Published in The Kathmandu Post

Telling Stories

For Nepal to successfully embrace this powerful wave of socio-cultural change, we need to exchange our stories.

I was born in Baneshwar, raised in the same neighborhood that is a stone’s throw away from Kathmandu’s Tribhuwan International Airport. I was raised by proud Chhetri parents who never made me forget how special I was; in fact, how special the family was compared to most other families in Nepal. Growing up, we socialized amongst people - relatives and family friends - who held similar beliefs; so it wasn’t until I found myself in a predominantly white American college in the United States that I experienced, first hand, what it feels to not be treated in a special way, to not feel proud all the time. In other words, the psychological and emotional shift that being a minority compelled me to go through shook me to the core and thus started, within me, a process of transformation.

That process of positive self-transformation may not have been healthy or sustainable without stories. Stories of homeland that I exchanged with other international students who were facing similar internal conflicts and undergoing similar transformations. Stories that I read in literature courses about individuals in ancient societies and cultures who had faced conflict, and simultaneously, change. Stories that I thought about for many nights and days and discussed with new friends over meals. And finally, stories that were read from big picture books to five year old children inside our college’s Early Childhood Center where I worked part-time.

Every week, inside those classrooms, I watched a teacher lead wide-eyed children through a story, listened to her guide delicate brains to think about a character’s choice and noted down the questions she asked in order to make them brainstorm possible solutions to a problem. Back then, it was inside those classrooms that life made the most sense to me. It was there that my past met my present and led the way to my future. I was also beginning the difficult process of articulating my own story, starting to think about my lifework: What did I want to be when I grew up? I turned to storybooks for answers.

“Conflict and change? Or peace and no-change? What would you choose for your society?” That was the final question posed to the Top Five contestants in the Miss India Pageant of 1995. I had just become a teeenager. Watching the live telecast of the pageant, huddled on the living room floor amongst aunts and cousins, I wasn’t able to fully grapple the weight of that question. But I can somewhat remember Manpreet Brar’s answer even now. She chose: Conflict and change. Only societies that face conflict and hence change as a result can adapt in this fast-paced world and hope to develop, said Manpreet Brar and walked away with the crown.

Her answer resonated with me during those harsh college years, when I was forced to change my ways of thinking, acting and being. Meanwhile, I continued my work with young childern, continued to read stories with them. Along with the children, I learned: In a story, when faced with a conflict, characters often make a choice. If they make a good choice, the ensuing change in their life-circumstance will be positive and beneficial; if they make a bad choice, the change will most likely be harmful. These elements weren’t true just inside picture books, these were the basic truths of life.

And so I pursued elementary school teaching with a burning passion for the next phase of my life. Somewhere deep down, I knew that I was doing what I was doing more for my sake than for anything else. I needed to learn and relearn some basic life-lessons. I needed to understand, more fully, the stages that I had gone through in my own life. I thought about the conflicts I had faced and the choices I made. What were the good choices? Which ones were mistakes? And had I learned from my mistakes? Conflict and change, in some areas, had been easy and natural while in other areas, almost impossible. When I embraced change, I felt successful and was happy. When I refused to change, I experienced more friction.

Earlier, I mentioned that life made the most sense to me when I listened to stories. And now, more than a decade later, I feel the same way. For our society to successfully embrace this powerful wave of socio-cultural change, we need to exchange our stories. For Nepal to understand its conflict and move ahead, our citizens need to get immersed in literacy, to practice all the steps of being a good reader, a good listener and a good thinker.

This process can start with anyone, but it’s most effective with youth. Better still, with young children, with very young children who are still wide-eyed, whose brains are still delicate, and who are hungry to listen to stories and talk about them, who are ready, at every moment, to be transformed.

Kunwar holds an M.S. Ed from City University of New York and is director of education at Edushala

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