Rajpal J Singh & The Nepal Digest

In this another part of the History of Online Media in Nepal Series, I present two old interviews with Rajpal J Singh, who created a history in Nepal’s online media by founding The Nepal Digest. 

The Nepal Digest, began in April, 1992, is Nepal’s first e-magazine distributed on email. It was established by Rajpal J Singh, when he was 26 and had finished masters degree at the Northern Illinois University. The Nepal Digest is predecessor of Nepal’s online media and hence historically important to understand history of Nepal’s online media.

Rajpal J. Singh currently lives in New York.

I’m republishing two historical items related to Singh. The first is an interview as published on December 10, 1998 on The Nepal Digest itself; second interview published in The Kathmandu Post in January, 1998. Those interviews gives an idea of his life, beginning of The Nepal Digest, its status then and other related matters.

1.  On December 10, 1998 issue of the The Nepal Digest, there was an interview with Singh taken by someone who used nickname F.A.H/’Hutch’/Dalrymple. I’m republishing it for its historical relevance:

Note: I had the opportunity recently to meet and chat with Mr. Singh at his parent’s house in Dhobighat, a district of Paten (Kathmandu), when he was here in Nepal on a holiday visit (Tihar and Bi-Tika, last part of October).

I expected a much older man, but Mr. Singh is but 32-years of age, remarkable considering all that he has accomplished in his short life! He has lived in the U.S. for the past fourteen years, and thus an Americanized Nepali (in terms of speech and manner).

A charming man, actually, whose dedication to bring democratic change to both Nepal and America is very much evident in the following responses to my questions (and our always continuing discussion)!

He, like me, is an ‘activist,’ in that we believe in actually doing something about the world’s problems… Not just complaining about them (feeling impotent). We believe that one person CAN make the world a better place to live!

His ‘visiting’ (business) card reads ‘Rajpal JP Singh, Senior Systems Engineer, Platinum Technology, White Plains, N.Y.’

HUTCH: Mr. Singh, tell me about your background, and what was it like growing up here in Kathmandu, Nepal?

SINGH: I attended St. Xaviers here in Jawalakhel, and was exposed to American culture there, books, movies, television programs (documentries), and music. I found myself sort of interested with this strange but new culture, American culture. But, then I went to New Delhi for what’s called ‘high school’ in America or 10+2 here. I graduated from TAFS (The Air Force School).

When I returned to Kathmandu I shared with my father that I wanted to further my higher education in the U.S., but he didn’t think it was a great idea for two reasons. One, it would cost a lot of money, and secondly I could have easily gotten a Nepali Government scholarship to study in South Asia or any eastern European country because I had done very well in my 10+2 school

In addition, I think he didn’t want his son to struggle in a new country at such an early age. I think he was just being practical and a very caring father. It was, after all, a very expensive proposition. But, I was determined to go to the U.S. I thought that the best place to pursue further education, especially in computer science…

Where did this desire come from?

At the time there was no opportunity to study computer science in Nepal.

So how did you over come your father’s reticence, and end up in the U.S.?

First we raised the money by selling some property and my parents also contributed from their own retirement fund (my parents are such great people!). Next, we fought the visa ‘battle.’ A family friend of ours had attended Northern Illinois University in Dekalb, Illinois, so that’s where I applied. They have a very good computer program, and I wanted to study computers.

What was the thing that surprised you most about the U.S., after you first arrived?

When I finally got there everything was so different and new. I felt ‘uneasy.’ But I felt ‘at home,’ about a few things, at the same time. Everyone was so nice to me, and before long I felt more comfortable. I learned to maneuver in American culture, which is different from Nepali culture, of course… I was glad to discover you didn’t need a facade in social situations, nor was there any real protocol vis a vis business.

I discovered an openness that I’d always hoped that I would find somewhere… I sort of liked it. I suddenly found myself in an environment I resonated with in some ways… Thus, I spent six years acquiring two degrees, a B.S. and an M.S. At the same time I was teaching and working as a staff engineer at the University… Then a consulting firm for IBM recruited me, because I had a background in the Internet. So, I moved to White Plains, New York.

But, actually, I wasn’t really an employee, but a ‘consultant,’ and with a friend we financed a company we called ‘Supernova.’ That relationship with Supernova lasted three years. But, ultimately, due to the lack of further venture capitol we had to close our doors. Then in 1997, I found myself in the job market. But, it wasn’t too long before I got a job with Memco, another computer company, that specialized in computer security systems. Recently they were bought out by Platinum Technology.

Why and how did you start The Nepal Digest?

Along about 1990, after the ‘revolution,’ in Nepal, and with the restoration of democracy, there was this euphoria! I could feel it from my friends all the way in the U.S. It was a hopeful time. I wanted to bring some form of expression to this ‘feeling.’ I wanted to empower the people in some way. I had been an editor of a printed social publication, thus I immediately thought of print, although it turned out to be too expensive!

I was looking around for a solution, when I thought of e-mail, the Internet… That was April, 1992. I did a few mass mailing to solicit some kind of response. The idea immediately caught fire! I remember I’d get 10 to 15 subscriptions per day and that grew to twenty-five! Within one year we had 1,200. Now, it fluctuates between 1000-1,200, and these are all over the world, although mostly Nepal and the U.S. But, the amazing thing is our WEB site (www.nepal.org)… It’s getting 1.5 million ‘hits’ per year now!

Subscription via e-mail is basically free?

Yes, as long as you have a computer and an e-mail account. This is a service we provide, the ‘publication,’ on-line either via e-mail, or WEB site. You can get the Digest via email, provided by the Computer Department at my old alma mater, Northern Illinois
University . My old professor, Dr. Neal Rickert, an Australian by birth, has been very supportive. Without him, I don’t think we could have done it. Separately, I contribute roughly $1,200 of my own money for the TND Foundation website (www.nepal.com).

So, how many people are involved in the everyday effort to produce The Nepal Digest?

Basically me, though there has been tremendous help from a few folks when I needed it… Of course, all the material comes from contributors like yourself. I don’t edit anything… It probably takes me something like 20 hours a month to produce.

How many submissions (articles, etc.) do you get a month?

The electronic journal is published once every week and I would say there’s around 1,200 to 2,000 lines of material in each issue!

And what’s the ‘story’ on The Nepal Digest now, four years later?

We’ve found out a lot, that it’s a great way to share ideas… Isn’t that what democracy is all about? It’s a common platform, in which any interested party can make unedited contributions. Of course, we get complaints all the time about people wanting it this way, or that way.

They complain about the content, about the length of contributions, but we adhere to our basic goal of providing a forum, and letting the chips fall where they may. They’re aren’t many on-line forums like this with Nepal as the basic issue, though a few new ones are coming… I feel like I have a moral obligation to provide such a forum, so the common man might speak his mind.

So, what do you do when you’re not providing a ‘platform,’ for us out there who think we have something important to say…? (he laughs)

My life is pretty busy here in New York, due to my full-time job and the TND Foundation. We have a discussion group, besides The Nepal Digest. I have other commitments too. But, I like doing what I’m doing! Can there be a better way to spend your time? I also like to ride my bicycle, go trekking, and I read a lot. I also love all kinds of music. Recently, I’m trying to learn golf… Let’s see what happens with that.

Do you think you can ever make the transition back to Nepal?

I would hope so… Seriously, I think I will eventually, but I’ll have to learn to change the things I can and accept the things I can’t.

What are your future plans, vis a vis, The Nepal Digest? I know you and me have discussed getting it printed in Kathmandu, for local distribution…?

Well, I’m into issues that affects people’s lives… For example, the problems with child labor, and girl trafficking/prostitution, and
raising living standards in Nepal. If there’s some group in Kathmandu, that shares our commitment and passion, then I’d love to combine forces!

What are your hopes and aspirations for Nepal, the U.S., the world, and also yourself? Where and what will you be doing in ten years?

In Nepal we are taught to accept our fate, our lives, no matter what… In America, children are raised to believe they can change their lives, their fate if unacceptable to them, and add to the world. I’d like to produce some new mythology for Nepal that would set future generations free from a fatalistic, and a deterministic philosophy/religion that locks them into, just accepting things as there are. I’m lucky… I was born and grew up in Nepal, but then was able to absorb an entirely new mythology that set me free in a way! And a personal freedom that has allowed me to expand my horizons beyond what most of us back in Nepal could fathom when we were growing up… Knowing this, I can see what has held us back in Nepal, and I’d like to help change that! But, for right now, let’s begin by sharing, discussing, expressing any and all views that matter to us-let us learn to speak out! Let us become a true democracy in Nepal!

In that case here’s your chance to say something to the readers/contributors of/to TND, but have never had the ‘right opportunity.’ So, say, away!

Never forget that ‘Democracy perishes among the silent crowd!’ So keep expressing yourselves! Additionally, let’s not forget that just simple love is the most powerful force on earth, and with it we can overcome just about anything! And may all the Gods be with us in this endeavor!

2. Following are the texts from an interview of Rajpal J. Singh – TND Foundation and The Nepal Digest founder, taken by Rama Parajuli and Dr. Pratyoush Onta in January, 1998.

Parajuli/Onta: How did TND begin and when?

Singh: Back in 1991 and 1992, I served as the Chief Editor, to then, monthly newsletter “The Viewpoints”, a publication of Association of Nepalis in Midwest America (ANMA). There were so many interesting news clips, views, discussions and articles that I wanted to include, it was simply not possible economically to print them all on the paper media. My other full time commitments were not allowing me to spend the amount of time I wanted to volunteer, for this hobby of mine, if you will. Also there was this wonderful euphoria after the people’s movement and democracy that I felt all the Nepalis from all corners of the world had to have had something to say and they certainly needed to be heard.

So I started looking for ways to bring the voices of Nepalis and friends of Nepal to a united common platform, and the sciences of information and telecommunication provided just that. Hence in April 1992, the first issue of “The Nepal Digest” (TND) was born.

What was the original format like and the number of subscribers?

It was a very simple typeset format: 80 columns of ASCII text format with approximately 1200 lines which in computer disk space is approx 50K. This was a nice file size that most of the internet mail programs could handle. It also provided me with enough materials to publish “The Nepal Digest” (TND) twice a week, which reflecting back now, was quite a lofty and optimistic ambition, I think. It started with 25 subscribers, but the request for new subscriptions poured in daily, sometimes in overwhelming numbers. We still get about 15 to 30 new subscribers every month today.

How frequent is it now?

It was twice or at least once a week consistently through out the years in 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995. Recently, in 1996 and 1997, it has been about twice a month, sometimes 3 times a month. Part of the decrease in the frequency is due to my limited time divided between TND Foundation activities and the digest publication. Our goal is to make TND a a weekly event.

Can you say something about the growth in the number of people who get TND?

We keep an active list of 1200 subscribers in our database. This is direct e-mail list. Due to new subscription and old account deletions at the subscriber’s mail-server, this number ranges anywhere from 1100 to 1250.

However, it is difficult to count how many people read the digest directly from TND Foundation website at http://www.nepal.org. In 1996, TND Foundation website logged 1.2 million hits. In summary, you can see that its only growing.

Also about the transformations that have taken place in its contents, esp after Nepali newspapers started appearing in WWW after Sept 1995?

Before the explosion of the web, the digest contained a 50/50 mix of news and views. Now my guess would be that about 20 percent is news and 80 percent is discussions, thoughts, poems, articles and some free advertisements.

How is this e-magazine supported? Financially? Editorially?

The support for the e-magazine comes from “subscribers and viewers like yourselves”. In the beginning, it was merely my time. Once the TND Foundation was established as a non-profit organization, members sent in tax-deductible donations voluntarily, myself included. Bulk of the expenses are for the TND Foundation website http://www.nepal.org which I contribute for the most part. I hope to change this equation via collective fund-rasing efforts through the foundation in the future.

There has been help in the editorial efforts in the past. Thanks to Ashutosh Tiwari, Rajesh Shrestha, Padam Sharma and many others who volunteered their time during my month long absence in 1993. Currently, we are looking for individuals who are interested in the editor position. Anybody is welcome who has access to internet, really! In the meantime, I have been acting as the default editor.

What has been the single most ‘success’ of TND over the years? and its shortcomings?

Personally, I feel that every issue is a success. It gives me gratification that with every single issue of TND, we collectively push for free voices and free thoughts to be heard in Nepal and around the world. If I were to quantify a single most successful event, perhaps it would have to be the first fund-rasing for the flood victims in 1993. It was a fulfilling feeling for all the members worldwide. The money has handed personally to Nepal Red Cross.

Other success includes but aren’t limited to Arun III “against” petition drive and many others which I can’t remember right now but I would have look into the TND archives.

I must admit, there are few number of shortcomings too. On of them is not being able to publish it weekly, lack of complete headlines in each issue and inability to afford its own news correspondent in Nepal. We are determined to change this, at least in our hearts.

What other activities is the TND Foundation engaged in (in addition to the e-magazine)?

There are 3 main activities the foundation is engaged in: first – the e-magazine (The Nepal Digest), second – electronic information center on the websites: www.nepal.org, www.himalaya.org and www.gurkhas.org, third – resource activities center, which include facilitating volunteering services to interested individuals through foundation itself and other interested organizations (we have done quite a few in the past 2 years), and assist and/or lead in efforts to provide access to first and second points mentioned above to 14 zones and 75 districts in Nepal. We are still exploring ways how to achieve this task.

And what are its future plans?

We have just opened TND Foundation Australia and Canada chapters. Thanks to Dr. Krishna Bahadur Hamal and Anil Shrestha who have taken the initiatives to execute as Co-ordinating Directors for the respective countries. We are looking for volunteers to start chapters in Nepal, India, Bangkok, Japan, Germany, UK, Hong-Kong, Middle east and other countries where sizable concentration of Nepali communities exist.

The entire focus here is to make Nepal and Nepali causes and interests sharply visible in the eyes of our(Nepali) and the world community. To achieve this we are trying to engage ourselves in activities such as: dissemination of tangible hardware as well as information materials and people skills in the areas of high-technology, education, economy, health and environmental related projects in Nepal as a foundation service, initiate, assist and manage not-for-profit projects in Nepal in the areas as identified on a need basis, and assist and mobilize not-for-profit organization in Nepal and worldwide to achieve Foundation objectives.

Clearly, these activities are highly ambitious one. We all know its an impossible task for the foundation alone to be able to achieve. Hence, we need more committed people, organizations – NGOs and governmental both, to start seeing some success. We only have so much cycles during the day since all of us involved are doing this on a voluntary basis. Perhaps, with more committed people and financial resources through fund raising efforts, this voluntary exercise can turn into a full-time organization. Thats what we all want – This is what I would like to see happen.

Any other comments?

On behalf of “The Nepal Digest (TND)” and “TND Foundation”, I would like to thank you, the editorial staff and the publishers for this KURAKANI. We also would like to appreciate the support our worldwide members have extended.

We hope that TND can be accessible to 14 zones and 75 districts in Nepal very soon so that not only the privileged few but the common man can raise the free voice to be heard among his netizens. We ask for everybody’s support, NGOs, private citizens and government alike, to help us in this worthwhile effort. Nepal ko jai hos!

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