English literature from Nepal has lately been attracting some attention, with new publications abroad. Yet English literature is not as alien to Nepal as it sounds. Laxmi Prasad Devkota and Bal Krishna Sama made some early attempts, as far back as the 1940's, to write English poems-though their verses were sometimes marred by odd syntax and antiquated usage. The English language entered the formal education curriculum in 1959; and just over a decade later, Abhi Subedi, Peter J Karthak and Padma P Devkota were producing poems in this language. They were joined in the 1980's by diverse writers such as Mani Dixit, Greta Rana, Keshar Lall, Prakash A Raj, Kesang Tseten, Manju Kachuli, Shailendra K Singh, Yuyutsu RD Sharma, Tek B Karki, Pallav Ranjan, Para Limbu, Laxmi Rajbhandari and DB Gurung. With their native command over English and their extensive experience in Nepal, long time expatriates such as Henny Dossing Paudel, Joy Stephens and Joel Isaacson have also, today, contributed to the growing body of English literature of Nepal.
Poet Wayne Amtzis is one such expatriate, an American who has lived in Kathmandu for more than 20 years, teaching, translating and writing. He is the author of two chapbooks, Monsoon Song and The Journey East. He also translated Two Sisters, the poetry collection of Manju Kachuli and Benju Sharma; he edited and co-translated Banira Giri's poetry collection From the Lake, Love; and he is currently co-translating the poems of Purna Bahadur Vaidya. Had he not, on some vagary, given up his considerable command of the Nepali language, he would be the finest translator of Nepali poetry: any verse he touches, even as co-translator, shimmers with uncommon grace.
Amtzis's own work, too, is no less brilliant in its formal experiments and search for wisdom and insight. The poem below dates back to his 1980's oeuvre, focusing on the consecration and profanity of modern Kathmandu.
A few roused at dawn,
summoned to bear some insistent landlord's load;
the rest remain on stoops where they've slept,
like toppled statues or unclaimed bodies
On Kathmandu's corners crouched round burning trash,
coolies smoke or drink sweet tea
Without gun or kukhri, through Asan & Durbar Square
His Majesty's soldiers jog. How long will the stooped coolies stand aside?
At Kastamandap, a bewildered cow stands her ground
and pisses. On city roofs, stunted cactus stand guard,
meat astir with captive flies hangs to dry
Splattered by cement tossed from tray to tray,
barechested workers swarm endless tiers of girder and sky
Beneath the winds borne down by brutal dreams of incarnation,
strings tangled and taut, kites swoop and crash
In a city not yet emergent from feudal crimes, gods
resurrected on cinema billboards, building eclipsed peaks
mourned with a carefree procession of clouds,
streets darkened till daylight's reprieve,
on all avenues of access and regress,
police sport thin batons and heavy wicker shields
Where peddlers sprawl between piles of misshapen fruit,
and rickshaw wallahs snare riders laden with cameras,
while her drunken man drones a harmonium,
arms twisted, hands clutching air, bent fingers pointing,
Kali curses and wails. Late in the day, the Himalayas wake
With nothing to do, boys ride long thin poles
pursuing a dog marked for the kill. Behind high compound walls,
banana trees shade a sleeping dog
Moved by the growing disparity between rich and poor in contemporary Kathmandu, Amtzis began to write more ethically charged poems in the 1990's. (In doing this, he moved closer to the flanks of Nepal's progressive poets). The poem below is an example of his more political oeuvre. It offers readers a chance to look, with compassion, at the world around them, and also to examine their own consciences.
NO END TO IT
Where buses spew forth fumes,
on a curb, her hand round a cigarette
With forceful gait he emerges
from the five-o'clock-crowd
Recruited as protagonists
for the play you'd have me perform,
gaining in confidence
they speak their own words
Their demands appear ludicrous
They ask for a glass of water,
a few flat loaves,
a tablespoon of sugar,
a match. Between echoing traffic
and the stealth of dusk
.a bottle of cheap rum,
a blanket, passersby slip away
a glass of water, a few flat loaves
There's no end to it a tablespoon of.
Though the darkening street
manhandles all who remain,
a temple alcove's refuge
The blanket they speak of
warms us. With them
we sleepwalk past the angry,
the pained, the vengeful There's no end to it!
A narrow lane,
a woman bending to her sewing,
a sunken abattoir,
a face at a window
Do we wake? Despite the blanket
Do we shiver?
Amtzis's original poems, and some of their Nepali translations, can be read in the upcoming issue of Studies in Nepali History and Society. Some of his work can also be accessed at the website www.photo-poems.com. Amtzis currently teaches chi gong and meditation in Kathmandu.