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Once upon a Time: A Professor with his Least Possessions

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

How much “stuff” does one person need to be happy?

Prof. Dr. Ambika P. Adhikari, Phoenix, AZ, USA

Exclusive: Memoir: The following picture of mine taken in Kathmandu in the mid-seventies. I had come home back to Nepal after obtaining a coveted B. Arch. (Bachelor of Architecture) degree from M. S. University of Baroda in India, which I attended under the Colombo Plan. Upon return to Nepal, I joined the Institute of Engineering (IOE), Pulchowk as an Assistant Lecturer under a daily-wage program earning Rs. 22.80/day. I became a temporary Assistant Lecturer in some nine months’ time and was appointed as a permanent Lecturer after about two and half years.

My salary as an Assistant Lecturer was Rs. 570/month, which rose to Rs. 720/month when I was promoted to the Lecturer position. After a little more than three years at the IOE, I went to the United States (US) for higher education. I returned to Nepal after earning a M. Arch. (Master of Architecture) degree, and later, was promoted to become a Reader when the salary also was increased commensurately. In another column, I will discuss more about that chapter of my life including the education and other activities and travel to Europe and Asia during my student days in the U.S.

This picture was taken in my room when I was an Assistant Lecturer, and rented a room in Kathmandu near New Road. From my memory, the room was about seven feet wide and eleven feet long with a ceiling of five and half feet, and three of us shared it at some point. The room was on the second floor of a three and half story old residential building. I had a simple futon on the floor put on the top of a straw mattress (Gundri), a pillow, a blanket and a mosquito net.

An external water tap, and a squatting toilet were on the ground floor, which were shared by the owner’s family and all the tenants in the building (perhaps some 12 individuals). Running water was available for only about two hours in the morning. In those days. Kathmandu was colder than now, and hot water was unheard of for people like me. Thus, we took short cold showers, and washed our clothes once in a while when water was available. Water was a precious commodity in the towns, cities and villages even when Nepal was well known for its water resources in nature.

I had maybe two-three pairs of trousers, and some three or four shirts, a jacket, and a couple of undergarment sets. One pair of shoes, a couple of pairs of socks. I had some 15-20 books collected from my Baroda days and some bought in Nepal. The books were on architecture, construction, design and Nepali literature. Maybe I had two pens, a notebook and a set of drawing pens and pencils I had brought from Baroda. This was my full possession.

I ate at “Yeti Bhojanalaya”, a nearby restaurant, on a monthly basis. Thus, there was no need to cook at home or have utensils. I enjoyed the day-time snacks and drinks at the privately-run cafeteria at IOE campus, and logged the amount I owed every day on a register that the cafeteria owner kept. I would pay the monthly total dues to the cafeteria and restaurant, and for rent each month upon receiving the monthly salary from my work.  Whenever I had a few extra rupees, a trip to Nepal Coffee House or Bangalore Coffee House was a luxury. Ordering a cup of tea or coffee, or a Dosa or Samosa was the best thing that would happen on those good days. I can still feel the taste of the sumptuous hot-from-the-oven Dosa and Sambar in those restaurants. The feeling was heavenly. However, such days were few and far in between. During most times at the restaurants a cup of tea was all I could afford. On some lucky days, someone more prosperous than me would even invite me to the prestigious Indira Restaurant on a second floor of the Gorkhapatra annex building near Pipal Tree at New Road in Kathmandu. That was a sheer height of luxury - life coming to its best. A Star beer or Tea there would make me feel on top of the world. After food or drink, when I climbed down from the open exterior stairs of Indira Restaurant leading to the sidewalks of New Road, I would secretly wish some friends or acquaintances would see me and be impressed by my amazingly high standard of living on that day.

Every month, when I received my salary at the IOE, I paid my rent and food bills for the month including for the cafeteria at the IOE campus. Some money will remain in the pocket for a few days, when I would feel like a prince for that period. Trips to the local informal food places which served drinks and meat varieties would follow for a few days until the funds were depleted. Some money was also needed to buy stationary or books, contribute to IOE picnic or other events, and sometimes to help relatives of acquaintances in need both around the office or family.

As I was young and relatively carefree, the days went by swiftly and mostly, those were enjoyable. First, I did not know much about being a richer person except in my imagination, and partly because with a relatively good education and job, the general feeling was that of an accomplishment and relative well-being. During those days, I forged many strong friendships at IOE and outside that have lasted a time. A visit to relatives of friend’s home and being treated with home-made food was always an event to look forward to. The future looked bright, and I life felt good and full of potential. There were many office-related parties and picnics at IOE. Some local friends who had more money and resources did invite me once in a while for sumptuous meals and treats at their places of at high end restaurants.

It is also partly when I look back, I have forgotten any difficult times as the reflection of younger days provides only selective memories of better experiences. A rear-view mirror in life provides a more pleasant experience than perhaps we actually experienced then.

I moved on to other stages of my life including living in the US and Canada and later, in Nepal again on two occasions in relatively more prosperous circumstances. I begin to realize that the happiness is not always been proportional to the amount of money or resources that I have. Unfortunately, due to the so called “luxury trap”, it is hard for anyone to voluntarily go back to a life-style with less resources. For example, after you have been used to hot showers and adequate food, it is hard to go back to taking cold showers, or having limited food and the most basic clothing only. And Thus, we struggle to get stuck in our present circumstances of relative abundance.

I have been lucky to have enjoyed a good life, but when I think of my younger days in Biratnagar, Kathmandu and Baroda when I had only meager resources to support myself, I can only feel that life could be good and happy even without much material stuff. This is also consistent with a research I read about where the author shows that in present day US, any income of more than $75,000/year (2019) does not seem to add to the happiness of the person making the money. $75,000/year is a decent income and in 2019 only some 18 percent of the population in the US had such income. Incomes higher than that does not seem to bring any additional joy in one’s life, and in fact, may invite additional problems.

Thus, it seems that to lead a happy life, one does not necessarily need a lot of “stuff”.

Note: Well known NRN intellectual, Prof. Dr. Ambika P. Adhikari has a Doctor of Design degree from Harvard University and Master in Architecture from University of Hawaii. He was Associate Professor (Reader) at the Institute of Engineering, Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, Nepal. He also served as Country Representative of IUCN (International Union of Conservation of Nature).

Currently, Dr. Adhikari serves as a Principal Planner at City of Tempe, Arizona, USA heading its long-range planning division. He is also a frequent Faculty Associate and Sr. Sustainability Scientist at Arizona State University (ASU). Prior to this, He has worked as Director of International Programs at DPRA Inc. in Toronto and Washington DC.

He has published books and articles on environment, development and planning. He has held leadership positions in many community organizations in North America and globally including the Non-Resident Nepali Association (NRNA), Association of Nepalese in the Americas (ANA) and American Society of Nepali Engineers (ASNEngr).

A passionate traveller, nature lover Dr. Adhikari is also guitarist and fine-tune singer that he performs and enthralls only to his select audiences in special occasions.



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