Published in The Record on 2 February 2020

The history of empty places

I want to thank the readers and publishers of Ranahaar, as well as the expert committee and the assembly of the Madan Puraskar Guthi.
You allowed the writer of Ranahaar to stand at this spot. Quite a few people have occupied this stage before; several others will come to occupy it in the following years. Among those, some have passed away, some are with us here, and some are still unaware of their relationship with this honourable place. Then, there are those creative writers who have come to identify it as a privilege they will not ask or want. Today, I have become related to all of them. I am grateful to all of them.

Every place has many meanings. Its history might have several patterns. While writing history, how does a place watch us, and what sorts of accusations do we confer on a place? I would like your permission to speak about this topic. Inspired by our placial imaginations, we construct a place in the void. We also mold a place into various forms. We leave other bustling places behind, turning them desolate. In short, every place tolerates us. Only a few amongst us are cursed to write the history or a novel about places.

Choiceless connection with a place

In 2001, the weekly Himal magazine published an essay by a well-respected writer-editor in its early autumn issue. In that memoir, the writer discusses the context of his initial contacts with Kathmandu Valley. The essence of that essay was this: the village where he was born and raised was a piece of heaven and was elsewhere. Half a century had passed since he had left that place and settled in this pit. The village did not recognize him. Kathmandu did not consider him one of her own. Compulsions made him a prisoner in this Valley. He could not escape even if he wanted to. His life turned into a process of sinking into its depth. (Himal Khabarpatrika, 2001, Sept/Oct).

His use of the verb ‘sink’ in that essay did not leave me. It still has not. Not that there was any disagreement with the author, there cannot be. In the past half-a-century, a large number of Nepalis have had to endure a similar pain of absence. We do not live in our first country where our home is. We have not been able to build a home in our second country where we die. Remembering Homi K. Bhabha (The Location of Culture, 1994), I should say that we live with the sorrow of a life in a third country. In the eyes of others, we are mongrels. In hindsight, we would be seen as contributing to the creation of a new culture. Yet we are mired in our own confusions. This is a postmodern fate. I understand this, but the verb ‘sink’ has continued to prickle.

Surely, many displaced lives end up in a predicament. The beginning, however, might present choices. For many, the option of returning might even seem possible on several occasions. The day the costs of sinking become too high, they may be able to leave this hole. They may have the inconvenient privilege of returning. Their choice to return remains alive. There is still a place they can return to. On reaching, the place might be somewhat unfamiliar to them, but not all old threads of relation will have broken. They will have some basis and one or two witnesses still alive for calling the place as their own.

The pain of those who have stepped into this valley of dust with the intention of returning to their charming hometown – or of those who could never return due to circumstances – is profound, of course. However, think of the agony of those born and raised inside this valley. They do not have the convenience of escaping it. Even when returning, they are fated to be mired here. They cannot run away even if there is an apocalypse. This place has captured them. Whether they like it or not, they have to endure this place. They have immersed the ashes of their ancestors at the banks of these rivers that have now turned into sewers. They have carried many dear ones on the throes of death down to these narrow dark ground floors. They have taken leave of many friends and family members in the sattals now propped up by stilts. Similar to what Josh Malihabadi (1898 – 1982) said, even if they are fed up with this place and want to leave, where can they go to pitch their tents? Where can they search for home supposing they are utterly exasperated with this pit of dust?

After all, a home is not formed merely by structure and association. Unless one’s ancestry, birth, and future are dissolved into a place, it cannot turn into a home. If it does not hold you or pull you, it is not your home (the roots of the Nepali words for home, griha, and for grasping, grahan, are close). Just as we cannot choose our biological relations and they can never leave us, this valley of dust will not let go of those born in it. They are bound to the fate of this valley that is getting hazier with dust and smoke day by day, is withering and fading, and is terrified from the troubles and uproars of its new guests. The people who were born here are destined to be here. They have been cursed to live within the dreams of their ancestors. They are tied by conventions. They do not know which of their ancestral ideals they were born to realize. They do not know why they are trapped by a thick web of faith rituals. That is a reason why the love they have for this place is not a rehearsal for the bonds that will grow stronger in the future, their love is merely a possible aftereffect in the given relationships. Their birthplace is a network of these ineluctable relationships. Their agony do not match with the kind of sinking one feels in having to return from the Dashain festivities amongst relatives in a joyous, sunny place. It has an altogether different nature. It is a suffering of having to witness the slow death of one’s own place.

We do not have any choice but to understand and endure those amidst whom we were born, whom we found close and grew accustomed to, and with whom we have been continuing exchanges from our previous lives. We have no choice but to endure the place that pulsates with the anguish of our ancestors. One consequence of the act of such tolerating a place is a novel. There is also no alternative to understanding the pain of entanglement with a place. One result of this understanding is a history of that place. Not everyone who suffers writes a novel, even though all of them might be scorched by their emotions. Not everyone who tries to understand writes history, even though all of them are buried under the heap of historical awareness.

History and the people scorched by emotions

The placial imagination of those who wrote history in order to understand a place was different from that of the historians who came from elsewhere. Foreign scholars saw in this Valley the layered formation of ideals and experiences. Where there is a garden today, they found a 300-year-old settlement underneath. Under a bustling market, they discovered that a canal flowed years ago. They upended strips of soil and searched for a thousand-year-old Buddhist monastery. This is an ancient place, they said. The past is clearly strewn on the surface here. The dalaan on the ground floor of the house is from the Rana era. Its first-floor paasukaa window has depictions of a fourteenth-century attack. The window on the floor above has an overhang used to view Pratap Malla’s processions. Above that, there is a balcony added after the 1934 earthquake. The house is covered with corrugated zinc sheets that entered Nepal along with the Americans. In this way, the outsider historians noticed upheavals of chronology on the surface everywhere in this dust bowl. They also found structures with ruptures in time. They traced and studied stone inscriptions; they tracked the dates of statues and they carbon-dated wooden door-frames. Scrutinizing relics found on the ground, they wrote the history of this place.

Many local historians faced insults by the present all their lives. They carried the fear of being exiled from their genealogies. They found themselves under constant scrutiny of their relatives, extended families and the community. They lived by having to endure the tides of plenteous memories in their bodies and minds. Their placial imagination could not be gross surface archaeology like that of the guest historians. That is why they looked for signs of physical, cultural, and linguistic encroachments. They indicated that the place names and processes were wrecked by violence of those who were determined to fulfill communal, ethnic and caste-ist interests. They pointed out the difference in aims, styles, and influences of the power between the natives and the aliens. They wrote history in a different way than that published in tourism pamphlets. They said: the history of this place has been smudged in the grab for power. What is discovered on the ground is dictated by those in control. To write the stories of the vanquished, one should be able to listen to the voices of those who do not speak. One should be able to understand the fear felt by a structure when erect or crumbling down.

A novelist, in contrast, is someone scorched by emotional heat. The history of a place perceived by her is even more different. The place connects her to the past and to the future at the same time. Directions are formed when the space is related to a body. A place comes to life when one connects the sky to the soul. The novelist connects a place to her body and her spirit. Therefore, she sees the bygones where there is an empty space. Bygones are the disembodied ones. When a place is not empty, she sees humans, other living beings, objects, and structures. She sees their pasts and their futures. Where others envision an airport in the future, she sees one whole forest ready to be sacrificed. Where others see the airport today, she sees a pasture meant for bulls offered to Pashupati. With the power of her emotions, she sees the misery of grass in the merriments of the green plains. At empty corners, she hears the voice of someone who has already passed away. She hears the words of her ancestors in the silence when you and I stop speaking. She says: So many of their words have still not found shelter. In the empire of our voices, there is no space for the sounds of the unborn. The novelist explores the history of a place using the power of her emotions. As Kashmiri Saivas said, placial imagination is like the body of a time that starts to stir in the world, begins to achieve clarity in shape, form, and colour, after one – using the power of emotions – practices to see and measure it again and again (Kaashmiira Saiva Darsana Brihatkosha, p. 784).

Meaning of the details

For people scorched by emotions, the main question in the history of a place is not about determining who is a native. It is not just about figuring out what kinds of prior rights to allocate to whom and on what basis. It is about finding out answers for the following questions: whether cultural practice brings someone closer to the past; whether someone attempts to embody her ancestors’ wordless wish; whether someone can feel the warmth of the deceased on the stone plinth; whether someone can smell an ethereal person in the pond water; whether someone can find the ashes of uninvolved hands in the field; and, whether someone can hear the babble of the dead along alleyways and crossroads, at paatis and dhunge dhaaraas. The history of the places depicted in her novel is full of descriptions like these.

After we pass away, some of us here will sit somewhere and talk quietly with ourselves about things inside our hearts. A few of us will enter someone else’s narrative. At that point, we cannot put our premise forward. Someone else will interpret us (Hilary Mantel, The Reith Lectures, 2017). In fact, interpretation is a proof of absence. Many historians might be skilled at reasoning and interpreting, but they are so intoxicated by the rules of their discipline that they cannot see the absence. They do not want to see it. A few historians try to present a thesis based on mere description. These are mostly historians of places. Novelists are even more different. They provide descriptions but they do not interpret. Their descriptions might seem superfluous. It might seem like they are merely pointing out physically apparent facts. It might seem like they are trying to distract the readers with their visual descriptions. But these writers are experienced ones. They know that readers do not want to get distracted. They do not have much patience. Readers will start to pay attention to the blank background. Not the visuals, they will start to become vigilant towards history. Actually, this is precisely the result that the novelist is trying to get through with her descriptions. We have to understand that the denser the descriptions are, the stronger is the intent of the novelist to prompt the readers towards a place’s history and its future. This fact was the premise behind medieval arts. It becomes clear when we observe the places where murals and woodworks from that period can be seen and try to see behind their intricate artistry.

In the end

In this speech, you probably identified three steps of thought. First, a place becomes home if it is mixed with ancestry, birth, and future. That place tolerates us. Whether we love it or not, we also accept it as our destiny and get used to it. Second, during the process of understanding and enduring a place, a novel or its history gets written. These histories are deeper than surface archaeology of guest scholars. The identity and form of a place are conceived in order to demonstrate the smudge by a history of power play. For the emotionally scorched novelist, the issue of who has the prior rights might be important, but it is not enough. Emotions remain dominant in her placial imagination. Within that imagination, the absence of past and future in a place starts to speak. Third, the novelist uses descriptions like tools. The more detailed her presentation of the visual world is, the more vigilant the reader will be about the background of the descriptions. They will start to notice various patterns of an empty place’s history and future. Historical fiction is actually descriptive narration. Her novel is the country where there are empty spaces that cannot speak. That empty space might have been inhabited at one point, but now her novel is the country where the deceased living beings and vanished objects come to life and converse.

In the discourse of Nepali history and historical fiction, the design of placial imagination is a separate field of study. For now, let me end my speech regarding fiction and facts about a place with this short preamble. I would like to thank everyone for tolerating me.


The acceptance speech of writer Yogesh Raj who received the 2018/2019 Madan Puraskar for his historical fiction, Ranahaar is translated by Niranjan Kunwar.