Published in The Record on 5 May 2020

From politics to poetry: Kedar Man Vyathit

If several critics agree with a certain idea, it becomes accepted as truth even if it might not be the case. But if different critics have different responses to a sound idea, then it runs the risk of getting rejected as a fallacy. Something similar happened to a Nepali poet. Ganesh Bahadur Prasai called him reflective whereas Bal Chandra Sharma thought he was a sloganeer. Ishwar Baral found his poems layered and dense because of his use of metaphors. Krishna Chandra Singh Pradhan appreciated his socialist sensibilities whereas Tara Nath Sharma dubbed him an anarchist. How can the same poet lay claim to such different labels? It might be difficult to identify the correct ones. Because others will only repeat the rumour, it is better to talk directly to the concerned person. So here they are, the controversial poet’s own words: “None of the critics have analysed my work incisively. There has been a tendency to view me through their own speculative lenses. ‘Don’t limit me with a label’, I’ve been saying for a long time. I don’t prescribe to any principles; no one has described me completely.” But then, refuting the words of these intellectuals is not easy. Upon pondering, the critics are correct in their own ways and the poet’s stance is also right. In other words, if the critics are flawed, so is the poet who has been resting within the emptiness that emerged out of this unending wordplay. Who is this? One of the most analysed (second only to Bhanubhakta) and close to everyone’s heart (whether he comforted or caused grief is a different matter). Someone who could not remain untouched by the scene; in fact, was mixed in even though he was fed up with the petty gossip and the way Nepali literati maligned each other – Shree Kedar Man ‘Vyathit’.

I had ventured down this path recently to pay my respect to Saraswati on the day of Shree Panchami. Although I passed by Kalimati, then Chhauni, and headed towards Swaymabhu’s hill just like I had on that day, today my mission was different. Instead of the Goddess of Learning, I was going to meet someone devoted to learning. A “Namaste” escaped my lips as soon as I saw the devotee standing in front of the entrance to his house. His forehead and cheeks were prominent, the eyes were attractive but the face was pockmarked and the paunch was hard to miss. From the well-built, statuesque profile, a grave voice arose, “Namaste. Please come. Let’s go inside.”

After sitting down, we made small talk – about the cold, the open area – wearing civilised masks. Then I began my task, “Kabi-ji, the openness around here must inspire your writing!”

“It does. During evenings, I hike up Swayambhu’s hill. The quietness, the delightful view stimulates my poetic sensibilities and I provide a concrete form to the experience by jotting down on paper.”

“That means you’ve probably written quite a few books?”

“Not a lot. Juneli should be out soon. And I’m also working on the epics Mero Prithvi and Mul Bato.”

“Epics! I’ve heard that you have your own take on poetry and prose.”

“I do. When one sits on the saddle of experience and rides an imaginary horse motivated by one’s sensibilities and reigned in by intellect, poetry emerges.”

The elaborate words got me curious about his perspective on modern literature.

In response to my query, he responded, “Modern? What’s that? Literature never gets old. Anything composed in tandem with the times which anticipates a beautiful future and is written with utmost sincerity can remain fresh, not dated. That’s why there’s no question of modernity.”

My opinion did not seem to matter; he left no space to present my thoughts. For a moment, I was stunned by his seemingly unyielding answer. After a minute or two of silence, I asked again, “In that case, you probably have your own view regarding literary content?”

After a solemn “hmm”, he proceeded, “The universe is immortal and eternal. One should construct one’s world with a positive attitude and strive to fulfill one’s responsibilities by being in complete harmony with nature. This is my literary focus.”

Another response cloaked in his innately delectable style.

“Did anyone influence you to think like this?”

My question must have ruffled his pride because Vyathit-ji got animated and said, “No. I haven’t been influenced by anyone. Although I respect our elders, I feel that I carved my own literary path. But philosophy is a different matter – I’ve been influenced by both eastern and western philosophers.”

“Speaking of carving one’s literary path, what’s the point of literature?” I promptly posed another question because I was trying to learn a lot during our limited time together.

“Literature is for society and art is a skill. If one writes a poem truly galvanised by experience and deeply in touch with one’s emotions, then the technicalities – language, grammar, syntax, etc – will serve the creative act like shadows. But if the writing is forced, the compositional artificiality gets revealed and all that remains is superficial beauty lacking soul.”

I was enjoying each of his responses; they were also informative. And I was starting to notice real signs of moodiness. For confirmation, I asked, “Is mood important for…?”

My question remained incomplete but the response was complete: “Mood? Yes, it’s important to be in a suitable mindset – that’s a necessity. Sometimes, I can’t write for seven, eight months. But if I’m in the right mood, I mostly write in the morning and afternoons.”

Vyathit-ji occupies an illustrious spot in Nepali literature. According to a reader of Western culture, some of his works are at par with international classics. A few writers have been translating him into English (Rishikesh Shah being one of them) in order to introduce Nepali literature to the rest of the world. Apart from Nepali, he also writes in Hindi and Newari. His talent was commended during the Hindi Literature Conference in Kolkata in 1948 when he received a cash prize of Rs 101 and after the advent of democracy in Nepal, his Newari composition ‘Chhwaas’ was honoured with the top prize. The poet, who stopped participating in mainstream politics about three years ago in order to totally focus on literature, is equally popular with the masses. The grand welcome he received in Darjeeling, Dharan and Palpa during his personal travels last year is unforgettable. Vyathit-ji is also quite skillful when it comes to extending respect to others. The Lekhnath chariot procession, considered to be an unprecedented event in the history of world literature, was his brainchild.

Born into a lower middle class family, he passed an opportunity to work inside prime minister Juddha Shamsher’s palace when he was 16 years old and instead took up a small job at an accounting firm where he met Shukra Raj Shastri. Together, they set up Nepal Sewa Samiti dedicated to public service which gradually evolved into a political organisation, Nepal Nagarik Adhikar Samiti. In 1941, about 18 months after its establishment, he was arrested, stripped of all his belongings and handed a prison sentence for 18 years. How could someone with that background turn into such a famous writer? I asked, “Kabi-ji, how did you transition to literature from politics?”

“Those memories from the past still cloud my vision like dark stains,” he said, describing the cruel tortures after his arrest by the Ranas and the inhuman, unjust treatment of Gangalal. His eyes became teary but he continued, “…even after being treated in such an unspeakably atrocious way, Gangalal wrote a poem on a cigarette box the day before he was hanged. I still remember a few lines –

Why should I fear death?
I am ready to die
I am a brave son of brave Nepal
mother of mine.

The poem got stuck in my head. The lines prepared me to harden myself in the face of brutality. But it was almost impossible to tolerate what went on inside those prison cells. We made a few suggestions to improve their condition but didn’t receive any result. To protest, I started a hunger strike.”

“Wasn’t this the first political hunger strike in Nepal’s history?”

With a long affirmative sigh, Vyathit-ji, who is a diabetic and who once suffered from chest problems, resumed his narrative, “I became quite dejected after I was forced to discontinue the 21-day fast. It became difficult to get through the days. One day, friends Siddhicharan and Chittadhar ‘Hriday’, who were inside the same prison, suggested that I start writing poems; they introduced a couple of writing styles. In a short time, I wrote a book in Nepali and three in Newari. But I burnt those in a bout of despair. All my friends scolded me and lectured me about my rights and responsibilities. Restrained by their ranting, I reentered the literary field. And I’ve been immersed in this since I got released from custody in 1946.”

I knew that Vyathit-ji was a chancellor of Nepali Sahitya Parishad, a literary organisation, after founding it in 1947 with a few others and in 1948 he was a successful director of an unprecedented literary conference. Although his responses described a turbulent background, I was amused by the way he was introduced to literature. I asked, “You must be very fond of Siddhicharan’s poems. What about your other literary interests?”

“Yes. But not so much with his recent works. I prefer Siddhicharan during his Bishwa Byatha and Urvashi days. When it comes to mine,Sanchayita and Triveni. Regarding the new lot, I like compositions by Bhupi Sherchan, Krishna Chandra, Mohan Himanshu Thapa, Bhim Darshan Roka, Krishna Bhakta Shrestha and Vasu Shashi. The condition of Nepali literature has been improving after 1951 and when it comes to stories and novels, they are even comparable to the ones written in our neighbouring country’s national language.”

I received multiple answers to a single question.

After taking a cursory glance around the room which was nicely decorated with a bookshelf, a closet, a chair, a table and a radio, I asked an impulsive question, “It seems like you don’t have financial constraints?”

“This decoration is just a false front. Out of the current crop of writers, I am the only one who is unhappy and unprosperous. Taking note of my poor financial situation, His Majesty has extended a monthly allowance for my daily expenses since this past November, a temporary gesture until I can find another source of income. I am extremely grateful towards him for that.” Each word was a proof of heartfelt sentiment.

It was time for another obvious question from me, “Kabi-ji, can you clarify your stance regarding the Academy and Madan Puraskar?”

“Look – writers have a unique sense of self-awareness and self-respect. A couple of clauses from Madan Puraskar’s rulebook are insensitive to writerly dignity. Even then, Madan Puraskar is a successful example of what’s needed to uplift Nepali literature – the enthusiastic work of Kamal Dixit is especially admirable. In the same way, the establishment of the Academy is an extraordinary chapter in Nepali literature. There are no words to appreciate this generous step taken by His Majesty in order to increase literary output. But since its establishment, the Academy hasn’t been able to accomplish anything that lives up to His Majesty’s dream and good intentions. There was a three-part factual article by Anshuvarma published in Naya Samaj that describes the Academy’s failings; I agree with most of their points.”

As if to demonstrate that I was inspired by his fearless articulation, I made a complaint about him, “There’s a rumour in the literary circle that you speak frequently against the Academy because you couldn’t be a member. Is that true?”

Each of his responses was pompous and impactful but this one was even more so, “The accusation that I turned against the Academy because they didn’t take me in is quite misleading and wrong. This is small-minded publicity by those who suffer from an inferiority complex in my presence.”

I glanced at my watch and realised that four hours had passed since my arrival. So I decided to leave after asking one final question – “Kabi-ji, I’ve taken up quite a bit of your time. I won’t bother you much longer. I wish to hear your thoughts on one topic. How can we improve the quality of Nepali literature?”

“The primary challenge is the inability of writers to adopt the art of writing as a profession. The readership is quite low. Literary projects can’t be a source of income. Writers are compelled to take on other jobs to make ends meet. To address these issues, if His Majesty could be compassionate and support writers with their causes, Nepali literature can be advanced and it can gain international spotlight. Because of this lack, there are petty rivalries and constant political intrigues amongst writers. Poverty is a curse.”

After receiving this poignant response, I thanked him profusely and stepped outside. My ears were ringing with Vyathit-ji’s eloquent explanations but my heart was heavy, wondering when he’d be able to overcome his obstacles. But there was potential in his recent activities which would hopefully usher in positive changes in his personal life.

Kedar Man Vyathit (originally ‘Shrestha’) was a prolific poet who wrote in Nepali, Newari and Hindi languages despite dropping out of primary school. He rebelled against the Rana regime and subsequently became a monarchist, taking up key leadership positions in the Panchayat government. Vyathit was born in Sindhupalchowk district and he died in Kathmandu when he was in his early eighties.

This is a translation by Niranjan Kunwar of a 1962 article from Uttam Kunwar’s anthology of interviews, Srasta ra Sahitya (Authors and Literature) published by the Uttam Kunwar Memorial Award Fund.