Kesar Lall (Shrestha) was one of Nepal's best-known folklorists and most widely published writers. He published over 50 books of stories and translations alongside significant collections of poetry and journalism in Nepali and Newari as well as in English. Kesar Lall passed away last month at the age of 85. The following are excerpts from a long interview with Kesar Lall conducted by Mark Turin in Kathmandu, 10 years ago.
Mark Turin: You don't use the name Shrestha very often in your writings.
Kesar Lall: I like names with just two words; Ruskin Bond, Bernard Shaw. So I started to write just Kesar Lall. It wasn't a rejection of my caste or of the name Shrestha, simply that in those days, people didn't have to use their last names or their caste names unless they were writing a legal document or an application.
How did you start working with BP Koirala?
In 1951, soon after the revolution, BP who was then Home Minister and already a household name was looking for someone to work for him. A friend of my father's asked my father whether he should look into getting me a job. I ended up working for BP as a typist for about eight months. When Koirala was out of office, I had to find another job. I had a friend who worked in USAID, which was called USOM then, and after that at the US Embassy for 30 years.
How did you end up feeling so comfortable speaking and writing in English?
I don't know, but it just feels natural. But I am still learning all the time, and there are specific things that I have learned from different people. When Edmund Hillary was here, the prime minister asked me to prepare a draft letter to him. So I began with, "My dear Sir Hillary." Mr Koirala said, "No, in English it should be Sir Edmund." These are the little things that I remember, and they do matter. I like to write as simply as I can.
When I read Nepal Off The Beaten Path, I was interested that many of the metaphors you used and much of the imagery is very American oriented.
I have always been very influenced by what I have read. Irving, Kipling, of course. Sherlock Holmes, all those old books. (My writing style) may have something to do with my choices. I also read the Reader's Digest and National Geographic. For the last 20 years, Ruskin Bond has been my guru. I wish I could write like him, with empathy.
Does your documentation of folk literature ever have a political dimension?
No, not at all. My first collection consisted of stories told by my mother and grandmother, and stories that I had heard from friends. Story telling was very common in those days. Whenever I went on a trek, I would ask people for stories. I found that one good way to encourage people to share their stories was to tell my own stories. Japanese stories, Newar stories, whatever. Gradually while I was talking to them and telling them my stories, they would remember their own stories and start telling me.
Is it a struggle to provide adequate context when translating oral history?
I have problems translating stories from Newari. Writers have a habit of muddling up the order and tenses, so sometimes I have to do quite a lot of editing, or cut something down to explain it in a better way. Translating from Newari is really difficult, whereas I find translating from Nepali to be easier.
When will your work be done?
I'm thinking in about two years' time when I reach bura janko at 77 years, 7 months, 7 days, 7 hours, and 7 minutes. So I must work very hard, if I can, until I am 77.
Ageless wonder, MARK TURIN
Kessar Lall's poems are as fresh as he is unpretentious