Changing literature, changing country
15 October 2012
Himal speaks to noted Nepali literary critic Khagendra Sangroula.
A bookstore in Bhaktapur in 2008.
Flickr / Sukanto Debnath
Nepal has seen tumultuous political and social changes since the 1960s – changes which continue today as the country grapples with the task of formulating a new constitution that reflects new realities. How has literature written in the Nepali language reflected these changes? Himal Southasian spoke with renowned Nepali litterateur Khagendra Sangroula to find out. Sangroula has been mapping Nepal’s literary arena since the 1960s, when the country was under autocratic, one-party ‘Panchayat’ rule. Since then, Nepal has seen the introduction of multiparty parliamentary democracy in 1990, and the ten-year-long Maoist insurgency that began in 1996 lasted until the end of the monarchy in 2006. As Nepal faces the challenges of establishing a stable republic, Sangroula spoke about the impact these political upheavals have had on Nepali literature.
Himal: How did Nepali literature change with the advent of democracy in 1990?
The Panchayat rule, which lasted for thirty years, suppressed freedom of expression. The 1980 referendum on the system of governance changed that. Although the so-called ‘party-less’ Panchayat system won, the plebiscite opened up society, creating a chance for writers to critique the establishment. For the first time, writers from different camps – especially the left and democratic camps – came together in support of freedom of expression. One of the famous moments during the 1990 movement was the ‘black band’ protest held in front of Tri-Chandra College in Kathmandu. Around 100 to 150 anti-Panchayat writers, including Satya Mohan Joshi, Yuddha Prasad Mishra, Bashu Shashi, Mohan Koirala and Parijat, irrespective of the ideological camps they belonged to, assembled in front of the college with a black piece of cloth tied around their mouths, demanding freedom of expression. The only writers who were absent from the protest were obviously pro-Panchayat ones, who supported the king and the establishment.
What about today? Has the end of the Maoist insurgency and the monarchy had a noticeable impact?
The main difference between now and when I started writing in the mid-60s is the lively discourse among writers today. Back then this was limited to groups of writers who subscribed to the same ideology. Existentialism, Freudianism, Marxism, experimentalism and Nihilism were the most popular ideologies back then. The main reason for the lack of cross-ideological discourse was, of course, the Panchayat rule.
Post-1990, although writers are still divided into three dominant ideological groups – post-modern, subaltern and Marxist – there is more intermingling. There are also divisions along the lines of hill and Tarai, Bahun-Chhetri and Janajati, Bahun-Chhetri and Dalit, but the competition among them does not prevent discourse. Especially since the end of the conflict, the state of the Madhesh (plains) movement and the promulgation of a Federal Republic there are no barriers per se between writers. [Eds: a movement for a separate state in the Madhesh started in 2007]
Kathmandu, and its elite, has traditionally dominated the Nepali literary world. Is that still the case today?
Post-2006, indigenous and historically-oppressed communities are demanding their rights, on the streets and in the media. This seems to be moving the epicentre of Nepali literature away from Kathmandu and the Bahun-Chhetri community to indigenous communities and their issues. Even within the indigenous groups, it is the Rai and Limbu writers who have come to the forefront. To name a few of them, there are poets such as ‘Swargiya’ Swopnil Smriti, Upendra Subba and Chandra Bir Tumbapo, and prose writers such as Rajan Mukarun and Shrawan Mukarun, who wrote Bise Nagarchiko Bayan (The story of Bise Nagarchi). Interestingly, a lot of the indigenous writers are based in Hong Kong and the UK.
Still, around 80 percent of all writers are Bahun-Chhetris, those who were born and brought up in Kathmandu and those who were born outside but grew up in or write from Kathmandu. They still dominate, both in the quantity and quality of their writings. That’s because they have had the longest exposure to writing in Nepali. But that’s slowly changing.
You talk about various ethnic and caste communities. Nepal is, arguably, facing sharper divisions between these groups than ever before. Has literature reflected that?
This shift from Bahun-Chhetri writers to those from the indigenous communities is evident not just in the background of new writers, but also in the new content produced, irrespective of which community the writers belong to. For example, the novel Urgenko Ghoda
), which captures the aspirations of the historically oppressed, is written by a Bahun, Yug Pathak.
Now, of course, there are extremist writers in all camps. There are fundamentalist-Hindu Bahun-Chhetri writers, and there are indigenous writers who just can’t stand [them], and vice versa. But serious creative writers continue the discourse among themselves, slowly breaking the monopoly of Kathmandu in Nepali literature. What Nepali literature has failed to do is focus on the issues of the plains and the Dalits. It could be because Dalits do not have a sizeable middle-class yet, while the plains are embroiled in divisive identity politics. The indigenous community, on the other hand, has a sizeable middle-class – a result of the centuries-old Gurkha tradition, and of migration for employment.
Has the literature become more politicised?
As far as identity-based politics preventing writers from talking to each other, no. Literature has not been politicised. But the other new kind of literature that has emerged post-conflict is Maoist literature, usually in the form of memoirs by those who either fought in the war, escaped from prisons, or were tortured in captivity. Craft-wise, these are not brilliant writings, but the stories and emotions in them are fresh. There are police and army people who have written such memoirs as well, but these are easily outnumbered by the books produced by ex-guerrilla fighters.
Let’s move on to readership. What changes do you see in who Nepali writers write for, and who actually reads them?
It was easier before the 1990 movement, in the sense that the reader base was much narrower because there was no freedom of expression. Only two publishing houses operated then: the government-run Sajha Pustak Bhandar and the privately-owned Ratna Pustak Bhandar. Writers could get published in the government-funded Gorkhapatra daily, a monthly literary magazine called Madhuparka, and the privately-owned Ruprekha, which stopped being published about one-and-a-half decades ago. Apart from these, there were student unions in Kathmandu from different zones – such as Gandaki, Dhaulagiri and Mechi – and they each brought out periodical collections. But any overt anti-Panchayat publications were underground and we had to rely on symbolism to convey meanings.
Today, with the opening up of society, the readership has broadened: from the elite in Kathmandu to Dalits to indigenous communities to Madheshis. It’s because, like I said earlier, there is more inter-mingling among different strands of society. Before the restoration of democracy in 1990, communist and Congress writers were like Bahuns and Dalits – they would not go near each other. When it comes to readers today, writers don’t have allegiance to any particular group. They might, of course, write from different perspectives and favour one ideology over another, but in the end they compete for the attention of all groups of readers.
Has the readership expanded further beyond Kathmandu?
When it comes to the reach of published books, Kathmandu still hoards the most. The capital is filled with people – for reasons of opportunity or due to the conflict – who are literate and who have a little bit of extra money to spend on books. Besides, a large number of writers are still based in Kathmandu. Post-1990, the press did expand, but it is only in the last 10-12 years that new publishing houses – such as Fineprints, Shangrila and others – have begun competing for market share. As a result, they are now forced to look beyond Kathmandu, and are opening distribution channels across the country. And now, we also have two annual literature festivals, bringing publishers, readers and writers even closer together.
What about scholarship on Nepali literature? How has it changed?
The main sources of evaluation and criticism of Nepali literature are definitely the Nepali departments at universities, and they are weak. This could be because the literary scene in Nepal is changing, with a focus on unexplored aspects of Nepali society. As a result, the lens through which one evaluates Nepali literature might be changing, and we have yet to find talented critics who can look through these new lenses. Until then, a book gets printed, gets in the news, and then disappears when another comes onto the market. As time passes, though, someone will definitely take a look back and analyse all of this: the writers, their writing, the readers, their tastes, the literary awards. Before we had literary critics like Taranath Sharma, Ishwar Baral, Krishnachandra Singh Pradhan, Gobinda Bhatta and Abhi Subedi. Whenever a book came out, it used to be examined from all perspectives possible, both sociological and aesthetic. Informal channels of evaluation are still alive, though. Someone, somewhere, is always talking about the trends in Nepali literature.
Has there been any recent effort to translate works from Nepal’s other languages into Nepali, to include voices that don’t speak or write Nepali?
Usually, when we talk about mother-tongues other than Nepali, we are talking of Maithili, Awadhi and Bhojpuri. But there are not that many translations from these languages into Nepali, even today. The reason behind such a low-rate of translation could be that these languages are spoken in the plains. For literature from the plains to be translated into Nepali, writers from both the Madhesh and the hills should be interested in doing so. None of them are. The hills-plains divide is still big in Nepal – due to different languages, different cultures, different landscapes – and this shows in literature as well. Whatever translations there are, they are not significant enough to impact Nepali-language literature.
When we speak of translations from the Newari language, it is a bit different. There is a rich tradition from translation to and from Newari, primarily because Newars are an influential, Kathmandu-based community. But of late, the translation rate has definitely slowed down. Even though the Newar community today is fighting for greater recognition – linguistic and otherwise – they are not writing much in Newari. These days, a lot of Newar people speak in Nepali even within their own families.
In terms of other local languages, the Limbu community has developed their own script and now run newspapers in their own language, translating from and into Nepali. But that is a recent development, a result of the last 15 years. Still, the contribution to Nepali-language literature of these translations is not significant.
What about translations between Nepali and English?
Although the quantity of Nepali-to-English translations has increased, the quality has remained the same. It’s different with English-to-Nepali translations: both the quality and quantity – around 25 each year now – has increased.
Going back to Nepali-to-English translations, we have a dearth of good translators. The few known ones are Manjushree Thapa, Michael Hutt, Abhi Subedi and RD Yuyutsu. The problem with translating Nepali literary writing into English is that the translators have to know the nuances of Nepali culture. Descriptive translations are easy, but translating dialogues is difficult, and when the aesthetics of a novel are compromised, the end product feels very mechanical. Except for the title, the name of the author, and the [names of the] characters, everything else gets lost in translation.
One of the questions to ask about Nepali-to-English translations is where the market for translated literature is. Although Indian publishing houses are slowly becoming interested in translating Nepali literature, the market is still largely within Nepal. And if the market is inside Nepal, why read the translated products, when the originals are much better? But then, a lot of graduates from English-medium schools today read and write in English. Maybe they are the target audience for translated works. Maybe in the future, Nepali-to-English translations will increase.
How do you see the future of Nepali writing?
As someone whose writing career began in the Panchayat era, I see a bright future for Nepali literature. At the start of my career, I never thought that I could be paid for my writings. Only two publications – Gorkhapatra and Madhuparka – paid for articles, but the articles had to be pro-establishment or neutral. These days, publishing houses queue up for unpublished books. Also, back in Panchayat era, my books sold 500 to 1000 copies, if the police did not confiscate them before they went on sale. Today, books might sell 6000 copies. If each of those copies gets read by at least two people, that’s 12,000 readers. That’s a big readership, and a big opportunity, that did not exist before the 1990s. Of course, critical evaluation is still lacking, but new voices are coming to the fore. Soon, Dalits and Madheshis will also begin to write in Nepali. Currently, politics demands that these oppressed voices ask for linguistic recognition. Fair enough, but the irony is that in order to let the rest of Nepal know that non-Nepali languages have been oppressed by the Nepali language, non-Nepali speakers have to write in Nepali.
~ Weena Pun is an Assistant Editor at Himal Southasian