9 MIN READ
In this week’s Writing Journey, Akhilesh Upadhyay, editor of The Kathmandu Post for most of the 2010s, traces his trail from Jhapa, Nepal’s southeastern-most district, to Kathmandu and beyond.
Like many in this series, Akhilesh-ji pays tribute to those who have helped him — his schoolteacher mother and physician father. Although in a technical field, his father liked to read broadly, including fiction, and liked to write about what he read.
Growing up in the 1980s, Akhilesh remembers being “a lonely and curious boy” who liked reading, radio, and Rousseau. He was addicted to listening to the family’s National Panasonic radio, and devoured “everything cricket and sports.” I can relate. In my teens, I religiously read the sports page of The Washington Post — and pretty much nothing else. I’m glad my parents never saw this as a useless distraction. Looking back, reading about sports taught me a lot, both little and big, about writing and storytelling. I’m glad Akhilesh’s parents didn’t get in his way either.
Akhilesh’s writing journey emphasizes “reading on a wide range of subjects.” Doing so, he says, helped him as a journalist and editor; it helped him “develop a vocabulary and empathy” for people and events. He also stresses constantly evolving as a reader and writer, never growing complacent. If you begin to stagnate, he says, develop a specialty, maybe even write a book — “Dig deep into one field.”
One writing pointer that Akhilesh gives that I particularly like is to write down useful phrases and sentences. You can collect expressions to use yourself at some point down the line. I do this, not just of Nepali phrases, but also English verbs, phrases, and sentence structures. Another is to read and re-read effective articles to analyze what makes them work. Akhilesh-ji ends with thoughts on humility and honesty that I think no writer should forget.
Akhilesh Upadhyay is a Senior Research Fellow at IIDS, a Kathmandu-based think tank. He has 30 years of experience as a newspaper editor and political analyst. He was Editor-in-Chief of The Kathmandu Post for 10 years until 2018. He has also written for The New York Times, Indian Express, and Hindustan Times. He closely follows political developments in South Asia and what the rise of China means to the region, a topic that has featured in a number of his articles, including his interviews with China expert Andrew Nathan (The Record, August 29, 2018) and former Nepal Army chief Gaurav SJB Rana (The Record, March 11, 2019). He holds a master's degree in journalism from New York University.
Writing Journeys is a weekly series curated by Tom Robertson and features a wide range of Nepali writers detailing their writing pathways and offering advice. Writing Journeys appears every Wednesday on The Record. All past entries in the series can be found here.
I went to school mostly in Kathmandu, but I developed my passion for English language and literature at a very modest public library in my hometown of Bhadrapur in my late teens in the 1980s. Among my earliest readings were short story volumes and novels by Somerset Maugham and two great Russian writers — Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I read all their masterpieces. They were writing about places and people completely alien to me — a very cold Russia, a very different civilization, and an extremely complex set of characters; War and Peace alone has more than 550 of them. Yet, I found myself relating to these strange stories and decidedly unconventional protagonists.
A big thanks to my parents. My father, a medical doctor, had an extensive collection of works from great masters of the Nepali language — Parijat, Devkota, Leknath Poudel, Gopal Prasad Rimal, among others — but also a great many literary journals. He has several books (mostly critiquing writers and their works) and numerous articles in literary journals and newspapers to his credit. He wrote them for self-satisfaction. Literature was a happy escape from an everyday life to connect to a larger audience. He would receive invitations from writers across the border in Darjeeling and Assam, and he greatly valued these interactions.
Unsurprisingly, we would get local daily papers and weeklies at home in Bhadrapur. That gave me an early taste of Nepali-language journalism and helped me develop my sensibility. My mom, a schoolteacher, put a lot of emphasis on reading. That was one way to keep her happy, for she was never impressed with my poor handwriting.
In those pre-internet days, I would wait for the Times of India, which arrived in the border town by evening (sometimes the next day) from the big Indian city of Siliguri. By this time, I was playing local club cricket and wanted to devour everything cricket and sports. BBC World Service and Radio Australia were both exotic and exciting company for a lonely and curious boy in an obscure Tarai town to develop his worldview — through news, music, and sports.
Our proud family possession, the National Panasonic radio, soon became my lifeline to the world and my father never stopped complaining that the Eveready batteries were running out. He had no idea that it would be my inseparable companion once he left home. My taste for good English was almost a byproduct of all the reading about sports, listening to the radio, and relishing the great literary masters. You can say that I had enrolled myself in a kind of undergrad course on social sciences, with majors in English literature and philosophy, without having to attend any college or labor under any mentor.
A medical doctor's son and a curious schoolkid, I was always expected to follow in my father's footsteps. But it was primarily my rebellious (to quote my good father) readings that took me farther and farther away from a career in medicine. I felt that I just didn't have the discipline to be a medical doctor. To my father’s disappointment, it was Rousseau's free-flowing autobiography Confessions, not my science course books, that fascinated me the most at that stage of my life. I found myself celebrating Rousseau’s rollercoaster childhood and adolescence.
In 1990, as the first Jana Andolan was peaking, I joined The Rising Nepal — almost randomly. I sat for a competitive test for two positions at the newspaper neither with any expectations nor preparations and was pleasantly surprised when I got selected. In hindsight, what perhaps helped me was that I used to spend a lot of time at the American Library, which was in the middle of Kathmandu in New Road during those days. Newsweek and Rolling Stone magazines, among my favorites, were surely well beyond the humble monthly 'money order' my parents would send me from Jhapa. In that respect, I am purely an accidental journalist.
Once at The Rising Nepal, I really struggled to place context to my almost-daily reporting on the ongoing mass movement. That meant finding books and writings that helped me contextualize the movement as a manifestation of our political evolution.
That said, I have always had a healthy appetite for reading on a wide range of subjects — politics, philosophy, psychology, environment, history, society, and sports.
I now never tire of emphasizing in the newsroom and my lectures on journalism that it is important to read beyond the everyday, that it is far more important to remain curious about a broad range of subjects, rather than stay complacent after a degree in journalism or any discipline.
Thirty years since I started out as a journalist, if I were asked to offer one single piece of advice to any aspiring writer or journalist, I would simply say: read, read, and read; and write, write, and write. Reading gives us insight; writing makes us precise. I repeat this to myself every single day. There is no shortcut.
My early stage of readings — from sports, politics to Dostoevsky and Devkota — did help me as a journalist, but especially as an editor. They helped me develop a vocabulary and empathy for a wide range of subjects and real-life characters.
I think it is very important to read broadly in our formative years to absorb a whole body of knowledge that is out there. That will provide us with solid building blocks for the years ahead. Writing is a very active form of learning. When we are not clear about what we are writing, we can’t expect readers to get it. But we can surely hone the craft of writing. Like any other discipline — flying or medicine — it is a science. I’ve found that the practice of writing down certain phrases and sentences is very helpful. I sometimes read articles several times to internalize how brilliantly the writer has built the structure. For example, an essay that starts with a life-changing personal experience before offering arguments and research findings. There is no template to good writing. Humans will always have something to say but some just articulate their points better and that makes us notice them — the tireless wordsmith, the meticulous researcher, the ever-patient explainer.
Here is something new I have discovered recently in my journey. Once you begin to feel that you are stagnating as a journalist, then choose a specialty — politics, geopolitics, aviation, tourism, governance, technology, economics and finance, conservation, urban planning, or even literature. Anything, really. Dig deep into one field. Think of writing a book. That also means becoming a good archivist (if your preference is nonfiction), like my good friend and author Sudheer Sharma. Once an Opinion Page editor with The Kathmandu Post, Aditya Adhikari ended up producing an authoritative work on Nepal’s Maoist movement (The Bullet and the Ballot Box: The Story of Nepal's Maoist Revolution). And Amish Raj Mulmi, previously a Feature Editor with the Post, has just come out with a well-researched book on Nepal-China ties, All Roads Lead North. The idea is to evolve over time.
Remember that the people who are reading us (and will be reading us 30 or a hundred years on) are more intelligent and smarter than us, some of them far more so. That thought alone should make any writer humble and honest.
Tom Robertson Tom Robertson, PhD, is an environmental historian who writes about Kathmandu and Nepali history. His Nepali-language video series on writing, 'Mitho Lekhai', is available on Youtube. His most recent article, 'No smoke without fire in Kathmandu’, appeared on March 5 in Nepali Times.
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