Nepali doctor's love for Urdu poetry

A Nepali emergency physician with a passion for Urdu couplets wows Pakistanis

Ramu Kharel in Karachi on his way for a tv interview about his emergency medicine work in Nepal in which he fluently recited Urdu poetry. Photos: ABDULLAH ZAHID/SAPAN NEWS

On a usual bustling March morning in Karachi, roads choked with traffic and the air thick with trumpeting horns, the clock is ticking for Ramu Kharel’s morning show appearance on Geo TV.

A physician of Nepali origin who teaches emergency medicine at Brown University in the United States, Kharel was on his way back from Nepal after training staff in hospitals.

Karachi is only two-and-half hours flying time away, but since there are no direct flights from Kathmandu, he had to overfly Pakistan all the way to Dubai and fly back after a long layover.

Kharel was in Pakistan for the first time and it was at the invitation of Dr Junaid Razzak of Pakistan Life Savers Programme (PLSP) at Aga Khan University. It aims to educate 10 million lay persons over the next decade on cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and bleeding control. Cardiac arrests claim up to 47 lives per hour in Pakistan.

“The possibility of resuscitation increases if a person is trained in CPR and choking prevention,” says Kharel. “It typically takes 45 minutes for an ambulance to arrive, but by then the brain suffers irreversible damage.” 

Kharel was in Nepal to introduce a similar program, training frontline providers, police officers and bystanders who are often first responders.

Kharel was born in Gulmi district, and experienced first hand the devastating consequences of poverty and poor health infrastructure. He lost his mother when he was just eight because she could not be taken to a hospital in time, and this fuelled Kharel’s determination to improve healthcare access to underserved communities.

His uncle was a migrant worker in Qatar who died while making infrastructure for the FIFA World Cup. His employers in Qatar only listed his death as ‘cardiac arrest’ as the cause, since they did not have to pay compensation for 

Ramu Kharel on screens
Ramu Kharel on screens at the Geo TV studio as he talks about the Pakistan Life Savers Programme and recites Urdu poetry.

A member of the Southasia Peace Action Network (Sapan) that works for cooperation in the region, Kharel says Nepal can learn a lot from Pakistan’s experience with trauma care.

“Our mountains unite us and we even look alike,” he says. “Sadly, it’s the petty egos of those in power that keep us divided.”

Highway crashes claim some half a million lives a year in South Asia, and as a member of Sapan’s road-safety group, Kharel has been trying to find region wide solutions. 

When cataclysmic floods swept one-third of Pakistan last year, the government of Nepal promptly donated relief goods, including tons of food, shelter, and medical assistance for the victims. 

And in 2015, when a deadly earthquake killed over 8,500 people in Nepal, Pakistan helped, sending four aircrafts with a 30-bed hospital, special search and rescue teams including Army doctors and food items.

It was in the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake that Kharel established a health advancement committee in Nepal in collaboration with local communities to provide more decision-making power over their healthcare systems. Working with local governments, he led a program to overhaul local healthcare systems.  

In coming years, Nepal and Pakistan are likely to face more flood disasters due to accelerating climate change. “Since local communities will be first to react in an emergency, preparing them for disaster response and developing their healthcare systems is crucial,” he says.

When he is not working on ways to improve healthcare, Kharel is actively creating content on social media as @namestedoc on Instagram and TikTok. While his target audience is largely Nepali, Kharel has a TikTok following of nearly 100,000 with over 3.8 million likes on his videos.

It was during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 that he began using social media to spread health awareness, starting with a TikTok video from Nepal appealing for vaccines. 

Kharel also loves basketball and Urdu poetry. Guided by his mentor Syed Akbar Hyder, an associate professor of Asian Studies and Islamic Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, he is a fluent Urdu speaker. 

The Nepali doctor’s love for Urdu poetry started when Hyde shared a couplet by Ghalib at an introductory class. “We spent the entire class discussing one couplet. I was hooked by the ‘ibham’ (ambiguity), the beauty and the depth of the lines, and I knew I had to learn this language,” he recalls.

Under UT Austin’s Hindi-Urdu Flagship programme, he along with six other students lived for a year in India in 2009, travelling and immersing themselves in Urdu language and culture. Kharel interned with an organisation in Lucknow working to raise the standard of living and education for Muslim women in India. 

He believes that poetry has the power to heal and inspire, and often turns to Urdu verses to make sense of life’s mysteries. 

In the car, he recites lines from Faiz Ahmed Faiz by heart: “Chale chalo ke woh manzil abhi nahi aayi.” (Let’s keep going, we have yet to reach the destination.)

Abdullah Zahid is a student of mass communication at the University of Karachi.@AbdullahZahid. This article was first published in Sapan News.