It's Tuesday morning in the small town where I live, 30 miles from central London. I stumble out into a raw March wind to join a small bunch of commuters huddled on the train into town.
On the train I pull out my copy of Himal Khabarpatrika and read of King Gyanendra's recent abhinandan as a Hindu Samrat. Most of my fellow passengers read the Daily Telegraph, one of this country's more boring broadsheets. Somewhere high above the thick grey sky, the sun is probably rising as I emerge from Euston station and trudge across Bloomsbury, but it makes very little difference. London in winter is mostly greys and browns, broken only once this year by the purifying brightness of snow.
Room 389, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. 'Nepali 1', a smaller than usual class of only six students this year, drifts in for its 9AM lecture. Many years ago, some bright spark involved in timetabling at SOAS decided that the early morning slot was best for language classes. As I watch my students yawning and rubbing their eyes I curse him once again.
But they quickly wake up and apply themselves to the task of understanding why it is that when Nepali-speakers want to construct a conditional sentence they use the past tense of the verb to talk about things that might happen in the future. Aaja kasari aunubhayo I ask each one of them: how did you come today? Some came hidera, 'walking', some came tyubbata, 'by tube'. If you broke your leg tomorrow, how would you come? I ask one. If the tube were to shut down tomorrow, how would you come? I ask another.
They cope well and before long the one student who has never set foot in Nepal is telling us how he would get to SOAS on a day in which he broke both his legs, the tubes were on strike, the buses all broke down and it snowed heavily.
A quick slurp of coffee and on to my next class. These two final-year undergraduates spent eight months in Kathmandu last year and their Nepali is now solid enough for them to tackle the difficult language employed in Nepal's news media. My friends down the road at the BBC Nepali Seba are always happy to provide a tape or two for listening practice, and to begin with we listen to one of these, with me writing up each unfamiliar word on a whiteboard. Both students find the pace of the broadcast very fast and we replay each sentence several times. I confess that I have not prepared in advance and I have to think on my feet, but I survive (I think).
Having deciphered a lengthy radio news item on the recent polio inoculation campaign, we turn our attention to some articles downloaded from the web edition of Kantipur. I provided them with vocabulary lists last week and they have prepared this material in advance, so we sail through several reports on recent political manouvreings in Kathmandu. I think they may be the only undergraduate students in the Western world who can navigate their way though Nepali newspaper texts on demands for constitutional reform, and I'm proud of them. But they remain grumpy about the BBC tape: can't I slow it down somehow?
I often hear myself telling people that the Nepali studies program at SOAS is unique. Of course, SOAS is not the only Western university where Nepali is taught: many students study the language at Cornell and Wisconsin in the USA, at INALCO in Paris and at the Sudasien Institut in Heidelberg, and quite possibly elsewhere too.
However, I think it is still true that SOAS is the only Western institution that offers Nepali as a named element of a Bachelor's degree. Courses in Nepali are also available options within other programs, at BA and Masters level.
The number of undergraduate students who opt to devote approximately 50 percent of their time over a period of four years to Nepali things will never be huge, because this is an undertaking that has to be a labour of love. The largest number we have ever had spread across the four years is 13, with 3 or 4 students in each year.
All of them combine Nepali with another subject taught at SOAS: law, anthropology, art, development studies, etc. SOAS's ability to offer half-degrees such as this is ensured in part by the UK government's provision of 'non-formula funding' for minority subjects. And long may it continue: we offer degree-level programs in more than 20 African and Asian languages, but only the Big Three (Arabic, Chinese, Japanese) would be viable without such funding.
This year I have had 27 students of seven different nationalities in my courses, almost all of whom have had some previous experience of Nepal. Each year I meet several who have spent a gap year between school and university in a Nepali village, usually teaching English. For many, the months they spend in Nepal are their first extended period away from home, and the experience makes a profound impression upon them. The landscapes, the cultures, the people of Nepal are the context in which they begin to find their feet as independent adults, and they return with a perspective on the world that is very different from that of many of their peers.
Most of these gap year students go on to pursue 'conventional' degrees at 'conventional' universities, but a few are not satisfied with just a rudimentary knowledge of a society that fascinates them; nor can they shake off the strong emotional bond they have formed with Nepal. So they come to us, and we welcome them. All being well, they graduate with qualifications that mark them out as young people of unusual adventurousness and considerable achievement. Several now work in positions that draw heavily on their intimate, linguistically-informed understanding of Nepal.
Others, of course, do not, and use their degrees as evidence of more general academic achievement. Students' announcements of what they are studying at SOAS can provoke some perplexed reactions, and they may have touble convincing peope of the benefits of studying a language and culture radically different from one's own .
A few years ago a Belgian student of mine graduated with a BA in Nepali and Development Studies, and returned home to receive his family's congratulations. He was puzzled when a neighbour began to ask him some very difficult questions about French military history. Eventually, it emerged that some years earlier the neighbour had misheard my student's response to his question about what it was he was studying in London. His reply had been 'Nepali studies' but the neighbour had heard him say 'Napoleon studies'. The implication was that the latter subject might have been rather more worthwhile!
Outside, meanwhile, it's dark again before six. I remember to check the Kantipur website, and I find articles there by Krishna Hachhethu and Hari Roka, which I print out for my journey home. I wouldn't want to have to resort to reading a discarded Daily Telegraph.
Michael Hutt is Reader in Nepali and Himalayan Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies. His latest book is Unbecoming Citizens: Culture, Nationhood and the Flight of Refugees from Bhutan, a book he edited, Himalayan People\'s War: Nepal\'s Maoist Rebellion, is due out soon.