A book that I could not read

BY: Saurav Dhungana
August 30, 2013 · 5 minute read

On being forced to rethink my priorities in life after reading a book which had a rather unexpected emotional resonance with me.

I always had an on again, off again relationship with books. I vividly remember being a voracious reader as a young kid growing up. This mainly included classic literature like Dickens, Shakespeare, and especially, Jules Verne. At home and school, you are generally taught to follow the standard lifepath of study well, get a good safe job, marry and settle down. It’s in the books that you really find another teacher; the one who teaches you to see beyond the status quo, have a different perspective on what is possible. But, as I discovered other things like TV, movies, and then the Internet, the books took a back seat.

Lately though, I’ve started reading regularly again. A few months ago, I was well into my standard lifepath, having done my studies in Europe and working in a good well-paying job. However, I didn’t really ever feel fulfilled over there; something was missing. So, I took a leap of faith, quit my job, and am back home in Kathmandu. What am I doing here? Well, I have no clear answer for that myself. I’m seeking my purpose in life, I guess. It’s in this state that I turned to books - to seek my answers.

One of the first books I bought was a book titled Leaving Microsoft to Change the World from John Wood. I didn’t know much about him except that he was the founder of Room to Read, a not-for-profit that works in Nepal. I’d also heard about the book from some friends. So, I picked this book up while visiting a local bookshop in Kathmandu. When I read the back cover it immediately seemed interesting. What was it that compelled a foreigner to quit his job and help remote schools here in Nepal? - I asked myself. As an engineer, starting a tech company was the only plan I’d thought of.

A social venture isn’t something that I’m really familiar with. Of course, I’ll give back after I’ve made some good money.

This was my thought process.

It was a couple of weeks later, on a fine rainy day, that I decided to read the book. John starts by talking of being on a holiday in the mid-90s in the Himalayan region of Nepal to escape his highly demanding job in Microsoft. There is this small hotel he talks of where he encounters a clever little boy who helps him chill his beer in a nearby river because there are no refrigerators around.

He then befriends a district education representative who is visiting the schools around the area and invites him to come along. He does that and is shocked by what he sees. There were no books in the school library. The school principal even asks John if he can help donate some books for the school. The moment I read this, an overwhelming sense of sorrow came over me. Not knowing why this happened, I kept on reading. Each time John mentioned what he saw in rural Nepal that feeling would resurface again. Something in me had been triggered.

A grown man, reading a book, almost about to burst in tears. Thats the site that would’ve welcomed you had you seen me then. I never realized how priviledged I’d been to have the education I had. There was this profound guilt I felt about being so ignorant about most of my country beyond Kathmandu.

Had I found my answer? May be it was not to create the next facebook or twitter clone in Nepal, may be it was something much much more important. But right then I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do. Start a social venture on my own? Join something that already exists? Where do I even start? To make the moment more surreal, there was a huge roar in the school near my home where they were having a sports event. It felt like the world was cheering me on to find those answers. So, I closed the book and started thinking about what had just happened to me. I knew the book had served it purpose; now it was upto me to make something of the realization I’d made.

A week or so have now passed after that. During that time I’ve looked around beyond the valley walls of the capital. I still don’t know exactly what I’ll do. I’d lived in Finland for about four years where I enjoyed free education and healthcare. I believe these are the two areas which will need fixing if Nepal is to prosper. Whatever I end up doing, I hope it will be something where I can use my engineering knowledge. In the meantime, I’ve been trying to network with more like-minded people. This has helped and I’ve met a lot of great people. Each day I feel like I’m a step closer to finding the answer. I also know the road ahead is tough and I will face a lot of detractors. But I have to keep focus and do this.

Perhaps when I’ve accomplished something, I can finish that book without feeling guilty.

Update: I finished the book on a fine Sunday morning in early November of the same year. Although, I hadn’t really done anything of substance yet in the social front, I felt I needed to study John’s story in full to inspire myself in the early difficult days of my own journey. Having read his and few other similar stories have made my resolve even stronger to live a life helping others.