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Why Devkota’s English essays are still relevant
I have been studying Nepali language literature for the best part of 40 years now. The Mahakavi (‘Great Poet’) Lakshmi Prasad Devkota was the first Nepali poet I read (or tried to read) in any depth, because the publication in 1980 of David Rubin’s book Nepali Visions Nepali Dreams: The Poetry of Laxmiprasad Devkota coincided with the beginning of my own doctoral research. Rubin’s was the very first foreign-authored study of any Nepali writer, and it is a book I still admire.
As I explored Devkota’s poetry in its original language, I came to love Muna-Madan very dearly, not only for its romanticism and musicality but also for the moral messages it imparted. I also loved poems such as Pagal (‘Mad’) and Maghko Khuleko Bihanko Jap ('Prayer on a Clearing Morning in Magh’), among many others. I began to read Devkota’s essays, which have few parallels in Nepali for the richness of their language and originality of thought.
Although stray Devkota poems, including several scribbled on the backs of cigarette-packets, continued to emerge for some years after the poet’s death, I think that by the 1980s the Nepali world had probably concluded that his published oeuvre was complete. It therefore came as a complete surprise to me, and I assume also to many others, when his son Dr. Padma Devkota suddenly published a collection of 30 essays his father had written in English in or around the year 1958, the penultimate year of his life.
"Cycling was the first political experience I acquired before I became an actual revolutionary against Ranarchy."
The book contains some fascinating autobiographical fragments. Devkota recalls that he "kicked away a Professor’s chair for Nepali literature in the Tri-Chandra College, Kathmandu" and "travelled with Mr. Prem Kansakar through mountains and forests to join our political colleagues at Benares." The poet "left behind him 'a family of six, with a helpless wife and small children… with a heart devoid of feeling; for in the high fever of political fervor those days we thought that the nation must be in any case served at the cost of a family.'" He was allowed to return to Kathmandu three years later, on the basis of a "strangely worded permit, with abundant verbal jugglery" which insinuated that he was seriously ill with "symptoms parallel to those of insanity" and would be permitted to return "on condition that he no longer continued the public expression of his political vagaries and mutterings." Elsewhere in the book, he recalls how at an earlier stage in his life he acquired and rode a bicycle at a time when commoners were not allowed even to ride horses in Kathmandu because it might set them above the heads of their Rana rulers. He writes of riding around the Tundikhel on moonlit nights, on the only tarred road in Kathmandu. "Cycling was the first political experience I acquired before I became an actual revolutionary against Ranarchy."
These fragments shed further light on a story that is already well known. The essays are extraordinary for other reasons. The first is the quality of their English. Some readers will probably assume that the poet’s son, who was until his recent retirement a Professor of English at Tribhuvan University, must have edited his father’s handwritten texts during the process of their transferral from the page to the computer screen, but I believe they would be wrong. I recall reading one of the essays, The Literature We Should Produce, many years ago after it somehow got into print in a Nepali student journal, and being astounded by its author’s mastery of the English language. Reading these essays in recent days, I wondered again how it was that a man who barely set foot outside Nepal until his self-imposed exile in Benares could have acquired such fluency. There is some quaintness here, of course: he is fond of the obscure word ‘casuistic’, for instance, and frequently refers to sycophancy as ‘toad-eating’, a formulation which is new to me. There are also a few unfitting Anglicizations, such as Nepalis working to earn their ‘daily brown bread’ instead of rice. But these are minor flaws when set beside passages such as Devkota’s rhapsodic description of the coming of the rainclouds to the baking plains of north India.
But the most extraordinary feature of this collection of essays, surely, is its powerful resonance for present-day Nepal. I think it must be rare for any voice to emerge from a nation’s past and speak to its present with such passion and clarity.
Devkota led a delegation of Nepali writers to the Afro-Asian Writers Conference in Tashkent in 1958, and this experience informs and influences many of the essays. He had already been diagnosed with cancer and was admitted to a hospital in Moscow for several weeks of treatment. In one of the longer essays, which compares his home city with Moscow, his depiction of the inequity, hypocrisy and corruption of Kathmandu society is piercing. He fears that he may have cast too many slurs upon it, but writes, "...if I love my people, I can only tell them the truth about themselves so that they understand themselves better and live better and work better." In Moscow he appreciates the "decent application of science and reason to the field of social and political organization" and adds, "[t]he Brahmin merely preaches what Moscow actually practices." He envies Soviet writers their government-funded Writers Unions. While these receive crores of government patronage, Nepali writers don’t even have cowries and their cultural unions are "stepsons to cabinets."
He fears that he may have cast too many slurs upon [Nepal], but writes, "...if I love my people, I can only tell them the truth about themselves so that they understand themselves better and live better and work better."
Devkota describes writers in his own country as having been "pushed back by a political tide, started by ourselves, that has rushed so far ahead of us, towards exploitative heights that we are left behind merely like scum and filth." What has been created, he says, is "a democracy without the people" in which "the ever frustrated, ever busy about nothing band of ruling personalities, temporarily installed on the cabinet chair with the sword of Damocles overhead, shuffle, shilly-shally, tell tales that ever end in smoke."
In the long essay, We Think of Ourselves First, Devkota pours out his anguish over the constraints of life in Nepal and the lack of any space or time for individuals to think of the greater, national good. The individual cannot rebel against these constraints, "for if he does, it means the holocaust of a family." Devkota offers himself as an example: he worked as a tutor for 14 hours a day and was only able to write for two hours: "a correct definition of a Nepalese writer would be that he is a man who thinks of himself for the greater part of his working day and of the nation or the world for a short two-hour interval in a state of overstrain and nervous disequilibrium."
The Mahakavi also has clear ideas about the role of literature and the kind of literature that would be of benefit to the Nepali people. He believes that Nepali democracy is "dominated by the subtle few" and that Nepali literature suffers from a parallel crisis. Its writers have lost sight of "the healthier side of the genius of our language" and they have used it as a mirror for self-admiration instead of working to secure a readership. He does seem to forget or ignore that fact that in 1958 only a tiny proportion of the population was literate, but he retains great faith in the democratizing power of literature: "We can make the masses read us, if we read their innermost visions first."
Devkota satirises Nepali society whimsically by investing certain animals with stereotypical human characteristics. The Cat is aloof, a 'jungle refugee', never quite fully domesticated and never quite at home, in the writer’s words, "like the member of a wild royal family in decay" with "the look of mortified aristocracy fallen on evil days." He prefers dogs but admits that they are more sycophantic than cats: the cat knows that "an unconditional surrender to another species is a biological mistake" and is contemptuous of the servitude that typifies the dog, which Devkota says has "the military mentality of palace sentinels." The cat is much cleverer: "outwardly acquiescent and inwardly revolutionary", but the Dog has divinized Man too much: "he has learned it from our top castes, this life of favor, this luxurious existence of grace."
Meanwhile, the Donkey is beaten, oppressed and treated with contempt as an untouchable, but cannot be made to admit the wisdom of human ways and has a sagacity of his own. And the Cow is the "Race-Mother of the Hindus", protected by what Devkota dubs "the Great Cow Creed", and conceptualized as holy by an "overwrought mystic imagination." Devkota protests against the "cow attitude" which holds the cow up as "the Mother Queen of mysticism and religious wars" and looks to the "healthier day" when "our Hindu heat will have cooled down to a more rational recognition of her…."
Several essays are distinguished by their passionate anger, and the depictions of the Ranas and their fall from power are particularly powerful. In the essay The Magic Circle is Broken, Devkota paints a rich textured picture of the Singha Durbar and its chief resident, the ‘Lion Man’, and the way in which the whole atmosphere within was dictated by "the tone of his daily digestion or of his sexual or religious satisfactions or frustrations." After the Lion Man’s fall, writes Devkota, the "towering Ranas left the country with their heavy bags, a measure of their noble patriotism!" and the "helpless lingerers of the family" had to come to terms with the need to use politer pronouns to address those they had always considered beneath them, though in their hearts they still considered themselves ‘superior gentlemen’.
One of the essays takes up the case of a couple found guilty of eating their own child, a case of which I had never heard before. Devkota describes them as "dressed in filthy rags with Mongoloid features" being dragged from court to court in the capital tied with ropes, "bewildered by a jeering, jostling scandalized world." But he sets out not to condemn but to defend them. As people who became parents in ‘mature puberty’ they did not know about the pains of childbirth or the unbearable burdens of parenthood, which they would have to bear while enduring what the author calls "the inhumanity of the social whip." Devkota says that the mother was starved for many winter days, and he asks the reader, "Can you doom human beings to famished wolfdom in your society or your state and expect normal standards of moral behavior from them?" He blames the affair on politicians and the state and says that it merely indicates the measure of dehumanization they have inflicted upon the people: "the State is reflected in the child-eating parent as clearly as a he-bear or a she-bear might recognize himself or herself in a clear pool of jungle waters after an orgy of blood."
Many of the essays are marked by religious scepticism and a remarkable degree of liberalism in matters of faith, which almost borders at times on humanism. "I have ten million protests against the thing called religion", he writes. "But I cannot ignore it altogether. It is what the people live by." In the light of this, Devkota says he has assured himself that "the intense humanism underlying the true spirit of religion is all that matters about it so far as its practical application to a social system of living is concerned." Elsewhere, he notes that the holy texts of all religions have embodied in them "almost identically basic principles of humanism and spiritualism" and admits that "you know inside your own depths that there is a spirit, a heaven and a hell for it, in spite of the violence of your reactions to the seemingly irrational demands of a race-religion which you cannot completely ignore."
Devkota’s reflections on his own Brahminhood, with which he has a complex relationship, are often agonized. On the one hand he admits to having "ancestral instincts (born a Brahmin) which I have not been able to completely override" but he implies that he has fallen short of standard expectations, and that in Benares it was so hot that he felt that he was "being burned at some aerial stake for my Brahminic apostasy." When he writes of ‘the Brahmin’ in the third person, however, his critique is both direct and devastating. The Brahmin’s belief in death "produces strongly pessimistic modes of thought and feeling." The Brahmin is "the ubiquitous, the omniscient and the omnipotent sprit." He is operative everywhere, "so that the top man and the bottom man, the Kshatriya ruler and the Brahmin beggar, actually determine according to the exigency of their whims and caprices, the destinies of the whole race or nation… The masses do not know where they are and are not allowed to know where they should be."
Perhaps the most unexpected feature of these essays is the flashes of humor they contain. I chuckled aloud over them several times. For instance, on the subject of the heat in Benares he writes, "You feel the sun-god is a god of terror there, not the god of goodness you felt him to be in Nepal. He declothes his people and makes for a perfect economy in textile fabrics, manufacturing a gentleman at Rs. 10 with a cobweb dhoti and kurta." The funniest of these essays is entitled Chicken Broth and relates how Devkota and his nephew conspire to cook a chicken while he is convalescing at the shrine of Adeshwar after major gastric surgery. His wife protests strongly against this violation of the sanctity of the place, but Devkota and Madan argue back and eventually the poet declares that his wife’s logic "had already taken a somersault into the air and stood on its head besmeared with ashes." The temple keeper discovers their crime and is obliged to go off "for a bath in the cold night" to purify himself from the 'defiling touch' of their actions. Devkota concludes that in this age of the Sputnik, "many bans and edicts of the holy had to be surreptitiously set aside, or violated on the sly, as a healthy step towards adaptability of the Brahmin spirit to the oncoming light of reason and materialism."
Indeed, the launching of the Sputnik satellite was a major influence on his thought and imagination. He felt that it marked the inauguration of a new age as it revolved "around the wide-eyed world." His aspiration to rationality and his innate poetic sensitivity interact with one another to produce interesting effects: for instance, he remarks that his encounters with ascetics account for "strange streams of thoughts and emotions in me crossed and retarded by huge boulders of scientific logic and materialistic reflections." In one essay he places himself under the sky and looks up at the stars, through which the Sputnik now forges its way: "Before the stars one cannot afford to be a prose-writer alone" he says, "But I do not definitely know before the stars whether I have become an imaginative scientist or a liberational mystic."
The title essay, which is on dhamis and jhankris, is an uneasy and rather unrepresentative mixture of rationality and paternalism. In Devkota’s view, the people turn to these traditional healers, whom he seems to regard as frauds, because the state has not provided them with proper medical services: "Poverty, so sucking, so direly malignant, must create illusions to keep its victims in a state of social equilibrium." Devkota looks at development and comes up with a curious phrase: "We are spoiling Nepal positively today. We breed discontent. We de-anaesthetize the turning millions." He represents the introduction of allopathic medicine as a "magic formula of state" but then states "…we are taking away their gods gradually from them, like colorful toys from the hands of crying children."
Ultimately, it is the concepts of truth, goodness and beauty that most greatly concern Devkota the poet, an admirer of William Wordsworth.
Ultimately, it is the concepts of truth, goodness and beauty that most greatly concern Devkota the poet, an admirer of William Wordsworth. He writes movingly about the evolution of his understanding of these "three fine rainbows on the clouds." Looking back on his life as a poet, he sees that they were "the best and most useful of my inspiring illusions" and goes on to explain poignantly, "[f]or what one believes in before one fully understands is something between fact and fiction, a matter of faith, a leaning on one side for expediency or personal pleasure. Facts end and reason fags where beliefs begin." The ultimate, unavoidable disillusionment is described as "a deplorable forfeiture of bliss." He states in a matter of fact tone: "But there it is that you are at last. It is something we all must bear."
And in 2018, here it is that Nepal is at last. Many Brahmins are still either dominant or agonized, the politicians’ promises all too often end in smoke, the ordinary person’s daily struggle for subsistence continues.
The Witch Doctor and Other Essays by Laxmi Prasad Devkota. (Kathmandu, Sangri-la Books, November 2017)
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Michael Hutt Michael Hutt is Professor of Nepali and Himalayan Studies at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), University of London. He received his BA in South Asian Studies and PhD in Nepali Literature from SOAS, and returned there as a British Academy postdoctoral research fellow in 1987. He has been teaching and researching Nepali language, literature, and culture at SOAS ever since, and has conducted research in Nepal, Darjeeling, Sikkim and Bhutan. At SOAS, Hutt served as a faculty dean from 2004 to 2010 and as director of the SOAS South Asia Institute 2014-17. He is currently researching the cultural and political impacts of the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal.
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