A Quiet Space for Poetry in Nepal
Kathmandu. Nepal. October, 2016
Things seem to have settled back to a normal routine in the Himalayan capital. People have forgotten the earthquakes that shook the nation last year, killing thousands, making millions homeless, erupting political mess and triggering a Nepal-India border standoff followed by fierce protests in Nepal Terai, the lowlands, emptying the streets of the mystic city, the cafés and teashops that shut down for the want of cooking gas and kerosene along with new-found superstores of the new republic.
I wake up in my new house. To straighten my thoughts and find a quiet moment of my own, I decide to walk across the flooded river to a tin-roofed makeshift teashop. I sit on a small wooden bench and place a sheaf of loose wide ruled paper sheets on the wooden table in front. I shuffle the stack and try to trace the translations I’d gathered for a special Nepal folio of Drunken Boat. The sheets have been compressed, soiled and dog-eared at places, illegible from being handled along with other items in my black bag for months; the edges have frayed from my travels across the globe.
I flip through the tattered papers, trying to find the last files that I worked on before commencing my journey to the West. I carried the stack with me but barely had time to look at them. In New York, the headquarters of my travels in North and South America, I settled in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Every night I moved from venue to venue in the mega city, and infrequently moved from city to another, Upstate New York—Beacon, New Platz, Goshan, Middletown—New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Daytona Beach, Key West and took a flight to Argentina. I came back to New York to travel inside the United States again, Chicago, Sacramento, Los Angles, Erie, Akron, Cleveland, then flew back to Delhi to wander in the streets of famous poet Ghalib and finally flew over the racing clouds to Kathmandu.
The day I landed in Kathmandu I had a dream of losing the sheaf with some fresh work. I woke up and found that my suitcase with cache of my notebooks and papers had been moved. I started looking for it in my new house. Before I could lay my hands on them and walk to my workplace here in tin-roofed teashop, I received an invitation from neighboring China. Like the Siberian cranes, I flew over the Himalayas to land in China for the first time, spent a night in Chengdu and next morning flew over the Gobi desert, my aircraft shaking crazy from the desert storms to land in Urumqi, Xinjiang province, the new frontier of the legendry Silk Route. I met several poets from the Xinjiang Province and from Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Turkmenistan there. It thrilled me to meet poets from these places for the first time in my life, confirming the fact that these places weren’t just figments from the legends and folklore but actually existed. Furthermore as in the Himalayas, in these little nations poetry thrived in little circles and shaped the lives of the people.
I am back in Kathmandu now, on my way to meet my fellow poets who must have gathered in little nooks around the city. The poets usually gather in city squares, in a public park in Baneshwore or in a legendry corner near New Road Banyan Tree, known as Poets’ Corner that has a long history of literary activism. On an oblong public bench poets sit and gossip over the frivolities of newly found rulers, newer monarchs of a newer regime.
These poetry places are open-air editorial offices for freelance writers and penniless editors of little literary magazines like me. It's here that the exchange of manuscripts takes place. It is here you meet the most of the members of Nepal's literary family. It is here you meet almost everybody who matters in the literary scenario in Nepal. It's an honest literary wrestling ring as well. Here you have to be honest. You have to be ready to face the worst blows of blatant criticism. That's why those who have joined power and corrupted in the corridors of power often shun this place. The place appears to be democratic alternative to the conventional places of Establishment like Royal Nepalese Academy or a University Campus. It represents everything urgent, candid, ongoing, honest and modern. It's Socrates' square in the polis of the Himalayan nation.
Sipping a cup of sickly chai in a crowded public square, I am at ease again, though maddening noise in the air of motorbikes and buses blaring making me difficult to focus. The tea is sugary and stale, the water pitcher of the teawallah full of molecules as old as peoples’ belief in poetry. Why I have returned, I wonder, life continues…
*** *** ***
The people seem to have forgotten the Quakes. It’s the last of the Monsoons, the moment it stops raining in Kathmandu, a layer of dust films the jammed traffic on the roads of the city. The smoke from traffic eats the silence that once defined the essence of this hidden Shangri-La. Deafening noise of the traffic nauseates you for a lifetime. Caught in the middle of a traffic jam in the city centre, I am terrified — My face turns tense, my forehead riddled with wrinkles, an upright U of wrinkles appears in its center where energy chakra are supposed be, my eyes protrude prominently. I am aware of a tingling in the corner of my left eye. Would my eyeballs pop out and fall off onto the ground. Would I suffer from a facial paralysis?
I remember the clarity my face had back in New York City after a short stay. My eyes had become clearer and tiny bags beneath them had vanished. Within a week of my Kathmandu stay, the healthy charm has vanished. I am outraged and want to rush to the Annapurna hill ranges right away. Is the chaos on the street a physical manifestation of the political mess the nations has suffered from over last three decades? The country has regressed into depression; its major income coming from the remittance earned from its citizens working in the neighboring nations, the Middle East and Europe and North America. Every day over a thousand young men and women leave the airport and every day a coffin lands on the airport baggage strip with the withered body of a flower from the seething deserts of Middle East and elsewhere.
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Over the last three decades Kathmandu has turned into a shanty town. The city would stun you and disgust you with its chaos, maddening traffic and its dust and fumes from garbage heaps piling up in God's own sacred squares. It would shock you with its Thamel greed, its cold sneer if you arrive here with a naïve dream of some Hippidom or Shangri-la that it once was. The current mood of Kathmandu is tense as the political pressure is mounting and deadline to implement the New Constitution is fast approaching. And future of the youngest republic of the world remains vague, fraught with dangers.
But then there’s this hope — soon big Dashain festival will approach. Soon relentless rains would stop battering the valley and the blue skies will bare their breasts. The city will get closed for a fortnight. Everyone from ‘outside’ will leave the city to celebrate, leaving behind the silence that had lain shame-ridden under its legendary wooden pagodas. Soon silence would come out of the peacock windows and balconies, leap on to its narrow streets and transform itself into a holy dance in utter erotic, even lewd moves. Soon the silence would race amuck in its spacious squares and sing mantras of the Lake where the Lord Indra himself came to pluck lotus flowers and got trapped by the local people as a common thief.
I love the day the festival begins and everyone withdraws and a mood of festivity sets in. The temper of Kathmandu shifts from a bustling metropolis to a hushed village where once bells rang to tickle the ripe paddy fields. It’s this silence, and the compulsion to move out to make a living, the political turmoil that shattered the great pastoral idyll, causing abject poverty and consequent attempts to redress the issues of lost glory that underlies the contributions to the Nepal folio of Drunken Boat.
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Very little is known about this little nation to the world outside. Nepal is projected in clichés, even in neighboring India. Earlier image of Nepal as a land of fierce Gurkhas has been reinforced with the recent events in the Nepalese history, including the Royal massacre, the Maoist insurgency and recent quakes. People know very little about Nepal, and what they know is so farfetched and remote that it tears country’s true image into shreds. Thus, the task of introducing Nepali literature and its writers to a foreign audience is riddled with multiple hazards and challenges.
The fact is that the other image of Nepal as the rooftop of the world, Devatama, the place where the soul of the god lives and the birthplace of Buddha, the monarch of the world peace, has been overshadowed by these recent fearsome images and ongoing political turbulence. To be brief, Rousseau has just taken hold here and the nation is slowly rising from middle ages to a modern century.
In actual fact, Nepal is a nation born out the breath of poet/translators. For it was poet Bhanu Bhakta Acharya whose translation of the Hindu epic, The Ramayana, gave the Nepal nation its genuine language, face, and identity. The Nepali language remains an outcome of several Indo-Aryan dialects that in turn had evolved from the eastern branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Over the centuries, even though the language has undergone change, argues veteran Nepalese linguist and critic Dr. Taranath Sharma, the characteristics of the old and the middle Indo-Aryan dialects where it took root can be traced in both its form and content in almost a similar manner as can be done in any of its modern Indo–Aryan sister languages.
The language was originally known as khas kura, the language of the people who conquered and settled in the Western hills, establishing The Khasa Kingdom even before the birth of Christ. The khas language continued to be the lingua franca for centuries until 1769 when Prithvi Narayan Shah of a small kingdom in the western hills unified the petty principalities comprising diverse languages to form a powerful Nepal nation. For the same reason the Nepali language was known as Gorkhali. But as the successors of the Gorkhali king expanded the small kingdom and strengthened Nepal, its language became known as Nepali. Today the language is spoken not only in Nepal but also in the neighboring Indian states of Sikkim, Darjeeling, Assam, Burma, the kingdom of Bhutan and elsewhere.
Other aspect of Nepalese literature that one must be acquainted with remains rooted in the modern history of Nepalese polity. Since politics has always played decisive role in every field of the Nepalese society, including literature, the role of genres, and their evolution has also been largely determined by the involvement of their creators in the national polity. Nepal always had the scourge of tyrants and ruthless despots ravaging the innocence of the innocent people. Being on the edge of the world, a little sequestered kingdom, democracy came quite late, in reality in the 1990s only. Today in the new democratic set-up, the ongoing struggle for a just political system without losing the past glory of age-long traditional patterns, a writer's role becomes extremely delicate as well intriguing.
It is the Nepalese poetry that one needs to be acquainted with if one wants to know soul of true Nepal. The Nepali fiction, in this context, has always lived in the shadow of its sister genre, poetry. Those who know Nepal and its strategic location between two giants, neighboring China and India, also know what role its geopolitics has played in the making of the present day nation and its literature. Since the dark Rana regimes, the poets have always played a vital role in the shaping the currents of the Himalayan nation whereas the story has remained more inward, individualist and introspective, focusing on the family dramas and Freudian motifs and complexes in the fashion of its Western masters.
Poetry and politics has always remained inseparable in Nepal. In the Rana Period, the poets like Gopal Prasad Rimal emerged on the centre stage of Nepalese political and literary arena. In 1941, the brutal execution of the patriot Dashrath Chand and his friends fired Rimal's imagination and he founded a creative organization called ‘Praja Parishad’ to raise voice against the oppression of autocratic Rana rulers and was imprisoned on several occasions for his involvement in the Movement. He played a pivotal role in making the 1950-51 movement successful but soon after grew disillusioned. Rimal saw love and revolution as identical, and imagined the political story of his nation as dramatization of his personal love story as portrayed in his powerful poem, “The Story of my Love.” His dreams of a democratic Nepal were shattered. Rimal lost his mental balance and was sent to an asylum in Ranchi. Later he was brought back to Nepal to spend the rest of his life, roaming insane in the streets of Kathmandu with the dream of a true democracy seething in him. Rimal died in 1973.
Similarly, other poets like Siddhi Charan Shrestha revolted against the Rana regime. The poet was sentenced to a life imprisonment for introducing the word 'revolution' into of Nepalese literature. One of his Newari poems mentions the word, 'kranti'/shanti': without revolution, peace cannot be possible. However, as the 1950 Upsurge upstaged Rana regime, Siddhicharan was released after a few years. In the post-Rana rule, he emerged as a major poet.
Bhupi Sherchan, a true successor of Rimal, wrote stunning poems that touched the heart of each Nepalese. He saw what his contemporary political commentators failed to see. For the first time, in the history of Nepalese literature, he dared to touch the delicate issues that had remained hidden in the shared memory of the Nepalese people. In the tradition of his master, he wrote on the agony of Nepalese people in an unjust, autocratic Panchayat system that engendered the 1950 Revolution. A majority of the poets in the Panchayat regime, including Krishna Bhakta Shrestha, Shailendra Sakar, Bimal Nibha, Hari Adhikary, Shyamal, and Purna Viram touched the forbidden borders of Nepalese consciousness and attacked the false, vainglorious notions of heroism like that of the Gurkha gallantry and ideology-driven regimes. They evoked the geopolitical compulsion of Nepal to remain a non-entity and raised the delicate questions of nationalism, sovereignty and a liberated prosperous Nepal.
Similarly, post-1990 the poets have played a vital role to address issues of democracy, new constitution and marginalized ethnicities. Poets like Shailendra Sakar, Bimal Nibha, Shayamal, Hari Adhikary, Yuyutsu Sharma, Promod Snehi, Padam Gautam, Buddhi Sagar, Mani Lohni, Chetnath Dhamala, Purna Infada, Nakul Silwal, Arun Budathoki, R. M. Dangol, and Chunky Shrestha have independently raised voices to usher freedom of speech and true democratic norms in the making of the new republic. These Nepalese poets seem to have saved their breaths to articulate the agony of this nation in throes of public protests and hunger in most concentrated forms. Poetry here seems to speak of the contemporary chaos more succinctly. At the same time, poets like Purna Viran, Punya Gautam, and Keshav Silwal have worked along the radical progressive party lines and were associated with the People’s War and other party-based activism.
Thus, to cite leading Nepalese critic Tara Nath Sharma, even the leading luminary in Nepali fiction like Bishweshwore Koirala saw short story as non-political exercise. Koirala, the leader of the Nepali Congress toppled the Rana Regime in 1950 and became Nepal's first democratically elected Prime Minister. However, within a decade, King Mahendra dismissed his Democratic Government in a Royal Coup and sent Koirala to prison where he wrote most of his fiction, six stories, two novels, and an autobiographical book. With the exception of one short story, Koirala never touched any political issue in his stories and novels, enhancing fiction's role as emotional and private. Instead of addressing the contemporary political turbulence, he is famously quoted as saying: ‘I am social democrat at heart but an anarchist in writing.’ Fiction in his view was not to be dictated by any doctrine or ideology.
And true to Koirala’s assertion, he set the role of a fiction writer as dealing with non-political issues of human mind. The fiction has largely remained limited to the family drama and has not sung the song of the sadness of the people caught up in this endless inferno with an alarming depth. This I realized more meaningfully as I was working on an anthology of the Nepali literature for National Book Trust, India. To my surprise, with few exceptions, there is hardly a younger figure in prose that has dealt with the contemporary conflict successfully. The majority of young Nepalese writers write in poetry. Or to be precise, the best that there is available today in Nepalese literature is in poetry. There are scores of poets like Rasa, Shyam Rimal, Ramesh Chitiz, Mahesh Regmi, Gyanendra Vivash, Raj Kumar Bania, Vishnu Rai, Bhishma Uprety, Biplov Dhakal, Vivash Basti, Netra Atom, Vyakul Pathak, Khumnarayan Poudel, and others actively involved in writing poetry and publishing. It’s only the poets who have sung the noble songs of protest against the atrocities of the ruthless rulers taking away the best of the Himalayan people’s lives.
Then there are even younger generations including names like Padam Gautam, R. M. Dangol, Mani Lohani, Swagat Nepal, Vishwa Sigdel, Hangyug Agyat, Lal Gopal Subedi, Amog Kafle, Buddhi Sagar, Rajendra Shrestha, Khadak Sen Oli, Tanka Uprety, Prahlas Sindulee, Bishwa Sigdel, Bimala Tumkhewa, Maya Meetu, Neelam Karki 'Niharika', Sahadev Paudel, Prakash Silwal, Kishu Cheetri, Shakutala Joshi, Ramesh Shrestha, Bhupin Vyakual, Punya Gautam, Mani Thapa, Shreejana Bhandari Sharma, R.R. Chawlagain, Samba Dhakal who continue to publish poetry prominently, enriching the poetry scene.
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“One of the main developments in British poetry,” wrote British poet Pascale Petit in her Guest Editorial to the Special British Poetry Issue of my magazine, Pratik few years ago, “is that at least half of published poets are now women, thus the fact that our selection is 50/50 women to men is a true reflection of the gender balance”.
Now as I travel and have a chance to witness a vibrant upsurge of the women writing in Europe, North America and Latin America, I am constantly reminded of the Nepalese case. The situation of women writing in Nepal is very depressing. What to speak of the writers, it’s difficult to find an audience that reflects the gender balance that my poet friend Pascale talked about. We have a joke in our poetry circles: in a regular reading we always have at least one woman present.
Not that there is a dearth of women writers in Nepal. We have some very dynamic women writers like Parijat, Sita Panday, Sharada Sharma, Usha Sherchan and Bhagirithi Shrestha. In fact, every year scores of young women appear on the scene with a vivacious book, a poetry collection or a novel. But they are soon shooed away by the male mullahs of literary establishment. Or sadly enough, they get married, only to disappear into oblivion for more than a decade. By the time they come back, they have lost their vigor in writing. Their preoccupations in channeling the domestic circles of their conjugal lives make them very detached and aloof. Scores of women writers, beginning with Kundan Sharma, Baba Basnet and others, have disappeared from the scene due to marital reasons.
That Nepalese writing is some big boys’ deal is as depressing as the fact that the Nepali women writing has been dominated by middle class or upper middle class Kathmanduites. After Parijat, a real Nepali woman who has a real bleeding story from the remote hunger stricken Nepalese districts to tell has yet to attain prominence on the platform of Nepalese literature. In addition, in the national capital, the women literary groups are looked upon as dubious and shady and scandalous by male writers. This factor keeps the sensitive woman away from participating in literary circles. Gossipmongers rule the roost in the inner circles of Nepalese writing, making any honorable and self-respecting woman away from major creative activities. For the same reason one notices that women writers only feel safe when they belong to groups or form socialite circles or seek shelter in political forums, be they right or left. But most of the writing done in these circles is merely ceremonial, fuelled by bored rich husbands, defunct oligarchs or crafty party chiefs. The real writing gets swept under the nuptial bed or gets scrubbed in the huge container of conjugal chores.
Among younger generations prominent names like Sarita Tiwari, Hari Maya Bhetwal, Shakuntala Joshi, Bimala Tumkhewa, Neelam Niharika Karki, Tarkana Sharma, Sabina Sindhu, Shreejana Bhandari, Ishwori Karki, Nirupa Prasun, Revigya Joshi and Amrita Smriti have emerged over the last decade. There are scores of other fresh voices that need to be heard and a selection of them will be added to supplement the Himalayan Arts folio in the coming weeks.
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Even though there is no proper poetry publisher to promote it, poetry in this tumultuous Himalayan nation thrives. For poetry is the only way one has to overcome the sadness of the contemporary political chaos imposed on a helpless Nepalese citizen. As Nepal remained closed to the outside world for centuries, the oral traditions worked in unison finding poetry as a stronger medium of expressing agony of unjust systems. No wonder even today the best selling Nepali books remain Laxmi Prasad Devkota's Muna Madan, a play written in popular Jhyure folk song tradition, Gopal Prasad Rimal’s epoch making poetry collection, Amako Spana, and Bhupi Sherchan’s Gumne Mechmathi Ando Manche, a collection of poems.
In a Nepali poetry circle you will often come across a Nepali poet or an editor of a Nepali poetry journal with a bag full of his just-published collection or journal. Free of charge, the book will be distributed to all present at the event. The readers will accept the books as earned prizes along with the treat of snacks at a typical Nepalese poetry event. Most of them have their works already published in it or intend to do so in the following issues.
There are scores of instances of the poets selling their ancestral lands or gold earrings or bangles belonging to their mothers or wives to publish their poetry collections. This is a familiar scene in the arena of Nepali publishing controlled primarily by author-publishers. The poet plays the dual role of being the mouth and the eye. He is the book and the reader, the maker, and the thing made. Almost every alternate day I receive gift of a book published by a Nepali author. The scene seems vibrant.
That Nepali poetry thrives and flourishes without any institutionalized support is a magic in itself. There are no Art Councils, Promotion Centers or Endowments. No publishers genuinely interested in promoting the cause of the written words, especially poetry. Nepal Academy or Sajha Prakashan mostly serves the semiliterate party workers loyal to the respective political leaders. However, even when there is little, virtually no support to assist the creative ventures of the poets, poetry rocks the Himalayan nation.
To a western reader this might look pure madness. I have yet to see a book by a regular poet in Europe or North America without a funding from a Donor, private or public. But this is the norm here. A book of poetry is gifted like a chocolate bar, free distribution of sweets after the reading of the scriptures. You accept it as a reward for being present at the ceremony, without any guile or guilt. Only rarely, you buy a book because the book has to be as good as the scriptures.
It is the lower middle class in Nepal that every so often buys a poetry book, considers itself part of the creative world woven in them and circulates among its friends and family members. Buying the book itself is a rare thing. You do the ultimate thing. Once a Nepali reader buys the book, it gets elevated to the status of a scripture itself. The readers hands it down from generation to generation. The book is worn out through multiple readings. It is bound and rebound by the posterity.
A good Nepali book once bought moves like a mantra in a monastery from one mouth to another, over the times envelops the readers, and becomes them, the bread and breath of their sacred frames. It becomes a classic, a Muna Madan, an Amako Spana or a Gumne Mechmathi Andomanche.
However over the past two decades, things have moved at an erratic speed. An unprecedented turn of events has brought everything upside down. From an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy to a secular parliamentary republic with further demands for ethnic federalism might astound someone who visited Nepal even in the early 1990s. Only few years ago, the poets made it a lifetime’s mission of fighting against despotic rulers. All of a sudden now everything including a poet’s role and the place of poetry in democratic Nepal is being challenged. Directly or indirectly, in the face of party-based ideological alignments, the fate of a true poet lies in uncertainty, without the presence of a quiet space to write or a distant patron to protect, or an enemy to fight against. With the rise of Social Media and new adventures /misadventures related to modern-day publishing, it’s going to be extremely intriguing to see what lies in store for the Nepali poetry in the coming decades…