Nepali Times
The sound of women's voices-


A woman writer, according to Virginia Woolf, must have two things: an independent source of income and a room of her own. True, the Bronte sisters wrote, and brilliantly, in an absence of these things. Jane Austen shoved her novel under the sofa when visitors dropped by-and yet she produced excellent fiction. George Eliot wrote, and did so profoundly. And what about the poet Emily Dickinson? Didn't she write some of the world's finest poems?

The fact is that these writers are exceptions: the vast majority of women writers have succumbed to literary anonymity because they could not compete-with their hands tied-against their male counterparts. In Nepal, not surprisingly, the number of women writers is minuscule, compared to men. Parijat is the single name among those canonised as Great Writers. In her wake, poets and writers such as Dev Kumari Thapa, Toya Gurung, Banira Giri and Prema Shah have countered great odds to establish themselves in the literary field.

They are followed by women such as Manju Kanchuli, Maya Thakuri, Sita Pandey, Benju Sharma and others. However, because of women's financial dependence on their families, their weak social support structures, and the many constraints to their intellectual and physical mobility, they are easily hushed by men writers. Part of the problem is practical: the quality of women's writing does suffer because they cannot write freely, they cannot meet freely, they cannot travel freely, they cannot gain the same exposure to world literature as their male counterparts. But the fact remains that when women do write excellently, this is attributed to sheer chance-or attempts are made to undermine their stature by questioning their personal lives. Women writers are simply not granted the kind of authority as men in Nepali society.

Gunjan was formed in 1998 to amplify the voices of Nepali women writers. To overcome limitations on women's mobility, the group holds monthly meetings on literary issues, and also organises larger literary events. Its members are writers and poets Padmavati Singh, Bhagirathi Shrestha, Bhuvan Dhungana, Hiranya Kumari Pathak, Chandrakala Newar, Usha Sherchan, Gita Keshari, Sulochana Manandhar, Pratisara Sayami, Gyanu Pandey, Susmita Nepal and Mridula Sharma.

Many of these women are accomplished poets, writers, journalists, songwriters and columnists in their own right; I have translated, below, the poems of two. The first was originally written by Pratisara Sayami in Newari; I have translated it from its Nepali translation in Newari Bhasaka Kehi Adhunik Kabita.

Pratisara Sayami

Next to the road I had reached:
green, quivering paddy stalks
As soon as the breeze started
they laughed and tittered in play
pushing and shoving each other,
these young women
so full of life

After five or seven days:
those same stalks, now bent in abashment
decked with golden flowers
like brides arriving at their new homes

After some time:
how they had stooped, these stalks
like trees burdened with fruit
like a wife preparing to bear a new life

Today again I saw the same stalks
turned into straw
and laid out on the fields:
like a woman just through
with delivery

like the bloodless face
of a woman suffering anaemia

The second poem is by Usha Sherchan, a songwriter and writer of muktak, traditional quatrains. This poem comes from a poetry collection titled Najanmeka Aasthaharu.

Usha Sherchan

Emptiness.emptiness.ultimate emptiness
in a gigantic cage
locked vehicles keep rolling
transporting empty passengers
transporting empty breasts
in the silence one hears wails and sobs
covered volcanoes
in the emptiness, lives and deaths
become accursed

Lives are making merry
deaths are joking and jesting
from close up all re-examine the other
carrying pathetic laughter
piercing with frightful cries
From the space between fingers
pitiful life peeks out
death peeks out as well
In a voice that breaks in unison from the gutter
life also flows
life also flows
voices cry in unison
voices slice time
(perform an operation)

Don't get in a frenzy to kill the foetus
before rays of hope get to shine
don't get in a rage to set the dam
before tides of emotion get to flow
Allow life to play without thought for propriety
shattering the long emptiness
breaking the long silence
allow life to turn over
allow life to gain new dimesions

To make anticipation rest
the nerves have begun tingling
insensibility has begun to take hold
Play with such force that all the
strings break
don't let life get intoxicated
Sing with such power that the
raga breaks
don't let life become insensible

Don't let emptiness quash
Don't let silence prickle
Colour life by playing
the strings of a guitar
Break the emotions by rubbing
the sharp strings of a sitar

So that all becomes bloody-
Make life awake from the dream
with the piercing of instrument
Come, demolish the emptiness.
Awaking from a dream.
Come, demolish the emptiness.
Awakening from a dream.

Oh! Who's trying to break
through again
-these soft waves
Oh! Why are they laughing again
-these frightful deaths
Look! Those who plot to take life
by tricking it into laughter
Look! Those who plan to take
by flirting with life
Look! Those who think of taking
by playing with life

Death just sauntered by
leaving behind anticipation
Death just turned away
taking with it sweet hope

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)