Published in La.Lit on 4 September 2020

In Search of Stories

One warm July morning, I pulled up a chair next to Muna Gurung and Sharareh Bajracharya at Café Soma, a popular meeting place in Lalitpur. Laptops were open, notebooks were out. Next to them was Ubahang Limbu, a young artist I was meeting for the first time. The topic of the day was the children’s book he was working on.

first time. The topic of the day was the children’s book he was working on. “Something walks on the forest floor, breaking the silence,” Muna, a writer and educator based in New York, read aloud the draft she was helping Ubahang with. Pausing, twisting her mouth thoughtfully, she mumbled, “Something what?” This was a cue for Ubahang to think of a more specific word, so readers could imagine exactly what he was trying to evoke.

There was a brief silence, then he interjected, “I actually think ‘something’ sounds a bit disrespectful.”

Another pause, which compelled all of us to consider the task at hand. After a few seconds, Muna spoke up in a friendly voice that carried an undertone of didacticism. “You have to use language in slightly unusual ways that make it memorable and poetic. Does this sentence flow with the rest of the text? Does it serve a rhythmic purpose? Maybe you just want readers to imagine footsteps.”

For the next ten minutes or so, we all played with words, each of us suggesting a replacement for “something”. We also switched the words around in the sentence, listening to how it sounded each time.

Eventually, Muna suggested, “How about this – ‘In the quiet of the forest, footsteps on fallen leaves break the silence.’”

Ubahang came up with the storyline for his illustrated book, originally titled The Wandering Buffalo, during a month-long Children’s Book Art Residency, part of the Climate+Change exhibition’s arts and education programme. Sharareh Bajracharya, who managed the programme, selected Ubahang and Bandana Tulachan for the Residency. Both artists then spent time on Pokhara’s outskirts, interacting with locals from various communities. Although Ubahang’s story describes the fictionalized journey of a water buffalo, it raises the issue of emigration, a problem prevalent in the rural communities he visited.

Sharareh and I have worked together before. We have discussed ways to support teachers and students in Nepal. We have designed programmes with literature and the arts in mind. When she told me about the Residency, I was eager to learn more about the process and the artists involved. So a couple of weeks after the revision session with Ubahang, I made arrangements to meet him at another Lalitpur café. This time he was with Bandana. As they approached my table, Ubahang took off his motorcycle helmet. Bandana gently propped herself next to me. I was struck by her jet-black hair. It fell, long and dense, straight down her profile. There was a tentative smile on her face.

The artists had been familiar with each other’s work prior to the Residency, but since they had just spent a month working closely with each other, their chemistry was hard to miss.

“I used to be around a lot of animals,” Ubahang smiled, when I asked him about his childhood. Khudnabari, the village in Jhapa where he was born, did not have electricity then. He had arrived in Kathmandu only recently, having completed his schooling in Darjeeling, and college in Delhi.

“I’m glad my sister discouraged me from going abroad,” he continued cheerfully, “because I joined Kathmandu University’s School of Arts and Design.” It was at KU that Ubahang discovered children’s literature. He had always been interested in fairytales and stories of magic but realized that there was a lot to explore within the genre. KU’s annual Bachelor of Fine Arts exhibition, in August 2014, was crucial. After noticing his work on a prototype of an illustrated story, Sharareh told him, “I may have something interesting for you.”

Bandana, on the other hand, was specifically influenced by Japanese children’s literature from a young age. Trekkers from Japan were regular guests at her family’s homestay in New Baneshwar, the Kathmandu neighbourhood where she grew up. They brought a variety of children’s books from Japan and left them with her family. Coincidentally, the school she went to in Chakupat, Mitra Primary School, had a Japanese principal who offered a strong arts and reading programme. “I may have gotten some aesthetic sense from Japanese anime,” she smiled shyly, after taking a sip of her coffee.

Bandana hated the science curriculum in her 10+2 programme. When her father suggested the arts and she started looking into options for further studies, she came across a Kathmandu University brochure. She hadn’t heard about the arts school until that point. “It was a life-changing experience,” she added.

Ubahang and Bandana travelled to Pokhara with Sharareh in early March 2015. They ventured out to Panchase, a rural settlement about an hour’s bus ride from Pokhara, and spent a week together.

There are a number of ways to explain the logic behind Sharareh’s programme design. The experience, she felt, would allow the artists to interact with the communities they stayed with and obtain more personal accounts of the problems they faced. The material could be woven into stories and presented in the form of children’s books so that a wider audience could read them. Spending time in these areas would also help them with the creative process – conceptualizing the visuals, selecting images and most important, capturing authentic details from the lives of marginalized Nepali communities. Ultimately, Sharareh wanted to push the artists out of their comfort zones so that the potential of their work could be expanded.

After the first week, Bandana decided to stay in Khapaudi, located towards the northern edge of Phewa Lake and slightly less than 30 minutes by bus from Lakeside’s tourist hubbub. The fishing community of Khapaudi is dominated by Jalari Newars, an ethnic group that once led a nomadic lifestyle and fished in rivers and lakes for a living. In the 1970s, local and international organizations trained Jalaris to farm fish in cages. They have settled in Khapaudi since.

Ubahang, on the other hand, took a bus further up and visited surrounding villages such as Dumdame and Sidane on foot. In the course of a day’s walk, he would pass through two to three villages, spending the nights there and returning to Khapaudi intermittently to touch base with Bandana.

Both artists had no doubt as to the value of this process. Talking to the villagers helped Bandana craft her story better. She was able to observe the details of a fisherman’s life – the materials he uses, his daily schedule, the challenges he faces – and incorporate these elements into her writing and artwork. “We can never imagine these details, living in Kathmandu,” she declared.

“I used to draw generic images of villages before,” agreed Ubahang, “but now I know better. For example, I’ve drawn the specific kinds of tiles that the Gurungs use to build their houses.”

During his walks, Ubahang noticed herds of buffaloes silently grazing in clearings in the forest. They appeared to be by themselves. When he inquired about this, Ubahang was told that members of the community guided these herds away from villages to the grazing grounds and left them there for up to six months. The villagers would return periodically to feed salt to the buffaloes, so that the animals would not forget them entirely. These details were the seeds for Ubahang’s story.

Similarly, Bandana learned about flash storms from the Jalaris, as a phenomenon everyone in the village had experienced, and one that directly affected their livelihoods. She decided to write a story about a small girl’s reaction to one of these storms: Sanu and the Big Storm.

The artists’ sketches and accompanying text went through several revisions. The initial stage – composing images and drawing consistent characters – was the most challenging for Bandana. She goes through several drafts of line drawing before she is ready to colour. For Sanu, she enjoyed drawing the different elements of a storm – mist, wind, rain and hail, as she turned them into characters. In her drawings, mist appears as curious, white ghosts hovering around a boat; raindrops are blue tadpoles charging towards Sanu from the sky. The wind is long-tailed, more powerful than the others, whereas hailstones are odd geometric shapes suspended in the air. These elements add to Bandana’s intricate images and do not distract readers from the main narrative thread, that of a small, brave girl rowing a boat in the storm to find her mother.

Drawing was familiar territory for Bandana, but she had never written a story before. When she left Pokhara, she had a basic outline. Muna Gurung helped her add details and depth to the story. At one point, the Sanu is thinking about the tales her grandfather told her. Bandana’s first draft had these lines: “It would rain ceaselessly. The water would turn into waves. The strong wind would make the boats wobble up and down.” After she worked with Muna, the final version read:

Once, giant waves had almost swallowed him whole.

Another time, fierce winds had nearly toppled his boat.

He had lost all of his fish.

Strange creatures mill about under the water, Ba says, hidden and waiting.

People can get lost during storms. And sometimes, they never return.

The revision made the language clearer, more specific. Instead of a generic storm where “boats wobble up and down”, readers can now picture exact incidents. The last two lines provide a surreal, mysterious aura – strange creatures, hidden and waiting. These are the elements that engage children and spark their imagination.

While Muna helped the artists refine their text, Promina Shrestha provided pointers for illustrations. Considered one of the first professional women illustrators from Nepal, Promina has a Master’s in Arts and Aesthetics from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. Promina had offered several tips to Ubahang and Bandana before they left for Panchase. For instance, she told them not to use a camera for the first couple of days. She wanted the artists to pay close attention to their new environment. A pencil and a sketchbook can help capture details that are precise as well as subtle. The camera, although a good memory aid, often does not serve this purpose well. Promina was also concerned that the camera, rather than supporting the artists’ creative process, could become a barrier between the observer and her ecology, limiting interactions and engagement.

After the month of residency and the weeks the artists devoted to drafting stories and drawing illustrations, it was time for feedback. I joined Sharareh one morning while she was waiting for Ubahang and Promina to show up.

“So what do you think of the content?” Sharareh asked Promina, referring to Ubahang’s work.

“It’s a bit stiff,” the latter replied. “It lacks playfulness.”

I was a bit surprised. When I had browsed through Ubahang’s work, I was instantly affected by the beauty of his watercolour images. One of his paintings depicted a lone buffalo wandering amidst large swathes of deep green. Another piece captured an alluring vista of a Gurung village, with fluffy cotton balls of mist rolling down to meet the jungle. Wasn’t Promina being a bit harsh?

Gradually, I understood what she meant. She explained to Ubahang that he could experiment with his angles and perspectives. Most of the images seemed to be from the same vantage point, she noted. As if one were looking at the buffaloes from a distance. What about a bird’s eye view or a close-up? If illustrators consider these aspects, she said, children have more ways to learn while interacting with illustrations. They are able to enter the book’s visual world from different sensory reference points.

“They don’t understand the mind of a child,” replied Promina when I prodded her to comment on the quality of children’s book illustrations coming out of Nepal. She explained that there are senior artists who produce fine illustrations, but most are inaccessible to young children. Besides, added Promina, anyone who writes or draws for children is looked down upon. As someone who studied pedagogy, I could relate to this unfortunate perspective as applied to the field of teaching. Primary school teachers are usually considered less capable than those who teach higher grades, and are paid correspondingly. Children’s education in Nepal is plagued by misconceptions like these. Sharareh’s initiative, supported by Muna and Promina, is a comprehensive and in-depth approach to children’s literature that aims to overturn these notions.

I recently learned that a local publisher has expressed an interest in the two books, especially in Nepali translation. Our final conversation with Promina revolved around this topic: what would be the most appropriate way to distribute Ubahang’s and Bandana’s books so that they reach the right audience? They seemed to think that The Wandering Buffalo was appropriate for middle school children (Grades Six or Seven). I agreed, although not entirely. I reminded everyone that children’s books can play a dynamic role inside classrooms and homes, depending on how they are presented by adults.

For instance, it is perfectly fine to read aloud a book that may be slightly difficult for a particular age group. Adults can pause and clarify ideas and meanings. A line from Ubahang’s book such as – “Soon the mist swallows the house and the shed” – can be used to discuss metaphors. Can mist actually swallow a house? What is the writer really talking about? It could also be a great moment to talk about language with children and the ways writers use words so that they come alive. Examples like these also serve as models to teach writing to young children.

When Ubahang’s completed work finally appeared in my inbox, I savoured it. He had settled on the title The Journey. I followed the buffalo as he passed through “doors of moss”, “spring orchids” and “a thicket of fern”. He is looking for a boy who used to feed him salt. I got a glimpse into the buffalo’s inner world, as he wonders while wandering. In Ubahang’s favourite section, painted as a two-page spread, a colourful half collides with monochrome. “There is an element of transcendence here,” explained the artist. “The present collides with the past because the buffalo is thinking about what happened before.” I appreciated the thoughtful use of black and white images.

I continued to travel with Ubahang’s buffalo: the world is rich and green, the mist is omnipresent. I could almost feel a slight chill. Towards the end, the buffalo thinks, “Perhaps when I make this journey again the boy will be here.” And the readers are left with that thought, which raises one question, and then another – Where is the boy? The question is haunting. Where do boys, as they turn into men, go?