Hansa, a novel of alternate powerSanjeev Uprety’s novel is a true allegory of the present life with universal implication.
Sanjeev Uprety's experimental, innovative and well-written novel Hansa (2019) or Swan has opened new challenges as well as possibilities in fiction writing in Nepali. Since it was published by Book Hill a year ago, general discussions and meetings of literary scholars and writers were marred by the lockdowns caused by the pandemics. Virtual meetings and discussions happened occasionally. Incidentally, I am discussing this novel virtually with its author Dr Sanjeev Uprety on March 16 for the SAARC literary conference organised by its Chair and founder Ajeet Cour from Delhi. This famous Punjabi octogenarian fiction writer has kept up her effort to keep this only literary organisation of South Asian countries going. Sanjeev, an academic, a well-known scholar and civil rights activist, who has deeply involved himself in the campaigns to save nature, animals, flora and fauna and the heritage sites, permeates all over this novel full of human and bird characters.
The narrator, who is drenched through and through in the rain, goes to an old woman's khajaghar, to dry himself and spend some time. This old woman who has 'immeasurable knowledge' about birds and animals narrates the stories about swans and animals. Separately, she knows the stories of the snake or naag couples and their friend as well. The writer has used Taudaha—a lake rich in mythological tales about snakes and birds—located on the outskirts of the Kathmandu valley, as the locus of this novel. For the reason of space, I have only alluded to some features here.
There are two sets of characters—humans and the rest that include birds and animals. They all emanate from the narratives of the old woman, Aamai, and the narrator of this novel. Among the audience in the cottage that night there are two other characters—an old man and a guard of that place. Narrator Prem recalls his human story—his failed conjugal life, his wife Seema gone to America after getting a lottery, and other characters among whom is a man named Anuj Pandey who has a wife and daughter in Nepal, but marries Prem's wife in America whom he meets at the working place. Anuj's brother Bijaya is an erstwhile Maoist who after his party abandons arms, goes to Qatar as a labourer. We get a complete picture of the Nepali and Indian migrant workers, their travails and achievements in America. I am drawn by a character called lahadi hans, or a flaneur swan in the novel. There is another old swan named Kaka (or uncle) who only dips into the lake because he believes in history and its essence. And the third character is a 'black and charming' lady swan, a member of the migratory flock that come hither to avoid the northern winter. The lahadi hans falls in love with the black swan, nurturing in him false illusions about practising flying and making it to Mansarovar lake one day. These characters live through all the illusions.
While reading about the flights of the swans, I recalled one famous novel entitled Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1970) written by Richard Bach. With my little hippie associations back in the late sixties and early seventies, this novel had made a great impact on me. Listening to Neil Diamond's medley with the film of the Seagull's flight in the seventies had become an expanding experience for me. But after reading the same themes of flight and reaching in the novel Hansa, I suddenly realised how the very concept of flight has changed, how the illusion of hope and freedom has become a mere travesty. Hansa however makes you confident after reading it just the way one who meditates and finds the truth becomes courageous enough to live in this world where man is causing damage to nature, birds, animals and plants
In the later section of the book stories of the humans recede like clouds over Taudaha. And Prem enters the world of the birds and some animals. He acquires the power to understand the language of all the other creatures—mostly birds, fish, insects and amphibians. ‘All these creatures are speaking in silence. I hear them in my mind,’ says the flaneur swan who has become wise now. He understands the grim reality by which knowledge he is badly shaken.
Knowledge is acquired in different ways. It is acquired through a long meditation, through the reading of books and deliberations. Or it opens up like a lotus flower, like the nirvanik gyan of the Buddha. Or it comes in a flash like the satori or gyan acquired by the Zen monks and poets. But Lahadi's knowledge does not fit into any of these categories. His was an existential knowledge of the being, a Heideggerian dasein, if I may use the existential lingo. But the scholar writer uses an unobtrusive method. For example, the Lahadi swan evolves slowly out of emotions, moments of flights and failures naturally as any human character in a good novel would evolve. It knows as if in a flash that they have very romantic stories from beyond the sky. They imagine about the swan-god who lives in that abode. They have hope and faith. With one stroke of the Truth this would all get dismantled.
Then it thinks of the alternative. It believes that if you do not have any alternative to the ugly reality, don't dismantle the beautiful rich stories from which the swans draw strength to live on. Let them live with the illusion of love of the humans and the swans. But this knowledge opens up another realisation. Lahadi has so far been trying to fly only for his lover. But he realises that he should fly not only for himself, but also for all domesticated swans.
This realisation reminds me of the determination of Bach's Johnathan Livingston Seagull who first flies for himself for which the society of the seagulls excommunicates him. He slowly acquires the skill to fly far into the sky. He enjoys this achievement. The swan in this story, too, realises that he should fly for others who do not have the skill to fly, and teach them to fly. But there is a difference. Jonathan actually creates a whole crowd of disciples who fly in the sky; finally, after realising that he has taught them how to fly, he takes his own sail. The mantra of that is—you should fly yourself. But that imaginaire of the sixties and early seventies is not very strong now.
Novelist Sanjeev Uprety, by weaving a parallel story of the human beings with those of the swans, other birds, animals and plants, has created a true allegory of the present life with universal implication in this novel.