An Unprecendented Archive

After his monumental History of Nepali Children’s Literature, author and researcher Pramod Pradhan has just come out with The History of Nepali Essays. Alongside the basic trends in different timeframes, the work makes an orderly presentation of different phases of the development of the essay as a genre. Ambitious from all angles—dimension, scope and comprehensiveness—the History academically endorses the essay as a genre and opens doors for further research and exploration in this genre that has lagged behind in Nepali literature as compared to verses, fictions and plays.

Other genres are well-read as they appeal to all types of readers. The essay, however, is a tonic for the intellect, and few take interest in reading, criticising or conducting extensive research. This makes writing its history a highly challenging pursuit. Pradhan has accepted the risk with valour. The book is a result of prolonged and comprehensive study and documentation.

Broadly, the author divides Nepali essays into three groups: autobiographical, objective, and commemoratory essays; Travel essays; and Essays of Humour. According to their development, all three types have been brought under three different developmental phases: primary phase, developmental phase, and the modern phase.

The autobiographical, objective or commemoratory Nepali essays began only after prose took a firm grounding as a medium of expression. The first prose in Nepali is believed to be the inscription on the Reling Monastery in Jumla dating back to 1255 AD. This inscription, ordered by Ashok Challa, the then emperor of Jumla, concerned his administrative decrees. As a creation, the first prose work came in 1400 AD as Bhaswati—a book on mathematical astronomy—translated from Sanskrit. The first original work in prose, however, was Raja Gaganiraajko Yatra that was composed sometime in 1493. Passing through Prithvinarayan Shah’s Divyopadesh, and Motiram Bhatta’s Biography of Bhanubhakta, the genre prepared to enter the developmental phase.

The author traces the evolution of newspaper as a very important milestone in the development of Nepali essay. The beginning of Gorkhapatra in 1901 engendered the needs for essay writing. Though moral and didactic in nature, and stringently censored, the essays published in Gorkhapatra directly led to liberal and free essays that we come across today. The political developments of 1950, 1990 and 2006 have gradually delivered the essay from moral, political dictates and given it the contemporary, postmodern flavor.

Travelogue as a form of essay goes back to around 500 years in Nepali literature. Giginirajko Yatra—the travel account of King Giginiraj probably is the first travelogue in Nepali, written around 1443 AD. After a long hiatus, another travel account came out only in 1853, documenting Jung Bahadur’s travel to the UK. This publication took the essay to the second or the developmental phase. The most fertile time for this genre came only after the fall of the Rana regime and the restoration of democracy that eased people’s movement both within the nation, and abroad. Today, it is a rich genre.

Probably Pradhan’s History is the first important work that allocates a position of honour to the essays of humour as an important category of essays. Initially borrowed from Sanskrit, and brought out as translations, the genre has gained popularity with time. Original humour essays sprouted in Bhanubhakta, and developed through various newspaper columns, reaching its pinnacle in Keshav Raj Pindali and Bhairav Aryal.

Pradhan’s book deserves attention as research and documentation material for three reasons. First, this is the first ordered study of its kind. Second, the book has lent academic authentication to essay—a genre not popularly accepted by general readership. Third, it presents a scientific phase-division with critical insight, documenting important trends, assumptions and works characterising each phase. This opens rooms for new researchers. The voluminous bibliography attached to the book is a rare archive for further exploration.

However, the author has overlooked certain vital things that have rendered the work rather fuzzy. He chronological order for all categories of essays is painted with a broad brush. They each have had different, independent and parallel evolutions, and the author’s generalisation is obviously fallacious. Besides, placing the vast oeuvre of Nepali essays under just three headings—preparatory, development and modern phases—hints that the author has limited critical insight to explore such a vast territory. The author’s ‘shortcut’ forces him to stand on a slippery slope.

There are a couple of other things that have been overlooked. ‘Nepali Essay’ entails essays in Nepali language, and not just essays written in Nepal. Pradhan has bestowed little or no importance to essays written in Nepali outside Nepal. His brief treatment of Sikkim and Darjeeling is not enough. Only a comprehensive reading of essays written in Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Meghalaya and abroad can make for a ‘history’ of Nepali essays.

The order of placing the authors in a chronological order too has been violated at places.  Juniors precede seniors in their appearance. Whatever be the degree of their popularity, Krishna Dharabashi (b. 2017) appearing before Dev Kumari Thapa (b. 1927); Rajendra Subedi (b. 1945) appearing before Indra Bahadur Rai (b. 1929); and Yuvaraj Nayaghare (b. 1969) appearing before Srijan Lamsal, Ganesh Rasik, DP Bhandari, Rochak Ghimire, Abhi Subedi and many other seniors, is historically unscientific. This proves that the author has lost critical, objective stance for historiography, and has fallen prey to affective fallacy.  History requires chronological placement and discussion of events, and age and temporal order should not be compromised at any cost.  

(Firtst appeared in The Kathmandu Post)