I have been writing a book “Children of the Eighties” for the past three months. Recollecting memories from childhood meant remembering those teachers who made a difference. Two teachers came in my mind – our school principal, SNB. And our history teacher, Ratna Bahadur Shakya. And I wrote stories about these two Gurus.
They say writers get attached to their book’s characters. As we write, we start imagining how they would have reacted or what they would have commented. Ratna Bahadur Sir was continuously in my mind for the past three months. Last night, I released my book. Before I could announce, I saw a notice from our school that Ratna Bahadur Sir had passed away. It was, indeed, a painful moment for me.
I am sharing an excerpt from the book. This will take you back to our class when Ratna Bahadur Sir narrated stories about prominent leaders of Nepal.
Chapter – Our Nepali Iron Man
“I am delighted with you all today. So, I will tell you a story of a man who always managed to run away from prison,” our history teacher once announced.
Ratna Bahadur, our history teacher, had immense knowledge about the history of Nepal. He taught us what was included in our curriculum, which was predominantly the history of the Shah dynasty. But what he truly enjoyed was narrating stories of a Newari culture that were not included in the course curriculum.
“Newars have been living in Kathmandu Valley for thousands of years,” he often said with pride and conviction, “Newars are the creators of the valley’s historical heritage and the civilization.”
However, he had two conditions for his students for him to tell a story outside our course curriculum. First, when he entered the classroom, he should find all students quietly waiting for him. Second, a student should stand up and politely ask the relevant question at the right time. For example, if we asked him the story of Christmas in December, he considered that to be appropriate. If we requested the same in July, he asked us to wait till December for the story.
He was a great storyteller and had a unique way of narrating his stories by inserting himself into the event. Whenever he recounted a story of any prominent historical incident, he always asked,
“Why do you think I know about this?”
He further explained, “This is because when Buddha was running from his palace to become a monk that night, this Ratna Bahadur was standing next to the door watching him leave.”
Every time he said so, the entire class laughed and cheered, which he wholeheartedly enjoyed.
And so, on that day, he was happy to find a relatively quiet classroom when he entered. That was right after Nepal’s first democratic movement in 1990, and we had started hearing about a leader known as Ganesh Man Singh.
“You know he was a rebel during the autocratic rule of the Ranas. You know what it meant to be a protester during that time?” he asked the class.
“Jail,” we replied, as we knew what Ranas did to those that protested. Our school history book had characterized the Rana rule with tyranny, debauchery, economic exploitation, and religious persecution. They imprisoned and executed any influential political activist.
“Yes, imprisonment and death by the Ranas,” he said, “But there was not a single prison that could hold Ganesh Man.
“Ranas could not kill the Brahmins, but Ganesh Man was the son of a Newar, and they desperately wanted to kill him.”
Our teacher was referring to the then-applicable Nepali Civil Code or Muluki Ain, rooted in traditional Hindu Law, that forbade the killing of Brahmins. And as per the caste hierarchy that the Ranas followed, Ganesh Man, being a Newar, could be killed.
“But Ranas failed miserably. Every time he was caught, he managed to break out from prison,” our teacher said, in a flattering tone, and asked the class, “Do you know how he once escaped prison?”
We did not know because no book had narrated the story of Ganesh Man back then.
“An untouchable low-caste sewage collector (chyame) used to visit the prison to collect human waste. Ganesh Man dressed up as a chyame, collected human waste in a tokri (the basket), and left the prison. The guards did not come close to chyame. And he escaped from prison.
“Do you know how I know about it?” he asked again in his signature style.
“NO,” we shouted.
“I know because as he was escaping from the prison, this Ratna Bahadur was watching him from behind?”
We all laughed.
“You know, when Ganesh Man was in prison, the guards always hit him with an iron rod,” our teacher continued, “He did not feel pain after a while. Every time the guards hit him, he laughed instead of crying.
“And he escaped again, this time, he had dug a hole from his cell and crawled out to freedom. And do you know how I know about it?” our teacher asked again.
“YES,” we shouted, “Because you were watching him from behind.”
“NO,” he said, surprising all of us, “How is it possible? I was not even born then. I read about it.”
And we laughed again, making our teacher excited about his own stories. He continued, “He managed to escape from prison multiple times, and whenever they caught him again, his captors marched him through the city with his hands and ankles chained in iron.
“He always walked with his head and chest held high accompanied by a big smile on his face. Do you know how I know about it?”
“YES,” we shouted, “You read about it.”
“NO,” he said, “How can I read about it? No one has written about it. I know because as he was marching in New Road, this Ratna Bahadur was standing and watching him from behind.”
And we laughed again. “And guess what? Over the years, people always saw him chained in iron or hit by an iron rod. So, his supporters started calling him Ironman,” our teachers said, concluding his story. And the entire class clapped honoring the ‘Ironman of Nepal.’
That is how our history teacher Ratna Bahadur narrated stories.
Thank you, Sir, for your passion for storytelling. Thank you, Sir, for making history so enjoyable. And thank, Sir, for inspiring your students to pass your stories to the next generation.