Kathmandu Post, 2009/07/31
Long before it became fashionable in Kathmandu to discuss ways to eradicate caste, class and ethnic boundaries and discrimination, there was one Nepali space where this was already taking place. The hill station of Darjeeling, where the British went to cool off, has retained an institutional legacy of colonialism that even the staunchest post-colonialist would have a hard time criticising. This legacy comes in the form of British-style boarding schools which teach children not just the time-honoured stiff upper lip regarding hardships, but also an absolute levelling of all social hierarchies.
These schools have literally transformed thousands upon thousands of Nepali students into intelligent, efficient and law-abiding citizens. Ever wondered why some institutions in Nepal function so well, despite the crazy culture of malingering and corruption? The secret is probably a Darjeeling (or “Darj” for short) alum. I’d guarantee there’s a high likelihood of discovering a Darj alum behind the scene of a school, hotel and business that seem to show sign of genuine meritocracy, entrepreneurship and ethical leadership.
I spent four years, between the ages of 8 to 12, in Dowhill School, Kurseong. Kurseong is a pretty little town in the district of Darjeeling. I was fortunate enough to get this chance for two reasons. One, because my mother fought for it despite my grandparents’ opposition (“why spend so much money on a girl’s education?”). And two, because a kindly headmistress in Guheswori Primary School in Kathmandu advocated on my behalf and told my parents that their daughter was bright and she would ask her sister, also a headmistress, to give me a scholarship in Kurseong. So I was a scholarship child even at that early age. I slept in a dormitory with children from all over India and Nepal. The girl who slept on my left was a Lepcha, and the girl on my right was a Brahmin. My best friend was from a Dalit caste (although I didn’t know this since it was never discussed, till three decades later.) We never knew what caste or class or ethnicity we were. I was aware of my gender, though—my parents had chosen to put my brother in an expensive private school known as Mt. Hermon School (he wasn’t a scholarship student in a government school, that was for sure), and I was always reminded of the gap between him and me. Just in case I were to get any uppity ideas, my parents promptly removed me from Darjeeling and brought me back to Kathmandu on the day my brother graduated from high school.
So that is why reading The Dark Mermaid was a bittersweet experience for me. On the one hand, I loved the fable of the dark girl from a poor family who is able to escape her background and her roots and go—where else?—but the fabled Mt. Hermon School, where she is able to exhibit her swimming skills and wow the entire school as a star athlete. On the other hand, I couldn’t help being jarred, here and there, by the unreality of the story. For instance, how do Mr. and Mrs. Nepali of Birgunj manage to put a girl in that expensive school despite barely being able to meet their household expenses? The father assures his daughter he will manage—but he never tells us how.
This push and pull of the book is tangible. I really want to believe that all caste, gender, class and skin colour boundaries can be eradicated through the simple miracle of boarding school—after all, haven’t those of us who suffered though boarding school all experienced that salvation of equality in one form or another? On the other hand, how many Nepali people can actualise their dream to put their daughter in these institutions, and how many Birgunj girls actually make it out to Mt. Hermon and become swimming champions?
The swimming champion plot, a rip-roaring, Quiddich competition type ride, hit a personal nerve. The act of swimming, for me, has always stood for my gender inequality. My brother was a swimming champion in Mt. Hermon School (we have photographs to prove it) but I never learnt to swim because there were no swimming lessons in my government school.
In The Dark Mermaid, however, Dowhill School appears on equal terms, all real-world inequalities eradicated, and the girls there compete freely and win freely along with Mt. Hermon in the swimming competition. In an email exchange, the author admitted to me his book is fiction and he’s taken liberty with the truth, and this graceful reworking of inequality reminded me how much of children’s fiction works because it does both—it is both a reflection of social reality, as well as a reworking of it.
To sum up—The Dark Mermaid is a fantastic book, one that is sorely needed in Nepal. I found the writing to be clear, accessible and wonderfully easy to read. My autobiographical musings is more adult quibbling than anything else. The book is sure to provide Nepali students with a book that they can identify with and claim as their own. I hope that Amar Shrestha, as well as other writers like him, will continue to write these books for students in Nepal and that this is just the beginning of a long series of works for children. Let’s hope this book gets picked up by schools around Nepal so that it encourages more writers to pick up the pen and start writing out new worlds for Nepali children.