Considered one of Nepal's foremost essayists of all times, Shankar Lamichhane wrote with a lyrical, musical tempo, unrestrained by the ponderous language that often mars the essays of his elders, peers or followers. He died an untimely death at the age of 48, but had stopped writing before that, discouraged by an anonymous accusation of plagiarism, an accusation he accepted, but which is still deliberated over by critics. That Lamichhane's fresh, playful style greatly enriched Nepali literature is, however, indisputable. The essay below, translated from his collection Abstract Chintan: Pyaz, shows off his light touch in dealing with both intimate and metaphysical subjects.
"What work does your father do, dear?"
"He does god's work."
My five-year-old daughter gives a simple answer to the question her teacher puts to her. Those who don't have any knowledge about my personal life or who don't know me through my writings would immediately envision a priest. My daughter has seen, in truth, a variety of statues of many gods in my shop. How could she know the vast difference between doing god's work and selling statues
of the gods?
Childhood is astonishing: our feelings at that age are as pure as flowing water. Age and our experiences block this flow. I remember, at my daughter's age I took my mother's money from the storage box, and poured it all into the offering plate at the singing of devotional hymns. How could it be that everyone would always put money in the offering plate, warm their hands on the sacred flame and place their hands on their eyes; but I would never get permission to offer money, or find a chance to? Am I alone not a person? I'm going to take all the money in my mother's box and pour it onto the offering plate..
The sudden explosion of silence amid the singing of devotional hymns was just as piercing as my voice became later on at home, as I received a beating.
And probably, an even more piercing wail echoed in my mother's heart for a long period, at least until the bills and coins I had poured onto the offering plate were recouped. Today, isn't the ages-ago faith that I displayed towards god recouped by my occupation of living off of the two-paisa profit earned from god's statues?
Now that I have crossed my mother's age at that time I can try to feel her seriousness or upset at the matter. She was a schoolteacher who had lost a husband and was suffering from tuberculosis. From the money she earned by teaching at a middle school she bought food, clothes, curatives and medicines for herself and her son, and when all these assets that she had saved from all exigencies were offered away all at once.! What a huge problem presented itself before her! At a time when an invitation to her own death came with each cough, her heart must have pinched at anxiety about how her five year-old son would cross the vast ocean of being. (In the same way that I sometimes feel a pinch now).
If god exists at all, he must have suffered more at my mother's pain than rejoiced at my offering; that is, if god is touched by such things as pain and suffering.
I know, in my daughter's words lies the truth as she knows it. And truth, Daughter, is what you are capable of knowing.
The first time my mother did not allow me to eat from her plate I was very hurt. The first time my mother made a separate bed for me I cried and cried. Today I know how much goodwill and affection those acts contained; would I be alive now if not for them?
Another thing, Daughter: the truth is something that keeps developing, that keeps changing. (Somewhere I've read that though each snowflake has a hexagonal shape, none of their designs have ever been the same until today). Even though the truth is the same each time, it is separate. When I offered him money, god was formless to me. Today, each time I sell a statue, god takes on a form. Before selling him, I buy him. I try to discover which period his style belongs to. I measure his beauty. I describe him. And I weigh him in the profits received. For me, Buddha does not remain just Buddha, the Buddha who started a religion that said that there was no God and who was himself transformed into a god, who created the five panchasheela perfections and who got trapped in shila stones. I recognize Buddha only in the form of the inch-and-a-half Buddha and the nine-inch Buddha and the sixteen-inch Buddha and the earth-touching Buddha and the bronze Buddha and the crowned Buddha. I recognize Buddha only in the buying price of fourteen and selling price of twenty. There is no falsehood, now, in what I am claiming.
I don't know what kind of truth it will be, the truth that you will discover twenty, twenty-five years from now, when I will be finished and you will reach the age I am now. You may, may not think back to your own life's events when your child does anything, just as I suddenly remember my life's events. You may, may not remember your father now and then, the way that I remember my mother. But this much is certain-a part of me will live in you even after my end, just as my ancestors are asleep in me, and I sometimes nudge them awake, and they sometimes nudge me awake.. I remember when my mother's diary got into my hands, ten or twelve years after her death. Each sentence and each word in it awoke with a start, and carrying the memento of my mother's ailments and pains from years ago, they came to shelter inside me. And probably they spawned in me the same intensity that she had suffered. I cannot remember today whether there was, was not any new style or technique or artistry in her writing, but there was one quality that I remember till today-there was an intensity of experience in it. She did not write the diary for others, and so there was no unnecessary description. Neither had she written it for me, because there was no advice. (Why she wrote it I cannot understand. It could be that the diary was a complaint about the injustice she had borne, made out to a formless future. If that is the case, it is a grand, successful literary composition. Otherwise what is the value of literature?)
I burned that diary. There was no better reader for it than I, and I was afraid that it would be denigrated at the hands of others.
Sometimes I think that I should not have burned the diary. That matter is as though.let's say it sometimes comes to mind all of a sudden: what if I had never come to Kathmandu from Kashi? There are many possibilities in the thing called 'what if'. What if I didn't write? My feelings would certainly not die; but their expression would not become pointed. And I probably wouldn't measure many things that I have done or that others have done. Life would be a wholesale market, and small, delicate events would not appear before my eyes, suddenly taking on meaning. I would take out a balance sheet of successes and failures and my life would be different in each fiscal year.
It's just that none of this happened.
It's just that I didn't (or couldn't) do that.
Today even nonsensical things touch me. Even questions placed to others, and answers given my others, touch me.
Because I get touched so easily, I feel hopeful that at least I experience tremors here and there. Somewhere there is a heartbeat left, and perhaps this being is 'god's work' that has remained dead in me? The heartbeat of true desire towards life..
The answer to this will be given by the future, perhaps..