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“Shankar Lamichhane is so well-read…his writing is so good.”

“Shankar Lamichhane is so innovative…his writing so good.”

“Shankar Lamichhane imitates international styles in his writing…his writing is so good.”

“Shankar Lamichhane shows off in his writing…his writing is so good.”

“Shankar Lamichhane is merely wading in writing…his writing is so good.”

“Shankar Lamichhane dives deep into writing…his writing is so good.”

“Shankar Lamichhane has started commercializing literature, sitting in that shop…his writing is so good.”

“It’s clear that by writing the preface to Shirishko Phool, Shankar Lamichhane came to literary prominence…his writing is so good.”

“The issues of Rup-Rekha that contain Shankar Lamichhane’s pieces fly off the shelves; please send us additional copies…his writing is so good.”

“Shankar Lamichhane’s writing is so hollow…his writing is so good.”

“To understand Shankar Lamichhane’s writing, one needs to use the brain…his writing is so good.”

“In the context of Nepali literature, Shankar Lamichhane is an uber-modern, powerful writer…his writing is so good.”

The first part of these various expressions regarding Shree Shankar Lamichhane’s writing might contain mixed opinions but the second part is unilateral: his writing is so good.

The only child of Shree Harihar Prasad Lamichhane and his first wife, Shankar Lamichhane was born in the spring of 1928 in Kathmandu, but he had to move in with his mother’s family to Banaras soon after turning one. After remaining in exile for eleven years, he returned to Kathmandu and completed intermediate level studies at Tri-Chandra college. At Tri-Chandra, he was a student of Bal Krishna Sama and Laxmi Prasad Devkota. When his father passed away in 1949, he was compelled to quit his education and get a job – this was the beginning of Shankar Lamichhane’s struggles. To make ends meet, he worked at places like the Guthi office of Shree Teen’s government, the Nepal India Cultural Centre (which is part of the Embassy of India), Jana Sewa Cinema Hall and after 1961, he started working independently as a businessman. He dealt with curios but even this did not suit him. Currently, he is a manager at a private company that sells artisanal goods. 

“Hello! Is manager saheb there?”

“…”

“Could you please tell him that Uttam Kunwar is calling?”

“…”

“Oho. Namaskar Shankar dai. I wanted to meet you once and have a long conversation…”

“…”

“It might take about four to five hours, maybe longer, but not less than that. The main topic will be literature and your life.”

“…”

“New job; you must be quite busy. Meetings, new organization, that’s how it is. Alright, we can go home together on Sunday evening. Namaskar.”

***

“You have been involved in several ventures in order to sustain yourself. You have gone through ups and downs, been here and there; yet the situation remains unchanged. Do you still think life is honorable? If so, is it because life is worth the struggle or is it because you feel responsible towards the family you have created?”

“I never put such a big question to my life. I enjoy living and I enjoy the struggle even more. That leaves family – can’t live with it and can’t live without it.”

“This brings us back to the same point. Simply put, are you living for the sake of the struggle?”

“I’ll also provide a simple answer. Life is struggle. Without struggle, life becomes a constricted existence within the bounds of a cage, suffocating.”

I keep these two separate. Struggle is my life, and literature? Literature is my hobby. I never let one dominate the other. 

“What is the relationship between your life-struggle and literature? How do you think it should be?”

“I keep these two separate. Struggle is my life, and literature? Literature is my hobby. I never let one dominate the other. Yes, there have been moments when I have relished their intermixture.”

“So for you, literature is limited to being a hobby? It has never been more than that? Could it ever be more than that?”

“From a historical perspective, literature has never been a profession in Nepal (let’s not discuss the sycophantic chakari). That’s why I’ve accepted it as a hobby. As for the refrain that literature should serve, form society’s beliefs, and develop one’s country – I have never believed that. You know that my literary life started with love-letters. I wrote love-letters for myself and for others. Even while composing a new piece these days, an obscure face appears before my eyes – I write for that. That face is as conscious as I am, even more conscious. And that face is yet to achieve clarity. So I will dare to say that I do not write for the public because the public, at the very least, has a political face.”

“You just mentioned, ‘You know that my literary life started with love-letters…’ You have told me all about this. But the reader is unaware. Should we keep this away from the readers?”

“Whoa. You are the editor of Rup Rekha! Didn’t you publish ‘Shankar Lamichhane/Shankar Lamichhaneko Drishtima’?

“Bijay dai also responded to a similar question in this way: ‘This is for the readers of Rup-Rekha’. But we are preparing for Srasta ra Sahitya now.”

“Okay, then. That was a phase from my youth. I don’t even want to remember those faces because some of them must have become grandmothers by now. At least, a few of them definitely have young girls. Whatever I say today, those young girls might end up reading it. That’s why I don’t want to talk about their mothers. The other thing concerns my foundation. The foundation is always underground. Whatever building came up, it’s in front of you – do you want me to demolish the building to show you the foundation? And my wife is upstairs; it’s better if we don’t discuss this. It’s just that I don’t want my wife to feel proud of the fact that compared with everyone else, she was able to stick with me.”

Shanker Lamichhane. Photo credit: Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya

“So there hasn’t been anyone else after Ratna bhauju?”

“Well, legally speaking, no.”

“Considering how much you dwell on men/women relationships, what is the role of sex in life?” 

“How about you rephrase the question like this – ‘What is the significance of life in sex? The question is itself pregnant with the answer.”

“Not only that, I’m also curious about your take on the limits of ‘sexual freedom’ that everyone is talking about these days.”

“This issue has been raised in various ways in the world. But most of the people who bring this up with me do not understand the gravity of sexual relationships. Associating ‘freedom’ with sex is foolish. The literal manifestation of ‘sexual freedom’ would be masturbation in public. Achieving sex – at the very least, achieving sexual bliss – cannot happen in freedom. For this, a partner who has a similar disposition and a similar expression is important. This can happen only when one is immersed in a purely emotional realm. There is no freedom here, neither is it possible to discuss this outside of the experience or with anyone else other than the partner. Using sex in literature the way salt is used to add flavor to food is a different matter. But only those who have approached sex in a literary way are acquainted with its essence.”

  “This was about using literature in sex; now let’s hear about the usage of sex in literature. And let’s not limit our conversation to Nepali literature. How about we take world literature into account and include writers like Moravia, Miller, Lawrence and Nabakov?”

“Sure. Like I just said, it’s possible to sprinkle sex in literature like salt in food and the result might even be savory, but sometimes too much salt makes the dish unpalatable. In literature, we have found various kinds of usage. Some do it for commercial purposes, keeping the readers’ capacity and the collective national consciousness in mind. You are aware of the period after the end of the two world wars when sexual literature was quite famous in Europe. There’s a reason for that. Readers terrorized by war and facing economic hardships wanted detachment from their physical and mental frailties. Pornography could easily provide a momentary outlet. You might remember Alberto Moravia. In his stories and novels, he has portrayed the mental distress of those in Italy caught in the turmoil of the Second World War. His success was contextual; I don’t consider those to be Moravia’s best works. Henry Miller also provides an illustration. His Tropic of Cancer strongly presents the general French sentiment after the First World War. You must have read the article published this year in which Henry Miller himself dismissed that novel as ‘nonsense’. Even though I am very fond of his style and expressions in Tropic of Cancer, I think The Man at the Foot of the Ladder is his best work.” 

 I am merely human whose greatest virtue comes from being flawed. 

“You are becoming a puritan. You used to be different before!”

“It’s not that I have become a puritan, but I’ve probably matured when it comes to sex. It’s no longer a source of headache. These days, I even look for styles in sex.”

“Do people get these thoughts due to advanced age or increasing wisdom? How has your experience been, regarding this?”

“Are these two entirely separate? Well, you might say that age does not necessarily guarantee wisdom. What I’ll say is –  being wise does not require one to be old! Actually, the thing is, one has to earn one’s wisdom whereas maturity comes by itself. If one can balance these two, life can be relished in a whole new way…”

“The way you are relishing yours…?”

“That’s right.”

“What do you think about sexual encounters for the sake of momentary pleasure outside of marriage? Please don’t limit this question to the bounds of law.”

“Whoa. You combined another topic with this one. The question is rather personal and the answer depends on specific contexts. I am not an ethical personal, neither am I immoral. I am merely human whose greatest virtue comes from being flawed. Those flaws have their own merits, which in turn help me create literature. There is a saying in Hindi – ‘It is what it is’. That’s all.”

“I didn’t intend to pry into your personal life. I was indirectly trying to gauge whether you consider sex from the perspective of religion and sin. Anyway, as you put down in your own words, ‘It is what it is’.”

“I don’t agree with your description at all. Concepts like religion and sin are not concrete. They are relative whereas sex is concrete. How could you recklessly compare something real with something unreal? That which is considered religious during one period can become sin in another period. One nation’s (or person’s) religion becomes another nation’s (or person’s) sin; even the same religion gets interpreted in two different ways. Then how can we dare to explain sex on the basis of religion, sex that provides the utmost pleasure, provides life? Religion and law prohibit prostitution; if every religion has a dictate against prostitution, it’s a clear proof that prostitution preceded religion. Religion and sin are always in flux; relying on their relativity makes life confusing.” 

“Is the definition of religion and sin limited to its relativity? Do you not think there is value in its philosophical aspect that has been guiding human history and traditions since antiquity?”

“I have a different understanding of the word ‘philosophy’. To me, philosophy is that which I have seen. Perhaps that is also the meaning of the word philosophy. There are certainly some philosophical ideas seen and expressed by others which are quite great. But one can’t say, in a personal way, that those ideas are a hundred percent right because people tend to accept traditions like Buddhism which turned Buddha, who did not believe in god, into a God. And if we are to discuss philosophy, my favorite is the philosophy of Buddhism, especially its emptiness. As for your question – is the definition of religion and sin limited to its relativity? – I feel that if the same idea is expressed in two different ways, it becomes relative.”

“You just mentioned that you like emptiness in philosophy. I think you have expressed a similar idea in the preface to Parijat’s Shirishko Phool. But you might remember that once after reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, you became a fan of Objectivism and said something different?”

Read also: ‘I don’t have faith in this thing called God,’ Conversation with Parijat from 1963

“It wasn’t like that. But since you have brought it up – A young country like America has not figured out its purpose; that’s why Objectivism is necessary there. I read Ayn Rand’s work as if I were an American and thus was able to sympathize with the theory. In our old country, where there are thousands of gods, scores of religions, and dozens of philosophies, many objectives have been revealed … that’s why we’ve tended to favour our country’s youngest philosophy, which is emptiness. In the future, if a new way emerges and I’m still alive and like it, if you come over and interview me in the same way, it’s possible that my answer will be different. Today, since we are here, perhaps this is the best option for us?”

“To what extent have you been able to apply this emptiness in your practical life?”

“What are you talking about! To me, emptiness is still an ‘objective’ and if my objective becomes empty, then I might have to struggle to eat. These days, I’ve been playing games between emptiness and objectivity and even I am not able to figure out my own philosophy. You might have forgotten – I said that I like emptiness; I did not say that I adhere to the principle.”

“Let’s drop this web of words…Religion, sin, sex, philosophy – is it necessary for literature to incorporate all this?” 

“There is nothing as close to humans as literature. Religion, sin, sex, philosophy, and so on, in their realistic and fantastical forms, are all things that humans initiated. Literature in its entirety is a pure reflection of humanity. Everything mentioned above are parts of literature, but literature is not a part of anything. If you ask me what the definition of a soul is, I will give you a one-word answer: literature!”

“Actually, what is literature from the perspective of a writer?”

“The expression of that which one has seen, experienced and wanted.”

“Would you elaborate? This is rather brief.”

“It is. If one were to collect the explanations for literature, it won’t be less than the four Vedas put together and every person might have a different explanation. (Just like the descriptions of the woman you prefer and the woman I prefer will not be the same).”

“Shall we eat now? It’s ready.” All of a sudden, Ratna bhauju’s voice was heard and she made her entrance into the room.

Situated on a slope in Chhauni, Lamichhane-ji’s rented house stood alone, away from everything else, just like him. In the silence of the night, only our voices were audible. Now and then, the rumble of trucks on the way to Trishuli attempted to attack our peace, but they left just as they came; our conversation flowed merrily. We were on the ground floor, inside the ‘drawing room’ (Lamichhane-ji’s phrase). He was leaning against the couch and I was leaning against the bookcase. The white-fabric decoration of the room added a certain warmth and auspiciousness to our calm presence. Their daughter Sikha had gone upstairs to sleep, disappointed, after not getting all the answers to her questions from us. 

My identity as a writer encompasses the poet.

 

“Let’s continue this over dinner?”

“Sure. Let’s not make bhauju wait too long; and she is a bit unwell.”

“Oh. It’s not about the waiting; I have already eaten. I interrupted the conversation assuming that you two must be hungry. Ok, then. I’ll have them get the food ready.”

“Please do.”

The food arrived, we started to eat and tried to finish what we had left unfinished. 

“Have you also categorized literature into classics and contemporary?”

“I have. Those that are getting written are contemporary; those that have been written are classics; those that haven’t been read are contemporary and those that have been read are classics. But Time manages to imprint itself in every work. Even those considered to be postmodern cannot be more modern than the time period during which it was created. As for style – if the style cannot inspire the collective intelligence, then that kind of writing doesn’t get read anyway. If you are assessing contemporaneity based on style, then your question is legitimate; otherwise the question itself is meaningless.”

“Let’s peek into poetry now. You used to write poems before (since I haven’t seen them in newsmagazines these days, I used the past tense). You are definitely regarded as a poet too, aren’t you?”

“My identity as a writer encompasses the poet.  Even though I started my literary journey with the publication of prose, I learnt to play with words by dabbling with poetry. And, in a way, I have a degree of pride. Once, when a group of friends were criticizing Nepali literature for being very weak, I decided to strengthen the prose. In the same way, when it was pointed out that Nepali literature does not have science fiction, I focused my attention towards that. When it was brought up that there is a lack of essays, I started writing them. And once my friend Ishwar Baral said, ‘Nepali literature does not have any story written in the future tense.’ So I wrote Ma Bholi Janmanechhu. One way of looking at it is this – I am merely patching the holes of Nepali literature. I used the Japanese haiku style just to bring in something new in poetry because Nepali was getting unclear and confusing and I think that poetry should not be ambiguous. The haiku style has only one goal – the portrayal of one emotion, one expression, by arranging words in the 5/7/5 pattern in three lines. Perhaps this is the ultimate expression of poetry? That’s why I used haiku. As for the wish to display rigorous intellectual activity in poems – I think prose is a stronger and a more conducive medium for that.” 

“So you created different kinds of literary works after being inspired by complaints from your friends regarding different topics. But one thing remains disheartening – your friends did not bemoan the fact that there are very few excellent novels in Nepali literature. Will you accept my complaint?”

“Right on. Because I am currently writing to address that. I have completed almost half of King Tribhuwan’s biography and if I can dare, I will get it published within a couple of years. I was hoping for sooner, but I had to embrace struggle more than literature; that’s why literature got delayed. And you know that literature is merely a hobby for me; I will complete it when I have time. That’s it. I chose a very difficult topic for the novel; but since I have dove in, I’ll also swim through.”

“So you haven’t taken literature seriously at all? You only write as a hobby?”

“Yes, what’s the point of gravity in literature? I haven’t taken even my own life seriously to this day. I was born as a result of my father and mother’s pleasure and I will die offering pleasure to millions of tiny organisms; there is no room for seriousness. And if I embrace seriousness in writing, who is going to read my work? Nepalis are poor; they don’t have an interest larger than borrowing books. So why should I infringe upon the patriotism of my friends? If I publish a book, the first edition will not run out even if I gift it to everyone. That’s why it’s possible that my historical novel will see the light of day in a foreign country in a foreign language; I will endorse it if I have to.”

“That means, for now, we’ll get to see your work only in newsmagazines. The possibility of a book seems unlikely.”

“How about you organize the ones that have already been published? As for the newer ones, I have been thinking of a plan.”

“Out of the ones already out there, which one is your favorite? Surely you are not one of those who claim that all our children are the same? Among the various creations written to solve various problems, there are a few I like very much. Would you mind highlighting some of them?”

“Among science fiction, Maya No. 653 and among the ones written in the future tense, Ma Bholi Janmanechhu; regarding essays, Abstract Chintan Pyaaz and when it comes to stories, ‘Ardhamoodit Nayan’ and ‘Doobna Lageko Ghaam’. When it comes to personal narratives, ‘Shankar Lamichhane/Shankar Lamichhaneko Drishtima’ and out of the poems, ‘Mero Najanmeko Chhora’. As for prefaces, the one I wrote for Parijat’s Shirishko Phool.”

‘You are very fond of the preface to Parijat’s novel. You must be aware that the controversy it sparked is as great as your fondness. You were accused of taking improper advantage of Parijat’s fame, of demonstrating conceit and according Parijat undue importance (or not emphasizing the significance of her contribution enough). What do you have to say about this?”

“That novel is a substantial accomplishment in Nepali literature. As for the preface – a grand accomplishment deserves a grand preface. And I don’t think I have given credit to myself. It’s possible that subconsciously I was aware that I had undertaken an important task, so some parts of the preface might have gotten laced with that pride; but if you read it carefully, I have written several other pieces in a similar style. As for the controversy – I feel that controversy is a sign of a novel’s success. Nepal’s literary sphere is such that no one gets discussed; a couple of people sit in a corner and gossip, and only a few pieces see the light of publication. And Parijat is the first Nepali woman to inspire debate in Nepal. That’s why she has became a candidate for accolades. You must have noted that much of the criticism has been directed to my style but very few have spoken at length about the novel’s philosophical aspects.”

Read also: “I’ve been writing a memoir…” – Bhupi Sherchan

“At one point in the preface, you have written, ‘The future also belongs to Parijat’. Surely, you must be planning to make your historical novel better than Sirish ko Phool! That means, you are about to snatch away the future that you yourself offered to Parijat. Now, either you have to retract that statement or if you write a novel, you have to make sure that it’s not better than Sirish ko Phool, right?”

“No. Parijat and I work in entirely different ways. And the other thing – in literature, if a writer possesses the present, no one can snatch the future from her. Appropriation by imitation is a different matter. And I do not intend to appropriate someone’s future through imitation.”

“When it comes to Nepali literature, is Sirishko Phool the only one you like or are there other creations you are fond of?”

“There are plenty of others.”

“What are some names?”

“Devkota’s poems, Ambar’s songs, Bhupi’s satires, Gothale’s stories, a couple of Bijaya’s plays and Rimal’s prose.”

“Regarding contemporary poets – what I mean is, out of the young poets these days, do you not like any of their works other than Bhupi’s satire?”

“I have been paying close attention to their activities and they have caused an impact. But they haven’t been able to completely draw me in.”

“And regarding foreign literature?”

“Can literature ever be foreign?”

“I meant, literature that has been composed in a foreign language.”

“In that case, it’s not possible to name each one. From the classics to the contemporary, whatever passes before my eyes, I read them, like them, get inspired and sometimes even translate them. If I must mention some of the names, they are William Saroyan, Anais Nin, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durell, Salinger and Tennesse Williams. I have only mentioned the ones who are alive. (And you know that I also study pornographic literature quite a bit; I think we both do. Out of those, I love Restif de la Bretonne’s works. I have read them two or three times.)”

“Your married life must be prosperous. I have assumed that the two of you have a proper understanding. What kind of role does your wife have in your literary life? May I know that? To be clearer, can we let others know about this? This is rather personal; still…”

“By being a symbol, being an inspiration, and raising conflicts, she is always providing subject matter to me to create literary work. What can be a more successful outcome of married life than this?”

“Is that right, bhauju?”

As a response, she merely smiled. 

September 18, 1966

 

Shankar Lamichhane was born on March 17, 1928 in Jaisi Dewal, Kathmandu. Famous for his experiments with styles, sentences and presentations, Lamichhane is one of the most revered essayists in the field of Nepali literature. He has been credited for being an early adopter of the stream of consciousness style, and his collection of essays, Abstract Chintan: Pyaaj, was awarded the 1967 Madan Puraskar. Lamichhane passed away at the age of 48. This is a translation by Niranjan Kunwar of an article from Uttam Kunwar’s anthology of interviews, Srasta ra Sahitya (Authors and Literature), published by the Uttam Kunwar Memorial Award Fund.