JOHN WHELPTON. Born 1950, Nottingham. Joined VSO from university. From 1972 to 1974, he worked as a volunteer lecturer in the English Language Training Team, Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu. He then spent six months as VSO’s Assistant Field Officer in Nepal, evaluating potential volunteer projects. He then worked for the Ministry of Defence in London before starting postgraduate research work at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University. He is currently doing fieldwork in India and Nepal for his PhD thesis, as well as co-editing the journal South Asia Research. John’s book, Jang Bahadur in Europe, is due for publication in late 1983. A series of photographs of the Kathmandu valley in 1972 can be viewed here and the Rounds Imaging Services site has many more taken outside the Valley by Peace Corps Volunteers in the 70s or earlier.
Although I had earlier thought vaguely about becoming a volunteer, my actual decision to apply was not taken until half-way through my final year at university. By what turned out to be a stroke of good fortune, the Civil Service Commission had told me that they could not decide until later in the year whether they would offer me a job, and this news meant that I had to think again about what I was going to do after graduation. I applied to VSO, offering my services as a teacher of English, the obvious choice for a prospective classics graduate with an interest in languages but no technical or professional qualifications. As my preferred area of posting I gave the Indian sub-continent, attracted, I think, both by romantic images of India and by the prospect of working in a developing country where liberal democracy had a stronger hold than in other parts of the Third World. The post I was eventually offered was as a member of a team teaching in the constituent colleges of Nepal’s Tribhuvan University, and so, in August 1972, accompanied by five other English teachers, an agriculturalist and a horticulturalist, I arrived in Kathmandu.
In 1972 there were fewer than twenty British volunteers in Nepal, the majority teaching English in colleges. VSO had no field office, the in-country back-up being provided by the British Council, whose Assistant Representative had direct responsibility for volunteers. Training arrangements for new arrival differed from year to year, and it had been decided that our group should train jointly with an incoming batch of American Peace corps volunteers. These were going to teach English at school level and would in most cases be posted to remote villages, as much as two or three days on foot from the nearest motorable road or airstrip. These are, in fact, the kind of circumstances in which many current VSOs in Nepal are working, but in 1972 most of us were destined for relatively soft billets in the towns.
Nine weeks after arrival in Kathmandu, having completed my in-country language and skills training and enjoyed a fortnight’s trekking in the shadow of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri, I moved to the Tarai town of Birgunj, where I was to spend the winter teaching at Thakur Ram College. I rented an upstairs room, functionally furnished, in a house on the outskirts of town, about fifteen minutes by cycle from Thakur Ram, and settled into my new routine.
Birgunj itself is similar in appearance to many North Indian towns. Hindi and Bhojpuri (the latter is a local dialect found on both sides of the border) are heard more often than Nepali. Its commercial importance really dates from the early years of the century, when the Indian railway was extended to the town of Raxaul just two miles to the south. Since the 1950s Birgunj has been connected by road with Kathmandu, ending the necessity for travelers to cross the hills on foot. It is now the point at which most tourists coming by land enter Nepal, though during my five months’ stay I was the only regular European resident out of a population of some fifteen thousand.
Life in Birgunj was thus a great contrast to Kathmandu, where the Anglo-American population was considerable. My main human contacts in Birgunj were my landlord’s young son, who climbed up to my room most mornings for as extensive a conversation as my halting Nepali would allow, and my fellow members of staff at Thakur Ram, most of whom spoke fluent English. In the staff-room, however, conversation was normally in Hindi, many of the teachers being from India, so that I could only follow what was said if someone switched to English to speak directly to me. In a way I found this isolation almost enjoyable – it added to the sense of adventure. But at the same time it was a source of considerable frustration and helped produce an almost obsessive desire to learn Nepali and Hindi well enough to overcome this barrier.
In addition to adjusting to a new environment, there was the job itself. My pupils were first- and second-year students, whose ages ranged from sixteen upwards and who were preparing for their Intermediate examination in Arts, Commerce or Science. The standard of thei examination varied from subject to subject, but was generally slightly higher than British `O’ level, while the Batchelor’s Degree, which those students who stayed on took at the end of their fourth year, could similarly be regarded as a little beyond `A’ level. The equivalent to a first degree at a British university was the Nepali Master’s, which could only be taken at Tribhuvan University’s central campus in Kathmandu.
The English syllabus in the college had recently been reformed to put the emphasis directly on basic language skills rather than on the study of literary texts. When volunteers were first brought into the colleges it was intended that they should demonstrate the teaching of the new syllabus for the benefit of members of staff who had themselves trained along traditional lines. This idea had, however, been abandoned, since most of the regular teachers had by now had some in-service training in new methods, even if the hearts of many of them were still with the old. I was thus going to function as an ordinary member of the English Department, whose job would be to teach `Use of Dictionary’ (in particular the phonetic transcription which the irrationality of English spelling makes necessary), to take the students through comprehension passages and grammatical exercises, and to improve their general conversational ability.
My initial nervousness gradually subsided as I got use to facing a class, but making myself fully understood was a problem which remained with me throughout the five months. Some of the students, particularly in the Arts faculty, simply did not have the command of English which the schools were supposed to have provided them (but then, how many British schoolchildren, with five years of French behind them, could follow lessons conducted entirely in that language?). This was a problem other members of staff could overcome in part by explaining particularly complicated points in Hindi, an option which I obviously lacked. My difficulties were compounded because many of the better students could cope with English spoken with an Indian or Nepal accent, but not with a British one. I did come up against this on my initial visit to Birgunj during training: no one in the class I addressed seemed to understand the word `wood’ until the teacher who was accompanying me remembered it with a much looser pronunciation of the `w’ – the result sounding to my ears rather like `u-oodd.’ Although the students became more used to my pronunciation with time, the difficulty was never completely overcome.
The system under which I was working also imposed great limitations. To start with, a syllabus which aimed to develop students’ skill in using English, rather than memorizing the critics’ opinions on Shakespeare or Wordsworth, demanded much smaller classes than those at Thakur Ram, which could number up to one hundred, but classes were never reduced.
In addition, the great range of proficiencies within each class made it virtually impossible to plan a lesson which would benefit everybody. And at the most fundamental level, there were complications inherent in traditional Nepali (or rather Hindu) culture. The ethos of submission and respect for authority was, in some ways, a great help. I did not have to contend with the kind of discipline problems I would anticipated with students of that age in Britain. At the same time, however, it reinforced an excessive emphasis on rote-learning, and on `the truth’ as something to be handed down from on high rather than sought out for oneself. Consequently, I spent a lot of time in class asking questions rather than lecturing. Having to do something more than just listen and copy down was a particular problem for many of the girls, since, with the interesting exception of the convent-educated, most were extremely shy in mixed company.
Because the work-load at Thakur Ram was light, I tried to fill in my time with other activities. Most satisfying was the two hours a week I spent with an in-service group of teachers at the College of Education. They were well-motivated and reasonably fluent, and I was able to concentrate on pronunciation problems. With a smaller class I could make proper use of the cassette recorder which the British Council had provided me, and thus enable the teachers to hear their own performance. When I was originally introduced to the group by the visiting British Council Language Officer, he told them how fortunate they were to have as an instructor a native speaker who, by definition, was incapable of making a a mistake in pronunciation. This billing did not allow for the fact that, as a northerner, I pronounced some words differently from the `Received Pronunciation’ of southern England taken as a model in our textbooks. On one occasion I was neatly caught out by an alert teacher when, in writing a phonetic transcription on the blackboard, I gave the word (I think it was `path’) a short vowel sound as in `cat’, rather than the long one (as in `part’) heard on the BBC and shown in the dictionary.
By the end of March., with the weather already becoming uncomfortably hot for my fanless room, I was quite ready for my scheduled move back to Kathmandu, where I was to teach for eighteen months at Amrit Science College – or Amrit Science Campus, as it was re-christened when the New Education Plan came into force later that year.
My work-load in Kathmandu was heavier than in Birgunj, but the pupils were considerably easier to teach. Science tends to attract the brightest and most conscientious students in Nepal, and Amrit took the cream of the applicants. Although for some lessons I still had to deal with very large numbers of students, for others they were broken down into `sets;, which were much more manageable. Having to repeat the same material several times each week could sometimes become tedious, but it did have the advantage that you could revise your presentation in the light of experience.
Nevertheless, there were some problems, a major one being the internally marked examinations which were introduced under Nepal’s New Education Plan. To ensure that marking was at least uniform within the college, I had suggested that each of us in the English department should see all the scripts, but mark only one-third of the questions. My two colleagues preferred to split the scripts into three piles, each of which would be marked entirely by one person. That was therefore what we did. When it turned out that I had marked consistently higher than the other two, all the marks were allowed to stand rather than attempting some form of averaging out. This introduced difficulties over and above those produced by widespread cheating in exams.
My time in Amrit coincided with political unrest in the country generally. The Singha Durbar (Lion Palace), which housed the main government offices, was gutted by fire soon after my return to Kathmandu. Although the cause was never definitely established, it was widely believed to have been the work of opponents of the regime. The president of the Students’ Union at Biratnagar Campus was later involved in hi-jacking a plane to India. There was also an attempt to assassinate King Birendra.
As elsewhere in Nepal. The student body at Amrit, or at least those of them who took an interest in politics, were divided into three groups: the Democrats, supporters of the Nepali Congress Party, which had won a General Election in 1959 but had been removed from power the following year by King Mahendra; the communists, of both pro-Moscow and pro-Peking varieties; and the Royalists, who supported the `partyless Panchayat democracy’ which Mahendra had set up. There was some friction between the various groups but politics at Amrit did not disrupt the smooth running of the college. In the years after I left that was to change: in 1979 a police attack on student demonstrators who had taken refuge in the Amrit hostel was one of the key events leading to the 1980 referendum on the constitution, and to some liberalization of `Panchayat democracy.’
I did witness one very brief strike. It was on the simple issue of tuition fees at Amrit. During one of my lessons a crowd o students gathered in the grounds outside, evidently preparing to stage a protest march. the reactions of my class neatly illustrated the varying degrees of militancy in their ranks. Two of my students, both of them prominent in college politics, leaped up immediately and dashed out of the room. Several boys in the class then began asking me to dismiss them: they wanted to join their companions but were reluctant to defy my authority directly, or to miss part of the course. I said I intended to continue the lesson and that they must decide whether or not to stay.. After some hesitation all the boys trooped out. the girls remained for a few minutes, looking progressively more bewildered, but eventually they, too, departed. This left me with a single pupil – the daughter of a member of the Indian aid mission in Nepal who took no interest in Nepalese student politics. I tried to continue taking the `class’ for a few minutes, but I was now feeling very self-conscious as numerous students were standing at the windows watching the strange spectacle! So eventually I gave in and declared the lesson at an end.
The college was only five minutes’ cycle ride away from my flat and my work left me with a lot of spare time. Apart from a few lessons on a commercial basis for well-heeled foreigners, I gave free lessons to any student willing to come to the flat. These included some from Amrit, and also friends who had regular jobs during the day and were studying in their spare time. I got used to the routine of rising at sis, having a shower and breakfasting, and then teaching from seven o’clock until eight.
At a time when my work-load at Amrit was particularly low, a British council representative put me in touch with a contract worker developing educational programmes for Radio Nepal, who asked me to script a schools’ broadcast on the United Nations and its specialist agencies. My script was translated into Nepali and I was furnished with a copy of the finished product so that I could follow the programme when it went out two or three weeks later.
My spare time was passed in a variety of ways:.reading, studying Nepali and Hindi, drinking `raksi’ (the potent local liquor) with friends, an cycling out to to the temples of Swayambhunath and Pashupatinath, the most important of the Kathmandu Valley’s many shrines. On one visit to Pashupatinath, the interior of which is strictly out of bounds to non-Hindus, I followed a young Nepali companion into what I thought was a complex of buildings separate from the main temple. On turning a corner I was surprised to find that we had in fact penetrated into the forbidden area. Since no one in the crowd had so far challenged me I decided to press on towards the centre of the courtyard and the inner shrine housing the `shiva-lingam’. My luck ran out, however, and we ended up being interrogated by the local Inspector of Police, Eventually we were both released, the fact that my companion had declared himself the son of a senior police officer in the Tarai (the area at the foot of the hills) possibly having speeded up the process.
My time in Nepal was due to end in August 1974, but three months or so before that the British Council representative, who had been corresponding with VSO London on plans for enlarging and re-shaping the volunteer programme in Nepal, suggested that I stay on for three or four months to investigate possible new openings. Everyone felt that the college teaching project was not really satisfactory: it had drifted far away from its original purpose of demonstrating new teaching methods, and even when a college provided a reasonable framework within which to work, as at Amrit, volunteers were rarely fully employed. At the same time VSO was keen to shift the emphasis as much as possible to more directly development-orientated work, and to projects benefiting the least advantaged sections of society. Teaching students who often came from the better-off homes, and/or were learning non-vocational subjects, did not therefore rate a high priority.
Between August and November I made a number of fact-finding trips to different parts of the country, looking at potential areas of VSO involvement and checking on colleges to which currently serving volunteers might be assigned. As well as talking with Nepali government officials in each district I visited, I saw a good cross-section of the work being done by other volunteer agencies – American, German and Japanese – and by foreign aid projects generally. In my report I wrote that I saw the best prospects for future involvement in the extension of basic health services in the hills, and in vocational (particularly technical) education. The subsequent expansion of VSO’s work in Nepal did not follow these lines precisely, since community water supply and forest conservation have been the major growth areas. Nonetheless, I had at least been able to provide some basic information to assist the first full-time VSO field officer, appointed a few months after I left, in the difficult task of getting new projects off the ground.
A description of one tour in eastern Nepal will illustrate my last few months in the country. My starting point was Biratnagar, the largest of the Tarai towns, and, by Nepalese standards, a major industrial centre. It was also the home town of B.P. Koirala, the Congress leader whom King Mahendra had removed in 1960, and it was still in many ways a Congress stronghold.
I visited the local campus, which was covered with posters denouncing the Indian Government’s conversion of Sikkim from a semi-independent protectorate to an integral part of the Indian Union. Most Nepalese viewed this as an outright annexation and as a possible threat to their own independence, and all the different student factions had united on the issue.. In view of the general political turbulence on the campus, the college Director said that it would be some time before Biratnagar became a suitable place for another volunteer. With this opinion I readily concurred.
While in Biratnagar I stayed with the staff of the clinic run by the Britain-Nepal Medical Trust, who were involved mainly in tuberculosis eradication. The doctor in charge had an idea for a `Hill Drugs Scheme’, supplying medicines at low cost direct to shopkeepers in the larger hill villages, and at the same time providing some basic instruction in their use. Some time later a VSO volunteer was in fact successfully employed in work of this kind.
I also met the Chief District Officer, a central government appointee with functions roughly equivalent to those of a prefect of a French department, Somewhat to my alarm, he promptly summoned a meeting of the `nagar panchayat’ (Town council) for my benefit. The councillors included M. P. Koirala, brother of the Congress leader mentioned above and himself a former Prime Minister. After the introductions I had a general discussion on the needs of the area with the council chairman and one or two of his colleagues. They were particularly keen on securing a volunteer to re-plan the town’s water and sewerage system - a major undertaking which called for a highly experienced engineer.
From Biratnagar I travelled north to the town of Dharan, at the foot of the hills, site of the British recruiting centre for Gurkha soldiers. VSO had placed a volunteer in the local campus two or three years previously, but her position had been difficult because of student resentment of the British base. The recruitment of Nepali nationals into the British army is disapproved of by the educated elite, though, for the hill tribesmen who provided most of he recruits, it is highly prized, both for its economic benefits and for its general prestige. Though successive governments make ritual opposition to the practice, they are unlikely to put a stop to it.
From Dharan it was an easy morning start on the nine- or ten-hour walk to Dhankhuta, an extremely attractive hill town which was not to be connected by road to the plains until 1982. I stayed with a German volunteer and his Australian wife, met the Chief District Officer, interviewed some of the staff of the village industries training centre and, with haunting songs in Gaelic issuing from the record player, discussed health problems with the Irish doctor running the Britain-Nepal Medical Trust clinic.
Two days of further trekking, including s thorough soaking from the monsoon’s last fling, brought me to the hill town of Bhojpur; like Dhankhuta, both a commercial centre for the surrounding district and accessible only on foot or by helicopter. There, apart from allowing myself and my gear to dry out, I found that the local campus had enough work for a volunteer to be posted there next term. Two days later and I was on the long walk back to the Arun River and the grass landing-strip at Tumlin Taur. From there I was to return to Kathmandu by Royal Nepal Air Corporation 20-seater plane passing over in a few minutes the ridges I had spent days climbing and descending.
In December 1974 it was finally time to return home, and the New Year saw me behind a desk in the Ministry of Defence. Yet, in a way, I had never left Nepal. Much of my spare time was still taken up studying Nepali and Hindi, and my circle of friends in Britain now included a high proportion of people I had met during, or through, my time with VSO. I kept in close touch, too, with friends in Nepal and India. The following year a Nepali friend who I had known since my teaching practice in 1972 came to the UK on a British Council scholarship, and the two of us worked together translating an account of the experiences of an earlier Nepali traveler, Prime Minister Jang Bahadur Rana, who had led a diplomatic mission to London in 1850.
Throughout this time I was becoming more and more unhappy in the Civil Service. In 1981 I finally took the plunge, resigning from the Ministry and enrolling at the London School of Oriental and African Studies to do a doctoral thesis on Jang Bahadur and the Nepali political system of his time, a system whose effects are still very much in evidence in present-day Nepal. I am spending the current academic year (1982-3) searching for material in Nepal and India, with the generous assistance of friends on both sides of the border. And so I come to be completing this account in a flat on the outskirts of Delhi, amidst the sounds outside of preparations for a traditional wedding feast, and with the road to Allahabad, Patna and Kathmandu ahead of me.
(first published in Michael Edwards (ed.), Arriving Where We Started: 25 years of Voluntary Service Overseas, London: VSO/IT Publications, 1983, pp. 52-63.)
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