Upendra Subba: We need more critical and creative minds to drive the literary scene to become more competitivePoet Subba talks about his love for poetry and the need for critical readers and competitive literary market.
Upendra Subba is a man of few words and a whole lot of simplicity. One would imagine him to be jovial and witty like the character he played of the Jhakri Baje in Kabaddi, of which he wrote the script. But who you meet is a quiet, humble man who is still questioning the recognition he has received over the years. “I don’t think I am that good of a writer. I still don’t think I deserved the national award I received for Kabaddi,” he says, chuckling to himself.
Subba—who is best known for his poetry collections Kholako gita ra purana kavitaharu and Dada mathi ko gham jun ra gadtirka raake bhut haru, and his Padmashree-award-winning short story collection Lato Pahad—believes he is still a poet at heart, before any of the diverse recognitions he has received over the years. Subba was also one of the frontrunners of the literary movement Srijanshil Arajakta that questioned mainstream Nepali literature’s inclusivity, alongside Rajan Mukarang and Hangyug Agyat. In an interview with the Post’s Srizu Bajracharya, Subba talks about his love for poetry and the need for critical readers and competitive literary market. Excerpts:
Growing up, were you always surrounded by books? Did you love to read?
I was born and brought up at Angsarang, a very remote village in Panchthar. In the name of books, all we had were course books. We didn’t have access to any kinds of literature or other good books. As a child, I don’t ever remember being surrounded by books. And so growing up, I was never a reader.
How did your journey as a poet start then?
I don’t quite remember when I wanted to become a poet. Most things in my life just happened. But before penning poems, I used to write songs, and slowly after that, I found myself writing poetry. When I came to Kathmandu initially, I wanted to become a songwriter. I also used to sing songs on Radio Nepal, and there was this one competition where I won a prize for the song ‘Jivan aakhir ke nai ho ra’, and that was when my friends started noticing me. The song was also later sung by Deep Shrestha. But at the time, many of them were surprised that an outsider like me had won the competition, and they were curious to know who I was.
In those days, however, I used to write a lot of poems and used to keep them hidden. It was probably because of the people I was hanging out with that I really wanted to write poetry. However, I didn’t dare share them. So nobody actually knew that I could also write. Rajan, with whom I was involved in the Srijanshil Arajakta movement, a literary movement for the inclusion of ethnic identities in mainstream literature, used to introduce me as a songwriter in the events we used to attend and organise. Still, deep down, I wanted to tell them, I also write poems.
So, one day, I took Rajan and showed him my poems, and he was amazed. And then he kept urging me to print them, which became Dada mathi ko gham jun ra gadtirka raake bhut haru. When I came from my village I wanted to make music, for which I had already spent about two lakhs, and yet I was not anywhere close to that dream. So, when Rajan pushed me to publish my work, I agreed and returned home with the poetry collection to tell people of my village that I could do something in life.
Now that I think of it, every person wishes to start something of their own. For me, it was poetry—poetry is really important to me, without it I wouldn’t have been able to come this far.
What is your process of writing? Do you immediately sit down to write poems when your mind comes up with an idea?
When I sit down to write, I can go on for hours. I don’t like leaving my house when I start writing. I go into my own zone. But before writing my ideas down, I think a lot about them in my head, and I even construct lines and paragraphs in my mind. I am quite moody as a writer, I can’t write until I have really made up my mind. But I can write really fast. I also believe that I see things differently than most people do. I think there’s a way poets and writers see something more than others do and that is why they can tell stories and describe feelings and moments.
Your last poetry collection was published in 2013, and since then you have made a name for yourself as a script writer with films like Kabbadi. How did that happen? Do you still write poems?
It was Ram Babu Gurung who encouraged me to write stories for movies. He used to tell me, ‘Aba yesto pani garnu paryo,’ (You should do this too [write movie scripts]). And so, we started writing Kabaddi together. After that, I also felt that writing scripts for movies were more viable economically in comparison to writing poems and publishing books. And so, I started investing time in writing scripts.
It’s been a long time since I sat down to write poems, but I still want to be recognised as a poet rather than any other title. I wish I could write the poems that I have in my mind. But I haven’t been able to sit down and write them. Sometimes, it’s challenging to pour words out because they are really complicated and entwined with the kind of person I am. It’s all in my head right now.
But when writing stories for movies, do you have enough creative freedom? Are there more constraints then writing poems or books?
There’s a lot of things that you have to take into account when you are writing a script, and it’s not just about the story you want to tell. It’s also about what can make business.
The initial idea for Kabaddi was based on a Thakali tradition of Khimi Ghar, a place where the Thakali people pay tribute to their ancestors. We wanted to make a story about a woman who is not allowed to pay respect to her ancestors because of her marriage with a person outside her community. But as we went on with the project, the idea changed over discussions about what story could be more commercially viable. There are many old scripts that I think are better than the scripts that went on to make movies.
And that is one reason I want to make my own movies. Right now, I dream of making at least four to five movies of my own, I want to be able to tell my own stories. I am currently shooting my first movie Jaree.
Is reading poems different than reading stories and books? Do you enjoy reading works of the new poets?
It definitely is. They have the power to move us with minimal words; they can take us to deep and dark places with just a line. And unlike stories, they are also easy to read. I believe poets have the potential to write anything beautifully.
However, for some reason, I have not found any poems that have moved me in recent times. I haven’t felt that trance that I look for when I read poetry. Poetry these days are simple, and although my writings are simple too when I read, I actually look for poems that have depth and complexity.
Do you think we don’t have enough readers for Nepali literature?
I think people enjoy reading. It’s just that Nepali writers haven’t been able to publish books that people would want to read. In a year, how many books do we really publish? Also, we haven’t been able to nurture our readers’ minds. They haven’t really been critical of the works that have been published.
Although I won an award for Kabaddi, I don’t think I deserved it. Had our literary field been more competitive, I wouldn’t have stood a chance. I know who I am and I know my weaknesses. Sometimes you have to understand that you become good not because you are great but because there isn’t good enough competition. The whole system is impoverished of quality work. We need more critical and creative minds to drive the literary scene to become more competitive. And then it will be more interesting to write, create and tell stories.
What would you recommend young writers and poets to do?
There are just two things, to read more and practise writing more.