From a radio icon to a literary starFor years, people knew Naba Raj Lamsal for his works as a popular radio host, but winning this year’s Madan Puraskar for his epic ‘Agni’ has helped give him newfound recognition as a writer.
“Hey, Naba Raj Lamsal,
How do you view the country?
Do you write for the sake of writing, or,
Do you write truths you see in reality?”
In this verse from Naba Raj Lamsal’s second epic (Mahakavya in Nepali), ‘Dhara’, the author explores what writing means to him. When posed the same question in person on a recent afternoon, Lamsal answers, “I draw my writing inspiration from my lived experiences. I write to give words to my memories and emotions.”
Lamsal is one of the few Nepali writers still writing epics, a literary genre that has gone out of favour among Nepali readers in the last few decades. Lamsal released ‘Karna’ in 2009, after working on it for eight years. In 2016, Lamsal released his second epic, ‘Dhara’, which took him 10 years to complete. While both the books failed to garner much attention, his third epic, ‘Agni’, released in 2021, changed everything for Lamsal. On August 27, the book was announced as this year’s ‘Madan Puraskar’ winner, making it the first epic to win the prestigious literary award in over 32 years.
This win, hopes Lamsal, helps revive interest in the literary genre he holds very dear.
His three epics have all explored different themes. ‘Karna’ was inspired by the idealistic character Karna from ‘Mahabharat’. ‘Dhara’ was a patriotic book which questioned what people have done for the country rather than the way around. ‘Agni’ is about a blacksmith from a so-called lower caste and how he views the country and its history.
While the Madan Puraskar win has catapulted Lamsal to fame and made him known as a writer, many who have known him for years do so from his role as a radio host/journalist. Lamsal started his radio career as a radio host for Radio Nepal in 1994 and is currently the director (programme chief) at the same organisation. He also worked as an art and entertainment reporter at BBC Nepal for ten years.
“As a radio journalist, I must operate within certain restrictions set by my employer. But writing poems is the only area where I enjoy full liberty. The process is entirely mine and mine alone,” says Lamsal.
When asked what he hopes his readers take away from his writings, Lamsal, without pondering a lot on it, says, “Hope. The majority of people today are in anguish. I don’t want my literary works to add more hopelessness to their lives. My purpose as a writer is to leave the readers hopeful, even if it’s just for a fleeting moment.”
Born to a priest father in Dhading, Lamsal grew up listening to his father chant Sanskrit shlokas. They were his first introduction to epics and poems and were responsible for kindling young Lamsal’s interest in poetry.
However, the senior Lamsal didn’t really think that activities like writing or reciting poems, other than Sanskrit shlokas, were worth pursuing. But the young Lamsal thought differently.
“I became interested in poetry from a very early age, and it was something I wanted to pursue,” he says.
After finishing grade 8 in his home district Dhading, Lamsal came to Kathmandu for his further studies. While pursuing his master’s degree, Lamsal took up a teaching job to pay the bills.
“I ended up enjoying teaching. It became a very gratifying process,” he says.
Lamsal's teaching career was short-lived. Just a few years after he started teaching, he landed a job as a host at Radio Nepal in 1994. The role took him across the country, allowing him to better understand the many realities of communities across the country. He didn’t know at the time that this experience would go on to help him immensely in his writing. In 2008, he started working at BBC Nepal while also retaining his role at Radio Nepal.
“I would work at Radio Nepal from 10 am to 5 pm and then head to BBC Nepal for my evening shift, which went on from 5:30 pm to 10:30 pm. This was my routine for 10 years until I quit BBC Nepal in 2017,” says Lamsal.
Despite his busy schedule, Lamsal says it never stopped him from pursuing his interest in writing poetry.
“I realised early in my radio career the importance of creating my own body of work that I can call mine,” says Lamsal. “This motivated me to allot time for poetry no matter what. For almost a decade, I would finish work at 11 pm, but I would still spend another six hours reading and working on my epics, sleeping for only two hours.”
The nature of the epic as a genre is such that it demands writers to dedicate years to it, and Lamsal says one has to be steadfastly committed to the rigorous process involved in writing an epic.
“Not only is the genre time-consuming, but it is also not a popular genre these days. But I have never pursued literature for popularity’s sake. My literary purpose is to create works that transcend time and remain relevant forever,” says Lamsal.
Since being announced the winner of Madan Puraskar 2021, life, says Lamsal, has undergone many changes. He has received more invitations to attend events than he has in his lifetime. This newfound recognition, says Lamsal, has made him feel like he has officially become a writer.
As a person who never ceases to think about his literary works, Lamsal has already started thinking about his next epic.
“I retire from my role at Radio Nepal in a few years, and I will then start working on my fourth epic,” says Lamsal. “The Madan Puraskar win has made me want to work harder and produce better quality work. I think my real challenge as a writer begins now.”