By Binu Subedi
About a month ago, Khemraj Dallakoti from Bhandara VDC in Chitwan, Nepal went on a trip with his family. They paused their journey for a while at Daunne, a small settlement on the edge of the highway, to look for a place to rest and eat. But despite their fluttering stomachs, they proceeded to wander excitedly around, trying to find the Manurupa Hotel among the rows of hotels that skirted the highway. They scanned each and every one of them, only to be disappointed that Manarupa’s was nowhere to be found. Not wanting to give up on their quest, they asked the owners of the hotels and shops surrounding the area if they knew where the hotel was to no avail. In the end, all their efforts to search for the hotel owned by their beloved and cherished Manurupa and her husband, were futile. At last they gave up and settled for one of the nearby hotels to eat, their stomachs content, but not their hearts. Where was Manarupa’s famous hotel?
Manurupa is a character in the radio program ‘Samajhdari‘ (or Mutual Understanding) produced by Equal Access. The program, broadcast from 5 local radio stations across 3 districts (Chitwan, Kapilvastu and Nawalparasi) of Nepal, aims to encourage strong, healthy and smooth relationships between husbands and wives by focusing on ways to resolve issues, conflicts and misunderstanding that may arise between couples. Manurupa is one of the leading characters who, along with her husband Surya Singh, runs the Manarupa Hotel that is said to be situated on the east-west highway of Nepal at Daunne. While we remain unsure of exactly how many people have stopped in Daunne hoping to meet Manarupa and taste Surya Singh’s renowned cooking, we are certain that since being on air, the drama has captured the imagination and the hearts of many who have built such a strong picture of the characters in their heads, certain they are real.
As a writer and producer on the drama, as well as being the voice of Manarupa, I feel particularly touched by people’s belief in the characters that we have created. Recently, I visited Bhandara VDC in Chitwan, where I met Khemraj who told me the story of his search for the Manarupa Hotel. I was intrigued and wanted to get more feedback from the listeners of the radio program as well as witness firsthand the impact the drama is making in people’s lives. So I met with one of our 72 listener groups, who meet every week to listen to the program and discuss the issues raised. When I first started to talk I could feel an air of excitement in the room as they recognised my voice as that of Manarupa. But when I told them my actual name and what I do for living, my utterly interested listeners (until now) lost all their enthusiasm and weren’t impressed at all! I could sense feelings of apprehension among the group members, so I tried to make them feel at ease and as we talked, I began to feel the warmth of their affection towards Manarupa and the show. Slowly they started opening up, expressing their trust and belief in Manarupa. As we talked, I admit that for a moment I forgot Manarupa was a character we had created in our studios in Kathmandu, instead I was seeing only their ‘Manarupa-didi’. It was as if Manurupa wasn’t a part of fiction anymore, but was a real person, a strong, intelligent, caring woman who could offer support in conflicts and advice for couples struggling to understand each other.
All their questions and feelings, which had been tucked away in the deepest corners of their heart, started surfacing. Many shared the problems they faced with their spouses, in-laws and children and asked Manurupa for advice. It seemed so natural for them to talk in this way as that is exactly what Manurupa does in the radio program – she advocates for harmony between couples, she talks about ways of building intimacy between a husband and wife. At times the lines between reality and fiction blurred as they wanted to know who runs the hotel while I am away, who I left my daughter with and how is my husband Surya doing?
They continued “We used to have many issues between us as husband and wife and we were able to resolve it by listening to the program.” Others asked “now we are facing this predicament. What should we do? How can we resolve this issue, Manurupa?” At times I felt overwhelmed, how could I respond like an expert? I am, after all, just a producer and a character of the program. I was in awe of the trust and belief our listeners placed in me and the characters in the drama. I tried my best to comfort them and share my experiences and knowledge but always reminding them that: “I am just a character, I write the script … I do not own a hotel in Daunne.” While I was conveying this fact, I quickly glanced over to Khemraj and his wife and smiled, only to have them burst into laughter as they remembered their own search for the mythical Manaurpa Hotel.
As I left the group and headed back to Kathmandu, many thoughts began running through my mind about what I had just experienced. Before we launched this program, we were aware that there have been hundreds of radio programs providing information and promoting awareness about various issues to the remote and marginalized communities of Nepal. They all provide information, but it is harder to change attitudes and behaviors. For us to tackle an issue like interpersonal violence it was essential that we got to those deep-seated beliefs that justify and perpetuate inequality and violence. We knew we had a challenge ahead of us, so when we wrote the drama, we didn’t think about changing the country, we didn’t even focus on changing a community or a family – we were utterly focused on reaching the individual and changing the relationship between a husband and wife. We had been afraid before we started to air the program that the content would be too personal, too close to home but in that small room, surrounded by listeners, I heard over and over how they had changed their attitudes, behavior, and beliefs after listening to the program. Many shared their joy with me and many told me that they found their long lost happiness with their spouses and in their homes. Of course when you change yourself, then there is another dimension added to your relationship that benefits the whole family and when families prosper, the whole community flourishes. When you look at it this way – then this becomes the right way to change, starting at home and slowly moving out to family, friends, neighbors and the community. Maybe these are the reasons why Manurupa has resonated with so many listeners – by speaking directly to us and to the matters important to all our hearts.
About the Author: Binu Subedi works for Equal Access in Nepal. She is a producer and scriptwriter for the Samajhdari radio program, she is also the voice of Manarupa in the drama.