“If principles sneak into poetry, then the creative work gets reduced to propaganda…”
From the time of poet Motiram Bhatta, who introduced Aadikabi Bhanubhakta to the Nepali people, to 1951, the field of Nepali literature went through an awakening. There were those who wrote classics and became associated with the canon. But this group wasn’t all that different from the one who simply picked up a pen and wrote. Writing was enough if one sought respect, devotion and warmth from the public. Because during that period, the act of writing was in itself remarkable, considering the sociopolitical, educational and economic conditions of Nepal. After 1951, the field of Nepali literature became vast; everyone was free to read and write. Consequently, the number of writers increased. Readers greeted the arrival of publications and newsmagazines. Amidst this crowd appeared the poet Shree Mohan Koirala. Like the monsoon’s flood, the force of time swept away most of these writers and poets. Only a few talented ones withstood the torrent. Mohan Koirala was one of them.
“After the Dillibazar slope, walk along the footpath for about five minutes and then take a right into an alley. You will see a large house. The small house in front of that is ours. If you arrive in the morning, you will be able to meet my older brother.” Shree Shankar Prasad Koirala had given me this direction just the day before when he was at the National Library to borrow a book. Following his instructions, I descended into the fields of Maitidevi and within a few minutes, ended up at the house. Shankar-ji was looking out the window.
I was not acquainted with Mohan-ji. Forget about an introduction, I had not even seen him in person. I was only acquainted with his work, which, despite touching on universal issues, was published in a limited way. I would not have recognized him even though I was at his home. But since Shankar-ji was right there, I did not have to face the situation of asking “Where is Mohan Koirala-ji?” to Mohan Koirala-ji himself! Shankar-ji took me to a room upstairs (It was a traditionally designed building with the same darkness and steep ladder, so why write about that again?).
Shankar-ji introduced us. Both of us uttered ‘Namaste’ at the same time. Pointing at a four-sided chakati next to a window, he requested me to sit. Because Shankar-ji was around, we made small talk and reached a level of openness and joviality. Then Shankar-ji exited the room since he had to go to the ward.
Old, large pictures of gods and goddesses were pasted on a wall. A bed with a mosquito net was on one side and across from that was a sitting area with two chakatis big enough for about five people. Mohan Koirala-ji leaned against the bed and across from him, I leaned against a wall. Apart from us two, no one else was inside that small room.
The conversation was progressing. And following the lines of thought – sometimes serious, sometimes sparkly and sometimes sad – temporary creases marked our faces. I took advantage of this sequence: “What was your first work?”
With a light smile, he said, ‘Jaanda Jaandai Samjhera’.
“Was that the first one to get published?”
“No. My first published work is ‘Uniharule Bujhisake’ which was printed in the women’s supplement of Sharada in 1951.”
“Koirala-ji, what kind of relationship do you envision between poetry and public welfare?”
“Well, poets are people, aren’t they? Which means, poems written in refined language in an artistic and impactful way ought to be for public welfare. There are several principles regarding this but I don’t like any of them. If principles sneak into poetry, rather than becoming literary, the creative work gets reduced to propaganda meant to benefit only one group of people.”
“And these days, many different kinds of poems are famous amongst readers – contemporary poems that do not rhyme, poems with a ‘rubber prosody’, as well as several others that get described with all kinds of adjectives – you must have heard of these. Perhaps that’s why when it comes to contemporary poems, a group of people, especially older writers, have felt dissatisfied. According to them, poems that don’t rhyme cannot be considered poems. What are your thoughts on this?”
Since Koirala-ji also wrote contemporary poems, my question could have annoyed him because it attacked his identity. But he responded in his typically calm demeanor, in contrast to my prediction: “Prosody had its run in the nineteenth century. Prose poetry heralded the beginning of a new era by reflecting raw, genuine emotions like a mirror; and so, became a powerful symbol of the twentieth century. Without prose poems, poetry remains incomplete. The space might seem small -”
“Here is your tea -”
A small girl handed him a cup and promptly left the room. After taking a sip, Koirala-ji resumed: “What was I saying? Oh, right. It’s not a small space…It might seem small but prose poems have the potential of reflecting an entire sky, just like water inside a small bowl. To say ‘Those who can’t rhyme write prose poems’ is not all that different from the blame ‘Those who do not understand the value of prose poems write in prosody’.”
He continued: “Prose poems can capture precise, minute aspects of human emotions. People don’t use rhymes while talking; they use prose. So why bring artificiality to literature by using prosody?”
There was depth in Koirala-ji’s thought; who wouldn’t be influenced by that? Because of his studies, reflections and contemplations, he had become skillful and mature at a rather young age, a fact illustrated by his body of work. It is difficult to find new poets who have the same kind of control he has over the Nepali language, as well as clarity and sweetness. Even older poets, other than Devkota and Sama, do not have that quality. By successfully perceiving various aspects of human emotions and portraying them using graceful language, Mohan Koirala had created a special spot for himself within Nepali literature’s contemporary poetry wing. As a result, he has also become a target of other poets’ envy. But when it comes to the history of contemporary Nepali poetry, he clearly stands out amongst leading modern poets.
Dreamy, drowsy, diseased or dazzling in
the deathbed doctor’s final tick-tock and the pulse’s connection,
trapped in spidery commercial nets, gripped by six curly legs,
this city, this ‘cartoon city’
Mohan Koirala was born here and he has written about the sights and activities during the time of his birth.
A hilly boat tied in the middle of rolling waves.
I think I had just been born
Mother shared her love, a gift on my birthday
As if providing teeth to an infant or nails to the weak
Fingering responsibilities, feeling pathways with feet,
there I tightened my fist, disoriented
there I tightened my fist, determined
I think I was born right at that moment
spotlighted by dust
and on the silky skin
buds unknowingly burst
in the quiet country.
In this way, Mohan Koirala was born in Tukucha. His parents came from wealthy families but due to complications with new inheritance laws passed during the Rana period, gradually became impoverished. He was thus deprived of a college education and later shuttled between various places like Biratnagar and Ramechhap. But he continued his self-study and as a result became practically well-versed in English, Bengali and Hindi. He had been working as a teacher in Hetauda until a few years ago but had to leave due to household problems. And even though he relied on the remaining income of his forefathers, he relished modern Nepal’s club-whiskeys and entertainment and discovered the country’s natural beauty –
Dawn and a drop of alcohol,
The raw youth of daybreak.
Swaying on the table
with a grave smile
Dancing above a clear bowl
Golden lips, naked
clinging on to the hot cold stars
of his clothes
The dawn sharpened
the omelette’s spices (Indreni: ⅕)
While enjoying the dawn, the poet is suddenly faced with his reality and is compelled to introspect –
Where humans trouble humans
My life is a rose’s leaf
that has sprouted within
the thorny snare of a jail
that turns into a bloody bud
Knows how to regularly burst
Turns into a thin red line
“Koirala-ji, do you need a specific mood to write poems?” I asked bluntly as soon as I had returned to the same old room.
But the answer to my blunt question was simple and straightforward: “Yes, mood is a requirement. Writing prose poems is not as easy as some might think. I mainly write poems at night and sometimes in the morning and evenings.”
“And your book…?”
“I collected my published and unpublished poems, titled the work ‘Deshko Parichaya’, and handed it to the Academy since they wanted to publish it. But later, they returned the manuscript without any explanation; it has remained untouched since.”
“Right. I had heard that the Academy had returned your manuscript. It publishes all kinds of books but why did they return yours?”
“I don’t know why. It does publish a whole lot, without proper financial planning. If it continues to publish in this way, one day the Academy will have to lease every big house in the capital to store these books. In this country, it’s difficult enough to sell books that cost one rupee; who would buy books that cost twelve to thirteen rupees? The consequences of taking on a task without considering the times, the context, the country and the readers’ interest and finances will not be right. The other thing is that there has not been a representation of contemporary Nepali literature in the Academy.”
“In this situation, what could be the future of Nepali literature?”
“Nepali literature has mapped out its field but it’s hard to say when it will reach a successful point.”
“You have also contributed quite a lot to this mapping,” I said and readjusted my position.
He became a bit shy and replied, “Not a lot. Only if I continue to write for a long time will I feel that I have made some contributions to Nepali literature. But I will say this much – I introduced a method when it comes to contemporary writing and I tried to change the current of traditional poetry by infusing a novel flavour. Whether I succeeded or not, only time will tell.”
One cannot disagree with what he said about method, even though he gets criticized for being constantly shaped by foreign poets. The notion of ‘being constantly shaped’ is meaningless but he has definitely been influenced, which is not a bad thing. In the twentieth century, every writer in the world who reads has had external influences – one can say this with certainty. And if that’s the case, we cannot say that writers are dispensable; the world has been welcoming their contributions as long as the work is fresh and literary. Poetry’s success or failure does not only depend on whether the poet has been able to use these external influences and contextualize them according to one’s country and its citizens. To say ‘This poet is good and this one bad’ without properly understanding the poems is equal to questioning one’s own identity.
Once again, I redirected my attention towards Koirala-ji’s personal life and asked, “How did you become a writer?”
Shifting his gaze towards the floor, he responded, “I was inclined towards literature and because of the environment at home, I used to write stories but later became disinterested and started writing poems. Much credit goes to Shankar bhai for helping me in this area.”
“Would you mind naming your best work?”
“Can one like or dislike one’s own children?”
“Oh. And Nepali writers?”
“I like Bhupi Sherchan, Krishna Bhakta and Dwarika Shrestha.”
“What are your thoughts regarding those who review Nepali literature?”
With a slightly grave expression, he replied, “There is a major dearth of reviewers in Nepali literature. It’s not only me, most writers have felt that. Due to the scarcity of reviewers, writers can’t even properly get to know themselves. At present, even those who review have not been able to highlight contemporary poems fittingly; they themselves seem confused. They are masked by various theories and instead of truly analyzing literary work, they get swayed by their own principles and prejudices. And so, instead of an authentic literary environment, an illiberal, combative environment is created.”
After chatting in this way, I listened to some of his new poems and then took my leave.
Eyes, in an attempt to escape the cartoon city, seemed lost in the present but his face was cheerful as usual and his body slender. Quiet and reserved, he wore a set of simple shirt and trousers. Mohan Koirala-ji, whose dark hair appeared free from his flesh and bones, from his pure and supreme being, accompanied me all the way downstairs and headed towards the garden to plant some flowers; his ‘hobby’. And I turned towards the alley to return home.
July 27, 1963
Mohan Koirala pioneered contemporary Nepali poetry. Although his poems can be dense, many consider his work rich and rewarding. He once served as the Vice Chancellor of the Royal Nepal Academy and won several awards including the Madan Puraskar. He passed away on 22 February, 2007 in Kathmandu at the age of 81. 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.
All illustrations by Supriya Manandhar.