Published in The Record on 27 February 2020

“My poems and plays are usually meant for social repair”- Lekhnath Poudel

“I felt something like vengeance…”

“By infusing Nepali literature with beauty, you created a new style, heralded a new path! By proposing its alluring future, you refined current writing styles, such a literary devotee you were! So in love with progress were you that you dressed language, which was at a tender stage, in a new outfit and paved the way for modernism, you elderly preeminent poet Lekhnath! Today, because of your grandeur, my sentiments are getting complemented by a new kind of consciousness.”

“Although our work is trivial compared to your literary contributions and inspiring accomplishments, we are determined to dedicate a commemorative collection to you.”

“We promise that we will regularly renovate the sacred literary temple erected under your leadership.”

These are not sycophantic compliments written by one person; neither are these illogical expressions of a sentimental who has lost touch with reality. These are words of adoration straight from the pure hearts of hundreds of thousands of Nepalis. Perhaps no one has forgotten that extraordinary day. It was January 4, 1955. Thousands of citizens enthusiastically pushed a chariot in the middle of the day from Thamel’s Sallaghari to the ancient round tree in Tundikhel. Inside the chariot was the poet! There was no bias among the citizens in the procession as to who is more important; neither was there any communal discrimination nor the disgraceful practice of untouchability. Deeply pleased with the opportunity to honor their poet, the delirious crowd brought him to the round tree and participated in the ceremony. The preeminent poet was tearful while the citizens were immersed in joyous celebration. The ruckus was punctured by the voice of Shree Siddhicharan, who was the chairman of the commemorative committee – “By infusing Nepali literature with beauty…” This was truly a historic incident – not only for Nepal but for the entire world. The witness to this incident was the round tree, the young devotee, Tarun Tapasi.

The commemorative event had been organized next to the round tree only a few days ago. Amid thousands of citizens from various regions, the poet was also present.

“May I schedule a time to interview you? What day would be convenient for you?” I tried my best to speak softly and in a tender voice while asking for his permission.

“Yes, please come. How about the day after tomorrow, Sunday, in the afternoon?” His long white beard, weathered by sun and shade, fluttered.

Saying ‘Thank you’ and ‘Namaste’ I mixed in with the crowd and became impatient for Sunday afternoon. But unfortunately, on Sunday afternoon, I was unsuccessful. While enjoying the sun on his terrace, the poet dozed off and since I did not know when he would wake up, I was compelled to leave in order to keep another urgent appointment. Exactly ten days later, I reached Sallaghari on a Tuesday. He was lying down inside his living room. I went up to him, following directions.

“Namaste. I hope you are not unwell?”

“That’s right. I’m not feeling well.”

“What happened?”

“It’s just old age; what else?”

By that point, I was already sitting on a cushion next to his bed. I picked a pen and opened my notebook, “Shiromani-ji, May I ask a couple of questions?”

“Go ahead, Babu.”

“How did you get involved with literature?”

“It’s a long story, Babu. I was about twelve years old and had taken the cattle to graze with Amarkosh in my hand. A person named Pitri Prasad was sitting under a tree and writing verses. I went close to him and slowly started to read his words. I still remember some of it-

Difficult to survive this ailing sea
waiting for the crossing
What I can I do, this life
is already passing

“I even started to hum, imagining myself studying a lot and writing like that. My humming probably interfered with Pitri Prasad’s focus; he rebuked me… Time passed. After turning fifteen, I came to Kathmandu and enrolled into Teen Dhara school.

“Then what happened?” My curiosity was increasing.

“One night, I happened to enter a room inside our boarding house where Gorkha’s Agnidhar was interpreting Raghu Bansha. But he closed the book right after I entered. Eager to listen to his interpretation, I requested him to repeat his recital but he ignored me.”

“You must have gotten quite upset at the time?”

“Yes. I felt something like vengeance as well as a resolve to become even more educated than him. After that day, I became focused and studied all day and all night. The result was pleasing.”

“You started writing poems in Nepali after that?” I was eager to find out.

“No. In the boarding school, Pandit Shiva Kumar would give out samasya-purti verses (a popular genre of pedantic riddles derived from an earlier Sanskrit tradition) to solve. Since he thought of me as a lowly beginner, I was denied those opportunities. Even then, I copied others’ riddles and showed the solutions to the Pandit. He used to look over them after teaching and praised me. I studied epic poems in this way, wrote verses in Sanskrit and started publishing in Sukti Sudha printed in Benaras.”

“Then when did you begin composing verses in Nepali?” I wanted to refer to the Nepali context at any cost.

The poet was lying on his bed and speaking slowly – “Soon after completing my Intermediate studies from Benaras, I came across TDH and Company bookstore in Bhotahity called Adbhut Karyalaya. Intellectuals who were older than me were in the middle of a heated debate – ‘Classics like those in Farsi and Sanskrit cannot come out in Nepali.’ In the end, they all agreed with that thesis but I expressed my disagreement.”

“They must have scoffed at you at the time!”

“That’s right, Babu. After all, I was by myself. And when there is a majority, even untrue and baseless ideas get accepted as facts. But the following day, in response to them, I started writing with the intention of lending a literary form to the Nepali language. The result was Barsha Bichaar. And every other day, I wrote poems and published them in newspapers using various pseudonyms.”

“The journey of a writer can be quite fascinating,” I said and thought about Pitri Prasad for rebuking the poet, Agnidhar for ignoring him, Pandit Shiva Kumar for denying him and the intellectuals inside the bookstore for accepting a false premise. I thanked all of them. If they had not behaved in that way, Lekhnath would not have felt inferior. If he had not felt inferior, he may not have worked hard to improve his craft. If he had not worked hard, he would have, at best, been employed as a priest inside a palace of an ‘A Class’ Rana or as a teacher in a regular school. But he worked on his weaknesses and became Kabi Shiromani – a giant in Nepali literature – revered by one crore Nepalis.

“Shiromani-ji, what is your basis for composing literature?”

“My poems and plays are usually meant for social repair. Satya-kali Sambad and Laxmi Puja clearly illustrates this intention. And as far as I can remember, I don’t think my writing has crossed moral boundaries.”

“Moral? What is your take on morality?”

The answer was straightforward, just like my question, “Behavior that suits our humanity.”

Trying to be witty, I expressed my thought, “If you are inclined towards social repair, you must believe in progressivism.”

“No.” I shrivelled.

He was saying, “I believe in spirituality. You will find that in each of my poems.”

“But some critics have said that your poems in Suktisindhu are written in the Sringara style.” I was unsuccessfully trying to provoke him.

My comment made him smile and then he responded, “Although ‘Kunjawartini’ in Suktisindhu is written in the Bipralabdha style of Sringara, ‘Biyoginiko Upar Sakhiko Prashna’ throws light on my inclination towards spirituality.”

“Shiromani-ji, since you have been a bit unwell, you must be taking a break from reading and writing?” I posed the question gently.

He smiled again and replied, “Because I cannot write, I make someone else do it. These days, I’ve been working on the epic Gauri-Ganga. Since our nation is mountainous, I’m writing about that. But because of my state, who knows whether I’ll finish.”

“You will definitely finish it. Not only you, but every Nepali waiting for your epic wishes that. Then I asked, “Are you able to write just like that or does it depend on your mood?’

“Whenever there is an opportunity, I write, propelled by my own inner drive. Since Gandhi died while I was writing Tarun Tapasi, I switched gears and published Satya Smriti and Mero Ram. One can never plan the content precisely. Usually, I contemplate ideas at night and then write early in the morning.” This was his simple answer.

I was still attempting to gauge his personality, “What is your best work, Shiromani-ji?”

“I don’t like any of my creations. I am not satisfied with anything. Maybe Tarun Tapasi to some extent – even then, just a tiny bit.” I was astonished by his answer because he had devoted eighty years to literature and was known as Kabi Shiromani. To hear someone like him expressing disapproval towards his entire body of work was truly astonishing. But another thought gripped me – maybe what he is saying is indeed true! Maybe, or maybe not.

The room was large. Sunrays poured inside through the garden-facing window and fell on Shiromani-ji’s supine body. Across from him was the door and above the door was a clock. Just like Ghantaghar always announces the same time, this clock permanently featured four forty-five. Three bookshelves full of books stood close to a corner.

“Who are your favorite writers?”

“I am immensely fond of Kalidas. And also Laxmi Prasad Devkota and Madhav Ghimire. Regarding non-Nepalis – Maithili Sharan Gupta.”

“Your perspective regarding contemporary literature?”

“There are several different types of contemporary writing. They might look alluring but some lack essence. New writers need to work on that.” I was starting to sound monotonous, like Pinjarako Suga, “In your opinion, what does Nepali literature need?”

His smile this time was serene – “Although Nepali language has made rapid progress compared to other languages, it is still plagued by technical weaknesses. Perhaps that will get addressed.” His response was hopeful.

“Well, these days there are also demands for purity. What do you think of that?” I wanted to find out how aware he was of current affairs.

“What can I say – I feel that literature is supposed to refine coarseness, not the other way around.” His answer matched my expectation.

“And what is your take on Nepal Academy’s work?” I had to ask this question.

Saying “Nepal Academy!” he suddenly sat up. And then answered, “I’ve become so old that I do not differentiate much between attachment and repulsion, honor and humiliation, friend and stranger. I do not wish to say anything else.” I got the gist.

After a momentary silence, I resumed my questioning, “Shiromani-ji, your financial situation is probably alright?”

“A poet never has money, only sorrow. Because of His Majesty’s favor, I’ve been able to get by.” He let out a grateful chuckle.

“Are you fond of smoking, etc?” Only questions, questions and questions from me!

“I haven’t consumed anything that’s prohibited but I do smoke tobacco occasionally.” Probably cued by my query, he promptly addressed a woman downstairs and called out, “Ae, Panditni! Can you have some tobacco prepared for me?”

An irritated voice touched by old age rose from the ground floor, “There’s no one around. I don’t know who to ask.”

Turning the direction of the ongoing conversation, I asked, “What kind of obstacles have you faced in your literary life, Shiromani-ji?”

“Obstacles!” he exclaimed with a giggle and then with a grave expression, started to answer, “Oho! Don’t even get me started regarding obstacles. During Chandra Shamsher’s reign, I almost got jailed a few times. Satya-kali Sambad was considered to be against the rulers but Chandra Shamsher fortunately exonerated me. Even then, during that period, my poems were scrutinized. The publication of my Panchatantra was blocked for over twelve years! Can you imagine how hurtful that must have been, Babu? I had to face several obstacles like those. What could I do other than accept all of that as an aspect of a literary life.” Another chuckle.

Actually, to be honest, Shree Lekhnath continued the responsible work of developing Nepali literature that was started by Bhanubhakta and Motiram Bhatta and he successfully completed his job. He had also resolved to make the Nepali language mandatory in the curriculum upto the graduate level, a task he was able to accomplish. The image in front of me was proof of that – the long beard and hair that had seasoned and whitened almost as a result of his worldly experiences, the high forehead and the bright face.

“Do you truly believe that Nepali literature has made progress?”

“It has, Babu. In my opinion, Nepali literature has made rapid progress. I said that already, didn’t I? I consider myself lucky for being able to acquaint myself with so many writers and poets. During my time, it felt like I was the only one. Writing was considered almost sinful. But I still wrote – how I did that, I do not remember. Compared to these days, I still wonder how I managed to write and became inspired to publish, how I got the courage! These days, I pass solitary hours with such memories from the past. I am amazed with all these writers working today. They make me tremendously joyful.”

After a response like that, I said, “That means you must be quite satisfied. Your personal life must be blissful too, Shiromani-ji!”

But his answer was somewhat negative and grave, “I’m quite content when it comes to literature. But you have only seen the wretched phase of my life; you were not able to witness the comfortable days.”

Who wouldn’t be saddened with an answer like that? To witness this state of someone who had devoted himself fully to literature!

Since I had taken more time than I had asked for, I bowed in front of him and prepared to leave, “Shiromani-ji, I’ll be on my way. Please give me your blessings.” His white beard tickled me.

“Aashirbad!” he said and brought his hands together for a Namaste. Then I stood up. It was natural for me to bow my head in front of a poet whose service to literature remained persistent and vigilant even at this old age. As I made my way towards Juddha Sadak from Thamel, I prayed for his long life and hoped that he would complete Gauri-Ganga soon.

But I worried a little bit, remembering an old adage which states that if one keeps an important appointment on a Tuesday, one gets plagued by a headache or a stomach ache. That did not happen to me but my heart ached all day. Despite our strong resolve, we still have not been able to put together a commemorative collection dedicated to him.

February 18, 1962

Lekhnath Poudel was born in 1885 in present-day Pokhara. Considered to be the founding father of modern Nepali poetic literature, he is one of the most influential and popular figures in Nepal’s literary landscape. He passed away in 1966. 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 Award Fund.