20 Jan 2017
12 min read
One evening a few weeks ago, I attended open mic night at My Small Kitchen, a restaurant in Banepa. It was freezing cold, and I was sitting with my “uncle,” Tika Bhocchibhoya, sipping Irish whiskey and trying to keep warm. Tika’s son, Sudip, who owns My Small Kitchen, was serving steaming buff momos on sal leaf plates and cans of Everest beer, the apparent staple of the evening. A young man was singing ‘Timi Jane Siliguri’ loudly over the mic, accompanied by two guitars and a cajón. Geometric shapes from a light system danced around the walls, and groups of hip young Newars sang along from their tables loudly. Shouting over the music, I asked Tika if he could have imagined all this—open mic night, his son’s restaurant, the dusty metropolis that Banepa has become—in 1966, when he was a sixth grade student. “How could I have?,” he shouted back.
On Saturday, Tika and several of his old classmates—Bikram Shakya, Vidhya Shrestha, Deen Dayalu Bade, Hitler Shakya, Om Bahadur Magar, Shyam Shrestha, Dan Bahadur Bade and Raj Bhai Manandhar—will be holding an exhibition of photographs taken in Banepa from 1966-1968. The event, at Banepa Party Venue, will be an opportunity to reunite with old friends, reminisce and share memories of Banepa with a younger generation. Many of the photos that will be shown were taken by my mother, Barbara Butterworth, who arrived in Banepa in 1966 at the age of 22, just a few years older than Tika and her other students at Azad School, where she taught science for two years as an American Peace Corps Volunteer.
Today, Banepa is best known as a roadside pit stop along the Arniko Highway. The highway is lined with retail shops, banks, motorcycle showrooms, wholesalers selling grains, cloth, plastics, cookware. It is dusty and noisy, and although saplings have been planted on its sidewalks by some enterprising young local environmentalists, there is little greenery. Banepa has become the commercial centre of Kavre District (the more scenic town of Dhulikhel, on the ridge above, is the administrative capital), and it is inhabited by a mix of ethnic and economic groups from all over the district.
In 1966, however, the highway, which had been only recently paved by the Chinese, was surrounded by rice fields. Banepa was a town of Newar traders then, and the bazaar was set back several hundred metres to the north of the road. On sunny winter days, the sky was crystal blue and the himals sparkled to the north. Two Russian jeeps made daily trips to Kathmandu, which they would announce by honking their horns and calling out for any last customers.
My mother arrived with one other American, Suzanne Speakman, also assigned by the Peace Corps to teach at Azad. They moved into a flat in a stately white home in the centre of the bazaar, and began teaching almost immediately. My mother quickly developed a friendship with the school’s charismatic young headmaster, Ram Bhakta Kokh Shrestha, and a group of bright students in class six, including Tika and my other “uncles” and “aunties”, who to this day refer to her as “Barby Miss.”
After school, the students often visited my mother’s flat to hang out, read, play table tennis, sing songs into her tape recorder. These friendships endured and evolved over the years. After leaving Banepa in 1968, my mother returned to Kathmandu in the 1970s to work on a USAID education project and then again in the 1980s, with my father, and I was born here in 1987. As a kid, I would go with my parents to celebrate major holidays—Mha Puja, Chandeswori Jatra—at my uncles’ and aunties’ houses in Banepa. After Ram Bhakta passed away, his students and my mother established the Ram Bhakta Kokh Shrestha Memorial Scholarship Fund in his memory, which has been providing scholarships for students at Azad and in the greater Banepa area since 1987. Funds are raised through an annual scholarship walk and a Newar feast (this year’s walk will be held on February 4; visit www.facebook.com/miterichhatrabritti.kosh for details).
The morning after open mic night, I visited one of my mother’s former students, Bhusan “Bhomi” Shrestha, at his home near My Small Kitchen. We sat in his living room, where a harmonium sat on the floor. Bhusan was once a student at the Acorn pre-school, which my mother and Suzanne founded in 1966. He loved singing and dancing then, and when he grew up, he became a musician—first as part of the band that played at Kathmandu’s old Rastriya Nach Ghar and later as a music and dance teacher at a boarding school.
Bhusan said he had fond memories of the Acorn School. “I was one of the most popular teachers at the Police Academy, and it was because I used a lot of the techniques I remember Barby Miss used, to make class fun.” After visiting with Bhusan, I walked down the street to meet another Acorn student, Lok Sudhar Bhaila, who lives in a large red house. We sat in his living room, decorated with posters and statues of various gods and goddesses, teddy bears and a stuffed gorilla eating a banana. Lok Sudhar is a businessman, and his sons work abroad in the US and the UK. I asked him about the changes he had seen over the years in Banepa.
He acknowledged that the changes were dramatic but said it was hard to compare the present with the past, because the past is clouded by nostalgia, not only for the place that Banepa was, but for a younger, more innocent stage of life. “When you’re a kid, all you’re concerned about is playing. Your parents take care of everything. You don’t have to worry about money or disputes in your family. When you’re older, you have many more worries. You can have a big house, and still you won’t be satisfied.”
Later, I met up with the organisers of Saturday’s photo exhibit at the Banepa Party Venue, where they were holding a planning meeting. I asked them about my mother’s science classes. Deen Dayalu, who owns a printing press, said, “I remember making a telephone using a tin can. We would tie a string to the ends of two cans, and pull it tight, and stand across the field from each other. One person would talk, and you could hear it on the other side!”
“And at that time there were no telephones here,” said Bikram Shakya, who owns a plastic wholesale business. “Actually,” said Shyam Shrestha, who recently retired from the Nepal Electricity Authority, “There was one telephone at the communications office. You would wind it up, and you talked into it like a walkie-talkie. You’d say what you wanted, and then you’d say ‘over.’” The conversation drifted. “The first time I ever had fried rice was at Barby Miss’s house,” said Bikram. “Now you can get that anywhere.”
The students recalled an incident when a Chinese circus came to town. The whole town gathered to watch the acrobats and fire-eaters, including my mother and Suzanne. But when the Chinese found out about the Americans, they asked them to leave (the US and Communist China had not yet established a friendly relationship). When my mother got up to leave, explained Raj Bhai Manandhar, “The whole crowd became agitated, and everyone started to walk out with the Misses.” In the end, they were allowed to stay. (In my mother’s recollection, Newsweek somehow heard about the story and called my grandmother, in New York, for an interview.)
I asked the students about the changes Banepa has seen over the past 50 years. Hitler Shakya, a watchmaker, recalled that in 1966, there were no toilets, except for the one at my mother’s house. “If you were in a hurry to go, you’d have to run down to the river!”
Deen agreed that life has become easier but said people have become lazier too. “In those days, we would polish our father’s shoes. They would yell at us, and we would have to do it. And we would polish our own. Today, our children also ask us to polish their shoes. Even our grandchildren—we polish their shoes too. So we’re polishing four generations’ shoes!”
“Another thing is that many more girls go to school now,” said Tika Bhochhibhoya, whose sister dropped out of school early. Today, his own daughter, Silu, has a PhD and teaches at a university in Europe.
He added, “When Silu was going to Solu Khumbu [for her Master’s research], my wife was upset because it was far away. I said, listen, Barbie Miss came this far when she was just 22. If Silu goes to Solu, she’ll learn a lot, and it’s not half as far as Miss came.”
Photos taken by my mother, as well as other Peace Corps Volunteers—Suzanne Speakman, Ron Elliot— and Jerry Young will be on display on Saturday, 11 AM to 3 PM; entrance is free, and open for all.
(Banepa 1966-1968 Photo Exhibition; presented by Miteri Chhatrabritti Kosh Banepa Party Venue, Banepa; 11-3 pm; January 21, 2017)