My Only Competition Is with Myself: Sanjeev Uprety
Critic and novelist, Prof. Dr. Sanjeev Uprety, taught English literature at the Central Department of English, Tribhuvan University for more than two decades. He completed Masters degree(s) from Tribhuvan University and SUNY-Binghamton, and then later, his PhD from Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, with a focus on masculinity studies. He received his PhD for the dissertation titled ‘Double Mimesis: Representations of Mimicry, Masculinity, Modernity and Nation in colonial and post-colonial narratives 1850-1947’. He has done post-doctoral research on South Asian masculinities at Harvard and UC-Berkeley universities. He has also written a number of articles on masculinity studies and has participated in various international seminars concerning the subject. He is also the writer of best selling Nepali novel Ghanchakkar. In addition, he has been writing regularly on political themes following the 2006 people’s movement of Nepal. Sanjeev also coordinated the construction of Interactive Mapping and Archival Project (IMAP); a digital archive consisting of art and theater related materials of Nepal. His recent book Siddhantaka Kura has interpreted contemporary western theories in relation to Nepali literary texts and socio-political contexts of Nepal. He has also acted in Gurukul plays such as Nyayapremi (Nepali translation of Albert Camus’ The Just) and Sapanalo Sabiti, a play by political analyst CK Lal. He also wrote Makaiko Arkai Kheti, a political satire, based on an earlier book Makaiko Kheti by Krishna Lal Adhikari (1920) banned by the Ranas for its sharp political comments. Hansa, Uprety’s latest novel, earned him the prestigious Padmashree Award, though he rejected for reasons. Presented herewith is the edited version of an interview Uday Adhikari of The Gorkha Times had with Dr. Uprety.
Krishna Dharabasi, in his autobiography Aadha Baato (Half Way), has mentioned your name in quite a number of places. He seems to have been impressed with your reading habits. If he’s to be believed, your bag used to be full of detective novels whenever you happened to be at Jhapa. Did you start reading with detective novels?
Actually I began with children’s story books of Enid Blyton, but later moved on to the detective novels of Eric Stanley Gardner and James Hadley Chase. They influenced me so much during my high school days that I turned myself into a detective in the imaginary world that existed inside my mind. Aadha Bato describes an interesting incident about it.
Krishna Dharabasi envied you for reading novels. How did you pick up the habit of reading in English though, at that age, reading novels in English was an exceptional case ?
I led a very lonely life without siblings or friends till I was nine, especially because I joined school only in grade 4 and was home-tutored before that. Since my father was involved in Nepali Congress which was banned by the Panchayat regime, he was often posted at remote locations as a medical doctor. Schools were far away, and we had no chance of attending them. My parents used to bring lots of books for me, including English novels by Enid Blyton, probably to compensate for the fact that I was leading a very lonely life. This might have led me towards reading, including reading English books. Later, those books became both my friends and the siblings that I never had.
For some time now we have had enough message exchanged, concerning books you have read. In ‘Book Babbles’ in The Kathmandu Post you mentioned Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead as a book that left immense impression upon you. When I read the book, I thought you side with ideas in novels. What’s your preference in literature ?
I like various types of books for various reasons. Ayn Rand interested me not only for her ideas, but also for her craft of writing, especially in Fountainhead. Her later book Atlas Shrugged, though full of ideas, did not make that great impression upon me. I also like realistic novels of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Balzac and experimental fictions like those by James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, Salman Rushdie and Ben Okri. Realistic novels, if they are well-written, not only make subtle representation of human psychology, but also paint a correct picture of the society. The problem is that the ‘society’, as we understand it, has both visible and invisible parts. It is the invisible parts are made up of various social ideologies—including the ideologies of gender, class, ethnicity as well as new ideologies of the market that we often acquire from the television and other mediums of mass media—which are not easily seen or understood. Those ideologies not only form our subjectivities but also shape the ‘unconscious’ of the society in which we live. Realism has its limitations while trying to portray such unconscious aspects, and this is where experimental works have their value. This is not to say that all experimental works are good. They need to be well-written too, just like realistic works.
When you published Potato, Butter and Coffee, no one in Nepal could be thinking seriously about a novel in English. It was mid-eighties, and Nepalese English writing hadn’t witnessed any solid future yet. What motivated you to venture into a futureless project?
Sheer joy of writing, nothing else! As I grew up reading books, the next logical step was to try my own hand at writing. I was interested in surrealistic painting at that time and also in the modernist works of Franz Kafka. This might have shaped the form of Potato, Butter and Coffee. Some of the images I used in that novel continued to haunt me even when I was writing Ghanchakkar years later.
With the publication of your autobiographical novel Ghanchakkar you became a known name in Nepali literature. Your language reminds me of Kafka’s, though I must confess I read him in translations. Dostoevsky and Kafka have many similarities in representing the mental state of characters. You are quite successful in portraying the mental state of your protagonist in Ghanchakkar. Are you happy with the outcome of the novel?
Yes very much, though there always is a room for improvement. I will try to make the flow of language better in the next edition of Ghanchakkar. But even without it, I am quite happy the way the novel was received by the public. My aim was to show both the mental state of the main character who is obviously less than sane, but also to represent the social chaos—including senseless violence during the Maoist war, with newspapers full of the gory pictures of violence in Nepal which, at least to me, was a kind of collective madness. I think Ghanchakkar was able to achieve that aim. And more importantly, I am happy with the effort I put in while writing Ghanchakkar. My philosophy has always been to do my best, and not worry about the outcome. And I did my best while writing the novel.
Your first book was in English. How did you decide the second book in Nepali while the writing in English from South Asia was reaching a new height and providing a great hope to those who were trying to find their future in English language?
I started writing in Nepali seriously only during the Jana Andolan or people’s movement days. My first article in Nepali was in Kantipur when the Andolan was at its height. There was a pro-democracy gathering at Gurukul during which police intervened and began firing shots and beating up artists and writers. I was beaten up badly by the police and was very angry. I had heard that when one is in love or is angry, the best way to express is through the mother tongue. The next day after the incident, I wrote about it in Nepali and sent to Kantipur for publication. I wrote every week after that in Kantipur during the Andolan and immediately thereafter. The response I got from the readers made me confident that I could write in Nepali too, all this led to the writing of Ghanchakkar.
Your columns in different English dailies over a decade clearly show that you are interested in small incidents from the life of the common people that showcase the changing pace of the society. Your interest reminds me of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things which is full of apparently trivial but really important incidents. Do you really prefer small incidents in your real life too?
Very much so…small pleasures of life (like driving on a bike to places like Nagarjun and Chovar to gaze at natural beauty, sharing laughter with friends, spending time with family) hold greater meaning for me than big things. After all, we are all going to die; this is one thing which is certain in this world full of uncertainties. And if that is the case, “big” accomplishments—including acquiring name and fame—are only temporary events. Small joys of everyday life are more important; they make life worth living for me.
It seems to me all that all the people, including the commoners like rickshaw pullers and fish sellers have their stories, which are interesting. The only thing one needs to do as a writer is to listen to them carefully, and with empathy. The stories are bound to surface. I also felt that journalists have been eulogizing the lives of the rich and the famous for a long time. It is also equally important to speak of the common people and their experiences. Their stories are also part of history; collective history is much more than the stories of generals, kings, and courtiers.
Your book Siddhantaka Kura (On Theory)probably the first book about Western theories in detail in Nepali, is phenomenal success. Theory in Nepalese context is an unwanted guest. It’s heard that in France, the theories are introduced in high school text books and surprisingly the students seem to enjoy but in Nepal, even at the university level, neither the teachers nor the students seem to be comfortable with it. Why is it so?
A lot of this has to do with the fact that theory is taught in an abstract manner here. Theory should be joined with the practices of everyday life. It should be tied to the historical and political contexts in which we are living. Once we do that, theory will stop being an alien philosophy; it will become part of our everyday life as it should be. Hope Siddhantaka Kura will encourage people to look at theory in that way. In this book I have tried to link theories to everyday practices of classroom and society, and have interpreted Western theories in relation to Nepali texts such as Ramesh Vikal’s Aviral Bagcha Indravati, B.P. Koirala’s Sumnima, Indra Bahadur Rai’s Kathaputaliko Mann, Abhi Subedi’s Thamelko Yatra, Shankar Lamichchane’s Abstract Chintan Pyaj, Krishna Dharabasi’s Saranarthi, Vijay Malla’s Anuradha, Parijat’s Sirish ko Phool and so on. I have also used examples from Nepal’s art scene to discuss the concepts of modernity and postmodernity. In addition, I have used theory to talk about the concept of democracy and social justice in the context of post-Jana Andolan Nepal. I hope that all this will make theoretical concepts—such as discourse, ideology, hegemony, essentialism and constructivism etc.—more accessible and interesting to Nepali readers.
Theory no doubt helps readers cultivate great understanding to enjoy literature but in Nepal that has been unmistakably producing prejudiced readers. What went wrong ?
There are various reasons. some people think that theory is Western and hence imported. So they don’t like it. Others think it is full of technical jargons and is difficult to understand. As for the first objection, if we started rejecting everything that came from the West, we have to reject electricity and air travel as well. And probably shut English departments all over the nation as English language itself came from the West. As for the second objection, sometimes theoreticians are to blame. Some theoreticians use only jargons and divorce theory from everyday practice; in other words theory becomes too theoretical. I think it is possible to relate theory with everyday practice, to the ethics of everyday life, to concepts such as democracy and social justice. If we can tie theory to the political and social contexts of Nepal I think it would be very interesting to many people.
Your teachers time and again quote your name as one of the brilliant students from the English Department. I believe you have heard the same too. Such compliment always heighten the expectation of well-wishers. Don’t you feel pressured from the expectation ?
Not at all…I read because I enjoy reading, and I write for the same reason. I only want to do my best and compete against myself. Pressure comes when we try to compete with others. If I try my best and produce inferior work I will still be happy. I will have the satisfaction of giving my best shot, and that is enough for me. If I succeed that is a bonus. I am extremely competitive, but all that competition is directed inward, rather than outward. It is true that it creates its own kind of pressure, but that pressure is different from the kind of pressure one experiences while competing against other people.
While talking about the merit and demerit of Nepali literature in English translation, you heavily criticized the translation of Diamond Shumser’s Seto Bagh done by Greta Rana, a native from Yorksire. You disapproved of the way she rendered the book in English. On listening to you, I sensed you had been thoroughly familiar with the translation of Nepali literature in English. In your views what has gone wrong with translation?
Translation is a difficult genre in any case. It is very difficult to produce a perfect translation. Though I don’t like all the translations from Nepali to English, I applaud the work translators are doing. Some of the translations are very good. Manjushree Thapa, for example, has done excellent job of translating Nepali literary pieces into English in The Country Is Yours. As far as the translation of Seto Bagh is concerned, I simply repeat my earlier observation that it falls short of the mark. Seto Bagh is one of my favorite Nepali novels. I have read it at least three times in Nepali. But when I read Greta Rana’s translation the novel did not sound the same. The story was there, but the magic was gone.
It is heard that you wrote Ghanachhakar first in English but later Krishna Dharabasi’s advice motivated you to complete the Nepal version first. Is the Nepali version a translation of the you originally wrote?
Both the versions of Ghanchakkar went simultaneously. They are not really translations. I had initially written Ghanchakkar as a short novella, rather than a full-length novel, and it ran only up to seventy pages then. When I explained the story to Dharabasi he suggested that I should translate it into English. I did that, but in the process new incidents and dialogues were added so the Nepali version expanded to 130 pages. Then I tried to translate the added parts from Nepali to English and more incidents were added till the novel ran up to 180 pages or so..and the process continued till both versions came to simultaneous ends. I met Kiran Shrestha, the head of Nepa-laya publication soon after that. He showed interest in the Nepali version of Ghanchakkar, and so I revised and completed it. Due to the pressures of teaching at TU and family matters that needed immediate attention I have not been able to revise the English version properly till now. But I plan to do this over this year and hopefully it will come out by the end of next year. The English version will be slightly different from the Nepali version, but the story will be the same.
You always seem to be desperate of doing something new. I was thrilled when I saw you playing the lead role in the drama The Just (translated as Nyaya Premi) by Albert Camus. At least I had never imagined you playing any role on the stage before. What inspired you to be an actor on the stage?
The word ‘desperate’ is not the right one here. I am not desperate to do anything except living my life to the fullest every single day. When I did Nyaya Premi for Gurukul it was the script of the play that attracted me. It was also my first time on the stage. I was nervous about doing the lead role when Sunil Pokhrel came up with the proposal. But after I read the script I realized that the narrative of the play (which Albert Camu wrote to describe a revolutionary incident dating back to 1905 Czarist Russia) has a number of overtones that ring well in post-Jana-Andolan Nepal. I was particularly fascinated with the moral issues that the play raises concerning the limits and ethics of revolution: What is the ethics of revolution? Are revolutionaries justified in killing innocent people in order to achieve the ideal of social justice? Is violence against other people justified under the banner of revolution? Such questions prompted me to act on the stage for the first time. The play was a big success. I performed it in Kathmandu and Biratnagar and have done more than fifty shows of the play. After all that, I think I developed a taste for acting, and then when Sunil proposed again that I should play the role of a narrator in Sapanako Sabiti written by well-known political analyst CK Lal, the decision was much more esay. It was the sheer pleasure of acting that made me say yes to Sunil Pokhrel’s proposal.
I have read your English and Nepali articles in daily paper, but I haven’t come across any of your short stories. I guess you have written many. Don’t you like to publish them?
I have not really written short stories, but am working on a novella.
You are from a political background. In your novel, the political turmoil of society is beautifully presented. Your novels endorse the belief that ‘literature is the mirror of the society.’ Does literature really have to do anything with society or vice versa?
I think literature is very much rooted in the social and political context within which it comes into being. Literature does not happen in a transcendental space.
During my SLC year, I came across books by Rajneesh and also read Paramhansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. While the subsequent experiences proved that I was not cut out to be a jogi, the impression of that ‘transcendental’ phase of my life lingered till much later, right up to the days when I was doing my masters at Tribhuvan University in the late 1980s. Sometimes I grew long hair, and at other times shaved my head to resemble the looks of the holy ascetics about whom I had read so much. All this did not lead me towards enlightenment; it merely confused my family members and the girl who was to become my wife later.
If the transcendental phase of my life was shaped by the books I had read, the new books that I came across during my masters and thereafter soon punctured the bubble of such transcendentalism. Attracted by cultural theories such as Marxism, feminism, post-colonialism, post-structuralism and the like, I began to read books by theorists such as Frederick Jameson, Edward Said, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan. Paramhansa was displaced by Karl Marx and Rajneesh by Gayatri Spivak and Judith Butler. Under the influence of such writers I came to the conclusion that spiritual mukti cannot happen in a transcendental space; rather, attempts at freedom can only lead one back to the scene of history. I also realized that even jogis and ascetics are not free from the relations of power, and that our aspirations and desires—including the desire for spiritual freedom—can only be ‘staged’ within the historical and political contexts in which we live.
In your Facebook you have intentionally leaked about your on-going project: a small novella you are working on now. After Ghanchakkar, the readers have been expecting a bigger novel that reflects the post 2005-06 movement. What inspired you to go for a small work of fiction?
As for the novella, I just came across an interesting theme and wanted to pursue it. Longer works will come in future, I hope, but I am not sure when at this point.
You are lucky to have two critics at your home. I think Madam Archana and your daughter Shristi Uprety provide good suggestions for your writing. But at the same time don’t you feel uncomfortable thinking four eyes sticking forever to your paper?
I am blessed with the fact that I have these critics at home. No I don’t feel uncomfortable; they don’t interfere with my writing unless I ask them specifically for their comments. Now that Archana has become a publisher, first with Telling a Tale and now with Siddhantaka Kura which was the second publication of Akshar Creations, I tend to discuss my writing more with her. This is but natural as writer and publisher should always be in good terms and hold discussions throughout the writing process
You have been trying your best to judge the English Nepali writing for a long time. How do you evaluate Nepali-English writing in comparison with other south Asian writing especially Indian, Pakistani and Srilakan?
Nepali-English writing is a growing field. It has its own flavor, but we need to have more writers to be on par with English writing that is coming from India and elsewhere. With the corpus of English Nepali writing ever-expanding and new possibilities for writing and publishing coming to the forefront (including through e-magazines, blogs and even Facebook) the future of Nepali writing in English looks bright. However, it is also time to take stock of the theoretical problems that trace the construction of a category such as “Nepali writings in English” or “Nepali-English Literature.” It is necessary to develop awareness about the problematic of writing in English as a non-native, non-Western writer, and to interrogate the institutional frameworks within which such writings are produced, published, disseminated and read.
It is difficult to compare writers across time and space because they are writing within different historical, political and social context. I also believe that there are no universal standards of evaluation. From one evaluative standards one might say, for example, that Shakespeare is a better dramatist than Maori playwrights, but is that really the case? I am sure that Maori people would have a different answer. It depends on what criteria (sales, reviews, literary values taught at educational institutions etc.) one uses to judge the worth of literary works.
Last time, when we had had messages exchanged, you declared you were going to devote some month to working upon the English manuscript of Ghanchakkar. When you published your first short novel in English probably you wanted to prove that a Nepali could write a novel in English but since then Nepali writers have been published abroad and have risen to fame. Some prestigious publications including Penguin are eying them. After knowing all these things, don’t you feel any pressure from the market?
I don’t feel any pressure at all. This is because I write basically for self-satisfaction, and because I like writing. Even if my books were not sold, I would still write because that is what I know and what gives me satisfaction. And more Nepali writers come to the fore, happier I am. This is because I am a reader before I am a writer. I love reading, and what is better than reading writers from your own country? My only competition is with myself, to write as well as I can. I don’t compete with anyone else. I also hope there will be even better Nepali writers (in both English and in Nepali) in future. I think some excellent writers will be coming up from younger generations, and feel confident that they will surpass the achievement of my generation of writers, including my own.
It was my first day at Tribhuvan University. I was just outside the English Department, when I saw a young teacher with dreamy eyes discussing Marxism with some students. His curly hair and modern outlook were enough to dismantle the traditional image of a teachers. His trembling lips and rising hands, with a few pieces of chalk and duster in them, were trying to convince the student about different interpretations of Marxism. It is not necessary to tell that the teacher I mentioned above is you! You were standing at the door somehow blocking the way of others, trying to convince the students trained in ‘vulgar’ Marxism. Theory had been recently introduced in university curriculum. Since then I have seen you raising issues about the relevance (usefulness) of theories time and again. Your recent book on theories confirmed my opinion. I wonder what motivated you to take such a deep dive into theory?
Its main reason was purely coincidental. When I began teaching at the Central Department of English, theory had just been introduced at the masters level and I began my teaching career by teaching various literary theories, including reader-response criticism, feminist theory and Marxist theory. Later when I went to the US for higher education, the two universities that I attended (SUNY-Binghamton and Brown) were very theory-oriented with well-established theorists like William Spanos, Lennard Davis, Leslie Heywood, Immanuel Wallerstein and Christopher Fynsk (at SUNY-Binghamton) and Robert schools, Nancy Armstrong, Rey Chow and Neil Lazarus (at Brown) among others. This too might have contributed to my interest in theory. In addition to this I felt that theory is important to question our own class, ethnic and professional locations and the social ideologies (including those coming from religion and market) that shape our sense of ‘I’—our subjectivities in other words. Before coming into theory I used to think that my ideas were mine only, that I was speaking original thoughts that had emerged directly from my inmost being. Theory taught me that my so-called ‘original’ and ‘natural’ thoughts were neither that original nor that natural. Since my location was that of an upper middle class heterosexual male Brahmin based in Kathmandu, my thoughts were being shaped by ideologies emanating from those ‘grounds of identity.’ I think reading theory allowed me to become acutely aware of some of the social stigmas and ideological repressions suffered by marginal groups (like janjatis, homosexuals, factory laborers and disabled people for example) in Nepal, people who occupy positions of relative powerlessness in Nepal. It also exploded many of my ideological blindness and allowed me to look beyond the borders of my own locations.
A few years back one of your articles appeared in Kantipur daily defending how some of the characters in Ghancchakar represented subaltern’s life. The question of subaltern’s representation had not been raised until the theatrical adaptation of your novel was staged in Gurukul. Was that necessary to defend how a writer sympathizes with the subaltern’s characters? Does a writer think of theories before he writes a novel or a poem for that matter?
As a writer I don’t think of theories consciously as I write, but since I also read and teach theories, they have become part of my subconscious which is quite natural. I don’t really think a writer has to know theories before writing, let’s say a poem or a novel. But theories can help him/ her in an indirect manner. Theories are, after all, various windows or lenses to look at the world, including its socio-cultural and political aspects. And since a writer (whether a fiction writer, poet or a playwright) also writes about the world after all, theoretical insights might make help his writing, even if indirectly. As for the issues concerning subalternity and subaltern studies, I am glad that Gurukul’s reproduction of Ghanchakkar initiated the discussion. Some people criticized the play version of the novel concerning the representation of subaltern characters; others praised it for the same issues. Such things are inevitable and I don’t really think of them too much. What was gratifying, however, is that Ghanchakkar helped bring out such issues in mainstream literary culture of Nepal and that it was taken up by other writers later.
Making a movie based on a novel seems quite natural but adaptation of a drama from a novel isn’t easy. Salman Rushdie himself was involved in writing a dramatic adaptation of his own novel Midnight’s Children. Now he is reportedly busy writing a script of the same, together with Mira Nair. You were deeply involved in making your novel stagable. Would you like to share your experience of that time with our readers?
Not really. I was only minimally involved in the adaptation of Ghanchakkar for the stage. I thought it was Sunil’s job and since I truly trust his instincts when it comes to the art of direction, I gave him a free hand. It is true that we had some discussions about which scenes from the novel to include and which to leave out as it is practically impossible to include all the scenes. I think Sunil did an excellent work in finding theatrical equivalents to the scenes that were difficult to show onstage (e.g. the scene in which the protagonist sees a political leader turning into an onion, and another one in which the entire valley turns into a great lake once again). There were many things that were left out of the play (e.g. the mock “court scene” at Basantapur where most characters of the novel come to discuss whether the protagonist should be taken to the jail or to a hospital; the tower scene, the dance restaurant scene with dancers and later with puppets; the scene in which those escaping from the valley ride upon the divine phallus of Shiva and cross nations and continents). The main problem was that of the duration of the play, and not whether such scenes could be shown on-stage. Sunil is a very creative director. I am sure he would have found “theatrical equivalents” for all of these scenes. But the simple fact that a play can run for only 2 hours or slightly more at the most made it impossible for us to include all scenes. So Sunil and I discussed what to include and what to leave out a little bit and also about how the play should end. But basically the entire credit goes to him. My role was minimal.
You have been a student of TU and Western universities. Being a student of both types of universities might have given you varied experiences about teaching and learning. Will you explain the striking features of Western universities that we can emulate to improve our traditional way of teaching?
The main difference is the openness of atmosphere and the way teachers and students work together as co-producers of knowledge. In Nepal, teachers are supposed to know everything and students often become mere passive recipients of the knowledge they ‘give’. This creates unnecessary and unnatural pressure on teachers too, creating what might be called the ‘trauma of the classroom.’ In a section titled “Kaksha Kotha, Adhunikta, Uttaradhunikta” literally “Classroom, Modernity and Postmodernity,” in Siddhataka Kura I write in greater detail about this very issue
I really envy you for your reading habit. You are always eager to tell how deeply you are moved by a particular book. You always affectionately explain something about Midnight’s Children and The Gods of Small Things as if they were your own children. Last time when I met you in Sauraha accidently, we talked about books and I confessed my inability to read Ulysses by Joyce; You excitedly informed me how you devoured Ulysses in your three months’ vacation. You also mentioned a guide which really helped you understand it better. Would you like to share your experience about going through one of the greatest novels which everyone would like to read but very few have ended with success? Is it really a masterpiece that has been cited since its publication in 1922?
Yes, to me it is, though literary values are relative, and different people consider not one but different books as masterpieces depending upon their literary tastes. I spent three months reading Ulysses during a summer vacation when my wife and children were visiting Nepal and I was alone at Providence, Rhode Islands. Since my apartment was at a walking distance from the Atlantic Ocean, I used to go to a nearby park at the edge of the Ocean with both Ulysses and an Annotated notes on Joyce’s book (annotated notes was lengthier than Ulysses) and spend my afternoons going through the masterpiece, looking at the waves on the Ocean. I was fascinated with the way Joyce uses the city space of Dublin to the tell the story of a person seeking his symbolic father within the space of twenty-four hours (the entire novel covers the event of twenty-four hours in Dublin thus representing the unities of time and space that we expect more in a classical Greek plays rather than in a novel). I am still amazed at the complex layering of history, philosophy, mythology, Irish politics, culture, linguistic and literary traditions of Irish writing etc. that Joyce creates in the novel. It’s a complete world that he has created; it takes a lot of effort to enter that world and to understand its complex dynamics, but at the end of my labors, I came back with a feeling of richness. It was as the texture of my life had been enriched after reading Ulysses. It allowed me to view my own life and times from a different perspective, and taught me to enjoy the sheer beauty and endless possibilities of language.
TU has been running degree courses in English for a long time. The Department of English has produced many wonderful teachers and researchers but it hasn’t produced writers whom we could show with pride. We must concede, we don’t have as strong tradition of English as a part of British Empire could boast of, but three decades is not short period for excuses. As a witness, can you tell what has gone wrong so far as creative writing is concerned?
Nothing has gone wrong, and the things are moving in the right direction. You should realize that the English departments in Tribhuvan University, including the Central Department of English are not really structured to produce creative writers. Their main job is to produce capable teachers of English and professionals who can use English in other spheres of life, including journalism, business, foreign service and so on. From this perspective English departments are doing a great service to the country, despite all the infra-structural limitations within which we work. More things are needed to produce good creative writers (I assume that you are talking about Nepali writing in English at this point, not writing in general in Nepal), not merely good English departments in college and university levels. We need good writing courses in high and middle schools to begin with. We also need places (magazines, literary journals and so on) where emerging writers can be published. We also need a larger readership. All of these things are happening gradually and we should remain positive. At least things are much better for emerging writers now than what they were like, let’s say twenty years back when I was writing Potato, Butter and Coffee which was probably the first novel in the experimental vein (as far as Nepali -English writing is concerned ) at that time. To sum up, I think we can be optimistic about the future.
Now you are busy with the revision of Ghanchakkar, the first novel of yours in Nepali for its third edition. I was amazed to know the fact that you were working on the language part of the novel. For me once a book of poem, story or even a novel is out, it is public property though I respect the right of the author over his or her book. But if the writer keeps on flirting with the plot, characters and language, don’t you think that will create confusion about the authenticity of work? I’m amazed to fancy that if Parijat had revised her magnum opus Sirishko Phool in her late forties with her left leaning ideology, what would have happened? I wonder if Bhupi Sherchan revised poems from Ghumne Mechmathi Andho Manchhe (literally, A Blind Man on a Revolving Chair), in his late forties when he thought he had been ruined by becoming a communist and a poet, what would have become the fate of these beautiful poems? Sir I’m not doubting about your efficiency but it is a question of ethics. Ghanchakkar is a part of your development which phase you have already crossed. If there are any factual errors that can be corrected. Your views also challenged the famous essay “The Death of the Author.” Here the novel is out but the author is still on the crease. Nobody knows how many sixes (revisions) he wants to record. Roland Barthes is probably talking about the irrelevancy of the author after the book is out, but here everything is going opposite.
Your question is based on an older assumption that the value of a literary text is transcendental, and that its meaning is fixed for eternity. In other words it’s a crime or at least an ethical fallacy (on the part of the author) to tinker with the text because such tinkering would change the meaning of the text—a meaning which, according to such assumptions, is transcendental. As for me I do not subscribe to such a transcendental view concerning the meaning of a literary text. And for the same reason, I believe that writers are free to re-write their narratives. After all, we live in an age of re-writing (punarlekhan). If a writer can rewrite another writer’s text (as Indra Bahadur Rai rewrote Guru Prasad Mainal’ss text, and Dharabasi rewrote I.B. Rai’s text, just to give two among many examples) then why can’t a writer rewrite his or her own text? There are numerous examples in world literature when the writers have rewritten their earlier texts. As far as Parijat is concerned, I am sure that Sirishko Phool would have been better if she had revised it at a later date.
In your latest story “Povid-21”, you have imagined the world after Covid -19. Your story exposes the world order and imagines a happy world if poverty plays the role of epidemic but you have come to a conclusion that millionaires and billionaires have started holding power again, and are capturing the world for their favor. I realize you have turned to be a very political writer. It has almost been more than nine months since Covid-19 started. It has provided everyone enough time to think and evaluate their life and the new world order. It has taught the language of isolation and a very positive thought about nature. Your story is an outcome of this. How have you spent this long uncertain time? Is there any book in progress?
I am working on a nonfiction that discusses the notions of structural dividends and structural insensitivity in relation to caste, class, gender and environment among other things, in the context of Nepal. I have been spending time with family, staying at home mostly. I have not been able to do much bird-watching, due to the spread of corona. Due to the lockdown and consequent decrease in pollution, however, more birds are coming to our garden. Before the lockdown began we had only crows, sparrows, oriental magpie robin, oriental and turtle doves, red vented bulbul (jureli), common mynah, and pigeons coming to our place. After the lock down began, I started seeing other birds that I had not seen in my area before, including drongos (cheebe) and two different varieties of kingfisher (maticore). These I had seen around Taudaha and Ranibari but not in our garden. Also, I was overjoyed to see a whole group of Hoopoe birds (fapre chara) touring my place the other day. It is one of my favorite birds with an orange buff, black and white wings, and a black-tipped fanlike crest. Though I had seen common Hoopoe birds in Jhapa, Chitwan and in Kathmandu, I had never seen a whole bunch of them together before, except during a bird-watching trip in Sri Lank a couple of years ago. Once one gets deeper into the world of birds, every day is an adventure. I can spend hours just looking at them, trying to understand their individual, distinctive movements, patterns of light, unique sounds they produce and the way they interact with each other. This has helped me pass uncertain times with a degree of relative equanimity. I continue to miss my bird-watching trips to Shivapuri Nikunja, Taudaha and Ranibari though!