When Ranjit Rauniyar began his studies at Bowdoin in 1994, he was the first Nepalese student to attend the college. He said Bowdoin and its education impacted his thinking more than any other place, particularly its emphasis on serving the common good.
After the massive April 25 earthquake devastated his home country, Rauniyar leapt into action. He and his wife, Surbhy, have founded an earthquake relief fund to help local organizations that are focused on the care and rehabilitation of children.
Rauniyar recently connected with Bowdoin to answer a few questions about his deep ties to Nepal and what he is doing now to help his country.
Bowdoin Daily Sun: Can you tell me about your life growing up in Nepal?
Ranjit Rauniyar: My parents sent me to Dr. Graham’s School, a missionary boarding school founded by a Scotsman in a small town Kalimpong (Darjeeling) in India from a very early age (5 years) in order that I may have a better education. My brothers and I came back home to Kathmandu for the long winter holidays and the autumn break for dasain, our most important festival marking the triumph of good over evil. Nepal was like God’s own country – a kingdom unto itself – excavated as if out of someone’s dream from long ago — a sort of a place you’d be rewarded with if you traveled intrepidly to the end of earth. Life was somewhat medieval but in a nice way — we flew kites, lived and played in the midst of old and stunning ancient temples and shrines, feasting over more festivals than there are days in a year. Things were remarkably unhurried, celebratory and simple. Even though the Maoist insurgency years later would change all that, my life is still anchored in these early reminisces.
BDS: How many of your family members still live in Nepal?
RR: Most of my family lives in Nepal. This includes my parents, my brother, sisters-in-law, nieces, a nephew. We are a large family and live all together in our family home in Kathmandu.
BDS: Can you briefly describe your career trajectory after you left Bowdoin?
RR: I’m afraid I followed a decidedly prosaic path to the world of investment banking in New York and in London, primarily at Goldman and Credit Suisse. I’ve been based out of New York and London working on transactions around the world. It has been surreal growing into this world of Wall Street and finance because contiguously in the back of my mind there co-exists the world of the old, narrow and dusty alleys of Kathmandu, the open views of the mountains, the voices of Gods and kings. The two worlds couldn’t be more disparate and yet they come together more often in my mind that one might think.
BDS: What is happening to your home and your family in the aftermath of the earthquake?
RR: Well I don’t know how to sufficiently describe it — but it’s as if my family and really the whole country is being held hostage by nature’s wrath for reasons no one can understand, or do anything about — it’s not even up for negotiations. If anything, people are left wondering why anyone who decides on earthquakes thinks it is a good idea to bring so much loss and affliction to a country already on the brink by almost all measures. It must be that there’s been a major glitch in the cosmic algorithm that apportions calamities and suffering.
The whole country has pretty much been living outside in open spaces wherever they can find them. In my family home we have close to 30 to 40 people using our compound, living and sleeping there as they are too terrified to return to their homes.
People have been living with a constant anticipation of death — I don’t mean that figuratively or lightly. There have been more than 100 aftershocks and just yesterday there was another major earthquake. In the first few days, word had spread of an impending 9.0 level earthquake (predicted allegedly by NASA no less) or in another instance that the earth would literally split sometime between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. that night. Everyone in Nepal actually waited for these eventualities, as one would for Armageddon. For those on the outside looking in, this can all seem strange and irrational, but we have to put ourselves in the mind of people at their most fragile state.
BDS: Why do so many people still need help?
RR: I think we need to understand the enormity of it all, the equivalent is as if 20 atomic bombs dropped on a country approximately the size of Iowa.
Secondly, we have to reacquaint ourselves with Nepal as a land beyond mountains and exalting natural beauty. I remember during one freshman orientation being part of an ensemble of proctors at Pickard Theatre stepping onto the stage, asking the freshman class to remember the thing we were just about to tell them. I said I wanted everyone there to remember that the people in my country earned less than 250 Shop ‘n’ Save oranges per year, or a number close to that. Nepal is a brutally poor country and I won’t be surprised if we are still earning the same number of Shop ‘n’ Save oranges now, even whilst our neighboring nations have put themselves on the path to breathtaking progress. We just don’t have the systems, the mindset, the overall wherewithal to respond even modestly to something like this. Worse, I feel we don’t know the first thing yet about the full extent of the damage and loss of human lives. I’m frightened what the following months are going to unravel.
These are just in physical, manifest terms. We haven’t even got to the long-lasting emotional and psychological scars that this is going to leave behind for generations.
BDS: What are you doing to help? How are you taking time out of your life to contribute to the aid efforts?
RR: I am currently working on a startup in India. But I’ve put that temporarily on the back burner to try and commit as much time and effort to the relief and rehabilitation efforts there. This, after all, is the startup of life for millions of people who have lost everything, and have no place to go.
I think in circumstances like this we have to come to our own determination of how best we can help. In my case, Surbhy and I have contributed funds miscellaneously to various groups that organized themselves on an ad hoc basis to provide relief. However, I felt that I had an obligation to further help by raising additional funds more systematically by tapping into my friends across the world. I will channel these funds to grassroots organizations on the ground that are doing brilliant and courageous work under exceptionally difficult circumstances but don’t have the reach of larger organizations to raise money. I have been unabashedly reaching out to anybody and everybody and urging them to contribute. Bowdoin has been a huge part of this effort. My classmates Tony, Carl, Jordan and Kacy, and my friend and mentor David Wheeler to name just a few, have stood solidly behind this campaign and none of this would be possible without their solidarity and generosity.
BDS: Why is it so important to you that you do this?
RR: This is important on all levels really — this is my home, my country. As I wrote in my fundraising note, my Bowdoin education taught me of the “peculiar obligations” we must exert toward The Common Good. This commitment to The Common Good is constitutive to how I want to live my life, and the sort of sensibility I’d like to construct for my children.
I don’t want to put it in macabre terms but imagine if we woke up one day and found the Walker Art Museum along with Hubbard Hall and Druckenmiller Hall and Moulton Union and more than half the campus all reduced to rubble. Now imagine that million times worse. Many familiar landmarks that I grew up with have all but vanished. Whole neighborhoods and villages have been wiped out. The loss and displacement of human life is incalculable. Literally millions are homeless with no respite in sight. Many parts of the country have become ghost towns and villages. This is a national apocalypse – there is no more apt way to put it.
Also for me, while most efforts have been focusing on immediate relief (necessarily so in the early days), I’m trying to get us to think about longer-term rehabilitation. I like to use the example of a child who has been orphaned by this earthquake. It is critical to provide the child with food and water so she can survive through the following few days, but it is also important to ask how to help create the social and emotional infrastructure so that she may meaningfully lead the rest of her life, and make something out of it. Often in a calamity, we observe that it is easier to stir people’s consciousness toward immediate relief — it gives us instant gratification of having helped in some tangible way. But what has happened in Nepal is going to take years and possibly decades to repair. There will be bigger and more important challenges to focus on with respect to long-term rehabilitation. That work will not stop even after the cover story on this subsides in the media, and in peoples’ minds. Indeed it is true to say the real work hasn’t quite begun yet – and most of it will have to be done with very limited resources, by the very faithful and very selfless amongst us, with lots of blessings no doubt, but mostly under the cover of darkness.
For anyone who wants to make a contribution to help support the rehabilitation efforts in Nepal please visit Ranjit’s fundraiser page for the Friends of Nepal Earthquake Relief fund. You may also contact Ranjit at firstname.lastname@example.org.