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What we are and are not yet

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

What do Narayan Wagle, Yug Pathak, Narayan Dhakal, Krishna Dharabasi and Buddhisagar Chapain have in common? They are all Brahmin males, of course. But they are also the authors of contemporary Nepali-language novels that have garnered uncommon critical and commercial success, and as such they formed the inspiration for ‘Five Nepali Novels’, a keynote address by Michael Hutt to mark the Annual Kathmandu Conference on Nepal and the Himalaya 2013 (24-26 July).

Judging by the impressive turnout at Hotel Shankar’s ornate Kailash Hall, the rather less decorated edifice of the Nepali novel is of interest precisely because the aforementioned high priests of Nepali literature are so far from elitist. A longish exposition of the novels’ plots by Hutt informed us that Pretkalpa (Dhakal), Radha (Dharabasi) and Urgen ko Ghoda (Pathak) rely on a reinterpretation of religious mythology to advocate radical change in Nepali society. In Palpasa Café (Wagle) and Karnali Blues (Chapain), too, the protagonists make parallel journeys out of their comfort zones – one from the indulgences of Kathmandu to the Maoist heartland, the other from the hinterland of Karnali to the big city. All the novels address poverty, exclusion and discrimination to some degree, though only Karnali Blues is content with “showing”. In this, Chapain reinvents the familiar Nepali variant of social realism, leaving his more Marxist contemporaries to thrash against the limitations of socialist realism. Wagle achieves a sort of post-modern playfulness; it is no surprise then, as Hutt notes, he was vilified by certain leftist commentators for his “bourgeois” non-committal to the cause.

Despite their real or imagined failings – Hutt suggested that the conflation of authors with protagonists on the part of both authors and readers was problematic – these novels, collectively, are seen to represent a significant movement in Nepali literature. Especially through the use of meta-narratives drawing on the past, they articulate not only what we are, as a nation of diverse peoples, but also what we are not, yet. With the deployment of modern marketing strategies (notably with Palpasa Café and Karnali Blues, which sold in the tens of thousands) and a crossover between socialist and bourgeois fiction that appeals to a growing, increasingly literate readership, the potential for Nepali writing to influence the Nepali conscience is strong, according to Hutt.

But what of the world? The inevitable question on the place of the Nepali novel in global literature duly arrived, and was significant for being addressed to Hutt, who has probably done more than anybody to introduce Nepali-language literature to the West. Have we made it yet, the student holding the microphone seemed to be wondering, Can we be famous for more than accidents of history and a bunch of risible Guinness World Records? Fortunately, the audience was prepared to laugh at this very Nepali anxiety, and Hutt was diplomatic enough to say that it was language barriers, more than anything else, that was holding Nepali literature back. As if to illustrate the point, another student jumped up to demand, in garbled fashion, “What is the role of language in society, politically, socially, economically?” Thrown by the non-specificity, Hutt requested in Nepali that the question be repeated. A mortifyingly encouraging chorus of “Nepali ma bhannus!” followed, and, permission to articulate in the vernacular granted, the student essayed the question again: “Language ko role ke ho society ma?” At which point moderator Abhi Subedi, losing patience perhaps with the absurdity of both question and questioner, raised his hand and grinned, as he adjourned the session, “Yes! Language has an important role in society!”

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