From the marginsWhy this recourse to a 20-year-old novella? It is precisely because many of the changes in the past two decades have been largely cosmetic that Ular still rankles
Nayan Raj Pandey needs little introduction. His books—Ular, Lu, Ghamkiri—are seminal works of fiction in contemporary Nepali literature. Pandey himself is a fixture at literary events across the country, speaking with wit and candour about the vagaries of writing fiction in Nepal. His latest book, Sallipir, was only just released and it is on this occasion that I find it prudent to revisit one of Pandey’s classics, the brilliant novella, Ular.
In the 20 years since Ular was first published, much has changed in the Nepali socio-political landscape, sweeping eddies have turned the course of the erstwhile kingdom towards a republic that has yet to be actually realised. Politics of identity and marginalisation have forced themselves onto the national consciousness, driven by the Maoist insurgency and the many ethnic movements, most notably the Madhes Movement of 2007. National narratives of Panchayat-era identity have been upended in the quest for a more encompassing Nepali character that is not subsumed under the rhetoric of monolithic uniformity but rather, one where diversity and difference are celebrated. This mission has not been without setbacks. It has always come up against the vanguards of the old order, those that are unable or just unwilling to recognise that Nepal has now been thrust from the complacent gloom of the medieval into the harsh light of modernity. And though the sweeping grand narratives of republicanism, secularism and federalism have seized the Nepali imagination, there is much that remains locked in an oppressive cycle of caste and class dynamics that feed the marginalisation of the many with an elite few still maintaining a stranglehold on the new regime.
Why then this recourse to a 20-year-old novella? It is precisely because many of the changes in the past two decades have been largely cosmetic that Ular still rankles. It is not a portrait of the past that can be studied for insight into a time that has been and gone; it is a damning indictment of all who have promised that progress and truth is a straight line.
In Ular, as in life, history repeats. It is as the dwarf says in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “All that is straight lies... All truth is crooked, time itself is a circle.”
Premlalwa drives a tanga and he believes in the inherent goodness of one Rajendra Raj, a local politician. Premlalwa’s world starts to crumble the moment Rajendra Raj loses an election to rival Shanti Raja. Hard up for cash, Premlalwa takes part in Shanti Raja’s victory rally, allaying his own conscience at what he sees as a betrayal of Rajendra Raj. During the rally, his sick horse becomes sicker when the tanga is overloaded with people, causing the vehicle to become ular, ie, unbalanced. Premlalwa spends most of his meagre savings trying to nurse his horse back to life but to no avail. He goes onto seek Rajendra Raj’s patronage, only to be sent to Shanti Raja, the bitter rival. Shanti Raja, now a minister, invites him to Kathmandu, where Premlalwa seeks favour from office to office, building to building. He returns empty handed.
There are numerous layers to Premlalwa’s pitiable saga and a number of concentric circles whose bounds Premlalwa cannot escape. The vicious circle is a recurring motif, displayed most explicitly in Premlalwa’s physical marginalisation. As a child, Premlalwa is forced to sell off his paternal home, located on prime property, for a pittance to treat his pneumonia. It is Rajendra Raj who helps him sell off his hand and move farther out onto the margins. Towards the end of the novella, when Premlalwa’s trip to Kathmandu has been unsuccessful, he is again forced to sell off his land and move even farther out. Once again, it is Rajendra Raj who makes the deal.
Another explicit recurrence comes in the form of Draupadi, Premlalwa’s paramour prostitute. (As a tangent, it is important to note that Pandey names all of the prostitutes in the novella—Draupadi, Sabitri, Kunti, Sita—after religious figures from the Mahabharat and Ramayan. This decidedly provocative act recalls Salman Rushdie’s naming of the prostitutes in The Satanic Verses after the brides of the prophet Muhammad.) Draupadi, whose mother is named Sita, was also once named Sita herself, before becoming Draupadi. She passes down to her daughter the only thing she can, her name: Sita. This recursive naming is emblematic of the vicious cycle that the Badi are locked in. Their profession is rarely a choice. Thus, the erasing of individual identity that comes with naming every female in the family Sita, after someone considered the paragon of Nepali womanhood, pure and chaste. This subversion is Pandey’s indictment of the hypocrisy of Nepali society, where women are simultaneously raised on pedestals as goddesses but at the same time belittled as capricious, untrustworthy and disloyal, as manifest in today’s ongoing saga with the new constitution not according the same rights to women as men.
The numerous currents that shape Premlalwa’s course throughout the novella recur in more ways than one. For instance, there is a writer that Premlalwa encounters in Kathmandu. Nirakar Prasad befriends Premlalwa, who is just glad to have a sympathetic ear. Nirakar Prasad’s dialogue is circular, saying the same thing over and over again, while borrowing money from Premlalwa. The action and the dialogue repeats three times and after the third, Nirakar Prasad disappears. Nirakar, who has promised to tell Premlalwa’s story, is just as complicit in his marginalisation as the state. This is an especially damning denunciation of the bourgeois writer, including Nayan Raj Pandey himself, who tellingly shares initials with Nirakar Prasad.
Premlalwa’s movement is circular, and it is only at the very end that he makes a conscious decision to break free. Faced with a dearth of options, Premlalwa comes to realise that there are very real forces at work seeking to consign people like him to the margins. His act of defiance is one that has been long coming. But it is not a grand statement he makes; it is a very personal one. In the face of a machine that makes anonymous and takes away identity, Pandey chooses to provide Premlalwa with an existential purpose, one that provides some solace, however personal, from the vagaries of a system that has been designed to keep you down.
The first step breaking from the circle of oppression, it seems, is a recognition that it exists in the first place. For Premlalwa, this consciousness comes with his tanga becoming unbalanced, losing his way, being thrown to the ground. Ular is a state of being, but it is also an outcry.
As old promises of emancipation, true freedom and identity become mere rhetoric in the hands of the old order, as a creeping authoritarianism takes hold slowly but surely, as dozens of Premlalwas are shot dead in protests for demanding that their dead horses be compensated, the importance of Ular does not and has not waned; in fact, it has only become more resonant.