Mahesh Bikram Shah: Literature can mirror our society without fear and biasWriter Shah talks about his love for writing and the reasons behind the decreasing Nepali readership.
In a cafe in Lazimpat, Mahesh Bikram Shah is deep in thought. His eyes meet a distant view as he talks about his love for writing, as though he has never given these matters much thought before. Things just unravelled because he kept following his heart, he says. And all he knew when he started writing was that he loved it in an indelible way. “My passion for writing never died, even when I immersed myself in the administration and academic teachings of police training,” he says.
Shah is now a retired policeman, a former Deputy Inspector General of Police, and has ample time for himself, time he wants to invest in writing a novel. He has so far published seven anthologies and won the Madan Puraskar for his book, Chapamarko Choro. He is known for his realistic writings that don’t sway readers with fluff. His stories bring them closer to the social realities of diverse individuals and real-life incidents.
In an interview with the Post’s Srizu Bajracharya, Shah talks about his love for writing and the need for people to realise the importance of one’s mother tongue.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I was a studious pupil and my father too was an avid reader, and that is probably why I loved reading and writing. In school, I also used to participate in many literature programmes. My teacher Dhanan Jaya Timilsena too encouraged me a lot to write. He used to say, “You have a flair of a writer; you should become one.” So, eventually, I started dreaming of writing, but then my father wanted me to become a doctor, and so I went to study science at Amrit Campus.
But you went on to work as police. Why not become a full-time writer?
After I finished my BSc, I joined the police force, as my father was a policeman too. It seemed like the right option for me at the time, as I didn’t use to write much then. However, I was still passionate about writing, so I made sure that I had time for it. And because for the first 15 years, I was more invested in instructing and teaching in the Police Academy, whenever I would have time, I would commit myself to writing stories.
And I think my profession gave me more opportunities to explore diverse contexts in stories. It made me accessible to our Nepali stories, gave me a stance to understand the situation in different perspectives. My work connected me with people and their problems and struggles. As a policeman, you become a listener of the people—they tell you their problems, and you try to solve their issues at hand you see. And every day, you would come across several issues, from something ordinary to matters of justice. Many incidences have also given me plot lines to explore in my stories.
But why not a novel? Why did you choose to write short stories?
A novel requires a lot of time. It demands you to immerse yourself in the experience. It requires more research and depth. And I didn’t have such a luxury; I had to divide my time to be able to commit to writing. But I also felt, as a writer, I could do more justice with my stories in short anthologies. It was just enough to express what I wanted to. But I hope to write novels too, now that I have a reasonable amount of time for myself.
Why do you think literature has more power to move people?
History is written by those in power, but if you read fiction, you will be able to see the diverse realities of life. Stories present themselves in a context that tells of the surroundings that sometimes history books fail to address. For example, my book Chapamarko Choro was able to provide insight into three sides in the armed conflict. One, of the armies, the other of the Maoists and third, of the people whose lives were set in the middle of the dispute between the state and the Maoists. I think literature can mirror our society without any fear of authority or bias. Writers are honest to their stories, and they don’t calculate the impression of their storytelling. They tell a story, presenting facts for what they are, providing both a zooming lens to a situation and an eagle eye view to a context. Literature is more inclusive than history books.
How do you come up with characters for your stories? Can you walk me through your writing process?
My characters and my stories are not imaginary; they are stories of people I have met. Instead I would say they are impressions left on me by incidents that I witnessed or experienced.
Usually, I work on the framework of my plot in my head before writing it down. And when I am confident of my structure, I sit down to write. But while writing, sometimes stories take a different turn. But I can actually write anywhere, I don’t really need to get away from the crowd to write.
But, I also think writing is difficult when you are not clear about the set up of your story. So, I usually don’t write when I am not clear about my storyline. I take my time to think about my characters and my endings. And when I am done, I usually ask my wife to read it. She is a critical reader and gives me honest feedback.
Do you usually work on drafts? Why do you think here in Nepal, the publication doesn’t have much of a role with a writer’s work?
Earlier I didn’t work on drafts. My first draft used to be my final one. But I think it changed when I read Samrat Upadhyay’s Arresting God in Kathmandu. In his preface, he mentioned how he re-worked on his draft because of his editor. These days, I go through my drafts multiple times, but I don’t make drastic changes to my drafts. I like them raw.
But here in Nepal, the idea of editing and drafting is still new to writers. In other countries, a work of writing is a more involved process, which demands the critical eye of publishers and editors as well. In Nepal, we haven’t been able to give that sort of attention to writing. Perhaps, because we still don’t have enough competent and skilled people in leadership who can scrutinise a writer’s work.
What do you think of Nepali readership?
I think there are two reasons for the decreasing readership. One is that the works that are coming out are not good enough to make people feel that Nepali works are significant. And the other is this pervasive idea that our literature is not as good as western literature.
And I think this idea is deeply rooted in us because of how we treat our language. In schools, the curriculum and reading habit emphasises more on English fiction and non-fiction works. And parents are proud when their children are fluent in English and lacking in the Nepali language. This encourages the idea that works in the Nepali language are dispensable, and so people are not even introduced to the great works of Nepali literature that we have.
But I think with time people will realise the significance of our language and how it is tied to our individuality and uniqueness. There was a time when people didn’t want to be identified with their castes, the Dalits used to write themselves as Nepalis, the Magars as Thapas. But today people feel proud to identify themselves as a Gurung or a Newar or a Thakali. And I think slowly, this movement will help people to realise the importance of our language.
Language creates a sense of belonging and learning English doesn’t mean you have to forget your mother tongue. People should understand the more we can promote our various languages through works of literature and research, the more we will be able to retain our uniqueness and individuality. And not just that, we will be able to evolve more as a community.
Which books have influenced you? And what books would you recommend people read?
There are many. In Nepali, Laxmi Prasad Devkota’s Shankuntala Mahakavya and Laxmi Nibandaha Sangraha, Ramesh Bikal’s Naya Sadak ko Geet, BP Koirala’s Sumnima, Parijat’s Shirish ko Phool and Madan Mani Dixit’s Madhabi.
In English works, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Pearl S Buck’s Good Earth, Maxim Gorki’s works and Antov Chhekov’s short stories.
But I would also recommend readers to read Ramayana and Mahabharata, the epic works that will help them to experience the nuances of literature.