Living through a changing literary landscape
The morning of Janai Purnima was indistinct. Sudden drizzles interrupted the emerging sun – was it going to rain or not? Trees surrounded the small house located in a quiet part of Tahachal. It was the residence of Shree Krishna Chandra Singh Pradhan – a poet, an artist, a critic, an essayist, a storywriter, and also a teacher.
The ‘captain of the progressive camp’ answered my questions: “I have two different views. Literature should deal with vital subject matter that serves life and doesn’t corrupt character and society. But the content itself won’t suffice. For example, just because a novel focuses on Marxism, there’s no guarantee that it’ll be engaging (although I’ve adopted the theory in my recent works). Times have changed. Society is heading towards a different direction. There are new opinions and new attitudes towards education and lifestyle. If we only accept traditional norms, outdated thinking and bygone literary ideas, younger generations won’t get represented. I prefer depictions that reflect modern life although this idea might be contrary to Marxism. It’d be great to produce innovative literature informed by Marxism but those who feel strongly about the foundational politics of Marxism may not agree with me. And if poems are used only as a medium for propaganda, why call them poems? They can be given another label.”
“Krishna dai, when you refer to ‘modern depictions’ in poems and novels, what is that based on? A certain person, a certain time period or the way it reflects modern life?”
“One should not define modernity in literature in a fixed way. Every novelty can be modern. We have embraced some globally rejected ideas as modern; that’s why we can’t compare our modernism with another country’s. French modernism can’t be a criteria for Nepali modernism. Broadly speaking, modernism is a trend that takes a country’s condition into account and is able to develop different aspects of lifestyle in an artistic way. A literary work might be informed by metaphors and expressions used in foreign literature but it should be able to incorporate those devices in writing in a way that is accessible and useful to its citizens; only then will the work be nationally relevant. Any writing that uses the writer’s international influences and contextualises them in vivid prose has the potential to be original as well as modern.”
“And what about these allegations going on about plagiarism…?”
“It’s wrong to say that someone’s writing is mere foreign imitation just because one doesn’t like it. Every country is influenced by another in some way. At this rate, it’s looking like we have to establish a separate CID department just to handle these plagiarism accusations.”
We both chuckled at this, at the inherent bitterness of this truth.
A mat ran down the length of the room and Krishna ji was sitting on a floor mattress in one corner. I was sitting on a cushion in front of him.
Shree Krishna Chandra Singh was born into a prosperous Munshi Pradhan family in Kathmandu’s Maru Tole. Since his father Surya Prasad Singh was frivolous, the family wealth ended with him. When Krishna ji was only two years old, Surya Prasad was compelled to move to Birgunj to make ends meet. At the time, Birgunj was quite underdeveloped. There was a lack of an intellectual community in the absence of proper educational facilities. Young Krishna Chandra spent his mornings and evenings preparing tobacco and afternoons playing with illiterate village children.
One day, his older brother Hriday Chandra Singh Pradhan arrived in Birgunj with a few books and newsmagazines. Since he was inclined towards reading, Krishna ji was thrilled. He spent every day absorbed in these reading materials. One day, after noticing his brother’s name printed in some of these magazines, a desire to publish his own name arose. Inspired, he began composing poems. One of his first pieces – in line with his daily chore – was about tobacco: ‘Oh, Hukka! Oh, Tamakhu!’ This was the beginning of Krishna ji’s literary life. He kept on writing; his brother made suggestions and some corrections. In 1944, at the age of eighteen, Krishna ji left Birgunj and came to Kathmandu. In 1946, his first piece ‘Ashrudhar’ was published in the Benaras-based journal Udaya.
Since he was deprived of a formal education, Krishna ji involved himself in the establishment of three small schools in 1945 as part of the progressive movement sweeping over the nation. Two years later, in collaboration with others, he set up the Shanti Nikunja High School. That same year, he founded the libraries Sandesh Griha and Vidya Mandir. And in 1948, he was an active participant of a historic literary festival. But he was charged by the government for being a revolutionary and had to spend time in jail on two separate occasions – 45 days the first time and later about four and a half months. After being released, at the request of Tulsi Meher, he went to the Gandhi ashram in Baroda to teach Nepali to Nepali students.
At the ashram, he witnessed how folks covered in white clothes were involved in dark crimes; consequently, socialist ideas started taking root. During the eighteen months spent in Baroda, he became acquainted with Bhadanta Ananda Kaushalyan and the late Rahul Sankrityayan; as a result, his socialist fervour became more potent. He returned to Nepal after the advent of democracy and became involved in the founding and management of several organisations – Pragatisheel Lekhak Sangh, Afro-Ashiyali Ekata Samiti and Akhil Nepal Shanti Samiti are quite prominent. Since 1952, he has been teaching at Kanya Mandir High School where he also looks after secretarial work. During the human rights revolution of 1954, he was once again charged under national security laws and imprisoned for six months. In 1957, Krishna ji went to Delhi to participate in the Asian Writers Conference and also to Sri Lanka to attend the Peace Conference.
“Nepalis need literature that portrays the finer aspects of humanity in an aesthetically pleasing way and inspires them to reach their higher potential,” he had once said. Although his literary life began with poems, he realised that poetry and stories did not suit him so he delved into essays and criticism.
Speaking of his current writing practice, he says, “I have been researching for a novel for the past year and a half but due to lack of time, haven’t made much progress. I’m planning to set aside some time during the holidays to put together an expansive collection of criticism on Nepali novels, stories, essays and poems. But since I have to earn a living, I can’t write the way I want to.”
“Why is that? Is your financial condition unstable?” I was curious.
“When it comes to finances, it’s not only me; most writers are in a precarious situation. As long as writing isn’t professionalised, writers won’t have a secure financial future; as a result, there won’t be much literary output. The various rasas developed in our literature – Bir, Bhakti, Chhayabad, etc – disappeared before they could be properly revised. Times changed; writers got left behind and literature didn’t mature. The main reason behind this is economics. Instead of worrying about literary issues, writers were compelled to worry about their meals – this tendency is the reason for our lack in progress.”
“What’s the solution for this?”
“If writing doesn’t get professionalised, our literature won’t develop. Nepal doesn’t lack writers; it lacks publishers and funds. And it seems like the government has taken a vow of silence regarding this. The government spends thousands of rupees for various causes but it doesn’t invest in literature. If it only helped with marketing by subsidising the cost of books and newsmagazines, it would greatly support the literary cause – but that’s wishful thinking. Meanwhile, the Madan Puraskar Guthi has strengthened the foundations of literature by offering essential library services as well as support for research and publication. The Guthi might be flawed regarding the selection and recommendation of books but we can’t ignore its admirable qualities.”
A lady with facial features similar to a small boy I’d seen earlier brought tea and snacks. We continued our conversation in between sips and bites.
“Why was there a need for Sahitya Sansthan since we already had the Academy and the Lekhak Sangh? Couldn’t these existing organisations support the cause?”
Taking a sip of tea, he responded, “We are fortunate to have the Academy. And its duty is to create a robust literary environment, build rapport amongst writers and take care of lingering issues. Instead, it limited itself to publishing books. Unless it addresses every Nepali in order to develop national literature, no good can come out of it. But the Academy – especially its literature department – is enmeshed in pettiness. This is quite sad. They should have solved internal conflicts and straightened their paperwork. There are pros and cons to everything; not everyone is able to accomplish at all times. But the Academy is known for its failures rather than successes. That’s why it was necessary to have the Sahitya Sansthan. Even if it’s unable to represent everyone, it can at least lend a critical voice. There’s no doubt about that.”
“Ok, Krishna dai. I get it now. But what do you mean by ‘national literature’?
His words flowed without interruptions: “Work that embodies the national character, an aspect that’s lacking in our literary field. Most of our literature either propounds principles or introduces new styles; books that represent the lifestyles of most Nepalis are nonexistent. Take Anuradha as an example. That novel doesn’t represent Nepaliness at all. Most novels are like that; I’ve already spoken about this earlier.”
“Are your books also like that?”
“The readers can analyse most of my work but I’ll definitely say that Shalikko Bidroha is infused with a Nepali character.”
“Is that your favorite out of all your work?”
“I like it slightly more than the rest but I wouldn’t say this is my best work. Discriminating amongst one’s children will get one charged with being biased. Besides, I like yesterday’s writing more than the day before and today’s writing more than yesterday’s. I’m quite discontented by nature but I have faith in the future. Although my literary life started because of my wish to get published, I don’t care much about that these days. I just hope that the published work is somewhat decent.”
“Now let’s hear your thoughts on sex.”
“Just because one writes about sex, the work can’t be deemed obscene. Sex is an important part of our lives. But books written with the intention of polluting or corrupting the environment should be considered obscene. If the mindset is fitting, nothing in this world is unpleasant. One can’t say science is terrible just because of the presence of atom bombs. It all depends on usage.”
“Would you say something about your favourite writers, local and international?”
Without hesitating, he answered, “Writers are a mixed bag. Some put forth unique principles and some have other fine qualities; that’s why I don’t follow specific foreign writers. Regarding Nepali, I am fond of everyone experimenting with modern styles. Each writer contributes in their own way. I don’t have favourites; I like those with robust principles and novel usage.”
“And how have you contributed to Nepali literature?”
It had started to drizzle outside. I glanced at the stack of newsmagazines, mostly Nepali, lying next to the pillow on the floor mattress. Another stack was closer to the other edge of the mattress.
“I have written essays and criticisms,” he was saying, “But I wouldn’t use the word ‘contribution’.”
This was his humble acknowledgement, something I have rarely heard before. It was as if the response illustrated a colloquial adage which states that a fruit-bearing tree leans closer to the ground. He did not have an air of self-importance despite receiving the Madan Puraskar in 1959 for Kabi Byathit ra Kabya Sadhana. Because of his criticisms, he has even received sporadic threats. But that did not interrupt his literary focus, the same way his weak finances did not distract him.
I was curious about his habits of mind, “Do you need to be in a specific mood to write?”
“It is necessary. Mood dictates many things. Without the right mindset, creative projects will turn bogus. I prefer to write in the mornings and read in the evenings and at night; I am a creature of habit.”
It was almost time to separate from this easygoing writer who was also straightforward and articulate. I requested him for parting words that might guide and offer tips to novices. He complied.
“Writers ought to be more compassionate and open to each other’s ideas. Criticisms and analyses should not be based on personal relationships. A collaborative spirit will create a healthy atmosphere which will in turn aid literary progress. In today’s fresh context, there might be differing principles but we are all bound by our common identity as writers. We need to be unified so that we can prepare a vigorous environment in order to create beautiful literature.”
“Thank you, Krishna dai. Let me leave now.”
August 10, 1963
Krishna Chandra Singh Pradhan is known for his criticisms and literary essays. Aside from Madan Puraskar, he has also been honoured with Sajha Puraskar and Uttam Puraskar. He passed away in June, 2010. This is a translation by Niranjan Kunwar of a 1963 article from Uttam Kunwar’s anthology of interviews, Srasta ra Sahitya (Authors and Literature) published by the Uttam Kunwar Memorial Fund.