handy profit. This new guy who showed up, one of the first things he told me -- I had seen him when he was a kid, but the first time I ever talked to him was in America - was that I had not yet outdone my greatgrandfather in wealth creation. 

My greatgrandfather was a self-made man. It was a rags to riches story. Other Bhagats were still just getting by when I was growing up in a locally well to do family. But what that meant was we always had plenty to eat. It is not like we had a car or a television set or a phone. We had bullock carts. We had messengers. If a daughter of the family needed to be sent a message, a messenger would be sent to her village. 

Much later when I showed up at Berea College, one day this white guy friend of mine "accused" me of walking around campus "like you own this whole damn college!" I brushed him off. What do you mean, I said. Another student, this cute girl, surmised maybe I was a prince where I came from. I said, not true. But I do know a few princes, I said. That owning the college thing actually flustered me. I was like, how does someone walk if one DOES think like he owns the whole place!? Today I think maybe I picked up a few attitudes the first few years of my life growing up in the household of a guy who owned more land than anyone else in the village. Maybe when you go to school with all three princes in the country and if the princess at one point had a crush on a classmate of yours (Subir Kunwar in Colorado), all that rubs off on you a little bit. 

Budhanilkantha School changed my life. But it also hit me. It threw me off course. 

Class 10 being House Captain was the happiest year of my life to date. But starting from towards the final few months of that year and all through the final three years of school, I was terribly unhappy. I might even have been depressed. It was like towards the end of my Class 10 year someone stabbed me in my thigh and I was limping around for the rest of my time behind those walls. 

As House Captain I performed like no House Captain I had known of to date in that school's history to my knowledge. I did extremely well. One British teacher wrote, "You have raised morale here like I have never seen anywhere at any boarding school." 

We won all competitions, academic, sports and otherwise. Lojak was in Class 9. I guess it is okay to talk about it openly now after so much time has passed. He was the least well performing student in the entire House. The housemaster Narayan Prasad Sharma and I had a meeting about it. I took it upon myself to give total personal attention to Lojak. I think I managed to pull him up by 10-20 points. I don't remember exactly, but I managed to get him out of the danger zone. He was not expelled. 

NP went on to become Headmaster for two decades after the British left, looks like. He was a great Housemaster. The guy was high energy. One story I shared with many was, one day I showed up at his apartment/office to say we needed some paper for a wall magazine. Usually he would have some in the office. He would pick and give. But he found out he had run out. He said he could get some from the staff room. And the guy quite literally ran. Teachers are not supposed to run. They are supposed to walk with dignity. There was this Pant, Math teacher. He walked with the greatest dignity of all. 

It is not like the staff room was next door. It was a good run away. And NP did have a small belly. He was not fat. I would not say. But he did not have a flat stomach either. No six pack there. 

Being the top student year in year out at the top school in Nepal I used to fantasize about coming up with something unique, making some contribution in the field of thoughts. I would read about the major breakthroughs in human thoughts, and I wondered if I could do something along those lines. I was pretty well read in world history. I knew a ton about Gandhi, about Lincoln and slavery, about MLK. I knew. But all that I put in the distant past. The present was different. My British teachers were the ones who showed us the movie Gandhi. How bad could they be!

I almost never used the word Madhesi, to describe either myself or anyone else. Success is a privilege of its own kind. I was not privileged like Paras, sure. But I had a place in my class that Paras did not. And that was a privilege. 

Paras would buy expensive cigarettes and share with his friends on the soccer/football team. One day that was in the bathroom of my house. I was in Class 9. I walked by. He offered me, I said no thanks. We both exchanged mischievous smiles. But Balam dai, the star defender of the school soccer team, he was all too happy to puff it away. 

One day on a walk on the school grounds I spotted Dipendra with a friend of his. They were also sneak smoking. It was against the school rules. I think that is part of the reason why they did it in the first place. It was a way to show you could break the rules a little. He saw that I saw. "Bhanne hoina hai bhai!" He shouted from the distance. "Don't be telling the teachers now!"

I was a good guy. I was no smug. I was popular. My friends liked me. And I had lots of them. I was good at academics. But I was as good at the leadership thing. Subodh was from my homevillage and was a few years senior to me at BNKS. His father was an engineer and Subodh basically did not grow up in the village at all, although he visited here and then. Subodh later went to Oxford. And he was not the top student in his class. He told his father who told my father that I was a "neta." I was in Class 10.

People just assumed I would be Board First. And I would go to Harvard. There were five people from my class on the SLC Board. Dilip was one year junior to me. He succeeded me as House Captain of Kanchenjunga. He was top of his class. Unlike me he was a star athlete. But I would beat him every place else, like leadership and stage performances, and things like that. Dilip went to Harvard. 

I note these details from New York City. Much time has passed. And I don't really get worked up about it all. I remember being very happy my freshman year at Berea College. Although that was it. There also the final years were unhappy just like at Budhanilkantha School. And I decided two such institutions were enough. No further schools for me. At Berea also the racist motherfuckers came after me precisely because I had broken all school records by getting myself elected student body president as a freshaman. Six months after showing up, five months after having lost badly when running for Freshman Class President. 

When I was thinking about colleges in the West, I liked every prospectus I saw. And graduates of many of those schools end up in New York City in large numbers. So I guess I am where I wanted to be, in New York City. But when I visited Boston a few years back, and walked all over Harvard and MIT, I liked MIT much better. The buildings on the MIT campus just feel more open to cutting edge thinking. On the Harvard campus you feel too much the weight of history. And my favorite Harvard grads are all dropouts. 

Towards the end of my Class 10 year my innocence was lost. It all started on the soccer field. Kanchenjunga was playing Nilgiri. A small fight broke out towards the end. No big deal. This was a school where you could get expelled for smoking, you most certainly got expelled for getting into a fight. You got reprimanded for not wearing socks. Everybody wore socks. Everybody got a haircut. And I was a good student. Teachers liked me. I was not exactly someone struggling with the rules. They just made sense to me. Following was not a struggle. The studies were fun. The activities were fun. The friends were fun. The teachers were fun. Who had time to even think of breaking any rules? I did not. I was not rebellious, hardly. 

I heard a fight broke out. Well, there was a follow up. Some of those Nilgiri guys decided to show up at my House. I was upstairs. I heard. I rushed downstairs. And there was Andrew Wild, former Housemaster now at Gaurishankar, pushing back these few Nilgiri guys. I shouted at the guys. How dare you! Wild asked me to go back upstairs. I did. 

And that was that. 

Salim Khan, Housemaster of Pumori, called a meeting in our dayroom. He tried to convince us how fights are not good things. I remember being indignant. Nobody on my side had done anything wrong. I felt like he was lecturing the wrong group of people. 

But things died down. People moved on. Or so I thought. 

The school bus took to you to the city buspark. From there you took the night bus home to your hometown. It was time for the Dashain vacation. Dashain, Tihar. Chhath. I think I would miss Chhath each time by just a day or two. The school vacation would end maybe a day or two before Chhath and my relatives for the life of them could not understand why I could not stay just two more days. 

I knew being late was not an option, as did my father. And I had had a role in the current architecture of the school vacations. Used to be two vacations. Summer and Dashain. Then some of the "Friends Of Budhanilkantha School" -- an officially recognized group, mostly of Kathmandu parents many of whom also had kids in Darjeeling, they decided it was not a good idea that their kids in Darjeeling when they were home for their winter vacations found their siblings were attending school at BNKS. So they architected the vacations. Summer, short Dashain vacation and winter. What that meant was I was stuck at school for Diwali. That did not feel good. A lot of students were unhappy. But what to do? It was not in our realm to decide on such things. I ran a signature campaign across school and submitted it to the headmaster John Tyson, now deceased. The Dashain vacation was subsequently expanded to include Tihar to great relief to us "out of valley" students. 

I would get off the school bus, and head to New Road. I would go to the gundpak shop to get some gundpak for my father who had done a few years of high schooling in Kathmandu. He really liked gundpak. 

King Mahendra had a dentist, I am sure he had more than one. But there was this Basant Bahadur Shrestha. Mahendra ended up giving one third of the land in my homevillage to him. His family and my family became friends, although there was a lot of resistance in the village. Basant Bahadur said to my greatgrandfather, you must let one of your grandsons to come with me to Kathmandu. And so my father studied from Class 8 to Class 10 in Kathmandu. But he sat for his SLC exams from Balwa, near the homevillage. I guess he ended up not getting along with one of Basant Bahadur's sons. 

My father took me to see Basant Bahadur at his clinic when I got admitted to BNKS and again at his home after I got out of BNKS, this time with hopes he might be able to help his son go on some kind of a "plan!"

So I do my usual thing. I go to New Road. I get back to the buspark. It is about 10 minutes and the bus would leave. I get in the bus. It is a cabin seat. I take my seat. I feel this tap on my shoulder. I look around. I had my sweater stylishly resting on my shoulders. There are a few guys. They were asking me to step outside so we can talk. I did not recognize them. Had never seen them before. They were not hostile. One guy was talking, the others were looking. They might have been four. Why, I asked. After that went back and forth a few times, they must have realized I was not moving. Then the guy started talking hostile. He said something like, don't you be bothering our cousin/brother, something like that. I was perplexed. Whose brother? What cousin? There was no context. One of them jumped up and pulled my sweater. At that point I turned around and asked the driver to move the bus. It was five more minutes before departure time. He just looked the other way. The bus moved a few minutes later when it was time. 

I went home. I did not mention the incident to anyone. I was not disturbed or anything. One sweater gone, no big deal. 

When I got back to school six weeks later, I got to know what had happened. 

Jiwan Raj Wagle, the housemaster of Nilgiri, had been instigating his students. "Don't do anything inside the school compounds, but outside the school compounds is a different story!" Things like that. The guys who came to my bus had been cousins of Rajesh Shrestha. Jiwan Raj Wagle, father of Swarnim Wagle, now hobnobbing with Ram Sharan on the Planning Commission dismantled in India but going strong in Nepal, cousin/brother of Chiranjiwi Wagle, the Congressi. Jiwan Raj Wagle, teacher of Nepali at BNKS, ek number ko maranchyase guy. People would laugh when he got on the soccer field. But apparently this guy was talking gangsta. 

Gyaneshwar Mahato was from Siraha. He was my Sports Captain, along with Mohan Karki from Mugu, dear friend then and now, and I believe now head of the Physical Education Department at BNKS. Gyane was another token Madhesi in class. There was me, him and a Krishnanath, also from Janakpur. Of course I was not aware of that phrase token Madhesi back then, or even for years afterwards. 

They chased Gyaneshwar at the buspark. He apparently ran shouting "Guhar! Guhar!" There was Sunil, he was in Class 7, he was in my House. He was a Pahadi. They humiliated Sunil. They made him do "kan samatera uth bas." If there were other details, I don't know. Sunil lost his mind after that bout of humiliation. 

Some of the Nilgiri guys had masterminded this whole thing at the instigation of their housemaster. When I first learned of the whole thing, my first reaction was, how stupid of them! This was a school that would expel you for such a thing, no questions asked!

My Vice Captain (Kathmandu guy) had met up with some of the Nilgiri guys (Shishir and others) and convinced them the only thing that could now save them was if they wrote an apology letter. The apology letter was now proof they indeed had been behind the whole thing It was written admission. 

I had already mentally moved on. Who cares about a sweater! And the facts were at hand. It was now for the school authorities to do what they do, what I had seen them do over the years. I had mentally moved on towards the big exams, the SLC exams a few months away. I really was not too interested in the tantrums of a few average backbenchers. 

But it had been a few weeks, and no disciplinary action was taken. I thought these things sometimes take time. Besides, they already had the facts. I had moved on. 

And then Gyane got suspended! Gyaneshwar Mahato, the guy who had been chased at the buspark, got suspended. He was no longer Sports Captain! What! This was like the apple broke off the tree and flew into the sky instead of falling to the ground. The guys who had masterminded the chasing of Gyane had not been suspended, but Gyane had been suspended! 

Then I got suspended! Really!? 

I was coming downstairs. NP Sharma was coming upstairs. We happened to meet at the balcony. He talked to me about the meeting. He said everyone on the committee had wanted my immediate expulsion. Andrew Wild and NP Sharma opposed that. Then they said, let him finish his SLC exams, then expel him. That too was opposed. Finally they decided they were going to suspend me from my house captaincy. Really? It was not the substance of it. My term was all but over anyways. But why was the apple falling into the sky? 

On that balcony Budhanilkantha School died for me. My grades slided after that. And they nosedived after they took away the school captaincy away from me. There the villain was Sudarshan Risal, brother of the Congressi Basu Risal, one of the very top guys in that party. 

Today - even today - I want every motherfucker who sat on that committee to at least tell me as to what exactly it was that I was accused of! What was the reason for their extreme reaction!? The extreme sensitivity of heart and mind that had made my extreme success thus far possible, also took it full force. It was this non verbal, emotional hit. I did not have the vocabulary. It took me many long years to come up with the vocabulary to come to terms with the experience. But when you do finally come to terms with it, it is not rocket science. Ethnic prejudice is not rocket science. Racism is not rocket science. Brian Garton, motherfucker.

In 2007 I became Barack Obama's first full time volunteer in all of New York City. 

There are times when I have thought maybe NP should have spared me that conversation. But that would have not changed the large social reality out there that people like me faced, Madhesis in Nepal, nonwhites globally. 

I finished my A Levels with EEE, with the worst possible grades, barely passing. It was a long way from being the undisputed top student in class. The number two guy went to Harvard. 

After BNKS I wrote a book on national politics. Based on that book I got accepted into the University of Chicago which had the top Economics department in the world, my new area of interest (I might have met Obama there!) "based not on your numbers but your actions and words." I did have the highest SAT scores in class. But the transcript for the final three years was all over the place. 

Getting accepted by Chicago was a way to wipe out the interim bad years, but even that had to be messed up by another Bahun, a baby Bahun. Five got admitted, two scholships were awarded. Basant took it. Rabin Koirala declined and went to India for medicine. One other guy also did not go for it. Manav Bhattarai, Board First, had plans to go to India for medicine. But he took the Chicago offer, went, spent a few weeks, then came back and went to India for medicine. That slot could have been mine. But you can't trust the Bahuns to do right by you, can you?

How do I feel about it today? I have been fortunate in my life in many ways. And I am in NYC. I can build a major company if I can prove I have what it takes. There are opportunities. But ethnic prejudice was crime then, as it is now, racism was crime then, and it is now. And there are untold millions who still suffer. 

The Madhesi plight is no better. And BNKS has a very similar fabric still. I was a token Madhesi at BNKS. The tokenism continues. 

I learned this morning the Nepal Police made CK Raut do the "kan samatera uth bas" like they once made Sunil do it. Not much has changed. The fight goes on.

I am going to build a company whose market value is going to exceed the total endowment of Berea College. And with some of that money I am going to build in Janakpur a school that is bigger and better than Budhanilkantha. I could use some therapy.

Budhanilkantha School (2)
BNKS' Gift To Me
Family, Internet, New York City
उपेन्द्र महतोका हात पकड़नेमें ५-६ साल


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