Published in The Record on 4 April 2020

Bijaya Malla on being, dying and writing: an interview from 1966

“Death is not limited to the body’s death.”

“What’s your year of birth?”

“Forget about birth year; ask me my year of death instead.”

“How come someone who has reached this far hasn’t died yet? Why were you born anyway?”

“Why are human beings born? Why do we exist? Those are my questions as well. I don’t accept the idea that birth is accidental and I don’t consider it to be a mere illusion, as proffered by the Vedas. And I can’t say that it’s just by chance, as maintained by the physical sciences.”

“Then what is it really?”

“A concrete event that doesn’t have any explanation. An occurrence, something powerful. Perhaps that’s also what death is.”

“You mean, birth and death have the same meaning, the same objective…?”

“Birth, death, and matters related to the world and the universe can be very personal; each has his own view. That’s why any literary opinion related to these issues should be based on one’s experiences and self-awareness; and even if one finds faults with the self, it’s important to be content. This basic principle can influence one’s conduct in life and even transform behaviour. I’m still trying to achieve clarity, realizing that my thoughts might be controversial. A lot of ancient philosophers including Shankaracharya and Buddha (or Buddhism) have described suffering as an inevitable consequence of birth and sought salvation from it. Because of this concept, their perception of life was tinged with negativity. They endeavoured to liberate themselves from life. As a writer, I don’t hold a negative view of life. Satisfaction or suffering are merely human emotions. I don’t attempt to extricate myself from the body’s conditions and rules. I accept elemental emotions like desires and wishes along with my body. They live with the body and die with the body. The body is governed by its own biological and chemical regulations; to play with this authority is a mistake comparable to committing suicide. Suicide does not only destroy the body; it destroys consciousness as well. If liberation means destruction on this level, that’s tantamount to committing suicide. That’s why I can’t accept this idea; my consciousness rejects it. I am unable to assimilate any principle related to emptiness (whether ancient or contemporary) with my faith. I am primarily in tune with my conscious power and I question the notion that this power ends with my body.”

“Which means you believe in the concept of reincarnation.”

“No, no. That’s not what I mean – what I meant was that Death is not limited to the body’s death. I am skeptical of the idea that consciousness is somehow based on the coordination of various physical mechanisms and is a result of their qualitative transformations. I also disagree with those who disparage our consciousness and consider its achievements insignificant. That’s why my conscious self is extremely solitary, different from everyone and everything, detached from social and material transactions; alone, alone, and totally alone. But I don’t have any issues with this although I often scream silently – just let me be. God and Emptiness stand contrary to this awareness. Even then, I want to remain strongly connected to my natural state of being. I try to find meaning in this earthly life – even though it is meaningless – and attempt to be very aware while creating. I want the creative process to be a replication of consciousness and language or colour or sound to be the medium of expression. But I’m doubtful – there’s a limit to everything.”

“Why are you entangled in all these doubts? Your life seems to be an illustration of this ‘Yes, No, Maybe’ principle and you live according to it.”

“It’s not like that. Any topic deeply related to the project of living is full of ambiguities. And every ambiguity leads somewhere. My awareness is singularly devoted to discovering every grand truth and I’m interested in every subject but this endeavour remains incomplete because I live in a society. I look inward and attempt to be myself; moreover, to become someone. If being a skeptic means acknowledging that I haven’t reached anywhere, that I’m still walking, then I’m certainly full of doubts. I believe that this kind of disposition helps one reach one’s full potential although I’m not sure how useful it is from a materialistic perspective or how it relates to ethics. I’m mainly interested in being fully aware and conscious (in any case, I’ve been gradually detaching myself from every material concern).”

“How do you negotiate ethics with this notion of complete awareness?”

“First, let me explain what I mean by complete awareness. When one gets totally disconnected from society and social relations and starts to contemplate in a state of complete awareness, then all that remains in front of him is his being and his death. There is no room for ethics. Ethical concepts are only useful to those enmeshed in social relations.”

“If ethics drive social relations, then what are the roles of religion and sin?”

“That’s been described in various ways in Eastern and Western narratives. Religion and sin seem oppositional but their foundational ideas are similar. Religion can be defined extensively but also in a restricted way. If religion is understood merely in terms of the gods and goddesses one worships, then it becomes extremely narrow.

Broadly speaking, religion, or dharma, deals with everything that safeguards humanity and guides human conduct. And sin? Anything that destroys humanity is sin, also in broad terms. That’s why religion and sin can have extensive or restrictive meanings depending on how they are described by society. Ethics can change. A new rule replaces or modifies an old one – these are all consequences of progress; sin goes against this natural progression. Most religions (as opposed to dharma, which has a broader scope) that follow specific Gods or have invented their own religious figures who speak the language of God, who have rejected universal laws and behave as if they are the God, are not liberated from contemporary social norms nor from their own personal prejudices. Religion and sin as defined by them are tied to specific circumstances and politics. It’s not necessary to follow the path pointed by them.”

“Then why did you pay respect to the issue of Rup-Rekha earlier when you accidentally tripped on it while entering the room? Was it remorse? Or to indirectly collect religious blessing?”

“I am respectful towards every kind of reading material as a habit developed in childhood and also because of the knowledge it carries. It’s not because I consider my foot to be impure. An object doesn’t become impure just because someone’s leg touches it. Knowledge is always connected to the mind. So it’s natural to connect a book or a journal to the head using a physical gesture.”

“What’s the difference between knowledge and literature?”

“Knowledge, perspective, philosophy, literature are all intrinsically linked. Knowledge is what we know whereas perspective is a derivation of knowledge. Fundamental ideas constructed in a logical, sequential way becomes a philosophy whereas literature encompasses all kinds of thoughtful, creative work. These are all different processes one chooses to find resolutions to different problems. That’s why I often find inconsistencies, or directly opposing ideas, in my pieces from the past compared to more recent ones. And that’s also why I sometimes feel like tearing apart published work or wishing that I could reject my authorship.”

“Or is it because you consider work from the past to be irrelevant compared to modern ideas?”

“The relevance of any creative work is determined by its content, not style. The time period should not be a factor of assessment. Society and its moral views change. And people might get superficially influenced by these but their true nature is only revealed when faced with death. Time is meaningless for those artists who can work with the ebb and flow of life – and the tussle of death – in order to express themselves. They can transcend time with their inherent sensibilities. But any creative work tied to a time period lives in the period, in that present, and the present always dies; it can survive only if it’s able to survive in the collective memory.”

“I’m still dissatisfied. What I want to hear from you is an elaboration of what literature is; specifically, your thoughts on modern, contemporary literature.”

“Writers born after me are younger and they are more modern, but only in terms of age. It’s important to evaluate concepts of modernity in literature based on the subject matter, not only style or the time period during which it was written. This is my logical approach. Every generation considers itself modern and the generation after that is compelled to label itself more modern; but that’s a flawed idea. In any case, modernism should not be a criterion to assess literary work.”

“Then what are the criteria? How should one assess literature?”

“If we must, a literary work’s value depends on the ways it’s able to influence culture and society. Either that, or the ways in which it uplifts humanity, even if it’s only one person. Literature can provide relief and also sharpen one’s awareness in such a way that instead of worrying about the self or mulling over death and the universe, one identifies a different path, a higher purpose – of being and becoming, of creating something and leaving it for posterity. Death merely becomes a stepping stone. What I mean is – instead of overwhelming ourselves by a need to construct or liberate, we can get in touch with our true internal selves and find harmony. Creative activities are not limited by our physicality. Creativity transcends the body.”

“You sketched out the scope and connotations of literature, based on personal views. Now let’s examine it from different angles. First, a poetic stance. Do you have anything to say regarding that?”

“But that’s already published in Rup-Rekha!”

“You are right. How about a summary?”

“Well, I don’t differentiate too much between poetics and prose. Literature should genuinely touch every aspect of our lives. It should entertain the masses but also advance their causes. It should challenge us and reveal that we are not merely earthly, emotional beings. Because we are human, we have a responsibility to embrace our conscience, not to turn away from it. Since death is the only hindrance, we ought to fight it for the sake of life, if only for a bit longer.”

“Is that it? What about its aesthetic aspects?”

“Language, grammar and vocabulary are the basis of literature. But words are always dynamic; they are dependent on interpretations. Due to these intricacies, writers get in trouble. Their elaboration either gets shortened or lengthened. One can never guarantee that a writer’s intended expressions will reach the reader. Unfortunately, we get entangled in the etymology. We get entangled despite paying attention to every simile and every symbol. Although these literary devices are not reliable, sincere writers can create concrete expressions.”

“If we are to compare different genres of Nepali literature, I get the sense that our poems are more refined. What do you think?”

“Based on my reading, I’ve concluded that several poets are earnest regarding content but trapped by the traditional patterns of our language, they seem stifled, just like they are stifled by their own lives. There’s a tendency towards opacity even though the subject matter may not be opaque. There may be appropriate descriptions of settings, and recordings of thoughts and dialogues, but compared to foreign writers, they are suppressed. Unable to organize themselves and their society, the resulting confusions and worries flash inside their dark repressed minds and so their words only provide clues as opposed to clarity. Consequently, there is no transparency. That’s why Mohan Koirala, Ishwar Ballav and Dwarika Shrestha are considered to be enigmatic poets even though they are not.”

“Then how do you see our literature developing?”

“The mind is a writer’s primary tool. Instead of granting complete freedom to the mind, if we constrain it, the writing will be dishonest. Writers will deceive themselves and definitely deceive others. If we are to witness progress in literature, we need to allow writers to explore their creativity and set up conditions where Nepali literature can be comparable to world literature.”

“Which writers or poets do you credit for the progress in Nepali literature so far?”

“We don’t need to go too far back; we can start with Bhanubhakta and Motiram. And then Chakrapani Chalise, Lekhnath, Balkrishna Sama, my father (Subba Riddhi Bahadur Malla), Rudraraj Pandey, Laxmi Prasad Devkota, Kedar Man Byathit, Siddhicharan, Surya Bikram Gyawali, Gopal Prasad Rimal, my older brother (Gobinda Bahadur Malla ‘Gothale’), Prem Raj Sharma, Madhav Prasad Ghimire, etc.”

“Gopal Prasad Rimal and you are credited for pioneering contemporary literature, based on content. You must have studied world literature in order to get a sense of what’s considered contemporary subject matter. To that end, what are your thoughts on some prominent Western writers like Samuel Beckett, Ionesco, Sarte, Genet, Henry Miller, etc?”

“I like Beckett and Sartre but we have different principles. I love the artistry in Sartre’s plays – he is the best European playwright after Chekhov.”

“What kind of relationship should there be between literature and sexual expression?”

“I am bewildered at how sexuality is controlled by social norms and ethics. This is quite dangerous. Every generation tackles sexual problems according to its own practices and perspectives. In that sense, sexuality is bound by time and place but it’s perilous to treat this human, bodily need as something immutable. Each sexual relation is specific and somewhat dependent on prevailing social norms; and so, writers and artists might use these references to tackle problems related to plot and character. Our concept of nudity is also relative; sometimes the nudity is quite covered and sometimes the nudity is utterly nude. Sex is hunger; therefore the tendency to limit the discourse to reproduction is natural. Every society has its own method to control sexuality or set it free. Those writers ahead of their times who have written about sex have faced charges; sometimes they win, sometimes they lose. Every writer has to deal with this possibility; we are no different.”

“We have discussed several topics but I still haven’t inquired how you stumbled into litera-”

“It was quite accidental.”

“How so?”

“To escape from a rather unmanageable situation, I delved into my imagination. A desire gradually arose. I began to wonder why I was only reading books by other writers; why not immerse myself in my own stories. Then I could not stop myself.”

“Were you able to immerse yourself?”

“I have been struggling with that desire to immerse; sometimes I am challenged by time, sometimes by my own self – literature is an aggregate of these desires and struggles and challenges.”

“That’s all there is to literature then?”

“I had an innocent take on literature. But without that innocence, I might not have pursued a literary life.”

“What happened after the innocence went away?”

“I used to compose stories as a way to escape. At the time, there were severe restrictions placed by the cruel Rana-Shah government. Instead of addressing those, I was lost in my imaginative world and wasting time with the princesses of that world. Then I experienced a shift. I couldn’t call myself a writer as long as I was plagued by a sense of dependency and inferiority because my work would reflect that.”

“Do you still have those feelings?”

“Not anymore but I am plagued by a wish to challenge those feelings. I don’t want to be dependent on myself or on others. The term ‘others’ holds a very specific meaning for me. I don’t want to have a conditioned reflex to any term based on cultural values or principles or psychology.”

“So you are free from all those?”

“When I say I don’t want to be bound by anything, I mean that I don’t want to simply accept any social, practical or traditional norm as truth. That’s why literature can’t remain fixed. It has to be vigorous to match the vigor of a transforming world. To lift every false layer and to inspire people to grapple with these layers in order to find wholesomeness.”

“Your natural instinct to challenge norms – the parts of your consciousness – are they still active or starting to slow down?”

“They are active and that’s why I’m still living.”

“So you are justifying why you are still alive?”

“Definitely; but I’m incomplete.”

“Just like this empty glass?”

“But not fragile like glass which shatters if it falls.”

“We have digressed quite a bit. But seriously, how did you get into literature?”

“The first person who introduced me to stories and influenced me was an ordinary man who hasn’t left any legacy; he is unheard of. Gokul Das, a compositor at Jor Ganesh Press, used to relay folk tales during our childhood. I gradually started to compose stories and shared with some friends. Later, my first story – I can’t remember whether it was ‘Kina’ or ‘Prashna’ – got published in Sharada in the early 1940s. Then, during the mid-fifties, my first book, Bijaya Mallaka Kehi Kabita came out. It’s a collection of poems written during various phases.”

Anuradha by Bijaya Malla

“You probably consider Anuradha to be your best work?”

“No. I haven’t been able to write it; I often feel that there is something left to write.”

“Even then – out of the ones already published?”

“Well, there’s something that hasn’t been published yet, a novel – maybe that’ll be better…or maybe not!”

“Which is your favorite Nepali novel?”

“My brother’s Pallo Gharko Jhyal is the best when it comes to a true novel; Anuradha is more poetic.”

“Why did you brothers decide to discontinue Sharada? Isn’t that tantamount to committing a literary crime?”

Sharada has not discontinued; its physical form is taking a rest while its spirit has transitioned to Rup-Rekha.”

“You are just being diplomatic!”

“When writers also become responsible for publication, it hampers the writing as well as the publishing. That’s what I meant. If you say I was being diplomatic, I rest my case.”

“Not only that; these days you are accused of focusing only on business.”

“Our society is transitioning to smaller families even though there’s a lack of manpower. Our citizens are used to borrowing books more than buying. And there are numerous writers and poets – how can this be sustainable? That’s why I don’t want the literary Bijaya Malla to be a burden to society. I am involved in business and I have to devote some time to it. I support a few new conscious beings with the profit. These days, that’s my contribution to literature. If some of them end up being creative writers and poets, I’ll be grateful. If you think I’m only focusing on business, what I can say. Honestly, I’m just a human being who is involved in business, literature, philosophy, etc; who likes to create, who sings to soothe a crying child, who narrates stories, who stands on a stage and names a price…but I’m getting fed up with this world; I want to be a sage now.”

“Then I’m going to leave…”

“Only after you empty this bottle…it’ll make your solitary walk more enjoyable.”


August 4, 1966

Bijay Malla was educated at Banaras Hindu University and at Trichandra College in Kathmandu. During the late 1940s, he spent two years in jail for his anti-Rana political activities. He was the secretary of the Royal Nepal Academy until 1990. Malla’s stories are almost always set in Kathmandu and he is also noted for his poetry, several dramas, and two novels. He was awarded the Sajha Puraskar for Ek Bato Anek Mod in 1970. This is a translation by Niranjan Kunwar of an article from Uttam Kunwar’s anthology of interviews, Srasta ra Sahitya (Authors and Literature), published by the Uttam Kunwar Memorial Fund.