Closer to homeAs a kid growing up in the 90s, I was fortunate enough to have caught Muna and Sunkeshra—two children’s Nepali-language magazines—at the tail-end of their heydays.
As a kid growing up in the 90s, I was fortunate enough to have caught Muna and Sunkeshra—two children’s Nepali-language magazines—at the tail-end of their heydays. This love for the Nepali language, my mother tongue, was then further fuelled as I sailed through Saral Nepali Shrinkhala and the youth magazine NawaYuva as I grew older. But looking back, in all those early formative years, my forays into Nepali literature were only but passing. True, I read works by literary giants like Laxmi Prasad Devkota, Lekhnath Poudyal and Bhupi Sherchan, but by and large, these readings were all excerpts—and to a large extent superficial. Then, as studies took me away from Nepal, the want-to-be avid reader slowly morphed into just a distant well-wisher.
When I returned back home last year, having been away for six years, I found that Nepali literature, much like Nepal itself, had changed significantly. Nepal’s publishing industry today is in its golden era—the volume of books being published is astonishing, the number of themes being explored varied. Add to that the wealth of classic books that have withstood the test of time—and the evolving tastes of readers—and you have a literary landscape that is as layered and engrossing as any out there. Let me illustrate this by talking about four books that I had the good fortune of stumbling upon recently.
For anyone looking to dip their toes in Nepali literature, Diamond Shamsher Rana’s Seto Bagh makes for a popular and accessible starting point. As someone with an ‘insider perspective’ on the workings of the Rana Regime, Diamond Shamsher’s books can be revelatory portals into the intrigue that transpired behind the high walls of palaces during the era. Grihaprawesh, another of his historical novels, is a road less travelled but equally enthralling. With a captivating plotline that delves into what led to the night of the Kot Parva—a shocking, and bloody power grab by Jung Bahadur’s clan; and storied tales of the strongman that have today become urban legends, Grihaprawesh is an eye-opening account of greed, lust for power and secrets that played its part in the shaping of modern Nepal.
No imagining of modern Nepal, however, is complete without the mention of BP Koirala. A political firebrand, a visionary and the first elected prime minister of Nepal, Koirala was also a prolific author whose writings, you could argue, were far ahead of his time. For instance in Sumnima—a novel written in 1964 when he was still in Sundarijal Jail—presents a story of Somdutta, a Brahmin boy, and Sumnima, a Kirati girl. Through these characters, BP progressively writes about ethnic differences, gender oppression and delves into Brahmin and Kirati spirituality. The book wasn’t without controversy, as some Janajati activists have burnt the novel in the past, accusing it of insulting the Kirati goddess Sumnima, whose namesake is sexually fantasised by Somdutta in the novel. However, one could rather interpret Koirala’s ideas from a position of celebrating Kirati way of life, while exposing cultural and sexual hypocrisies of Brahminism. Nevertheless, the novel’s conclusion—with its socially and ethnically different characters finding a compromise in their way of life—rings true to current socio-political conditions, fifty odd years after it was first published.
Here and now
If the annals of Nepali literary history is replete with luminaries, modern day writers have aptly taken up the baton and pushed the narrative further. For instance, Janakraj Sapkota’s Kahar, which translates as ‘pain’, digs deep into a Nepali society that has lost hundreds of thousands of able youth to the greener economic pastures of the Middle-East and elsewhere. Under the veil of rising consumerism, malls, cinema halls and fairy tales of remittance, there is a difficult story to be told. And Sapkota has done just that. From stories of families at the Tribhuvan International Airport receiving their sons and daughters in coffins; parents weeping in desperation as their children are given life sentences in Saudi Arabian courts; broken marriages under the strain of long-distance relationships to those women who are physically and sexually abused abroad, Kahar is a heart-wrenching collage of real life stories of how Nepal has changed under the weight of the mass exodus in the name of labour migration. And though it could be questioned if the book exploits the stories of unfortunate migrant labourers and their often poor, illiterate families, Sapkota’s book is a lyrical tell-tale that undoubtedly will leave an indelible mark on how stories are explored and told in both journalism and the genre of non-fiction in the future.
Then in books like Rajan Mukarang’s Ferindo Saundarya, you find the renaissance that marginalised communities’ cultures, languages and beliefs have seen in the past decade or so. This book is an anthology of essays where Mukarang has described the reason many writers from marginalised communities have taken up the task to transform the Nepali language and literature so that regional communities can assert their identity in the society. Though identity politics in literature is the major theme of the book, Mukarung has also made a point of writing his thoughts about many other subjects including the Lahure culture, Mundum—the Kirati religious scripture, his encounters with alcohol and Sirjansheel Arajakta (Creative Anarchy)—a literary movement that departs from the traditionally Sanskritised Nepali language.
Built on solid bedrock put in place by the Devkotas, Bhupis and BPs of yore, Nepali literature today is at an exciting crossroads that is slowly becoming more accommodating towards varied worldviews and subaltern voices. True, commercialisation has taken its toll on the publishing industry and an inordinate amount of mediocre books are out there waiting to ensnare unsuspecting readers. Overall, however, this perhaps is one of the best times to be writing, and reading, in Nepali. And with books becoming more accessible and affordable, it wouldn’t be too big a leap to assume that young readers of today will move beyond just the superficial excerpted readings of the past. I, for one, just several books deep into my latest love affair with Nepali books have become an evangelical of sorts—telling everyone I know why it is essential that we fill in the gaping holes of our Saral Nepali Srinkhalas. Because that after all is the power of literature—not only does it expand your horizons, it is also seriously addicting.
After reading these four books, I have felt that my intellectual horizon could widen further if I care to read more Nepali books. It is enthralling to even imagine how much more Nepali knowledge is lurking in libraries and book shops across Kathmandu. It is surely important to read in English in this globalised world. However, as citizens of Nepal, it is also important to read in Nepali to learn about the country and its people closely. The language opens a different world of interactions, discourses, thinking patterns, joys and sorrows of Nepali society. And, as Rajan Mukarung and his band of linguistic activists have already shown, reading and writing in Nepali could be advantageous even for those Nepali citizens whose mother tongue is not Nepali. In its turn, Nepali language would benefit by the diversity the Rais, Limbus, Tharus and Maithelis, among others, would add to the language as well.