Published in La.Lit on 4 September 2020

The House That Uttam Kunwar Built

Bhupeen and Chaubis Reel

“The essay and poetry are deeply related,” said Bhupeen, “the way I am related to my brother. The blood that flows inside an essay is the same blood that flows inside poetry.” This year, Bhupeen’s essay collection Chaubis Reel was unanimously nominated for the 2012 Uttam Shanti Puraskar, and his acceptance speech at the Nepal Bar Association was beautiful and succinct. The award is given out every year on May 26, the birth anniversary of Uttam Kunwar, to a Nepali writer whose work stands out in the field of literary non-fiction writing.

“This collection is a documentary of an important period of my life,” says Bhupeen in the introduction to Chaubis Reel. “Twenty-four reels of life from the last sixteen years are compiled here.” Using the metaphor of a camera, Bhupeen continues in poetic prose, an aspect of his style that strikes the reader instantly. “The heart and the mind are two existential aspects that manage humans. The heart doesn’t reason, it proceeds by prioritizing influence and experience. The mind reasons. The mind tries to get closer to the truth by way of thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis. For the complete development of civilization, it is important that both of these departments function. As a reader, I like creations that compel humans to use both the heart and the mind. I like essays that don’t just perceive, but also reason.”

Bhupeen ends his introduction by delving into the relationship between poetry and the essay: “Poetry gives linguistic strength to the essay, as well as art and style. It adds beauty to the essay’s aspect. The essay furnishes poetry with the roof of thought. I always feel that it is not enough for any creation to be merely beautiful, it should also be powerful. Since art adds beauty and thought adds strength both of these are expected in every creation.”

Apart from essays that are inherently poetic, Chaubis Reel is noteworthy for its breadth and depth, for the ground the writer covers. Bhupeen gracefully makes his way in and out of several genres, ranging across the travelogue, the personal narrative, political commentary and psychological inquiry. The collection stands out, in part, because the essays are difficult to categorize in their entirety. At one point Bhupeen will draw you in with his descriptions of Silguri and at another, he’ll urge you to dream.

“Dreaming is probably the most attractive and mysterious experience in life,” he writes in his first essay, “Poet and Dream”. An exploration of the psychological, artistic, historical and political aspects of dreaming follows, with Bhupeen declaring that in this country, politicians stand against the dreams of our poets. “Our miseries began here”, he says, explaining, “History is witness to the fact that in the Roman Era, people’s dreams used to be presented in the senate. There were substantial debates and interpretations of these dreams. But there are no discussions of our poet’s dreams in parliament.” Bhupeen believes that we are saved, in the end, by our dreams. And we have to do something to prevent our country from becoming dreamless.

Uttam Kunwar and Srasta ra Sahitya

Bhupeen’s innovative technique makes him a perfect fit for the Uttam Shanti Puraskar, which was first established by Shanti Kunwar in 1986 to commemorate the lifework of her husband, the late Nepali literary journalist Uttam Kunwar. The award is given to essayists whose work is modern, original, inspiring and personal.

Uttam Kunwar was also the publisher and editor of the monthly periodical Ruprekha, still remembered today as a milestone in the history of literary journals in Nepal. Because of Ruprekha and his own writings, compiled primarily in Anubhav ra Anubhuti (Experience and Sensation) and Srasta ra Sahitya (Author and Literature), Uttam Kunwar forged a unique identity for himself in the history of Nepali essay writing.

Srasta ra Sahitya is a collection of essays based on Kunwar’s interviews with thirty-five prominent Nepali writers. A provocative intellectual and an original thinker, Kunwar transformed the way interviews were conducted, avoiding a simple question-and-answer style. The essays in Srasta ra Sahitya are remarkable because of the way Kunwar has captured each writer’s personality and described his work. Readers get a unique glimpse into the lives of Bal Krishna Sama, Lekhnath Poudyal, Bhupi Sherchan, Parijat and M.B.B. Shah, among many others. Kunwar’s moving accounts are humane, deep and thoughtful. A popular and critical success, Srasta ra Sahitya won the Madan Puraskar in 1966, when Kunwar was just 27 years old.

Srasta ra Sahitya was reprinted this year by the Uttam Kunwar Memorial Award Fund. Here is an excerpt from the publisher’s note to the current edition:

“This book introduces us to Nepali literature and writers of half a century ago. We are confident that it will be read to understand, just as before, the lives and writings, experiences and sensations, personalities and inclinations, stories and sufferings of twentieth-century poets, story-writers, novelists, playwrights, linguists, grammarians, translators, essayists, critics, historians, lyricists, singers, editors, and lexicographers.”

Uttam Kunwar conducted these interviews from 1961 to 1966. He continued his literary work for the next seventeen years, until his sudden and untimely demise in 1982 at the age of 44.

“Do you still have the energy? Hasn’t your enthusiasm been exhausted yet?”, a friend asked Kunwar when he went to talk to him for the fifth time regarding Rooprekha. Writes Kunwar, “When I heard that, I took it as a casual remark. But later, when I thought deeply about it, I realized that hidden inside his remark was an extraordinary sentiment. I remember, I started frequenting these writers’ houses about two decades ago in order to collect writings. I’m still doing it. I’m not doing it just for the sake of writing, I’m doing it for the paper, for advertisements, for sales and for marketing. I don’t consider this an inconvenience; I do it because I want to. If I considered it an inconvenience, people would not remark on my enthusiasm.”

Shankar Lamichhane and Sirish ko Phool

Bhupeen cites Shankar Lamichhane as one of his biggest influences. “With their stream of consciousness style, Shankar Lamichhane’s anarchic writings added a new taste to essays,” writes Bhupeen. “The waves he generated in the lake of essays haven’t yet come to rest.” Shankar Lamichhane attracted Nepali readers with a magnetic force to a genre that is considered dry and factual. Lamichhane is one of the thirty-five writers featured in Kunwar’s Srasta ra Sahitya. Here follow translated excerpts from Kunwar’s essay on Lamichhane, dated June 16, 1966:

Situated on a slope in Chhauni, Lamichhane-jiu’s rented house stood all by itself, just like him. In the silence of the night, only our sounds were audible. Now and then it felt like the rumble of trucks on the way to Trishuli attacked our peace, but they left just as they came, so our conversation was flowing merrily along. We were on the ground floor, sitting in the drawing room, Lamichhane-jiu was leaning against the couch and I was leaning against the bookcase. The white-fabric decoration of the room added a certain warmth and auspiciousness to our calm presence.

Kunwar begins by asking the writer about the role he accords to literature in his own life:

“You are involved in various endeavours to support your livelihood, you’ve seen many ups and downs, sometimes here, sometimes there. But there’s no resolution as yet. Do you still consider life worth living? If you do, is it because you consider life to be worthy of a struggle or is it because of your responsibility towards your offspring?”

“I never put such a big question to my life. I enjoy living and I enjoy the struggle even more. That leaves family – family, you can’t live with or without.”

“It brings us back to the same point. To put it simply, are you living for the sake of the struggle?”

“I’ll answer you simply, too. Life is a struggle. Without it, life is just a constricted vision suffering within the bounds of a cage.”

“What is the relationship between your life-struggle and literature? How do you think it should be?”

“I keep these two separate. The struggle is my life, and literature? Literature is my hobby. I never let either of these two get on top of the other. Yes, sometimes I enjoy the association between these two.”

“So for you, literature is limited to being a hobby? It has never been more than that? Could it ever be more than that?”

“In Nepal’s history to date, literature has never been a profession … That’s why I’ve accepted it as a hobby. As for the refrain that literature should serve, form society’s beliefs, and develop one’s country, I have never been able to believe that.”

“So you haven’t taken literature seriously?”

“Yes, why take literature seriously? I haven’t taken even my own life seriously to this day. I was born as a result of my father and mother’s pleasure and I am going to die to give pleasure to millions of tiny organisms; there is no room for seriousness. And if I embrace seriousness in writing, who is going to read my writing?”

Shankar Lamichhane dabbled in various genres – fiction, non-fiction, science fiction, poetry and the memoir, but he is mostly remembered for his essays, particularly his controversial preface to Parijat’s Sirish ko Phool. Asks Kunwar:

“You were accused of taking advantage of Parijat’s fame, showing too much pride and either according Parijat undue importance or not giving her the importance she deserved. What do you have to say about this?”

“I feel that the novel is a big achievement of Nepali literature … a preface to a big achievement has to be big … It’s possible that subconsciously I felt that I was about to do something big, so I might have come across as conceited in parts … controversy is a sign of a novel’s success; otherwise Nepal’s literary world is such that no one gets discussed, a couple of people sit in a corner and gossip, and only a few pieces see the light of publication. And Parijat is the first woman to inspire debate in Nepal. In this regard, she is thanked.”

“In the preface you wrote ‘The future also belongs to Parijat.’ You must be planning to write a historical novel better than Parijat’s Sirish ko Phool. In this way, you are about to snatch away the future that you yourself gave to Parijat. Now, either you refuse to stand by that sentence or if you write a novel, you make sure it’s not better than Sirish ko Phool, right?”

“No, Parijat and I work in entirely different areas and the other thing is that in literature, whoever possesses the present has a future that cannot be appropriated in the same form except through imitation … I do not aim to snatch away someone’s future by imitating them.”

Kunwar and Lamichhane discuss literature, sexuality, the role of sex in literature and vice versa, and hover around religion. Lamichhane says he only worships things that he sees with his own eyes. When it comes to religion, he says, he likes Buddhism the best, particularly its emptiness.

“You just said that you like emptiness. Maybe that is what you were trying to express in your preface to Sirish ko Phool? Perhaps you remember that once, when we were talking after reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, you said you appreciated her purposefulness?”

“I didn’t write about it, did I? … America is in its boyhood and its purpose hasn’t been formed; hence, there’s a need for purposefulness there. I read Ayn Rand’s book as an American and agreed with it. In our old country, where there are thousands of gods, scores of religions, and dozens of philosophies, many objectives have been revealed … that’s why we’ve tended to favour our country’s youngest philosophy, which is emptiness. In the future, if a new way emerges and I’m still alive and like it, if you come over and interview me in the same way, it’s possible that my answer will be different.”

“Let’s leave this web of words. Religion, sin, sex, philosophy, and so on – do you think they are important for literature?”

“There is nothing as close to humans as literature. Religion, sin, sex, philosophy, and so on, in their realistic and fantastical forms, are all things that humans initiated. Literature in its entirety is a pure reflection of humanity. All the things mentioned above are parts of literature, but literature is not a part of anything. If you ask me what the definition of a soul is, I will give you a one-word answer: literature!”

Writer and Literature

At the end of May, I stepped into the Nepal Bar Association to attend the award ceremony for the Uttam Shanti Puraskar. I had mixed feelings. Having lived abroad for over a decade, I had turned my back on Nepal and Nepali literature. But Bhupeen’s words shone a light on those parts of my heart and mind that had remained in the dark for a long time. After the function, I was eager not only to read Chaubis Reel, but also to learn more about Uttam Kunwar’s life and his work.

The following day, I took a microbus to Ratna Park and made my way through the cluttered alleys of Bagh Bazaar. A friend had reminded me that the famous bookstore, Ratna Pustak Bhandar, was hidden somewhere in this neighbourhood. But I came across another bookstore first, Shangri-La, and easily found copies of Chaubis Reel and Srasta ra Sahitya. Coincidentally, Shangri-La had taken on the responsibility of distributing the current reprint of Srasta ra Sahitya.

It’s true what Lamichhane said: “Nepal is an old country.” The Nepali language is old. And in another chapter of Srasta ra Sahitya, Balkrishna Sama pontificates that human civilization may have reached its peak at one point in Nepal, nestled in the lap of the Himalayas: “An environment as pure, cooling and natural as Nepal’s Himalayas that inspired the creation of the Vedas can’t be found in any other country.”

Yes, Nepal’s past is ancient, its present complicated and its future uncertain, but Sama’s words may be a bit far-fetched. “Just like a coin has two sides, Sama-jiu’s view also has insights and faults, or, let’s say it plainly, truth and lie,” writes Kunwar.

I didn’t know how fluently I would be able to make my way through these Nepali books, because these days I mostly spend my time reading and writing in English.

By the end of the day, I found myself immersed in these works of literature; the thoughts were strong, the craft, beautiful. I saw a reflection of my own humanity, I did. I also came across working definitions for my soul. A process started. My imagination was ignited. A fire started burning inside me. I began to write.

I wrote for hours and deep into the night. I wrote for friends who might enjoy Bhupeen and I wrote for unknown people who might come across my English words and be inspired to read Kunwar’s Nepali. I wrote because I sensed a larger urgency tugging at me – the urgency to pave a path to the cottage that is Srasta ra Sahitya, inside which live thirty-five of Nepal’s prominent litterateurs. Many Nepali people may have heard about this cottage, they may know how to get there. But there is a danger that a growing number of Nepalis, and people scattered all over the world, may never hear about it, let alone walk down this path.