This issue of La.Lit is not in fact a collection of literature from Nepal’s margins. Let me apologize:
La.Lit’s editors and I started to discuss putting out this issue about a year back. Several of this magazine’s editors and regular contributors are also literary translators, as am I. I was immediately drawn by the challenge of pulling together work from outside the literary canon of Nepali literature, even though I knew I’d fail – because I also knew that the result would point to the exciting, wide-open possibilities of the future.
Nepal’s modern literary canon both is and isn’t rich. It is approximately a century old, and – especially given the conditions in which it is produced – it is a wonder that it consists of so much excellent work. Yet the canon was built – and is still being built – mainly by those whose mother tongue is Nepali. It comes as no surprise, then, that the body of work we think of when we think of Nepali literature should be dominated by Nepali-language literature.
Worldwide, Nepali is itself not a marginal, but a middling language. It is the 59th largest language, and the mother tongue of some 24 million people in Nepal, India and Bhutan and also, of course, in the diaspora worldwide. Thanks to the post-Independence generation of language rights activists, Nepali is one of India’s 23 official languages, yet it is the mother tongue of fewer than 3 million there. In Bhutan, Nepali is the language of the Lhotsampa minority, including those forcibly expelled in the ethnic cleansing of the early 1990s. The Nepali language wields little power in these two countries. But in Nepal, Nepali is the language of state power, and it is deeply political in the way it operates.
Declared Nepal’s sole official language in 1959, the Nepali language was deployed by the absolutist Panchayat regime as an instrument of national unification and cultural assimilation over a heterogeneous, multilingual populace. It has remained Nepal’s official medium of instruction and transaction even after the establishment of democracy in 1990. Today, Nepali is the mother tongue of approximately 45% of Nepal’s population.
The country’s remaining languages – 123 in total – exist in varying states of vitality. Other than Nepali, Nepal’s largest languages of the Indo-Aryan family are Maithili, Bhojpuri,Tharu, Bajika, Doteli and Awadhi. Their speakers consist of approximately 12, 7, 6, 3, 3 and 2 percent of the population respectively. (Importantly, Maithili, Bhojpuri and Awadhi are larger languages than Nepali, with well-established literary traditions of their own in South Asia.) Then there are the languages belonging to the Tibeto-Burmese family, the largest of which are Tamang, Nepal Bhasa and Magar: their speakers consist of 5, 4 and 3 percent of Nepal’s population respectively. The remaining 12 percent of Nepal’s population speaks more than 100 languages, including those belonging to the Dravidian and Austrosiatic families, as well as scores of languages that UNESCO classifies as anywhere from vulnerable to critically endangered.
Among the languages classified as “definitely endangered” is Nepal Bhasa. By proximity to the nation’s power centre – Kathmandu is, after all, the indigenous homeland of Nepal Bhasa – this language has carved out some space for itself in Nepal’s literary canon. The post-1990 language rights movement in Nepal was sparked by Nepal Bhasa activists; today there is Nepal Bhasa education, media and publishing – not enough, but more than in any other national language other than Nepali.
And so while readers of Nepal’s literature may not have actually read Durgalal Shrestha or Purna Bahadur Vaidya due to a language barrier, they will almost certainly know of them. These readers may know of one or two Maithili or Bhojpuri writers or poets, but they will very likely not know of any Tharu, Tamang, Bajika, Doteli, Magar or Awadhi writers or poets from Nepal. Their work simply has not found its way into the mainstream of the country’s literary canon.
This leads me to acknowledge my own failures, and the failures of this issue of La.Lit. When we started to work on this issue, I knew of only one Maithili writer, Dr. Dhirendra, having translated one of his poems into English from a Nepali translation in The Country is Yours. I also knew Shiva Kumar Khaling’s Rai-language work and Pratap Bal Tamang’s Tamang-language work from having translated them for the same book – though I worked from Nepali translations in these cases as well. Apart from some other Nepal Bhasa writers and poets whose work has been translated into Nepali, the work I translated second-hand for The Country is Yours was about all I knew of Nepal’s literature from outside the Nepali language. I did not know (and still don’t know) a single Bajika or Doteli writer or poet. I do not, in truth, know what state non-Nepali literature is in, in Nepal. I have long dreamed of conducting a “mapping exercise” of the literature of Nepal’s largest languages, but I have never quite figured out how to fund it.
So I will acknowledge my own failures first. It will take a greater mind, and a much larger collaborative effort, to succeed at what this issue of La.Lit set out to do. It will require coeditors from many languages working together across very real language barriers. It will require funds as well: and funds are scarce for any work related to Nepal’s intellectual life. It will require a studious deconstruction and reconstitution of Nepal’s literary canon. For this much is incontrovertible: the literary canon of a nation as multilingual as Nepal ought not to consist overwhelmingly of Nepali-language literature, but it does. It ought to include a vast body of literature in national languages other than Nepali, but it doesn’t. There ought to be a concerted effort to translate the literature of different languages into Nepali, so that we all get to read what others are writing – but there isn’t.
All this is cause to be very humble. It is also cause to be very hopeful. So much work remains to be done to make Nepal’s literary canon inclusive: and this is what I mean when I say that the possibilities for the future are exciting.
As for the present: La.Lit put out a call for submissions last year, hoping to include as many languages as possible. I am grateful to everyone who answered that call. I would first like to acknowledge four individuals who proved critical to making this issue as multilingual and multicultural as it is: Mallika Shakya, JB Biswokarma, Ram Bhandari and Mukesh Jha.
Scholar and poet Mallika Shakya introduced and translated a Durgalal Shrestha poem from Nepal Bhasa for this issue. She also recommended several Nepal Bhasa stories by Girija Prasad Joshi, one of which Ryan Conlon translated for this issue. I had asked JB Biswokarma whether we could translate one of his poems for this issue. He responded by sending me the Ranendra Barali story and Kewal Binabi and Harisharan Pariyar poems that are included here. I was glad to have human rights activist Ram Bhandari forward me the Durga Kaphle and Purushottam Khanal poems that Itisha Giri and I translated. Mukesh Jha of the Nepal Policy Centre recommended that we contact Maithili writers Rupa Jha, Dhirendra Jha and
Ram Dayal Rakesh, but we knew too few Maithili-to-English translators to make use of his recommendation. (Smriti Ravindra chose, instead, to translate Mahendra Malangia’s Maithili-language story from its Nepali translation, as she found that easier than working with the original Maithili. Nothing about reaching beyond the Nepali language was easy.)
We were also lucky to have Tashi Tewa Dolpo conduct an interview of Yangzom Tsering in the Dolpo language and transcribe it directly into English. Pranab Man Singh translated Abinath Rai’s story, which was originally written in the Wambule, from a Nepali translation. Ryan Conlon selected a Nepal Bhasa story by Suvarna Keshari Chitrakar to translate. Yet, in the end, most of the work in this issue was originally written in Nepali. Given this, we tried to find writers and poets from underrepresented communities, or literature about underrepresented communities.
Bhawani Bhikshu wrote in the Nepali language, though his mother tongue was Hindi. We have included an interview of him by Uttam Kunwar, and a story by him, translated by Niranjan Kunwar and Rabi Thapa respectively, to signal the need to rethink the literary canon. It was poet Pranika Koyu who, in a conversation last year said to me, “In a different society, Toya Gurung would be just as revered as (the male, ‘high’ caste poet) Madhav Ghimire.” All writers from outside the “high” castes, and all women, are on the margins of Nepal’s literary canon. We were fortunate to have Ann Hunkins translate Toya Gurung’s evocative and imagistic poems for this issue. We were also very fortunate to have Prawin Adhikari, Itisha Giri and Pushpa Acharya translate the work of Anbika Giri, Nibha Shah, Sarita Tiwari, Manisha Gauchan, Bina Theeng Tamang and Saraswati Pratikshya. Given the near-invisibility of women in Nepal’s aggressively man-centric literary world, I am proud that this issue features so many women writers and translators.
I was particularly pleased to be able to include three feminist poems – by the Word Warriors (translated by themselves), Mallika Shakya (translated by Muna Gurung) and Pranika Koyu (translated by me) – that emerged from the ongoing struggle for equal citizenship rights for women in Nepal. Politically and socially engaged literature is part of an important tradition here. I was also happy to include literature about the political conflicts that have marked today’s generation. Anbika Giri’s story (translated by Prawin Adhikari) and Mahesh Bikram Shah’s story (translated by Ross Adkin) focus on a war that Nepal’s governing class is trying very hard to forget. Literature such as this acts as a nation’s conscience.
And literature such as Upendra Subba and Kumar Nagarkoti’s stories, and Shrawan Mukarung’s poems, can act as a nation’s soul. Both of the stories playfully upend cultural norms and expectations. The first was translated by Weena Pun, and Shlesha Thapaliya very adeptly translated the second. Prawin Adhikari has captured the simplicity and resonance of Shrawan Mukarung’s poems in his translations.
Aahuti also upends social norms in his work, though with more gravitas and urgency. Mary Des Chene was kind to send us her very skilful English translations of his poems. I also translated an excerpt of his memoir about how he came to be a poet to illustrate the conditions in which literature is produced in Nepal, and also to focus on the greatest challenge facing Nepal’s traditionally exclusivist literary canon:
How do outsiders (such as women, those not from the “high” castes, those who write in languages other than Nepali) find their way in?
This is the question that I hope, with all its many failures, this issue of La.Lit leaves readers to ponder over.
The issue is divided into five loosely thematic sections, the final one consisting of Pranab Man Singh and Prawin Adhikari’s interview of Khagendra Sangroula about his work as a writer and literary translator (into Nepali).
I also hope readers enjoy the issue; for many of the pieces here are truly excellent. But especially, I hope that all the poems, stories and essays and interviews here inspire writers, translators and literature lovers to work towards making Nepal’s literary canon as diverse as Nepal. There is so much work left for all of us, who love literature, to do.
Meanwhile, I hope this issue engenders debate – and much more work in the future. Thank you to the team at La.Lit for all their collaborative work on this issue. It would not have happened without you.
May 2017, Kathmandu
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