'Our silence perpetuates the culture of violence and discrimination against women'The author of ‘Hansa’, Sanjeev Uprety talks about his decision to decline the Padhmashree literary award and the need to pronounce zero tolerance for violence, abuse and discrimination.
There’s a pleasant calmness in the air as Sanjeev Uprety sits down in the garden of his home for a conversation about his fictional work ‘Hansa’. The book is a love story but it presents a narrative about a duck alongside a human and plays with myths and legends of Taudaha.
Uprety is a lover of nature and a simple man. And is quite humble with his achievements in life. He started his literary journey with Ghanachakkar in 2007 and is also known for Siddhanta ka Kura and his drama Makaiko Arkai Kheti. Uprety also taught English Literature at Tribhuvan University for 25 years, but in 2015 he took early retirement from teaching to spend more time with his family.
Recently, he made news for declining to accept the Padmashree Sahitya Puraskar recognised by Khemlal-Harikala Lamichhane Samaaj Kalyan Pratisthan for ‘Hansa’, as the organisation had also recognised Modnath Prasrit, the Nepali writer and former minister of Education who has been accused of rape and sexual abuse in Sharada Bhusal Jha’s 2016 autobiography ‘Dharaatal’. Uprety believes this accusation cannot be overlooked easily and such public recognition without addressing the issue can perpetuate the culture of violence and discrimination in society. After Bhusal's accusation resurfaced in public discussions through Uprety's stance, the organisation has cancelled the award ceremony for this year.
In this conversation with the Post’s Srizu Bajracharya, Uprety describes how Hansa changed his life. He also discusses why it was important for him to take a stand for Sharada Bhusal Jha’s case and voice for the issue publicly.
In an interview with Kantipur, you said the idea for Hansa came to you when you were writing Ghanachakkar, which was in 2006-7. Can you tell us more?
Working on Hansa was a long, laborious process for me. I do multiple revisions and I take my time doing it. Some of my drafts are usually stacked in cold storage for years before I am ready to come back to it.
Surprisingly, I found myself writing Hansa every time I was near rivers and oceans. You can say I worked on the book while with nature. And that helped me to immerse more in nature and associate with birds for the story I was writing. In fact, the genesis of Hansa happened in Taudaha when I observed two kinds of ducks, the local ones and the other migratory ducks who can fly, which became Hansa and Hansini in my story. I also came to know a lot of local mythologies of Taudaha which helped me develop layers to my story.
Taudaha is attached to the myths of Manjushree, Nagaraja and rani and deities like Bhimsen. And so for Hansa, I talked with a lot of locals in Taudaha and got to know oral stories that only the locals there know. One story that I heard was of Taudaha once having a big well, inside which there were more wells. The story went on that once you'd reach deep inside, you'd find yourself in another world where our night usually is their day. And I took that story to build a structure of Hansa. When reading the book you will realise there are stories within stories.
But Hansa for me was not just a byproduct of the time I spent writing it; working on that book changed me as a person, in the sense that while I was trying to understand nature consciously, other living beings, it added a new dimension to me. And it somehow brought more peace and harmony into my life.
When Hansa came out, what did you anticipate for your readers to see and discuss?
Once I have written the book, the book is out of my control. The readers will give their own meaning to it and so I didn’t really hope for them to read the book in just a certain way. Plus, every reading is unique.
In our world today, we have built a structure on how life should be. Like for example, we are confined to the idea that the sun will always rise in the morning, but it probably may not after a 1000 years, who knows. But we believe this is just how life is supposed to be and there is no other alternative view.
With my book I did want to emphasise the idea of going beyond the anthropocentric worldview and trying to imagine a future with alternative forms of politics and economics. I wanted to inspire an openness to see alternative possibilities and future with the book.
In Hansa, you also talk about masculinity and provide the female character her own agency, but do you usually intend to work on a socio-political message with your stories?
When I am writing fiction, I don’t try to write the story for political views because that will destroy the logic of the story I am trying to tell. I am basically trying to create a world, which needs to be self-contained, and has to follow an internal logic. Stories after certain scenes take a life of their own, they take their own path and characters take their own transformation.
I don’t really work on a direct political message but that naturally happens perhaps because of my beliefs and understanding. I have always thought a lot about gender and social issues and have written about it a lot as well, and these ideas have been part of my thinking process. And that thinking process directly or indirectly reflects in my writing.
When you came to know that you were sharing the stage with Modhnath Prasrit (who was recognised for Padmashree Sadhana Samman), you took a stand that not many take. Despite the Me Too movement, we saw men accused of sexual harassment return to work with hardly any social repercussions in Nepal. What made you take that decision?
I have been writing about gender and social justice for very long. So, when I came to know that the organisation was presenting an award to Modhnath Prasrit, who has been accused of a heinous crime, I felt that I had to take a stand.
I respect Prasrit’s literary work but cannot unsee what he is accused of. Prasrit’s sexual abuse was not just revealed in a verbal disclosure: a survivor had come forward with a book expressing what she went through. And that speaks volumes.
It didn’t feel right to accept the award for the values I stand for. Plus, it was a public recognition, not a private one. And so, if I were to unsee the book and the accusations and accept the award, the message the general public would have would be wrong. The ‘chaldo recha’ attitude would gain more strength. Which means if you stay silent for too long, you will allow such violence even more. Our silence will perpetuate the culture of violence, and it can mean acceptance of violence and discrimination against women.
But yes, if this was 10 years back maybe I would have kept my silence thinking why should I ruin social harmony and give him distress, after all, he is a senior to me. But I have changed, our society too and I am constantly learning and unlearning.
In these years, our silence has made the culture of violence even more pervading. Yesterday, when I was reading an article in Kantipur about gender violence the data it presented shook me. Since the pandemic started over 1200 girls have been raped, and about seven girls get raped every day.
And if you were to look at these data in percentage, you will notice that the people at the bottom tier of the society, especially from the Dalit community, in average they usually are the victims, and the perpetrators usually are from the upper crust.
But the most disturbing data that I have come across in studies is that only five percent of these incidents are reported, so that means there are more numbers that have gone unreported. This revelation also indicates how people see the justice system. It has failed the people. The data shows that those people who are at the bottom no longer have faith in the justice system of the country. Because those with power seem to misuse the system.
Over the years, we have read and watched the news about so many rape cases but over time these discussions have disappeared, with no justice or closure. And that consequently has distraught people’s belief in the justice system. I believe that a strong message needs to be put forward to say that this is not okay. And it’s not just about rape, but harassment cases in the workplace or any kind of abuse anywhere, even in families, we need to send out a message that there should be zero tolerance around gender violence and sexual abuse.
As writers, how can one influence people to break away from patriarchy and stereotypical ideologies?
In the context of gender, I think writers can deconstruct the traditional stereotypes of masculinity and femininity in some ways. In Hansa, there are two woman characters: Maya is very traditional but Seema is a revolutionary character and breaks traditional stereotypes. And Hansa cannot fly while Hansini can. I think these were some ways that I used to deconstruct gender-related stereotypes.
But to promote an equal and inclusive society we need to break the traditional ideologies and stereotypes in all spheres and give a voice to all minority groups. We need to represent their stories in diverse ways so that representation can shift the mindset of people.
This is important because when our readers read books, they internalise these ideas and representation. I also think it is equally important that people—be it writers or anyone—speak for justice during a crisis. Writers, intellectuals and people in power position have a social responsibility to speak during crises because their voice can reach to many people and can create ripples of change and influence people.
On social media, you have received quite many harsh comments on your decision, some comments even read that you were instigating a case that is not verified. How have you taken them?
When these cases come forward we always discuss proof, but we are not ready to listen to the truth. I think in the case of Modnath Prasrit if this is about verification of truth, the onus of finding out if he is a perpetrator or not also goes to the government. Because Prasrit is not any common man but a former minister, a party leader with decision-making powers.
Of course, he has made a significant contribution to the communist movement. But if a woman has come forward saying that he committed a heinous crime, the government should have investigated this matter. As a government that follows communism and the idea of socialism where everyone is equal they have more responsibility towards the investigation of such events in the country.
But you can’t assume this issue is irrelevant; this issue just can’t be buried with Prasrit’s statement that Bhusal is a madwoman. It really is easy to disregard opposition with the claim that the protestor is crazy because that assertion itself seeks no proof or affirmation. And this has happened many times in history.
Yes, the accusation has not been proved but when you decide to exempt the accusation, also weigh in the fact that Prasrit is in the top tier of power structure whereas Bhusal is in a place where her voice is not even heard. And this difference is significant, one that we should understand as that can obstruct any woman from approaching the justice system.
I think with the privilege I have, I had to speak and address what had been dismissed. Not just for Sharada Bhusal but for many cases like that of Nirmala Pant. People with privilege and power need to speak for the injustice that happens in society.
Why do you think the Me Too movement didn’t gain momentum in the country? And why were people who were accused of harassment let go without any repercussions?
There are multiple factors to why cases of rape and harassment don’t see justice. When I did gender-based violence research for UNDP years back, I had briefly made three conclusions in the research. One was law, another was social norm and third socio-economic structure.
Social norms that are instilled in us from our childhood call us to behave in a certain way, such as women need to be tolerant and men are meant to be aggressive. As for the socio-economic structure, I mean that you have to see that the people with properties are usually men, even political parties are filled with men, and although there are women there, they are not in leading positions and so, ideologically and structurally in the socio-economic roles women have been pushed at the bottom.
And if you were to look at the law, you must also understand its quite abstract. If a woman is suffering from gender violence and she wants to seek the law, where does she go? She will go to meet the police or to the court, or she might meet lawyers, but most of them are men and from a certain caste, and even if there is a woman she might be carrying the same ideology. So, the law is not free from the political-economic structure and from our patriarchal ideology. And because of these three nexus, discussions around Me Too harassment cases have not happened and the necessary steps forward are yet to be made.
But if you are to end this chain, not just women, even men need to speak up. They need to say this is not tolerable because they are the ones in power, they are the ones leading legal and political structures. And only then can we begin to minimise these acts of violence.
Lastly, what are your favourite books? Could you give readers some recommendations?
There are so many books and so many important writers to read from. It would be unfair to miss those names. But if I have to recommend some book titles, from the names swivelling in the top of mind right now, I would suggest Arundhati Roy’s ‘The God of Small Things’. She is one of my favourite writers and her book discusses a lot of questions regarding social justice.
I would also recommend Peter Wohlleben’s ‘Hidden Life of Trees’ since I am interested in nature. It’s a wonderful book. I would also recommend Yuval Noah Harari’s ‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century’. Harari has been following the history of technology very closely and how it is altering our world. I think it's interesting to understand how our future is rushing towards us with all the technological change.
I also love the works of Toni Morrison, and I would also suggest reading Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak’ and Judith Butler’s ‘Bodies that Matter’, it’s a crucial book to understand gender. And if you are interested in the environment and the deconstruction of the Anthropocentric world, you should also read Vandana Shiva’s works.