KISHOR K SHARMA
To think I was impressed by the audience when, at the conclusion of my session at the Kathmandu Literary Jatra, they held out against the waxing rain to ask questions of the panellists. Two hours later, as the final session drew to a close with the fading light, the ground beneath us began to move.
Incomprehension turned to horror, and as Narayan Wagle announced "bhuichalo ayo!" from the stage, we stumbled towards the centre of the Patan Museum courtyard, wide-eyed. Session moderator Buddhisagar exclaimed "Sakiyo hai …dar lagyo!", but when I next looked to the stage, I was astonished to see a ponytailed youth with a microphone, asking a question. Apparently, the show had to go on.
This level of engagement was characteristic. By most standards, the festival that concluded last Sunday was an unmitigated success. The rain held off, and barring a few unforeseen reschedulings, the crowds were treated to a seamless succession of sessions and lectures on literature and society, supplemented by kid's events, a photo exhibition, poetry readings, and heritage walks. The future of the Jatra seems assured.
The Jatra was great fun, of course, as any self-respecting jatra should be. The question of what it has achieved is less straightforward. The idea that such events merely provide a stage for writers to strut around as celebrities is as unfair as the notion that a babble of writers can change the world is hubristic. Yet the fact that thousands of people came, not just to gawk at writers but to actually engage with them (favourite question, to William Dalrymple: "How can I develop a sense of humour?"), come rain, shine or quake, indicates that many Nepalis seek intellectual sustenance of the soulful kind, that which only literature can provide.
While there is some truth to the assertion by Mohammed Hanif that writers can't really make a difference, and that of Tarun Tejpal that too many writers are working in an echo chamber, I do believe that the opportunity to discuss literature alters our perceptions of the world around us, whether or not the works in question are self-declaredly "social" or "progressive". The effect of festival discourse tends to be cumulative rather than revolutionary, a series of tremors rather than a life-consuming shock. The assertions of writers are received variously by their readers, who then calibrate their understandings accordingly. The impact of these calibrations, over time, can bring progressive change to society.
This may sound abstract, or at worst, self-serving. But there was nothing abstract about the indefinable pleasure of hearing poetry recited in Magar. Of learning from Kathmandu's youngest nonagenarian, Satya Mohan Joshi, about the roots of our oldest jatra. Of encountering P. Sivakami's bemusement at the peculiar Nepali fact of "Dalit literature" written by non-Dalits. Of going on a heritage walk with Thomas Bell to delve into a past beyond the anecdotal mishmash that tourists are subjected to.
There will be more such revelations in succeeding editions of the Jatra. And if Nepali readers conclude that literature, in of itself, helps them make sense of the world around them, then Nepali writers will no longer need to chain themselves to ideology in the name of progress. Now that's a lesson many more of us could do with absorbing.
Lean on me