Nepali Times
Fourth Estate
Columnist's curse


Bharat Bhurtel, rest in peace.

Bharat Bhurtel didn't leave a note explaining why he killed himself. Anecdotal evidence suggests he had been under immense stress. He had recently finished a commissioned biography of President Ram Baran Yadav. Rather than being content with his achievement, the conclusion of a challenging assignment appears to have frightened him instead. Writer Khagendra Sangraula went as far to say that the office of the president sucked his creative juices dry and then left him in the lurch.

Dead men tell no tales. But what struck a chord among fellow columnists was Bhurtel's decision to complete his weekly piece for Nagarik daily. Even while contemplating death, the popular columnist didn't want to violate the sanctity of a deadline. It was a death in harness above all else. Sangraula may have had a point, but Bhurtel probably took his final decision on an impulse. No precaution is ever enough to save a person from his own rage.

Rage, however, is the motive force of most independent columnists. Occasional contributors analyse subjects that interest them. Reporters fill their columns with the leftovers of their field notes. But a general columnist has to mine his own heart and mind to find grist for the mill. That could be the reason columnists generate so much hostility: everyone thinks that they could do better if only the publisher believed in their talent.

The reality is somewhat more complex. Commercial publishers feel that columnists take away useful column inches. Some fifteen years ago, the chief executive of a media house made this amply clear to a columnist: "The scarce space that I give you is compensation enough. Do you realise I could have given it to Pradip Nepal, Prakash Chandra Lohani or Narahari Acharya and earned their goodwill instead of publishing your rants and making enemies all around?"

Columnists generate deep antagonism among the bean counters of media houses. Everyone knows what an editor, a reporter, an advertising executive, or even the mailing clerk is expected to deliver. But other than a deadline and a word limit, there are no conditions placed upon independent columnists. They don't even punch in the timecard.

The quality of a columnist's output is even more difficult to measure. Some excellent columns do not generate enough response from readers but are acknowledged as authoritative. Advertisers, lobbyists, authorities or interest groups may take umbrage at hugely popular columns. If a columnist took into account the controversy a piece could create, she would be unable to put pen to paper.

Columnists are not popular even in the newsroom, where most of them are considered parasites that thrive on the sweat of reporters. Editors barely tolerate them: columnists often impinge upon their freedom to choose the tilt of the publication. Columnists survive in the media only because committed readers associate certain periodicals with the mugshot of their favourite writers. Shorn of all pretensions, columnists are essentially writers who succeed in establishing an amicable relationship with their readers.

Bhurtel was perceived as a 'democratic' writer and was at his acerbic best while lambasting UML or Maoist personalities. At a reception hosted by Naya Patrika daily some time ago, a friend chided Bhurtel for moving his column out of a weekly newsmagazine, pointing out that "in the magazine, you had a page facing the reader all to yourself. In a broadsheet, your column has to compete with the editorial, among other articles. Your reputation will save the column for a while, but you will have to innovate constantly to retain the loyalty of readers."

Only a columnist of Saurabh's stature could have been so blunt. He then tempered his observations with some empathy, "But I guess you had your compulsions." In retrospect, that statement seems to have been an understatement.

The contradiction of hobnobbing with the rich and powerful while struggling to make ends meet can weaken the will of even the most resilient among us. If the blame for Bhurtel's death has to be laid somewhere, it has to be the accursed profession of punditry.

1. rajbhanu

I just skimmed through this article and didnot bother to look for its gist. However, I saw some names namely Pradeep Nepal, Prakash Chandra Lohani and Narahari Acharya and among the names Pradeep Nepal is the one most of all detest-infact loathe. I find Narahari Acharya's articles rather more concise and alligned to a more broader horizon of truth. I don't wish to know much about PC Lonani since I was too small during his reign.

The first thing about these politicians gone writer is that they think and preach as if they are the only virtuous souls left ! They strongly believe their heyday acts has been completely forgotten by the general public and that they are the new sages-the result of an arduous purification process. I don't know how much they ponder over the rants they receive over their articles but I hope their numb conscience-essential of a politician is dead. Pradeep Nepal/Arjun Narsingh KC are both rancid pieces human flesh producing non stop anti maoist rancor while at the same time hoarding self satisfaction over being able to denude maoist's in the eyes of the general public.

Have any of these self proclaimed "WRITERS" ever written anything regarding the public welfare and public sentiment ? Have they suggested anything to end the load shedding, scarcity of water and other basic infrastructures ? about the acts of the government as MRP deal, expenditure on jumbo delegation, climate change meeting at Everest base camp, blatant daylight killings, helicopter expenditures of the current home minister and lot more ! Why would they when they are enjoying from it. They still enjoy the luxuro of chosing an "all expenses paid" vehicles from Melamchi drinking water project or Mid Marshyangdi Hydropower Project. Who cares about the high electricity price "WE" the general public are subjected thanks to numerous luxuries we are providing these sage leaders.

Still we don't care for the additional expenses on our heads for the proposed new army recruitment since they don't tax us under the heading "Army Protection." We don't bother pondering about the number of army personnel a tiny nation as "Nepal" in between giant India and China. We are still eluded and hunted by the ghost of "Bir Gorkhali" and take pride in chanting about them while our borders are being constantly encroached upon. We do hear and feel a lot of poking by the same institution over the government's decision but my question is have we ever heard of their passion of being deployed to the conflicted borders? Have we ever contemplated why there are no Nepal Army border posts while BSF are building inside our lands. We have been sleeping far too long thanks to Democracy, Insurgency and the holy Martyrs.

Well, to think of reading articles as such from proven "failed politicians" is really too much to ask. They write with an ink borrowed from their respective parties and hence are unable to write other colors. What a pity ! If they can't write for us, they should stop pretending to be writing for us.

2. Nirmal
Late Bhurtel's writing the biography of the President is not getting saddled with the very style he had. A biography prepared by the third person with well recognised critical mindset is something rare in the world of politics by politicos, i don't mean it doesnot happen. But the prolific thinks twice before agreeing to it. It is the question of your career afterall.

Bhurtel seemed to have been travelling through thoughts abstruse, a deep metaphysical theory but could not avoid to be swept away by frustrations. May his soul rest in peace!

3. Rajan
This article ignore that Mr. Bhurtel could have been killed. Crime and murder is common in Nepal. Police should investigate the case properly. Property issues can be there. This kind of writing is prejudice.

4. prem
Nepali journalists are notorious for sugarcoating the obvious. Indra Lohani was both a heavy smoker and an alcoholic, and he, little surprise died of a heart-attack in his forties. Reading Lohani's obits last year, you'd have thought that he was a saint who treated his body like a pabitra temple. That was then. This time, by some accounts, Bhurtel seems to have long suffered from bouts of depression, which strikes many humans. Depression does not discriminate between who is a columnist and who is an ordinary mortal. Instead of actually finding out more about Bhurtel's supposed depression, and then using it as a way to advocate for an improvement in the treatment of depression for all, Lal foolishly employs Bhurtel's suicide to cast himself and his ilk as holier-than-thou pen-warriors raging against the corporate media machine. Typical!  

5. Sunita Tiwari
Who was threatening to kill Bhurtel? I read everywhere about the insecurity he was in but without any kind of further explanation. We readers would be greatly obliged to Mr. Lal if he could shed some light on it. 

6. reading uncomprehension

if you had the time for such a long irrelevant rant then why didn't you bother getting the gist of the article first, as you astoundingly admit, as though it were an article of pride? never comprehended what 'reading comprehension' meant in school? you might have saved yourself, and certainly us, some time. certainly there are many issues here that Lal hasn't dealt with, but whether politician-writers have any merit seems to me quite a peripheral issue to this comment strand.

perhaps you'll allow me to quote you?

'If they can't write for us, they should stop pretending to be writing for us.'

7. nirajbs
Re # 5 Sunita - C K Lal is a columnist - not a reporter. He just passes judgments ( not that there is anything wrong with it ) some of which- given his vantage point as an outsider- are interesting. But he's been a columnist  for far  too long and repeats himself. But do not expect reporting from him. He is more an engineer ( his earlier? profession ) than a reporter.

8. Kirtee Joshi

Anyone suffering from depression can understand late Bhurtel's death (suicide).  Depression is a chronic mental illness that is "thought to be caused by an imbalance of brain chemicals, along with other factors" ( Just because late Bhurtel was a political columnist, a democrat, or a commissioned author of President's biography, does not make his death (suicide) a political masala (used by the likes of Sangroula for their inedible articles). It's sad to see Mr. Lal walking Sangroula-path , but more than that, even educated folks (who read Nepali Times and comments) talk about anything from politics to murder to betrayal behind his death, but refrains from mentioning that it could have been a genuine case of mental illness from which millions of people suffer today in one form or another. Reportedly, late Bhurtel's mother also took her own life by hanging (so it's not only "columnist's curse") October 10 is celebrated as World Mental Health Day not for nothing. One in four people experiences some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year (, and in the United States, around 3.4% of people with major depression commit suicide ( ).

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)