Until a few years ago, news about middle-aged men and women taking school completion examinations would grab headlines in the media. People, however, would not talk about the ‘inspirational figures’ after the exams were over as most of the men and women halted their academic journey after the exam; it did not matter if they failed or passed. But these days, people in their 40s or 50s taking the SEE, formerly known as SLC examinations, does not make the news.
Therefore, Hira Devi Timilsina did not attract the attention of the press when she passed the SLC in 2014. As years have gone by, her journey in life has taken a linear path. However, there is something about her that makes her stand out.
This 49-year-old is not extraordinary in many ways, but her ‘plain’ thoughts about life can give you some food for thought on what life is, why we need to go to school, and what education has to do with a simple human life regardless your age and profession.
The journey without a definite end
“I don’t have much time for you as I am busy preparing for my exams. The routine is already out and the exams will begin on Asar 15 (June 29),” Timilsina tells whoever comes to visit her these days.
Timilsina crossed the ‘iron gate’ at the age of 45 along with around a dozen women like her from a women’s school in Kathmandu, but all of her classmates gave up the journey halfway. Only Hira Didi, as her classmates call her, and her neighbour Mina Shahi, decided to pursue higher education.
Currently, she is preparing hard for the final exams of the second year of her Bachelor’s of Arts (BA) under Tribhuvan University. She is studying Nepali and Sociology. This year, she has to sit for five exams: two each for Nepali and Sociology, and Compulsory English. “I can easily pass two Nepali papers as they are fun reads—poems and stories and novels,” she smilingly shares, “English—this is the toughest subject for me every year.” Perhaps, Timilsina will be happy to know that from the next year, there will not be any Compulsory English paper, though she has to be competent enough in English to study other subjects.
Further, she plans to continue her formal education even after completing the Bachelor’s degree. “If my health permits me and everything goes as I have planned now, I will at least do a Master’s in Nepali after obtaining the BA degree.”
But why? Is she going to compete for any job at this age? More importantly, she does not need a job anymore—her two sons have already grown up, studying and working abroad.
“Education, for me, is not just about landing a job. I was very clear about it when I resumed my schooling six years ago after a gap of nearly 30 years,” she says, “Education is for knowledge and wisdom, it is for your confidence, and the ease of living a decent life.”
Hoping against hopes
The childhood story of this lady is no different from any other middle-aged women from Nepal’s rural areas. She was born to a middle-class family in November 1969 in Khangsang of Sindhuli district. As the family was politically conscious even during the partyless Panchayat system, she was sent to the nearest primary school. “By nearest, I mean it was just two hours walk from home. But, it had classes up to Grade VI only.”
After passing Grade VI, she had two choices—to drop out and stay home or to leave home for the sake of her studies. The teenager could not take the risk of by leaving the family and living somewhere else, that too alone.
Then, when she was 17, her parents sent her off with a man from Toksel village of Okhaldhunga district. Now, going to school was apparently too difficult and the dream was too distant for Timilsina (it is her husband’s surname—at that time, no woman would retain the surname of her parents after marriage).
Three-and-half years after the wedding, the couple’s first son was born. As she was busy taking care and raising him, the second child was born five years later. So Timilsina spent all the precious years raising children and taking care of the members of her joint family.
As the second child grew up, the lady again began exploring if she could go out from four walls of her house. “I was not sure when and how I could go back to school, but I had a belief that the door to education would never be totally closed for anyone till their last day,” the confident woman remembers, “Therefore, I had a dream alive that I would go back to school someday.”
‘Strike while the iron is hot’
It seems her hope was not only her wish but also a destination—for there was an opportunity in the village that forced her to go back to the classroom. Their village needed a female community health volunteer (FCHV) as the Nepal government decided that every ward of every village would have one such staffer. And, to work as an FCHV, one had to pass at least Grade VIII. Apparently, no in Toksel village qualified for the job. Women with that level of education would not stay in the village for long—also because the Maoists’ war was at its peak.
Timilsina was one step away from the opportunity—she had already passed Grade VI; the Grade VII certificate would not be required to attend Grade VIII examinations. Further, her husband was a teacher at a local school, who tactfully ensured that she could take the exams without taking any class. This is how she passed the eighth grade and became an FCHV.
After few years, the family migrated to Kathmandu—just to ensure that their children received a good education as the Maoist guerrillas had launched a mission to shut all schools in areas under their control.
Back to school, regularly
In Kathmandu also, her life did not take any extraordinary twist or and turn. As a regular housewife, she would be busy serving her family in mornings and evenings. But, Kathmandu housewives generally find long afternoons boring—they do not have anywhere to go, anyone to talk to (because you do not know the next door neighbour here) and anything to do at home too, except watching Hindi serials, of course.
As life went on without any excitement, Timilsina, who lives with her family in Shantinagar of Baneshwor, one day in 2012, heard that there was a school dedicated to middleaged and old women, near her house. She thought of joining the school and consulted her husband. Her husband was okay with the idea. He took her to the school and admitted her to Grade IX.
Her eldest son openly motivated her. But, the youngest, because he was an early teen, would sometimes sound little uncomfortable with the mom’s plan asked once, “Mom, don’t you feel embarrassed to go to school every day when your sons have already passed SLC?”
“But, everyone in the family, including both the sons, was convinced that there was nothing embarrassing in learning. After I passed Grade IX, both the sons supported me with my lessons and assignments.” She claims her in-laws and other relatives were also quite supportive of her move.
The next year, she passed SLC—she fell seven marks short of the ‘prestigious’ first division. After consulting her family, she chose to continue her ‘+2’ and Bachelors in Humanities stream. Her choice was logical because other streams—Science, Management and Education–are focused on career development, whereas Humanities is for knowledge, which was her target.
“I respect you for what you believe, madam. But, it is really odd to share your bench with carefree teens, who could anytime bully you for no reason,” posed with this question, Timilsina laughs, for almost half a minute, before answering, “They perhaps could. But, my teachers were so supportive that they used to remind other students about me frequently and would tell them to learn something from me. Further, I myself was quite friendly with them.”
The result—the teens recognised her as ‘didi’ (elder sister) and sought her help whenever possible.
At Bachelor’s level, Timilsina could not attend college regularly as she was busy setting up her NGO and a partnership business (it is another interesting part of her story). Therefore, she had to rely on self-study.
“I could pass every other subject on myself, but English,” she says, “Therefore, I attended tuition classes. There were some other friends also who felt they were weak in the paper and they depended on me to find the right institute.”
Yes—it seems the teens made the right choice by following her, as she tells them, “You need to learn that there is something more important than your job and money in life.”
“What do you mean?”
“It is not just about education. It is about wisdom and conscience. That is what I have been learning and will be learning in the days to come.”