Something very important has happened to Nepali literature over the past few years: news of the nation has come into it.
In the 1990s and before, members of Kathmandu's cloistered literary establishment—almost entirely 'high' caste men—would write Kathmandu-based literature; and only a few regional writers who had won recognition from the establishment would write about their particular communities. There were women writers, but they had to battle for tokenistic recognition from their male peers. One or two travelogues ventured into the countryside on occasion. A few bhasa writers wrote in their native tongues as part of a gathering language rights movement. A few writers published commentaries, literary or otherwise, in the newspapers. The rest of Nepal remained almost wholly unwritten.
This insularity had become quite untenable by the time the war started; and yet it persisted till the war's end. During this time, the Kathmandu establishment did not experience what was happening in the countryside, and those who did have first-hand experience had no voice in the establishment. Readers had to search hard to find any reference to the war, and found it, if at all, in poetry. One or two short story writers, and perhaps only one novelist, Ramesh Vikal, brought the war into prose at the start. Literary nonfiction too remained silent on the war till poet/journalist Govinda Bartaman broke through with his travelogue Sohra Sanjh. Then came then-Kantipur editor Narayan Wagle's Palpasa Café, which was set in the war.
Palpasa Café broke all previous sales records,
topping 25,000 copies within a year of its publication. Though this was partly due to aggressive marketing—of the novel and its handsome, well-liked and powerful 'celebrity author'—it raised hopes for a new era for book publishing in Nepal.
This hope was realised to a degree through subsequent publishing successes, but more so through a palpable change in the content of books.
In peacetime, several writers followed Bartaman and Wagle's lead and brought current events into their books. Not all of them were literary writers. Their books followed the tradition—usually among politicians—to write jail journals or memoirs, exposing the country's hidden darkness. It was Jitman Basnet's 258 Dark Days, a chronicle of his unlawful imprisonment by the then-Royal Nepal Army that opened the floodgates. Other such testimonials soon followed, as did memoirs, particularly by Maoists and Maoist combatants.
What these books of witness lacked in 'art' they more than made up for in relevance. They had an urgency that contemporary literature was lacking. Their subjects were important. Their language was simple, with a diction more spoken (and colloquial) than written (and high-Sanskritic). Their appeal was immediate.
All this was going on as the peace process got on way. The Kathmandu literary establishment, meanwhile, was caught up in a struggle for the Nepal Academy. Established in 1961 by King Mahendra to forward Panchayat nationalism through literature, the Academy had, in post-1990 era, established a cozy system of patronage, with the political parties appointing members and members looking away from the parties' failings. Even after the Maoists won the elections, they remained outsiders to the literary establishment in Kathmandu. When, in 2009, they tried to appoint their own members, mayhem ensued. The establishment fought back. The appointments had to be repealed. All this left the literary establishment in disarray, but proved helpful in raising the question: who, in fact, owns Nepali literature?
The Nepali people do, of course.
The Vice-Chancellor who followed—and who remains in position today—has been a healing figure. A modernist poet in his early years, Bairagi Kainla was, through the 1990s, a proponent of the language rights movement and a backer of minority writers. His appointment has been acceptable to all. Yet the country's best literature now comes not from writers in the orbit of the Academy, but from writers outside it.
The last few years have seen the rise of outsiders to the literary establishment. These include the journalists who have written today's best-loved novels.
The year 2010 saw the publication of Narayan Wagle's second novel, Mayur Times, and poet/journalist Buddhi Sagar's first novel, Karnali Blues. Both men work in the media for money, and for love they write about the Nepal outside of Kathmandu. Mayur Times is set in the wake of the Madhes movement, and Karnali Blues—which is the more artistically successful of the two—follows the fortunes of a migrant hill family in the far-western Tarai. Both novels have an accessible, contemporary sensibility, and their language is shot through with colloquialisms, bhasa dialogue, and naturalised English words. Karnali Blues in particular captures the life of an entire community with a narrative that flows as steadily, compellingly and unstoppably as does the Karnali River in the open plains.
In future, there will be more of such non-establishment literature. Nepal is in search of narratives to help it make sense of itself. Testimonials, memoirs and autobiographies will continue to proliferate. There is an increased interest in biographies. Literature will build on all this new content.
The benefits of this won't just be limited to the writing of men: Nepali women are already writing more fearlessly now than they were in the 1990s. They had been placed in an untenable position: with the exception, perhaps, of the iconoclastic Parijat, the earlier generation of women was held to high standards of Hindu propriety that made it difficult, if not impossible, to write without self-censorship. While men were free to write on unorthodox love and on sex, women were not. Those who did paid the price in peer gossip and family and societal censure.
Now, however, a younger generation of writers such as Momila Joshi and Bimala Tumkhewa are more outspoken. They can write about intellectual subjects, and also write about desire. They can write about politics and also about private conflicts. They can be frivolous and also be taken seriously. They are able to write the female experience fully; they do not have to silence one part of themselves to battle for tokenistic recognition.
This too was a reason for the country to go to war.
Similarly, Dalit writers, writers from indigenous nationalities and bhasa writers have their voices heard more loudly now than ever before. This trend will continue as federalism is instituted, and as Kathmandu gives way to regional power centers. Regional literature will truly develop then.
All this will only happen, however, if publishers are able to recognise deserving (if unknown) writers, to invest in editing their work, to set up good production and wide distribution networks, to market books through launches, readings and discussions, and to expand the readership base. The intellectual hunger in Nepal can earn publishers a tidy profit, especially if they publish books in a way that nurtures writers by compensating them fairly, and that rewards readers for the money they spend on books. If this is not quite happening now, it is not for a lack of understanding. Publishers know well what they could be doing. They are just, for the most part, too busy to take on more work than they already have. They simply do not have the capacity to meet the demand.
This is a pity. It is holding all of Nepali literature back.
As for the darling of the scene, Nepal's English literature: from the start, its challenge has been to match the best of Nepali writing. Instead, it often sacrifices quality in pursuit of the seeming glamour of Kathmandu's English-speaking world.
This is a dynamic you often see in India: India's most bracing writing occurs in bhasa literature while in English, some very average writers from the 'creamy layers' write some very average stories of the same layer. Yet they command a disproportionate amount of attention.
In India, the class and language divides between English and other writers are great. A class divide exists in Nepal, too, but it is much smaller, and easier to bridge. The language division is similarly bridgeable, as most Nepalis are, at worst, a year's language lessons away from being able to engage with Nepali literature. They should make an effort to do so. Given how small and closely-knit Nepal is, there should, in fact, be no separate 'English literature from Nepal.' There should only be Nepali literature; sometimes this may be in English. Other times it may be in Nepali or bhasa.
The challenge before the English writer is therefore to recognise his or her true place in Nepal. After all, the power of Nepali literature—in any language—comes from its being, first, of Nepal. The work of the English writer is enriched, rather than impoverished, by recognising this.
And so: can the English poet match Bimal Nibha or Manjul or Shrawan Mukarung? Can the English short story writer or novelist match Nayan Raj Pandey or Bhuwan Dhungana or Narayan Dhakal? This is not impossible to do…but it does not often happen.
The English writer is best advised to get to work.