Moran of Kathmandu: Pioneer Priest, Educator, and Ham Radio Voice of the Himalayas
by Donald A. Messerschmidt
White Orchid Press, Bangkok. 1997
314 pp, NPR 650
‘Authorised’ biography of Fr Moran of Kathmandu.
Ever since the founding of the Society of Jesus in 1534, the Jesuits have had a simple but formible tast. They had “to be ready to live in any part of the world where there was hope of God’s greater glory and the good of souls”. And when one examines their nearly 500-year-old history, it becomes obvious that the Society of Jesus has been a successful organisation, too successful, some would say.
One of the meanings of “Jesuit” found in the dictionary is “a dissembling person”, and “Jesuitical” means “having the character once ascribed to the Jesuits; deceitful practising equivocation… oversubtle”. But then, Jesuits are renowned the world over as outstanding educators and scholars. Moran of Kathmandu tells the story of one such Jesuit, who lived in Kathmandu for over 40 years.
There must be very few Nepalis above the age of 30 and of a certain socio-economic background who do not know of Father Marshall Moran, who founded St Xavier’s School in Kathmandu on 1 July 1951. “On that day,” notes Moran’s biographer Donald Messerschmidt, “primary education took a giant leap from the medieval to the modern.” From this historic beginning until his death in 1992, Father Moran in Nepal remained the quintessential Jesuit: educator, diplomat, bon vivant, and, as suspected by some, also a spy
As young boarders at St Xavier’s in the mid-1960s, Father Moran already appeared as a living legend to us. We got glimpses of him as he strode along in his trade-mark black beret, or when he arrived or departed with his famous foreign guests (whom we entertained by singing songs and reciting poems). His presence was most palpable when he sat chatting in his cluttered room to people all over the world on his crackling ham radio. In those ancient days before email and fax, it was this possession of the radio (and Father Moran’s conspicuous presence among the foreign community) that led to whispered charges that he was also a CIA agent
One of the most boring classes I have ever taken was by Father Moran when he tried to teach us the Morse code when we were in the 5th standard. Every Saturday morning, for one hour, we had sit and decipher the dots and dashes of that infernal code (now thankfully laid to rest even by international shipping), while the rest of the school played outside. A couple of years later we began to get glimpses of Father Moran’s fascinating past when he became our English teacher. He often digressed from the lesson at hand to reminisce about his family and boyhood in Chicago and his early years in India. He was especially fond of recalling his first meeting with Gandhi. Moran had been allotted five minutes, but instead spent one full hour with Gandhi. Indeed, if there was one person he spoke most often about, it was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
Moran of Kathmandu is an ‘authorised’ biography which received full cooperation from the subject himself (before his death in 1992 at the age of 86) as well as his numerous famous and obscure friends, relatives, students and fellow Jesuits. The author, a former Peace Corps volunteer who has continued to work occasionally in Nepal, has done an excellent job of adding flesh, bones and fat to a legendary figure.
The book has a straightforward, no-nonsense, chronological approach. Childhood and youth in America, 20 years as a young Jesuit in India, and the following Nepal years are faithfully detailed. Inserts are sprinkled throughout from Father Moran himself, and short but laudatory passages have been contributed by others. The portrait that emerges is one of a very intelligent and dedicated individual who had his share of human contradictions.
Even as he lived among some of the poorest of the poor, Father Moran retained his fondness for the high life and luxury. But while some may have seen Moran as something of a social gadfly in his later years in Kathmandu, Messerschmidt highlights the social and, given the times, even radical bent in Moran the educator. Despite opposition from orthodox quarters, he helped establish Patna Women’s College in the early 1940s, the first degree college for women in North India, and was the major force behind the establishment of St Mary’s School in Kathmandu in 1955.
When Tibetan refugees streamed into Kathmandu after the Chinese invaded Tibet, he immediately set up an informal committee to provide assistance to them. And when his efforts were hindered by the local bureaucracy, he went straight to the king —and naturally, the problems disappeared immediately.
His attitude towards conversion was iconoclastic. Messerschmidt notes that in 1986 Father Moran told the journal The Catholic World, “They’ve [Nepalis have] been without Christianity for 2000 years… I don’t think there’s any need to hurry. God will make things easier if he wants…if people want to look in, to come in, then we’ll talk with them.” These comments caused “a flurry of criticism”, among the readers in the US.
Moran of Kathmandu is indispensable reading to anyone who had any connection with Father Moran, certainly for the larger community of English-speaking St Xavier’s graduates of Nepal and India. It will also be appreciated by those who are interested in the history of the Jesuits, early explorations and activities of some of the pioneer Western missionaries in the Himalaya. Readers unfamiliar with the history of Nepal will also get a glimpse into the first but ultimately failed democratic transition of the 1950s.
But because this is an ‘authorised’ biography, the omissions are glaring. Except for pointing out Moran’s love for ‘high society’, the book is devoid of any serious critical analysis of Father Moran and the views he held. Father John Morrison who came with Father Moran to the Subcontinent, writes in his insert, “…one of the facts of his character was a sort of ‘aloofness’ towards so many of his fellow Jesuits. I do not want to denigrate in any way the outstanding work that Moran accomplished…but it is safe to say that I am not the only one who had some close association with him in the earlier times who saw a certain aloofness, maybe call it a superiority complex.”
Such observations are rare indeed. Elsewhere, the author writes:
In the pedagogical philosophy of Jesuit schooling, attention to the students’ own cultural heritage is an important responsibility. The students are Nepalese first and foremost, the future leaders of the country and the people, so their national and cultural identities must not be neglected, (emphasis added)
The philosophy was indeed lofty, but the reality in the experience of this reviewer was quite different. Anyone who was a boarder at Kathmandu’s St Xavier’s will recall the infamous Donkey Stick, a square stick about a foot long covered with white paper. If a boarder spoke even a word of Nepali, he himself was to write down his roll number on the Donkey Stick, to be punished if his number appeared more than three or four times within a week. How is a young boy to appreciate his own cultural heritage if speaking his own language was equated to being a “donkey” and punished?
We wore trousers and shirts and ties. Our formal and informal education consisted almost entirely of English books and American movies and comics. In every grade, from I to X, one period, “Moral Science”, was always devoted to the Catholic-Jesuit-American worldview, but almost nothing about being Hindu or Buddhist. Several times a day, we prayed in English to a crucifix nailed to a wall in the classroom or the dining hall.
Given this saturation of an alien culture, the author (an anthropologist and currently a “developmental worker” in Bhutan) does not question whether or not such an elitist schooling would produce young men who would become arrogant about themselves and their position in Nepali society. As a result, the fine education bestowed on Nepal’s “best and brightest” was largely wasted in that very few graduates of St Xavier’s Kathmandu deigned to get their hands “dirtied” in politics, bureaucracy, scholarship, development, or activism. The overwhelming areas of choice for the generation overseen by Father Moran were engineering, medicine and family business. Perhaps no one alerted the author to these contradictions between what the Jesuits planned by introducing “learning” to Nepal and the crop they produced.
The Jesuits were not entirely to blame either. After all, our parents too were (and continue to be) obsessed with English and Western mores and manners. And often it was our own parents who insisted that their sons speak nothing but English, and pushed the children into medicine and engineering, taking advantage of the Colombo Plan scholarships which were such easy pickings for St Xavier’s graduates. Thus, one could make a ‘Jesuitical’ argument that the education given was the kind the parents demanded.
It is interesting that the author did not care to talk to anyone who graduated from Kathmandu’s St Xavier’s after 1962. Was this because the younger generation of students would be more critical of the man, if not his methods? Indeed, the author presents an archaic and idyllic view of the school Father Moran founded.
These critical flaws notwithstanding, Donald Messerschmidt has made an important contribution towards the history of modern education in Nepal. His book will be welcomed by all those who knew and loved Father Moran. But we will have to wait for another writer to provide us with the missing details in the life and works, the legacy, of Father Marshal Moran, SJ.