Unearthing Nepal's Past: An Interview with Journalist and Author Mohan Mainali

Mohan Mainali, journalist and award-winning writer. Image via author. Used with permission.

Mohan Mainali, journalist and award-winning writer. Image via author. Used with permission.

Mohan Mainali is a prominent Nepali journalist and award-winning writer known for his contributions to investigative journalism and historical non-fiction. With a career spanning several decades, Mainali has delved into various aspects of Nepali society, culture, and history. His recent book, Mukam Ranamaidan, uncovers previously unpublished letters from the Anglo-Nepal War (1814–1816), offering fresh insights into this pivotal period. Mainali's work is characterised by meticulous research and engaging storytelling, making significant contributions to Nepali literature and historical understanding.

Mukam Ranamaidan by Mohan Mainali. Image via author. Used with permission.

Mukam Ranamaidan by Mohan Mainali. Image via author. Used with permission.

Global Voices interviewed Mainali via email to explore the importance of historical context in shaping Nepal’s future and inspire a deeper appreciation for the nation’s rich heritage.

Sangita Swechcha (SS): Your career began in investigative journalism before transitioning to historical non-fiction writing. How did your background in journalism influence your approach to writing books like Mukam Ranamaidan?

Mohan Mainali (MM): Journalism has taught me how to gather information from the piles of papers among others, verify those information and put the pieces of information together to tell the news story. This also taught me to be patient and determined so that I can get access to the information safeguarded by the hostile sources. It has also taught me to present the information in a creative way. These skills and habits were very much helpful for me to dig out the information on the war.

SS: In your recent book, Mukam Ranamaidan, you uncovered previously unpublished letters from the Anglo-Nepal War. Can you share more about the challenges you faced in accessing and deciphering these historical documents?

Mohan Mainali (MM): I had to get access to both classified and declassified documents, mainly letters to and from the battle fields. Getting access to the classified documents was a big challenge. Initially, I was given access to those documents. However, when I was progressing I was informed that the permission to read these letters was revoked for the reasons unknown not only to me but also to them. I had to reapply for the permission and wait for a long time. Another challenge was to recognise the letters, words and sentences as these letters have no space between the words, no comma, no full stops, no paragraph breaks! It seems the letter contains only one word! Most of those letters were written by the commanders who made many mistakes in spelling and sentence structure! I had to learn the skills of recognising those cursive letters and words. Nepali language has changed much since these letters were written. Many words, especially those borrowed and modified from the Persian language, that were frequently used in the letters are no more in use.

Another problem was of the dates. Nepal's official calendar was Vikram Sambat (lunar). British used Gregorian calendar. Present day Nepal uses Vikram Calendar (Solar). I had to make a table of these three calendars and determined the dates of a particular event.

SS: Could you shed light on how the Anglo-Nepal War shaped the history of Nepal, particularly in terms of territorial losses and the establishment of the Gorkha identity, including their resilience and patriotism?

Mohan Mainali (MM): Before the war both Gorkha Kingdom (present day Nepal) and the East India Company were expanding their territories. Nepal lost one third of its territory in that war (later Nepal was able to get some territories back) and was forced to allow British Residency in Nepal which was objected by many Nepali officials. Soon, Nepal became the true friend of the British which later recognised Nepal's sovereignty. The British recognised the unique qualities of the Gorkha soldiers and enrolled the Gorkha in its force.

SS: Your work often highlights the importance of understanding historical contexts to guide the future. How do you see the role of historical literature in shaping contemporary Nepali society?

Mohan Mainali (MM): It is said that history is not the past tense, rather it is the future tense. If we review the path we have taken so far we are able to choose the correct path for the future. This is the advantage of human beings over other animals. We can learn lessons from the right and wrong decisions we made in the past. If you look at the history you can find the roots of many traditions that have hindered the progress of the society and the country.

SS: While researching for Mukam Ranamaidan, you encountered letters that challenged established historical narratives. How do you handle such revelations, and what impact do you hope they will have on the understanding of Nepali history?

Mohan Mainali (MM): The history of the Anglo-Nepal War, like the history of Nepal in general, is a mix of facts, fiction, and “patriotic” emotions. Authors of earlier works on this topic had two main shortcomings: a) they did not have access to the documents I have read, and b) some historians reached their conclusions first and then searched for information that supported those conclusions. The letters I had the opportunity to read reveal many aspects of the war. For example, they highlighted the border dispute of a particular place while remaining silent on disputes in many other places. I tried to present a true and complete picture of the war. I hope my book will show readers the shortcomings of traditional historical writing practices and suggest the importance of separating facts from fiction.

SS: You've been recognised for your in-depth exploration of Nepali culture and history. What drives your passion for these subjects, and what future projects are you planning to continue this exploration?

Mohan Mainali (MM): History and culture are fascinating subjects. I chose history as an optional subject in college, and it was the subject in which I scored the highest. During a visit to the National Archive of Nepal to search for some documents, I discovered a catalog describing letters written to and from the battlefield more than 200 years ago. I knew some of these letters had been published earlier, but I had not realized they could be used to retell the story of the war. I found there were more letters that had either not been published or were unavailable to readers. I also searched for letters written by the other side of the war, the East India Company.

When my book was published, my publisher prepared a press release stating that Mohan Mainali had been reincarnated as a historian. That went viral in both traditional and new media.

I always thought of myself as a journalist with a keen interest in the environment. With the looming threat of climate change, I realized I should focus more on producing journalistic pieces on this issue. I felt the need to prove that I am not just a historian but an active journalist. That is why I am now working on the recent history of droughts, excessive rainfall, landslides, floods, and outmigration from the eastern hills of Nepal. This project will rely on oral history, meteorological, hydrological, and demographic data, aerial photographs, maps, news reports, and my own observations from many field visits. Once I complete this work, I will return to hardcore historical research.

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