The Darjeeling Luminaries

How do writers prove they know what they are writing about? I faced that question a decade ago, on the eve of publishing my book, ‘Against the Current’, the biography of the Nepalese artist and art historian, Lain Singh Bangdel.
The question came up when my Nepalese host at dinner one evening in Kathmandu began quizzing me. He apparently doubted my credentials. It was 2003, and I have a vivid memory of being grilled by my educated, elderly host. He wondered how I, a non-Nepali, could possibly know enough to write about such a prominent Nepali artist and litterateur.
The whole idea of it seemed further complicated by the fact that Lain Bangdel had grown up in Darjeeling, India. Had I been there? He asked it in such a way to imply that if I hadn’t, then how could I possibly know enough to write about it. I assured him that, yes, I’d been to Darjeeling.

So what did I really know about Lain’s life there?, he asked. That’s when I took control of the conversation. I began by describing the details of Lain’s upbringing and education. I pointed out that as a student at Darjeeling’s Government High School (in the 1930s), he was mentored by three prominent Nepalese teachers, each a “Darjeeling Luminary” collectively known as the “SuDhaPa.”

The reaction was instantaneous. My host looked mildly astounded. You know of the ‘SuDhaPa’?, he asked, skeptically. Of course, I replied. I had done the research, and the SuDhaPa was an important though somewhat esoteric fact of great importance to Bangdel’s education.

Had I ever met a “Darjeeling Luminary”?, he asked. Yes, two of them, I replied.
Suddenly, the whole tenor of the conversation changed. Obviously, I knew a great deal more than he expected. Within minutes my inquisitor admitted that if I knew of the SuDhaPa then yes, indeed, I must be qualified to write Lain’s story.
Knowing the SuDhaPa is a generational thing. Older and well educated Nepalese tend to know it, but the younger generation typically does not, unless they’ve studied Nepalese literary history in some depth and know something of Nepal’s active and well educated expatriate community exiled in India during Rana times. I’ve often seen the perplexed look on the faces of younger Nepalese as they parse the term. Perhaps “sudhapa” is my mispronunciation of some other word, they think.

SuDhaPa is simply an acronymic contraction of the first syllable of each name of the three luminaries: Suriyabikram Gewali, Dharnidhar Koirala and Parasmani Pradhan. Each was an intellectual in exile, living in Darjeeling and sometimes publishing critical writings about the repression of intellectual life in Nepal under the Ranas, especially between the 1920s and 1940s.

Suriyabikram Gewali excelled as a writer of short stories, essays and criticism, poetry and plays and, late in life, a history of the Nepalese. He taught at Darjeeling’s Government High School from 1923 to 1953, where he rose to Headmaster. In the early 1950s, after restoration of the monarchy he retired to Kathmandu. Gewali’s influence on Lain was immense, and he became Lain Bangdel’s principal guru.

Dharnidhar Koirala was a socially-conscious poet and Nepali language teacher, and as a linguist he was the key advisor to the Sir Ralph Lilley Turner who compiled the landmark ‘Comparative and Etymological Dictionary of the Nepali Language’ (1931). Koirala was respectfully known as “Pandit-ji,” reflecting his learning and wisdom. He later retired to Kathmandu, also.

Parasmani Pradhan taught Nepali language and was a popular tutor. At a time when there were far more applications than seats in Government High School, he saw promise in young Lain and helped him to enroll. Like the others, Pradhan was closely involved in promoting Nepalese arts and letters, but unlike them, he stayed on in Darjeeling after retirement.
Together, the SuDhaPa made significant contributions to the development of Nepali language and literature. In 1924 they founded the premier literary organization for expatriate Nepalese in India, the ‘Nepali Sahitya Sammelan’ and its publication ‘Nepali Sahitya Patrika’. 

You can learn more about one of the SuDhaPa at The author’s prize-winning biography of their student, ‘Against the Current: The Life of Lain Singh Bangdel – Painter, Writer and Art Historian of Nepal’, was published by Orchid Press in 2004. It’s available in Kathmandu at Vajra Books in Jyatha/Thamel. The author can be contacted at