Following the winter break of fifty days, regular classes of grade ten resumed in full swing and with it crept in the haunting fear of S.L.C. I wanted to pass S.L.C. in first division, at least. Only about two to four percent of students from Padmodaya were able to secure first division during those days. At that time, I could not dream of anything beyond S.L.C – I had no idea of what I would be studying a year from then and which college I would be attending.
It was about three months into the grade ten when a letter from Nepal Children Organization (Nepal Baal Sanghathan) arrived at my school notifying that Sharad Pokharel and I had been selected to go to Russia in June/July of the year 1979. Sharad Pokharel was selected for having won the inter-school essay competition and I for having won the inter-school speech competition.
The news was overwhelming and it brought a lot of excitement into my life. I could not believe that I was actually going to Russia for a whole month. That would be my first time out of the country and the first opportunity to fly. Sharad and I went to Baal Mandir, Naxal, and learned that two more winners in other categories were joining us: Ms. Sagun Shrestha for Dance and Bikash Karmacharya for Fine Arts. So there we were; the four winners who had earned our places! In addition, there were two others, Nischal Nath Pandey and Archana Satyal, who would be joining us even though they had not won any competition. Nischal, about nine years old, was son of Ramesh Nath Pandey (This is the same person who was the foreign minister in the Royal cabinet before Jana Andolan II.). Archana was daughter of Bhubeneswari Satyal who was the general secretary of Nepal Children Organization. Good for Nischal and Archana! Their parents were able to send them to Russia without having to win any competition. Nevertheless, I was glad that they had not replaced me with some other minister’s son. During those days in Nepal, people close to Royals could do ‘anything’.
After a month from the first notice, the six of us left for Russia accompanied by Shambhu Shrestha, a section officer from Nepal Children Organization. I was really excited to fly in a plane for the first time. The plane flew to New Delhi where we had eight hours long transition. The next plane was from Delhi to Tashkent. After a brief stop at Tashkent, the plane headed to the communist capital, the city of Moscow. We had two interpreters, Olya and Rita, who came to receive us at the Moscow airport. Both were fluent in English and Russian. They served us as counselors and interpreters throughout the month long stay in Russia. One could only guess how the communist regime created jobs. It was a sheer waste of time for those two ladies devoting their entire time to us for a whole month. We were taken to a Russian style five star hotel. After a day’s rest in the hotel, Mr. Gyanendra Bahadur Karki, the then Nepalese Ambassador to Soviet Union, contacted us. This was because Nischal’s father who then was the editor-in-chief of the first Nepali weekly newspaper, Naya Sandesh, and thus very influential, had informed the ambassador about his son’s arrival with the team. We had a nice dinner at the Ambassador’s house and he was very courteous towards us. However, he did not miss the opportunity to trade our US dollars with Russian rubbles. We later came to know that we could have gotten a better rate if we had exchanged the dollars with outside brokers. Well, we sighed and convinced ourselves that the extra money we lost to him was paid for the dinner he provided!
After a few of days of stay in Moscow, we were taken to the summer camp called Artek, which was a beautiful resort on the shores of Black Sea. The resort was amazingly soothing. There were students from almost every country in the world. Soviet students were there too and hardly a few of them could speak English. All of a sudden, I felt like an English professor, despite my broken English, and I gladly gave some of them a few English lessons. Russian students knew very little about countries outside of Soviet Union. They praised Lenin and Stalin like God. Communism was ingrained into their psyche from early childhood and they were taught to be a true communist above anything else. Ironically, they fanatically craved for foreign goods. They even asked us to trade our handkerchiefs because it was made outside of U.S.S.R.
Daily routine in the camp was very boring – wake up, go for a swim, have breakfast, do some boring activities, have lunch, take a nap, do some more boring activities, have dinner and then go to bed. What a machine-like life it was!
After about four weeks of stay at Artek, we headed back to Moscow. Some of the members of our team were crying at the time of departure. I guess they had an ‘extra-interesting’ time with Russian counterparts in the camp. I can now understand their emotions because they were about 16 years old then. One of my team members went back to Russia after completing his intermediate level and one of the reasons for his going back could be the ‘relationship’ he had established at Artek. However, this is just my speculation and I do not know the facts and the details for sure.
We came back to the same hotel in Moscow and I waited eagerly to head back to Kathmandu. Moscow was a different place then. People in the streets would just come to you and ask if you had dollars to exchange. Russians loved dollars and foreign goods, and prized them dearly. One could sell an old pair of jeans or a pair of foreign shoes at very high prices. And, there were very few grocery shops – I still remember being on queue for thirty minutes to buy a cup of yogurt.
Finally, we left Moscow. Thirty days in U.S.S.R made me a different person. We landed at Kathmandu on a rainy day. I had so many stories to tell my friends and family that I did not know where to start. I went to my village the following week, met my grandfather, and told him all about the visit. He asked me a lot of questions, one of them being “What did you learn?” No one had asked me that question before and I had to pause, wondering how to answer in a couple of sentences what I learned in thirty days, before finally answering, “What one sees cannot always be explained in words but the more one sees the better one learns to see.” In Nepali, “आँखाले देखेको कुरा मुखले भट्याउन गाह्रो हुँदोरहेछ। जति हेर्यो उति आँखा र दिमागको सामन्जस्यता बढ्दो रहेछ।” He nodded his head and told me that I better summarize it as “What you see depends upon how you see.” In Nepali, “दृश्य दृष्टिकोणमा भर पर्छ।”
Soon after I got back from Russia, a few college level student leaders supporting Russian communist principles came to Padmodaya and invited me to a couple of their meetings. At first I resisted but finally they convinced me to attend one of the meetings to be addressed by their number one student leader Kailash Karki. The meeting room wall was full of photos of Lenin, Stalin, and Marx, and they reminded me of my recent visit to U.S.S.R. The meeting, on the other hand, was very strange – one boring speech after another. Student leaders took turns at the podium and delivered fiery speeches against America while expressing their support for communism in Nicaragua. A communist uprising was broiling in Nicaragua during that time. However, I did not find any sound logic behind their vehement speeches. I threw a couple of direct questions at Kailash Karki during question/answer session, one of my questions being “Why are you guys so much against America?” He looked at me as if I were crazy and responded, “Let’s talk about that offline.” That was it. I never attended the Nepal Student Federation meeting thereafter and that was my experience of recruitment and brainwashing exercise, the communist style.
Missing a month of school before the S.L.C. qualifying test meant that I had a lot of lessons to catch up. Hence, I made study my top priority, though not an ultimate priority. After the qualifying test, S.L.C. preparation started and I still remember those dull days – studying the same thing over and over again for more than three months. In spite of such thorough revision, I felt I still did not have a good command over any subject. I found English the toughest subject and, every morning, I read the English book, which had about a dozen of chapters, from the beginning till the end. Our headmaster Krishna Bahadur Manandhar had so much hope on some of us that he even provided us with private classes at his home for free. He wanted at least one of us to secure a position in the SLC’s nationwide top ten merit list.
Nine days of S.L.C. exam finally started and it was over before I could take a full breath. I was really happy the exams were over but the happiness did not last long. Anxiety about the results seized me – I had not performed very well in some of the subjects. One of such subjects was Nepali and I had wasted more than 50% of the exam time answering questions carrying only 10% of the total mark. Bad time management on my part!
The long awaited S.L.C. result was finally out. I was in my village and I rushed to Kathmandu only to find that I had passed the test barely in first division. The killer was the Nepali subject – I had narrowly escaped the failing margin. I should have got one of the best marks in Nepali if my actual caliber in the subject were to be fairly judged. What a screwed up three hours I had on the day of the Nepali test!
The system of evaluating students’ potential in the three hours timeframe usually does not work. More often than not, I have been a victim of this system as I do not perform well when I am restricted inside a box or within a defined timeframe. That may be one of the reasons why our education system does not produce enough scientists and thinkers. We only produce many technicians. Those who cannot become technicians then end up being administrators and politicians. We severely lack smart people in administrative and political circles. This trend will continue until we change our education system for the better. It is high time that we work towards creating an environment that encourages students to think and think and THINK (not just to pass exams and bag certificates). After all, it is the thinkers who invent and change the world around us.