A conversation with Gobinda Kharel and Jean-Xavier Ridon about home and abroadness.
Nottingham, 29 September 2017
The following conversation was recorded as a part of Figures with absent landscapes, the project that I carried out during my residence at the University of Nottingham in 2017 thanks to a Leverhulme Trust Artist in Residence Grant. A detailed introduction to the project as well as a presentation of its outcome work are available in the “Stories” section of this website.
Gobinda Kharel is the general secretary of the Nepali Samaj Nottingham, the association of Nepali residents in town. He’s been living in the United Kingdom since 2014 after having previously studied in Singapore for four years and in the Netherlands for nine years. He has supported my research from the beginning and, along with Andeep Acharya and Tara Bhandari, has been a crucial person to the success of my effort in reaching the community.
Dr Jean-Xavier Ridon is an Associate Professor and Reader in contemporary French and francophone studies in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Nottingham. He is the initiator of our application to the Leverhulme Trust Artist in Residence Grant and the host of my residence at the University.
[Frédéric Lecloux] My residence is about to end in November. You already know of the exhibition that will take place and of the e-kus that I’m creating, which are the main artistic outcome of the project. You also know about the diary of this residence that is being published on my blog. Jean-Xavier and I have wished to bring this conversation about as a part of our efforts to offer the audience different possibilities to apprehend the residence and its link with the Nepali community through the voice of one of its prominent representatives.
At first we believe that it would be interesting for the reader to understand how you felt about me coming out of nowhere and requesting you to let me enter your lives and to grant me access to a very intimate part of yourselves – your family photographs. And secondly, if you agree, we would like to ask you to speak a bit about your experience in the UK.[Jean-Xavier Ridon] Because one thing that strikes us is your generosity. Indeed, there is a stranger coming and you open him the door of your families. I was telling Frédéric: if someone came and asked me questions about the French community in Nottingham I would probably be a little bit resistant. So indeed, it would be nice to hear from you how you perceived Frédéric’s presence and project. [Gobinda Kharel] I think that the first point to mention is this: if some person requests to enter any community in the language spoken by the people of that community, they will accept such a person. Nevertheless there can be some cautiousness as well. Some members of the community will doubt his sincerity. They will wonder who is that person and why he is doing this. They might be some questions. There were actually some questions raised amongst the members about Frédéric. However once they saw Frédéric participating in events and coming to meetings, it became slightly easier. As for me I also did some research in other communities as part of my projects, so this type of request was not a new thing for me.
The second thing is that the project that Frédéric brought into our community was more into feelings than the practical pen and paper and direct questions and answers type of research. That also allowed us and Frédéric to familiarise with each other. That made us easy going, easy understanding. I think that if Frédéric is there and I’m here it is because I can easily understand what he wants. And he expects the same understanding from me as well. The easiness, the smoothness, between the researcher and the researched entities was more into the family level than into a research project itself. There was some background cautiousness as well. But there was easiness on the surface. So it felt like a very easy going and friendly environment. Therefore the willingness from us was to offer whatever was possible, more than what Frédéric would have expected, I think.[J.-X. R.] The interesting point here is that obviously Frédéric is not an academic but an artist. So the question to know what he was going to do with the photographs must have arisen in your minds. [G. K.] Yes. I asked Frédéric about it and I understood what he wanted to do. There are two directions in his work, as far as I could understand. One is his interest in the field and the second is to bring the artistic approach to the academic world, which is a new phenomenon for us. [J.-X. R.] One of the key factors in the grant that we got was indeed the idea to bring into the academic world someone who is not part of it and who speaks another language. Someone who raises questions that we also address with literature and text – about identity and displacement in our case – but in a visual way, which is a way that we don’t use. This is the sort of confrontation that they were looking for.
Furthermore, another important aspect for us was the opportunity to discover your community. Because one of the things that surprised us is that your community does not seem to be visible in the city, although it is effectively present. Do you think it is so that the Nepali community is lacking visibility, and according to you, if yes, why?[G. K.] That is a very good question, very important for us as well. And it is very new. I personally think that Nepalese people, wherever they are, their identity is Nepalese. They remain Nepalese. They are open, generous. They work with others. But they do not want to highlight that identity. That might be because of the language. A second reason could be that it is a new community in this area. And the third reason is the job they do. Many of the Nepalese work in the restaurant industry. Very few of them work in other sectors. Coming from a different background myself I am now also involved in a restaurant business because of the influence of the community. There is a trend going on. And this is a very busy industry. The business is focused on evening times. Weekends are tight. So we have very limited time to engage with other activities.
There might be other causes like integration. Nepalese are not against integration but they are lacking some kind of approach about how to be visible in other communities as well as in the mainstream community.[J.-X. R.] Do you think that your community will become more apparent in the second generation? Do you think that your children will maybe define themselves first as British and then as Nepalese? On the other hand, to be integrated would imply to be less visible… [G. K.] That’s what will be happening, I guess. And I am a supporter of that evolution because I want to be visible in the main community. Of course my ethnicity and my culture are different. But it doesn’t mean that I’m living in a different world. I am living in the mainstream world. So first I’m British here, then only Nepalese. My political identity is British. And then the language is important. If you don’t speak the language, how are you going to communicate with the others?
[F. L.] That’s the main problem. And in the community you are one of the ones who speak the best, as far as I can tell.[G. K.] At least I am trying my best to bring the community to the front. It’s very difficult.
[F. L.] We were discussing earlier the feasibility for women to gain that visibility. Very often they speak the language of the destination country at an even lower level than the male members of the community. That is not true for the second generation. Sara, one of Tara’s daughter, has a perfect level in English. She speaks better than we do.[J.-X. R.] Maybe she’s British and was born here?
[F. L.] No, she was born in Nepal. She arrived recently. I imagine that for this generation indeed the question of English will soon become secondary. They will be fluent very quickly, boys and girls.[G. K.] Yes, I think so. It also depends on how you were brought up. My wife is very friendly and open. She would like to meet other people. But she’s lacking the language. So she’s more turned towards the community. But my daughter, she was born here. She’s open-minded and she’s brilliant at school. So she integrates both communities well. [J.-X. R.] My wife is from a Punjabi family, but she was born in England. She was raised in Punjabi so she still speaks the language. But she already belongs to the second generation. She defines herself as British. [G. K.] I’m a first generation migrant. I was born in Nepal. But I regard myself here first, then secondly there. Because I do work here. My profession, my relationships and my friends are here. [J.-X. R.] It is the same for me. I have been here for 23 years now. So this is home.
[F. L.] Yet home is not only in one place. Another part of home is somewhere else. But that part is getting more and more reduced with the time.[G. K.] Yes. We are world citizens, I would say.
[F. L.] I am not sure that home ought to be that wide, but why not. As far as I am concerned home is in the South of France but a part of home is also in Brussels and in the village where my parents have their country house.[J.-X. R.] Indeed we’re in between different cultures, different languages, different geographical spaces and somehow we manage to develop something that belongs no s to us.
[F. L.] And this is something that the three of us here share, in different ways. And although I know that some friends in Nepal would argue that this is a white man’s fantasised vision, I would say that a small part of home, or of what I call home, is also in Nepal. And it is also very much cultural.[G. K.] I think that it’s the language and the understanding of the community that leads to that.
[F. L.] And it is also very much cultural because twenty years ago I didn’t know much about France. And now when I say “I go back home” what I have in mind is a remote house on a hill four kilometres away from a small town in the South-East of France. So it’s all a matter of the decisions that you take in your life. But then, yes indeed, there is the question of the language. French is my mother tongue. And I’ve always loved to learn the languages of the others as much as I could, like Nepali, because if I don’t then I feel stuck.[G. K.] Of course. You remain confined in your cave.
[F. L.] Gobinda, you told us that your political identity is British, and that your cultural identity is a blend between Nepali and British. One thing I’ve always been curious about especially when I was working in Qatar with the Nepali migrants there, but also about myself, about Jean-Xavier or you in Nottingham: how would you define yourself in terms of pure vocabulary? For instance the Nepalis in Qatar call themselves “migrant workers”. Would you call yourself a migrant worker? I don’t think so. Or an exile? What is the term that you would use?[G. K.] Alright, That’s a very difficult question. I wouldn’t use any of these words. I think that a particular new word should be searched for. I am definitely not a migrant worker. Because I came to the West through my own interest for the purpose of studying. Now I’m here, I’m building my career here, slowly, because when you expect something then something else happens, you know that. You arrive here, you came with expectations, with the dream to study then go back to home. But slowly you build up your family, you build up your relationships. Because you cannot just confine yourself into a small room and just go to study and come back. When you study you get in touch with other people. You get in touch with the world. You need to survive. If you look for proper opportunities then you can start doing business as well. So I think that slowly we are building something. I came with the interest to study and through the studies I discovered many other ways. An there is not one particular way, or one particular event due to which I am here. There are several causes. I am still expecting to go back to Nepal and to do something for the country, but that is my plan for later. Because if I go back to Nepal now I will loose my track. I cannot find a way to work there. What to do? I don’t know. Because neither my generation is there nor the educational environment that we use to have at that time is there. The political atmosphere completely changed and I know I can’t understand it. If I go to the village where I come from in Nepal, neither would they understand me nor would I understand them, although I was born there and grew up there. I would have to learn everything again. I know that. I feel comfortable here where I am working because I am used to the system, I am used to the language, I am used to the culture. These are the immediate situations that I can understand. So therefore, there must be another word do describe what we are!
[F. L.] Yes, we should invent another word for that. In French we have “expatrié”, that translates I guess as “expatriate”, but I don’t know if it covers the same concept as if French.[J.-X. R.] It’s a more gentle word. I am like you. I would not define myself as a migrant worker. Like you I made the decision to go abroad to study and I never went back. What you say is interesting because indeed, in a lot of books about writers who went to live abroad, when they come back to their place of origin, their story is always a story of strangeness in places they don’t recognise no more. The culture changed so they feel foreign in their own country.
[F. L.] Sometimes it is also a political matter. Here is a foreign example that comes to my mind. During our family travel along the roads of Nicolas Bouvier in 2004-2005 we went through former Yugoslavia. There was the issue of the Serbs from Kosovo who were chased from Kosovo by the war so they couldn’t go back to their homeland, but they were neither accepted by the Serbs in Serbia because they had been away for too long. What Serbs called “home” was not home for them although they had no other choice than making it home again. Well, in your case nobody forced you to leave, but the issue of strangeness that you’re describing is similar.
Gobinda, I remember something you said in one of our conversations that still marks me deeply: one day you told me that for you, there was also a possibility to go back not to Nepal, but to Holland, where you studied and lived for nine years. Because this is the place where you could recognise opportunities for the future, maybe more than in Nepal. This sounds weird to me I must confess, sorry about that, because as a Belgian who left to the South of France, the prospect of moving to the Netherlands is far beyond possibilities! You never know, but in principle at least I wouldn’t go back to the North.[G. K.] Indeed, Holland was probably the first surprise and the first success of my life. The place where I could build up the basic background of the life that is mine now. I learned the language, deeply from the heart.
[F. L.] Wij kunnen verder gaan in het Nederlands…[G. K.] T’is een beetje moeilijk mischien… I also studied in Singapore for two and a half years before. The people in Singapore used to speak English. But when I came to Holland English was not used for education. Even though you can communicate with people in English, preferably you should use Dutch. So in order to build up my career I needed to start from scratch, which meant learning the language. And while learning Dutch I also learned the culture. Slowly I built a friendship network. I started to work. I went to the university where I studied easily in Dutch. So that created the basic necessities for my future. I forgot about the past because I was in a chaotic situation when I started my new life in Holland. No Nepalese were in touch with me. There was no Nepalese at all there. Only other foreigners and Dutch people. And if I stayed with other foreigners then I would miss the Dutch mainstream. So I rather chose the Dutch mainstream to communicate with and to get involved with. I still recall that period as the beginning of my life. This is why Holland is like another home for me.
[F. L.] It’s about feelings…[G. K.] It is. Holland is the closest place to home. I know that other community members might find it weird, as you said earlier, but for a long time if I said “going back home” it meant going back to Holland, not to Nepal. It’s been home for nine years. This is still a problem today. If I say home, I don’t know which home I’m talking about. [J.-X. R.] That goes back to what we were saying before which is that effectively we build up roots along the way. [G. K.] For me I feel more at home here than in Nepal. We went to Nepal two years ago. I was scared. And even my kid and my wife didn’t want to stay there. They didn’t hate it, no! They loved the environment, the wild openness, the nature, the language, the time spent with the family as well, the country itself. But they couldn’t understand the system. Well, if you go and buy something, even basic necessities, you can’t get what you’re searching for. There are some things that are required in life which are not available there.
[F. L.] What about photography in all that? Some of the feelings that you describe are, from my point of view, implicitly perceivable in the community’s family albums. But could you speak a bit about what photography itself represents for you, regardless of my own approach of your photographs as traces of a migratory experience.[G. K.] I’ve never thought about that, to be honest.
[F. L.] Nevertheless, albums are there…[G. K.] Albums are there because they are collections. We need to collect photographs, either as files in systems or in albums. For memories, I guess. But I am a stranger in this regard. I don’t find anything very important in a photograph. Now I know that when you see photographs after a long time you realise what you did, memories come back. Oh! you were there, you did this and that. But I never thought of that before.
[F. L.] So it’s never been a conscious way of keeping traces of the past?[G. K.] No. But now I like it because I can see how it feels. It’s all about experience, I guess. [J.-X. R.] Moments in time… [G. K.] Yes, but that were just taken without consciousness.
[F. L.] I shouldn’t ask you to speak on behalf of the whole community, but do you think that the approach of photography you describe as yours is common among the whole community?[G. K.] No, I think that other members of the Nepalese community are taking pictures of every moment, every second of their lives. They are more into photography than I am. And that’s very important for them. That’s also too much. But for them, five or six months or even two months after an event, the photographs allow them to where they. Some gaps are filled by the photographs. [J.-X. R.] I’m a little bit like you, for a long time I didn’t pay attention to photographs… [G. K.] That’s very personal…
[F. L.] Me neither, I’m not documenting my personal or family life with a camera. Not much. Only few pictures in a year. I’m not keeping as many traces as I would like.[G. K.] I bought a good camera when I was in Holland, but it’s just there. Other people will use it, I think, they will lend it from me, use it for a while then give it back. I never use it.
[F. L.] So it must have felt quite strange that somebody comes and focuses on that part of your life that is not that important for you![J.-X. R.] Are there any artists in your community, like painters? [G. K.] No, I don’t think that there are any painters, not here. We have a rich artistic culture in Nepal. You have been in Nepal, you could see all the ancient artworks.
[F. L.] But in Nepal isn’t art mainly religious?[G. K.] It became religious. I don’t know how people eventually connected art to religion, but at the beginning it was not religious. It was traditional art and cultural art. [J.-X. R.] And within the Nepalese community in the UK, do you have writers? [G. K.] They don’t have writers. People write but I haven’t seen writers who write for the art.
[F. L.] Like Manjushree Thapa in Toronto, you don’t have such a figure here.[G. K.] There might be but I cannot think of anyone.
[F. L.] Soon we’ll have Gobinda Kharel! You want to write![G. K.] I’m thinking to write, but I don’t know… [J.-X. R.] Fiction, or? [G. K.] I don’t know, I need to ask you about that! But I would definitely write if I didn’t have to work at the restaurant.
Photograph : At Gobinda’s restaurant, Nottingham, September 2017.