The Terai always reminds me of home. The Club Chowk in Kalika municipality, Chitwan was like the chowk in my hometown, but the people there were all new and interesting to me. I was there as part of the US Embassy’s Book Bus team composed of four poetry instructors to facilitate a three day spoken word poetry workshop for local community members.
The journey to Chitwan, a 150 km road trip south of Kathmandu, took nine hours inside the new and bigger Book Bus we were traveling in. We anticipated that this was going to be a new experience for all of us because our local partners, Pro Public, an NGO, and Kalika Peace Library, were keen on including participants who did not know how to read or write. They had also publicized our poetry workshop as a personality development session. We wondered what our participants would make of our workshops.
In Kalika, we ended up working with 40 participants of different ages. From school kids to former combatants, new mothers to grandmothers, they all came with different experiences and expectations. We started off with playing some name games with the participants. One of the participants, Numakala Pandey, a fifty-three years old housewife, gave herself the name Navin Numakala or New Numakala. We thought it was a wonderful poet name. Then, for the next phase of our workshop, we gave her a copy and a pen for our writing exercises, but Numakala didn’t write anything. It turned out that she could neither read nor write.
For the rest of the workshop, I helped her write down things she thought of. The places she recalled were the farms, kitchen gardens, and jungles around her paternal home. The next day, she told me that even though she was illiterate, she had come to our workshop to listen to our poems. It was a poignant moment, I realized how spoken word poetry could make poetry accessible to people who could not read. Numkala was an avid poetry enthusiast, she attended all our programs and appreciated the poetry.
Throughout the three days of our visit, we opened the Book Bus, so that people from the community could experience a library environment. People congregated around the chowk, where we had parked the bus and set up a reading space. Students from nearby schools were especially excited to get a chance to flip through picture books, read some story books, and tackle tombs of knowledge in encyclopedias.
On the second day, I saw some new faces among the children. One of them, a boy from the next village over, had brought over his two sisters with him. They wanted a story book to read. I asked him if he could read English, but he said that he could not. I was surprised, since he had told me that he studied in class five, but I gave him a story book in Nepali and went off to read out a story to a group waiting to hear a story. The next day, I met him again again, but this time I asked him to select a book. He picked a story about a boy who went to school alone. When he started, I could see that he had a very difficult time reading the book even though it was in simple Nepali meant for early grade readers. I sat down with him and his sisters and read out a few stories to them, helping them decipher the language.
We, who take reading and writing for granted, sometimes take for granted the worlds that literature opens up for us. Even though Numakala did not ask me to write much, I saw that she enjoyed the whole process. I saw her interest and curiosity in poetry throughout the workshop. Similarly, I saw how happy the little boy was when I read the story to him. While reading, I showed him the words and made him read along with me. I could see that he enjoyed it. I had never seen a person appreciate a poetry writing workshop without being able to write, and I had never known a student who enjoyed holding a book despite having a hard time reading it. During the trip, I came to appreciate the ways stories and poems can help us transcend language.
Written by Kriti Adhikari, Book Bus poetry instructor