Nepali writing in English: an interview with Pramod Mishra, 2004

Pramod Mishra | December 8, 2013
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Can you talk about the situation of English in Nepal?

Let me relate an incident from my childhood in order to answer this complex question. I was in Class Four in the sixties in a village primary school in Morang when the SLC-Fail headmaster (at least that’s what we were told about his admirable qualification at the time but in reality he hadn’t gone beyond Class Eight) introduced PK Rai as our English teacher. Until then we had no teacher who could teach English. In fact, whoever came from wherever in that Tarai hinterland – the malnourished migrant hill men, the grimy petty traders from India, the literate young locals – had been coaxed by the village elders to teach rudimentary arithmetic, Manoharpothi, and later, Mahendramala. It was the dawn of literacy in this eastern Nepali village. Basic literacy and the ability to conduct retail purchases of seasonal crops had qualified the Indian vendors to be our math teachers and the failure to pass middle school had qualified the hill men and the locals to be our Nepali teachers. And the village elders felt great pride in having pioneered literacy. Named after the then Crown Prince, the one-room school house itself had been built with donated tree bark and thatch (which we collected from surrounding villages and carried on our backs to the school site) for the fifth time in as many years.

PK Rai’s arrival, therefore, caused some commotion because, unlike the emaciated, ungainly hill men and paan-chewing, dhoti-clad Indian vendors, PK-Sir wore steel-frame reading glasses, and looked well-fed, well-read and spruced-up in clean shirts and ironed trousers. Most of all, he could speak English with whoever dared to do so with him. The rumor was that he was an I.A.-Fail, a matter of great pride for us, who had been privileged until then to be guided by the glamorous SLC-Fail headmaster. So, we preferred to think of PK-Sir as B.A.-Fail. That added extra glamour to his persona as a man from Kalimpong. No sooner did my father hear of PK-Sir’s arrival, he put me under his tutorship for a few months, given the fact that I had failed Class Three and had been promoted in the half-yearly exam to Class Four. Before he disappeared after a year or so, PK-Sir had left behind an impression on me about the intriguing magic of English and the goal of B.A.-Fail to which I could aspire.

This anecdote offers a glimpse of what it was like to grow up in a Nepali village in the 1960s, only a day’s walk north-east from Biratnagar. Although Nepal has made strides in education since, the situation of elementary education in many parts of the kingdom hasn’t improved much. So the question about the situation of English in Nepal is as complex as Nepal’s geopolitics itself. It’s both hopeless and hopeful. English, like Sanskrit education before it, has reinforced the divide between masters and servants, rulers and ruled, leaders and followers. On the one hand, it has produced through the aegis of private English-medium schools, missionary or otherwise, globally fluent Nepali entrepreneurs, journalists, high-level bureaucrats, army brass, and now writers; on the other hand, it has generated the masses of SLC-, I.A.-, and B.A.-Fails and their hopelessness and frustration with it. What we are witnessing now in Nepal is the head-butting between the privilege of patrician English and Sanskrit, on the one hand, and the rage and despair of the plebian vernacular, on the other.

What’s the quality of English teaching at Tribhuvan University’s English Department? 

The problem goes beyond Nepal to India, where English came systematically as a colonial ideology in 1835 with Thomas Babington Macaulay’s minute on English education. And most English Departments in India that produce M.A.s (there are only a couple that systematically train doctoral students in scholarly writing and research followed by a doctoral dissertation) have perpetuated Macaulay’s injunctions of producing a “class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” In this respect, T.U.’s Central Department of English has over the years struggled to chart an independent path with the help of American and British sources. In its curriculum, for example, it now has Cultural, Women’s, and Postcolonial Studies, critical theory and so on. These all are emerging and vibrant ways of looking at literature and the world. The Department now possesses faculty with graduate training in Britain and the United States, people who have in recent years successfully implemented a new curriculum more suited to the times. With the help of the Internet and personal visits, these new faculty members are in tune with state of the art teaching methods and curricula in the United States.

But the Department faces, like many English Departments elsewhere, unhealthy internal rivalries, mudslinging, acrimony and factionalism in addition to the systemic problems many other public institutions face in Nepal. There are severe limitations to what these new enthusiasts can do. Because of political pressures for admission beyond capacity, lack of flexibility in designing and implementing individual syllabi and assessing student performance, and an absence of adequate library facilities, the faculty has found itself handicapped in realizing its ambitious goals for graduate training at the Department. That is one reason why they have opened IACER (Institute of Advanced Communication, Education and Research), where they have all the freedom they desire in curriculum design, implementation and assessment. We have yet to see what effect the suspension of democracy will have on the ambitions of folks who had thought after the advent of people’s sovereignty in 1990 that they could accomplish whatever they wished. This is where Nepalis such as Samrat Upadhyay, who occupy academic positions in the West, can help both morally and materially by becoming the conduit for the exchange of ideas and resources.

Who do you think will contribute most to Nepali writing in English (NWE) – those educated in the West or in Nepal? 

Enrichment of Nepali creative writing in English is not of urgency right now in Nepal; what is more urgent is the reinstitution of democracy, its stability and smooth functioning so that the common people in the villages as well as in towns can once again feel that they are sovereign subjects and that their work and voice will ultimately make a difference in the life of the country. For that we need a different kind of Nepali writing in English, the kind of writing that embodies the conscience and voice of the people and expresses their pains and horrors as well as laughter. In this respect, Himal Southasian, the Nepali Times, and The Kathmandu Post have become the conduits of the people’s voice and conscience to the world community.

Ultimately, it does not matter where a person is educated, in Nepal or the West. Those who have been educated in Nepal may think that they know the country and its culture first hand and therefore have a more authentic voice but the educational system in Nepal is such that it does not foster independent critical thinking so that local talent could flourish. For example, almost all journalists who write for Nepali and English newspapers and magazines and have been solely educated in Nepal do so without any training in such writing while they were undergraduate or graduate students. I don’t know how they run the journalism classes but even now people receive college and university degrees in Nepal and India by memorizing and regurgitating in the final exams. So, how can such people suddenly begin to write professional pieces for the media? Those who write well in Nepal are autodidacts; their higher education has little hand in their making. Of course, like Arundhati Roy or Pankaj Mishra in India, Nepalis educated in Nepal’s English-medium schools may contribute to NWE but it’s not that important. A person who has had early schooling in Nepal but has been educated in college and graduate school in the West, like Manjushree Thapa and Samrat Upadhyay, can and will contribute to NWE. On the other hand, those who have been educated in the West all through, they may have better access to education and infrastructure but may have lost the first-hand experience of Nepali culture and may even have forgotten the language. In that case, like Jhumpa Lahiri and many others, they will have to find their own voice and subject matter. And that’s fine, too. We can take the case of V.S. Naipaul. Born of Indian ancestry in the tiny Caribbean island of Trinidad, Naipaul has made the entire world his subject matter.

So, it does not matter where one is educated but what matters is what kind of education one has access to and what kind of contribution one makes. Those who are capable of writing in English, whether educated in Nepal or the West, most likely come from the ranks of the Nepali elite. What matters here is whether they trumpet the interests of the elite or champion the cause of the common Nepali. Wherever one is educated, one has to suffer first before one can be a writer. Those South Asian writers who are educated in English do not have the opportunity to suffer from economic hardship but they have to find other kinds of suffering in order to be a writer of any significance.

What does the success of Manjushree Thapa and Samrat Upadhyay augur for NWE? 

Manjushree and Samrat Upadhyay have charted a new path. They have shown that Nepalis can write novels in English and be recognized. In the footprints of Rushdie and Naipaul and many other non-Western writers in English, they have shown that a person born in Nepal can write about Nepali subjects and still be a writer in English. In that sense, they are pioneers for other folks with abilities, ambition and urgency.

How do you rate Manjushree’s and Samrat’s fiction? 

Samrat’s and Manjushree’s writing has been noticed. They have been able to write as a result of a certain requisite family background, ambitions, institutional training and apprenticeship in the West. Samrat’s fiction has been recognized in the United States for its novelty in South Asian writing. The quality of literature is not independent of the contingency of its production and reception. For example, Siddhicharan Shrestha’s poem “Mero Pyaro Okhaldhunga” would have melted into thin air if Shrestha had stayed in Okhaldhunga and sung the praises of his hilly abode without the necessary infrastructure of publishing and textbook preparation in Kathmandu. Similarly, Manjushree published her works in South Asia, and because the infrastructure for book publishing and book reading in English in Nepal is still rudimentary, we do not really know how Manjushree’s fiction would have done had she worked and published in the West. I like both her books – her travelogue Mustang Bhot and The Tutor of History. But my individual preferences do not matter here. What matters is a host of other such things called the infrastructure or the conditions of possibility – the network of editors, advances, publishers, fellow writers, readers, prizes, bookstores, the culture of book reading and book buying, fans who idolize writers and buy their books even though they may not read them and so on. In this sense, Samrat has made a wise decision. He has chosen the United States as his workplace, where all the things I have mentioned exist. Even though Nepal is not a hot subject like India, except in terms of shocking things such as the royal massacre or the savagery of the Maoist conflict, the fact that Samrat is a South Asian voice has made the difference. Besides, his unique way of portraying the Kathmandu middle class has made him a new voice in South Asian writing, different from the writers who have piggy-backed on British colonialism to assert their importance. But we have yet to see if Manjushree and Samrat are able to sustain their momentum.

Be that as it may, I already admire Manjushree for her bold support for Nepali democracy and for her admirable work of translation in the Nepali Times. In this sense, I find her work more important than Samrat Upadhyay’s work but Samrat, too, is doing his best to write about things that matter. His recent op-ed in The New York Times about the suspension of democracy in Nepal is proof of that commitment. A writer cannot remain silent about matters of public concern in his or her home country. In this sense, both have measured up to the test by combining their aesthetics with political commitment.

Are there any technical or stylistic flaws in their writings that you wished they had improved on? 

At this point, these flaws do not matter. What matters is their continued productivity, vitality and growth. They have to find their own voice, their own paths as writers, and their own bliss. If they are really writers, driven by some inner volcano of emotions and thought, they will continue. If not, then they will dry up, like so many others. The desire for fame is only one of the many motives for a writer. I have had conversations with Manjushree and suggested that while she is keeping her feet admirably planted in her native soil, she should also tap into the writing community in South Asia and the West. This will provide energy, enthusiasm and motivation. So, at this point I’m not concerned so much about their stylistic or technical flaws as their energy, enthusiasm, vitality and productivity – and of course commitment. In a Third World context, a writer is not just a master of fantasy but a teacher, truth teller, and intellectual, whose responsibility it is to tell his or her society about itself and make it aware of its potential as well as flaws.

Samrat Upadhyay has been criticized in Nepal for pandering to Western tastes. Is this justified? 

Yes, I have kept abreast of the acrimonious exchange between Samrat, Manjushree and academic folks in Kathmandu. In one sense, this is business as usual. Literary critics are professionally trained to criticize creative writers because creative works contain in them a complex web of ideologies, something that even a writer is mostly unaware of because in the heat of the creative moment a writer embodies and expresses a complex set of social and cultural values. If a professional critic does not point out those hidden ideologies and values, who will? So, in one sense, this is just the nature of the beast. Professional critics, particularly of the postcolonial variety, have it upon them to point out the implications of representing the non-Western world to Western society in a particular way so that readers in the West, already either denigrating or exoticizing, either way missing the mark, may reinforce one or the other. At any rate, there’s no escape from such criticism – nor is there much room for escape from such representation given the historical contingencies of literary production and reception.

Toni Morrison and V.S. Naipaul have pointed out the predicament of a writer who writes about people who can’t read his or her works. “What are the implications for such literature?” Morrison asks. Much of Naipaul’s anger at the Third World stems from this anguish. This is a postcolonial predicament; there’s no escape from it right now unless there’s a fundamental revolution in non-Western societies and their consciousness about literacy and education. That’s why, a North African writer, I think he was either Algerian or Moroccan, recently rejected his country’s most prestigious literary award because he said that few in his country had read his books due to widespread illiteracy. I think it was gutsy rejection of the award. So it’s just the nature of the beast. But given the circumstances, Samrat should continue to portray society however he sees it through his writer’s lens. He will do his job by writing more fiction, and his critics will do theirs by critiquing him.

Now, if a Nepali writer writing in Nepali in Nepal had written the same novel, it wouldn’t have been even noticed because in Nepal, except for a few professional critics who read for various literary awards, who reads fiction for the sake of reading and pleasure or enlightenment? Literacy is low; there’s hardly any independent reading culture, as, for example, the Bengalis have. Because Samrat has written in English and published in the West, he has received widespread attention; the whole infrastructure of literary production and reception in the West has made his books living cultural artifacts. And Samrat should feel good that his works have been noticed both in the West and Nepal for their specific localized reasons and concerns.

And I think his rejoinders to these critics, too, have been good for the most part, especially the later ones, where he has focused more on the issues than on the geopolitical limitations of critics in Kathmandu, which I found at times a bit condescending. Folks in Nepal have little backing from the local infrastructure to answer back with equal strength to a professional in the Western academy.

How can NWE be different from, let’s say, Anglo-Indian writing?

India is a hot subject in the West right now. That’s why Anglo-Indian writing is hot. Nepal, on the other hand, is not a hot subject in the West. It is certainly exotic for the connoisseurs but not hot. As the BBC correspondent Daniel Lak pointed out in his recent column from Miami, people in the wider world do not much care whether Nepal sinks or swims. Of course, people would like to visit Nepal as tourists or climb its mountains but if Nepal sinks, they will sigh and say Nepal, too, went the way of many a failed state in Africa and Latin America. So, geopolitically, Nepal is different from India. And, therefore, NWE, too, is different from Anglo-Indian writing. Among other things, the overloaded colonial baggage is for the most part absent from Nepal. Like Ishiguro, Samrat has had to find his own unique subject matter because of the lack of privilege of latching on to the colonial bandwagon. And I think this is where Nepali writers who write in English suddenly become important because they are Nepal’s eyes, ears, and conscience in the wider world. They should stick to the truth they see from their own perspective after having seen, heard, and read what others have said about them and their works.

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This interview from 2004 was first published on suskera.org, a US-based literary webzine that featured contributions from Nepali writers. Suskera is now in partnership with La.Lit to republish articles from its archives.

 

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