Essay : Uniqueness in the Modernist Nepali Literary Discourse

~Abhi Subedi~Abhi Subedi


This paper focuses on one important aspect of Nepali literature noticed in the writings of the sixties and seventies. The writings under review can be called modernist by using the occidental nomenclature for writings that satisfy certain conditions in terms of their use of the discourse system which was radically different from the previous canonically defined modes of textual structures.

Modernism is an occidental concept. So is postmodernism. But the use of the modernist terminology for both writing and its metalinguistic and metaliterary interpretations present a problematics that requires careful attention. In this paper I do not want to go into the detailed analysis of the problematics but only concentrate on our use of the occidental parameters for the analysis of literary texts.

The writers in our part of the world have used certain landmarks in occidental literary movements to mark their own modes and movements in writings. The romantic realistic, Marxist and feminist movements in literature and arts like the modernist movements have influence our modes of writings as well as interpretations. So much so that the writers in our languages, for example, in Nepali, have been identified by the western canons and norms. Balakrishna Sama is considered the Shakespeare of Nepal and Gopal Prasad Rimal and Mohan Koirala are considered the Walt Whitman and T. S. Eliot of Nepal respectively. (See Abhi Subedi, “Presidential Address”, Literary Studies 5-13 ,March, 1994; 1-6 for more discussions on the subject)

But a new mode appeared in Nepali literary writing in the sixties and seventies that presented a problematics. The creative writers used a unique discourse structure in their writings that had communication as its main thrust but since the language was unconventional and even more complex than anything seen in Nepali writing before, it took some  so me readers by surprise and disturbed or inspired the others. It also started a new debate about the modes and methods in writing. Nepali poetry more than any other genre presented this phenomenon.


The background to this mode of writing is primarily socio-political and secondly and very importantly, cultural. By cultural background I mean the educational perspectives and the modalities of exposure to western or other literary movements and trends in the world.

the cultural exposure and crosscurrents opened up new avenues of studies. Writers wanted to make use of their education and awareness about the pragmatics of literary writings. My won hypothesis is that the Nepali modernist writers by choosing a form of writing which was akin to the tenets of the occidental modernist literature were not emulating any particular movement or taking any example from them, but were creating a unique discourse with their own cultures with the canons of textual and languages structures and the questions regarding political and ideological values enshrined in their own canonized institutional structurations.

Though the poets and writers came from different socio-cultural backgrounds their sense of urgency, their need for communication and the problem associated with it were identical. Most of them were bound by the phenomenon of common experiences they shared during the Panchayat raj. The apologists of the Panchayat raj did not have serious problems on this score but those who chose to alienate themselves from the ideology espoused by the polity were under an interesting creative pressure to create a discourse in their writings, and the discourse turned out to be very different from anything seen or experienced in Nepali creative writing before.

The problems of the writers had many commonalities. Most of them came to the capital from outside, from rural areas for university education and jobs. Their encounter of the city itself was a subject of poetry. Bhupi Sherchan wrote:

New Road clean and dandy
strolls over the footpaths in the evening.
beneath the sleeveless arm,
Khichapokhari pants for air.
In the lanes
in the murk between the dank houses
like tufts of hair in armpits.
In the shop’s show-case
Su-ji Wang spreads a laugh.
Hong Kong beauty, madam Teri-wool,
Miss Nylon and Teri Lyn
and charmed Miss Loop Kumari
carrying the stale fruits of youth .
In the brassiere kharpan a flower baby, a Hippy girl,
half-naked in yellow sari and blouse
walks in New Road in a Hippy youth’s arms
high after a trip.1

                                                     Bhupi Sherchan
Sanjhko naya sadak,jindagiko yatra
(New Road in the evening, a life’s journey)

The background of the modernist discourse in writing is related to the backgrounds of the writers. The modernist writings thus have dual backgrounds. One is the element of discovery of the city on the part of the writers. The other is the consequence of the encounters. Both aspects become articulate in the unique discourse structures in their writings.

Why the writers, especially the poets, chose to construct the discourse in a complex manner, which is nearly untranslatable, in a foreign language, is an important question. Before going on to discuss the structure of the discourse itself I would like to discuss the conditions under which such a mode of writing must have emerged in Nepali writing.

The first reason could be ideological or socio-cultural. The utopia espoused by the single party polity in the country was shared by some writers. The conflicting utopias of the regime and of those who opposed the polity was reflected in writings as well. there were writer who disagreed with the utopia of the polity openly and were in clear disagreement with the ideologies espoused by the system. Their disagreements became articulate in modes of writings which were clearly political and showing one’s own ideologies in clear terms. Literature written for the poor and oppressed and marginalized people can be considered as a clear example of such a mode of discontent.2

The modernist writers’ mode of discontent was more complex. Their discontent was not only directed against the polity but was also directed against the traditions and canons. Their writing was the discourse of indifference., discontent and rebellion-a complex mode mode of rebellion. 3 Such a mode of rebellion shaped both form and structure of the writing. Who were these writers?

These writers were the product of a tradition and a certain background as discussed earlier. Their writing was given a shape both by their circumstances and their exposure to the western literature. On the face of it they appeared as though they did not understand their traditions, their cultures and their backgrounds. But in reality their understanding of their tradition was very authentic which can be seen from the irony they present in their writings. Following is a quotation from my Nepali introduction to an anthology of contemporary Nepali poems about the modernist writers:

Their writings were full of allusions and information about learning. They gave expression to  the irony they had perceived in the world dominated by science and technology; their poems described the horrors of war in a direct language: to see a picture of war akin to Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ is a reminder of the internationalism that appears to be the other main impulse in their poems. They dismantled the representational picture and created a complex one in its place. They expressed discontent about being denied the freedom of speech in symbolic manner in their poems. And curiously enough, the modernist movements born in the cities influenced their writings, too.4

The modernist writers as discussed in this essay are not very many, and their writing spans a short period of roughly fifteen years. The writers who followed them did not carry their tradition of writing. In fact their writings were very different from those of the modernist writers. A short review of the modernist writings will bring out the uniqueness of the literary discourse they created.

Discourse Structure

The Nepali modernist writing presented a complex mode of literary communication. The reasons for this complexity should be sought at three levels. First, the writers found the modernist form of writing a very strong medium for projecting one’s sense of rebellion which was different from the socio-realistic form of writing. They liberally used the modes of western literally and artistic movements in their discussions about the style of writing and the presentation of the subject matter. Second, their desire and need to communicate emanated from the socio-cultural and political turn that the country was taking during this period. Third, they were naturally influenced by the patterns of emulation of the occidental forms of modernism in the literatures and arts in other countries, especially India. But the strongest of all was their need to created a mode of rebellion in writing. What kind of rebellion they created and how they thought they created that and how readers did receive it are the subjects of important literary discussions.

Most of the few modernist writers whose works need to be considered for analysis in a full length study of the modes and methods of writing in the sixties and seventies are poets like Mohan Koirala, Tulasi Diwasa, Bairagi Kanhila, Iswar Ballabh, Ratna Thapa, Parijat, Krishna Bhakta shrestha, Bhupi Sherchan, Upendra Shrestha, Kundan Sharma, Dwarika Shrestha, Kumar Nepal and Pushkar Lohani, prose writers  like Shankar Lamichhane and fiction writers like Dhruba Chandra Gautam, and Parijat. Indra Rai’s discussions about the modes of modernist writings and his associations with the above two poets Bairagi Kanhila and Iswar Ballbh who he worked with to start a literary movement called tesroayam in Darjeeling at the early years of the sixties should be mentioned in this discussion.

Mohan Koirala wrote poetry in a style that was considered very unconventional and for that reason very unique. Cut off from the hubbub of the world in a manner akin to that of a peace loving romantic poet, Mohan Koirala was writing poetry in a style that was to be called modernist, complex, cerebral or intellectual by poets and critics in later decades.5 Met in his residence by the editor of Roop Rekha, that published most of the major poetry and prose of the modernist writers from 1960, incidentally the year king Mahendra dissolved the multiparty parliament and introduced a non-party system of government which ended in 1990, Mohan Koirala said about poetry, ‘Poetry should be written in an artistic language for the welfare of mankind. Though there are many schools of writing , I don’t belong to any because when we align ourselves with a school we don’t write any good work of literature but only produce propaganda materials.’ 6

Mohan Koirala used language as the end not necessarily a means. In his poetry language itself becomes a power and a semiotic system. There is less emphasis on referentiality, and to quote Jakobson, his poetry heightens ‘the palpability of signs’ by deepening ‘the dichotomy of signs and objects.’7 The element of palpability is akin to the concept of wonder. the language thus employed by Mohan Koirala and his contemporaries are the artifacts of the turning point in social and political history of the country. I would like to use Greenblat’s terminology about the concept of resonance and wonder in arts to describe the language of the modernist poets who use language that suggests ‘wounded artefact’ as ‘witnesses to the violence of history but as ‘signs of use marks of the human touch and hence links with the openness to touch that was the condition of their creation.’8 The modernist poets were sensitive to the violence of history in terms of the conditions of change in the perceptions, and their poetry pulsates with the human touch and their language represents a ‘wounded artefact’ since their shift from the conventional norm to a unique structure of language and experience was a rebellious one.

The sense of shift is represented through no movement in their writings. In Dhruba Chandra Gautam’s novel Baluwa mathi (Upon the Sand) the character’s panorama of futility marks both a violent shift from the conventional sense of movement to that of no-movement. But the scale of human touch, the sense of the violence of history are very strong in this character’s perception of the world. Again the language is the sign, the end also a means. Few excerpts from some modernist poetry will show the drama of movement and no-movement.

Step, step, Baman’s step
Step a journey of one step
The palms’ length a scale of fingers
No eyes, two eyes as sun and moon
Mouth, nose, years and brain
Climbing up the body
Body as the ladder to futurity
Climbing steps of moments in the present time
Every coming day the son
Every past day stepping on the father

                                           Tulasi Diwasa
Raksiko botalma ladkhadaeko manchhe
(The Drunken Steps)

In this poem the journey is a self-reflection, an awareness about no movement. But the awareness itself is a movement, a dynamism of knowing and using the language for communicating what has otherwise remained uncommunicated. The pattern of the discourse is that a character speaks, seeks to project his or her ideas however complex they may be. But in that process the character is tired and the exhaustion is an assertion about one’s knowing the state of being and becoming. The persona speaks:

Oh! I’m so tired!

Creating many lines
marking truce
now, because
even the battles long to rest with me
I want to rest for some time!

                          Bairagi Kanhila
                         Planchet ko teble
(The Planchet Table)

The state of becoming is made by the world that surrounds not only in the present but also in memory. The woman’s sense of movement is enshrined in the sanctuary of no movement and futile memories:

In this room
there’s only suffocation-
a restlessness
Memories of the Queen of Jhansi
Joan of Are and Madame Curie
at odds with society,
goals and positions
are laughing like reactions

Ek kotha, ek uddeshya ra ek intallekchual nari
(A room, an ambition and an intellectual woman)

The creation of the centre is an important goal of the poet. But centre is an amorphous concept. He or she tries to create the centre. The intensive engagement with the text becomes manifest in the poetry. The sense of immobility in fact is not immobility but a sincerity that unravels the wounds inflicted by the shift from the banal to the serious and complex:

Fixing up the open night
across the sky
sticking fingers a little at the centre
I look into another centre
from my blue lake
I create blood
by tearing rhododendron petals
and mixing tar-coal with light
on the street,
Circumference expanding
and lengthening
collecting the waters of the sky river-
mustering up energy with all my bones
I create my own centre
in my won eyes
where I’m standing now.

Iswor Ballabh
 Paila ajako-gati hijoko
(Today’s steps-yesterday’s movement)

The poet dismantles the linearity of the argument in this discourse. He projects a sense of mobility through the cult of movement. The textual structure itself makes this journey very articulate. The form is a content in this discourse.

Other poets like Bhupi Sherchan and Krishna Bhakta Shrestha who wrote in a less complex style too used the discourse structure as a unique means of projecting the experience.

Responses to the Discourse

The unique discourse structure of poetry and prose triggered some important metaliterary responses. The responses were metaliterary and critical. The poets and writers themselves spoke about their crafts and their own sense of value and creativity. The impact of the western literary and artistic movements on their writings became a subject of discussion. Indra Rai’s writings had important impact on the writings of his colleagues of the third dimensionalist movement. Rai talking about the goal of the modernist writing says that their aim was to create a combination of content and medium as in paintings. Saying ‘we want the dimensional creation of language and writing to be like this’ Indra Rai gives a list of paintings and their painters, all western except Bangdel. These painters are Monet, Cezanne, Paul Gaugin, Vincent Van Gogh, Matisse, Marcel Duchamp, Picasso, Kandinsky and Paul Klee. 9

Tara Nath Sharma considered the modernist movement especially in poetry as showing the problematics of the poet’s own struggle with the medium.10 Sharma recognizes the power of the language they use. The poets are crushed by their own medium. As a result they create a poetry which is not pleasant to read. He also considers the dismantling of the recognizable form as contributing to that phenomenon.

Other critics of the erstwhile schools responded differently to the modernist writings. They welcomed the modernist writings but made ambivalent judgments about the problematics these writings represented.11  The patterns of critique are guided by the belief that they do not communicate. So an important thrust of the modernist writing is undermined by this approach because the modernist writers’ main objective is communication. To communicate their sense of irony the modernist writers organize the textures of their discourse in this manner:

  a. The individual projects himself as the agency of his own textual function. Therefore the persona in the text considers it as his right to use his own discourse as the authentic model of creative communication. Hence a desire to use language as an end in itself because the writer fells the language. Its thrills and wounds inflicted on it through experimentation. Behind the presentation of the discourse, behind the poet’s projection of a larger than life size image of himself, there is a certain sense of enjoying self-pain:

The wick burns pale

I’m catching fire!
I’m burning!
I’m dying!

Tulasi Diwasa
         Laltin (The Lantern)

I‘m a newspaper, a bulletin,
an ad and a photo print
I’m a reprint
Daily searching one day
memory of a corner
with fifty years embedded in it
I’m a daily news

Mohan Koirala
Ma ajako ahhabar (Me-today’s newspaper)

Somewhere mind breaks
shatters like mirror
this is not self-revelation either

Atmabodh (self-revelation)


1. All the translations used in this text are mine.
2.The pragatisil or progressive writers claimed to be writing such literature. Their discontent with   the regime was articulated in their ideological positions as writers of the oppressed class. A number of these writers shared the visions of the regime in due course. But the world depicted in the novels of Khagendra Sangraula clearly shows an alternate mode of utopia.
3. See Subedi, ‘Literary Response to Panchayat Utopia’, Studies in Nepali History and Society (June 1996): 77-76
4.’Nepali Kabitako Adhunikta ra Samakalinta‘ Preface to Samakalin Nepali Kavita (Kathmandu: Royal Nepal Academy, 1997)
5. Mohan Koirala since he does not have access to English language, finds the remarks made about his modernist poetry as being influenced by T.S. Eliot, very amusing, which he has expressed to me in private conversations.
6. Mohan Koirala in an interview with the late Uttam Kunwar in Srasta ra Sahitya Kanthmandu: Sajha Prakasan, 1980) P. 92
7. Roman Jakobson, ‘Linguististics and Poetics’ in David Lodge ed. Modern Criticism and Thery (New York: Longman, 1988) P (37-38
8. Stephen Greenblatt, ‘Resonance and Wonder’ in Literary Theory Today, ed. Peter Collier and Helga Geyer-Ryan (New York: Cromwell University Press, 1990) p 81
9. Indra Rai, Kathastha ( Darjeeling: Shyam Brothers, 1972) P. 100
10. Sampadak ko bhanai,’Samasamayik Sajha Kavita (Kathmandu: Sajha, 1983) p 348-50


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