19 MIN READ
This week, we are lucky to have thoughts and tips from Buddhisagar, author of Karnali Blues.
Buddhisagar is possibly Nepal's most beloved writer. Karnali Blues heralded a new wave of fiction writing in Nepal and turned Buddhisagar into an overnight celebrity. An excellent recent translation by Michael Hutt will now bring Karnali Blues to an international audience and showcase the best of Nepali fiction. On top of all this, Buddhi is an extremely amiable and generous man who does a lot to inspire young people to write.
As I read through this, I was struck by what makes good fiction and how much that overlaps with the ingredients of good nonfiction. Buddhisagar writes of character development, compelling storytelling, and a search for accuracy. His prose itself is a lesson in the power of simplicity. And above all comes discipline, the daily devotion to getting words on the page. The line that struck me most from this essay was this one: “Despite how tired my mind was, I would still write four pages before sleeping.”
Buddhisagar is most famously the author of the two novels, Karnali Blues and Firfire. He is also a poet, a children’s book author, and was a journalist for Naya Patrika and Nagarik daily before turning to writing fiction and poetry full time.
And so, 12 years passed
If I hadn’t written Karnali Blues 12 years ago, I wouldn’t be who I am today.
Whenever exchanging introductions, I give my own name. The other person shakes their head. In their mind, a cloud appears to swirl. If I’m in a group, someone usually says, “He’s that author of Karnali Blues.”
And then, a smile dawns like the sun on the lips of the listeners.
It begins – a series of stories about how they read the book. How they realized how much they loved their fathers after reading the book. And how their fathers too have similar stories.
For 10 years, this is how Karnali Blues has connected me to my readers.
“Did you meet Chandra again?”
“Did Mandire go back home again?”
“Kathai, Mamata didi!”
“How is Batu?”
“Did Narmada study poetry?”
Readers and readers who have fathers say,
“After reading the book, I bought my father new pants.”
“I gave the book to my father.”
“I gave my father a hug.”
Those without fathers say,
“I thought of my father and cried.”
“I kissed my father’s photo with love.”
Those with poor relations with their fathers say,
“I cried realizing that fathers can be like this too.”
This is what readers ask. This is what they say. They have such intimate relationships with the characters that some even go to Katase Bazaar itself. Every now and then, relatives whose numbers I haven’t saved or whom I haven’t spoken to in a long time, call me. In loud voices, they ask, “Guess where I am at the moment?”
I know immediately that they are in Katase. They are standing on the ground that they had only read about. Some even say they feel like they’ve entered a city of ancestral grief.
Some readers send me photos of Manma. “The old house described in Karnali Blues is there! Here is a photo of me standing in front of it,” they say.
Some look for Mandiray when they are there. They ask, “If not in Manma, is there someone named Mandiray Pandey in Dillikot?”
I say, “Mandiray is just a fictional character.”
Most of the characters in Karnali Blues, I say, are fictional. They don’t believe me. Some ask for photos. Some look for those characters in the places in my story.
Perhaps, this is the greatest achievement for any author.
When I wrote the first page of Karnali Blues in a dark room in Ghattekulo, I had no inkling that the book would become so beloved by readers. I had set out on a journey into the past after being stung by starvation and the city’s confusion.
Entering Kathmandu had led me to failure, loneliness, and worries about a dark future. Every night brought about nightmares and in the midst of every nightmare, I saw my father. Some nights, when I went to bed hungry, my father would come into my dreams and reaching into the inside of his waist coast, he’d take out a few notes that smelled like a night bus and say, “Here, take it, you have no money.”
Have you ever experienced a good smell or a stench in your dreams?
When I woke, my father wasn’t there and neither was the money he had given me. All that remained were the same shortages, the same hunger, the same frustrated morning.
All morning, the memories of my deceased father made me restless. When he died, I was an unsuccessful poet. And my father knew – poems don’t fill the stomach. Perhaps even after death, he was still worried about me. That’s why he kept coming to my dreams. Perhaps, he was troubled he left when his youngest son still had a confused, undecided future.
When I became a feature writer for Naya Patrika daily, readers liked my prose. Many told me, “Someone with such a way with words should write a novel.”
It was a bright, sunny day.
I arrived at Chabahil at midday. I had just interviewed Bairagi Kainla and I thought that I couldn’t return from Chabahil without meeting Govinda Bartaman. He appeared within 15 minutes of my phone call.
Sipping on some black tea at one of Chabahil’s old tea shops, he asked, “What are you writing these days?”
From out of my mouth jumped, “I’m writing a novel.”
He smiled. “What’s it about?”
“About my father.”
I told him about some of the images in my head.
He shook his head. “Ok, but first you need to finish it.”
A year and a half after the book was published, he told me how I had hurt his feelings: “Buddhisagar, you never let me read the manuscript.”
I started Karnali Blues with a thin, cheap notebook. Every morning and evening, I wrote four pages each. Writing the book, I reentered the past I had left behind. I traveled through time. What if this had happened then, what if that had happened instead, I fixed them myself. Perhaps, this is fiction’s elixir.
At Naya Patrika, I was busy writing all day. I would get home late at night. Despite how tired my mind was, I would still write four pages before sleeping. I would wake up at around 9 in the morning and head out to a tea shop on the far side of the Dhobikhola with my notebook under my arm. Porters frequented that tea shop. They had namlos around their shoulders. At around 9.30, they would all leave for work and the tea shop would empty out. I would sit at a corner table and start writing.
At first, I would ask the owner for this and that. Afterwards, he knew by heart what I wanted. I would sit to write. He would place tea, chana, tea, cigarettes, more tea on my table. I spent months at that table. After some time, if anyone else was sitting at that table when I arrived, they would smile and get up. It was like it was my table alone.
Writing in the morning at the tea shop and in my own room in the evenings, Karnali Blues was already half complete. A smart man once said, “Writing a novel is like driving without headlights in the pitch darkness of the dead of night.” I kept driving. Four notebooks eventually filled with letters that looked like the crawl of ants dipped in ink.
One day, I came home from the office and looked for my notebook. I couldn’t find it. I began to get restless. I looked everywhere but couldn’t find it anywhere. Under my mattress, under my bed, on my bamboo rack, it was nowhere to be found. I began to sweat.
My room was small. My bed occupied half of it and there was just one table, a few dishes and a stove in the rest. There was no space to misplace the notebook. After thinking long, I figured that I must have left the notebook at the tea shop. That night, I didn’t sleep well. I would fall asleep, only to awaken with a start.
I only fell into a deep sleep in the morning. In my dreams, I saw a flood in a river. I was walking along some cliffs with my notebook under my arm. There was a slight drizzle. I slipped on the road and my notebook fell into the waters. I ran along the banks. When I awoke from my nightmare, it was already 7 am. I ran towards the tea shop.
The owner and patrons were surprised to see me so early in the morning. They began to question me, not because I came early but because they could see the desperation on my face. I asked the owner about the notebook. He told me, “You had taken it with you when you left.”
But I never took my notebooks to the office. I tried to recall everywhere I had been the previous day. But I had gone straight to the office and come straight home. Did my notebook walk away on its own?
Standing in the middle of the old bridge over the Dhobikhola, my head began to spin. I thought, maybe this book wasn’t meant to be written.
By the time I returned to my room, I believed that I wouldn’t find my notebook. It felt like I had been rudely awoken from a sweet dream. Lying on my bed and wiping away my sweat, my eyes happened upon a plastic bag. It had a t-shirt that I had bought the previous day.
My heart began to beat like the wings of a small bird. I had purchased the t-shirt at a shop in Maitidevi. Perhaps I had left the notebook there. I rushed to Maitidevi. From across the street, I saw that the shop was closed. I stood there for about an hour and a half, watching the closed shutter, dodging the elbows and umbrellas of passersby. At nine in the morning, the shutter was raised. I rushed across the street, pushing away speeding tempos, taxis, and motorcycles. The owner was wiping away dust from the counter with a cloth.
Hoping to make the first sale of the day, he smiled. I asked in a quavering voice, “I bought a t-shirt here yesterday. I had a notebook with me, did I leave it here?” Surprised, the owner began to rummage under the counter. My breath caught in my throat. Either the last rays of hope would arise or my situation would be as cold as a lump of dying ember.
When he brought out the notebook, I felt like I had leapt up into the air. Afraid of losing it again, I wanted to clutch the notebook to my chest. But the shop owner was leafing through the notebook. Perhaps he thought that it was an expense record. Handing the notebook back to me he said, “None of the pages are empty. Each page has been written on. If any pages had been empty, the notebook would likely have been lost. There are many Call break addicts here.”
I had reached the end of the fourth notebook when Ajit Baral [publisher of Fine Print] came to meet me. He had heard that I was writing a novel. In our very first meeting, he promised to publish the book, encouraging me further. (Squatting on the Thamel sidewalks amid loud noises, he had heard many stories from the novel.)
So encouraged, I finished the fourth notebook. In the story, I had just left Katase. But after that, I don’t know what happened, my pen wouldn’t move. My mind was clouded. I told myself, “I’ll write tomorrow,” and a month went by.
Elsewhere, my journalist friends from Naya Patrika had left to open up a new daily paper. But I still had to fill the newspaper pages and that meant that my notebook remained empty. The stress of writing for the paper was so great that one day, a smile drew blood from my cracked, dry lips. Either I had to give up on the paper or my novel.
In the midst of this dilemma, I ran into journalist Sudeep Shrestha. Over coffee at a tiny restaurant in Kamalpokhari, he told me that he wanted to welcome me into the new daily. The paper would take another three months to come out but he wanted me to join immediately. Sipping on my coffee, I thought, if I joined, I would get a salary for three months without having to do much work. In those three months, I would finish my novel.
I had already told Sudeep that I would join him when I began to get agitated. No one had replaced the journalists who had left Naya Patrika. How could I tell them that I too was leaving?
That day, I had tea with Naya Patrika editor Krishna Jwala Devkota at a small tea shop in Kamalpokhari. Dunking a donut into my tea, I told him about my decision to leave. Hearing this, he only smiled slightly.
On the way back, he asked, “When will you leave?”
“I’ll be going to the Jaipur Literature Festival next week. When I return, I won’t be coming back this way,” I said a little awkwardly. “Do I need to write a resignation?”
“No need,” he said, patting my back. “Think of it as a break. Our paper is always open to you.”
I had lied to him. There were three weeks before Jaipur. I thought that I would concentrate on writing in the meantime. But I didn’t write a single word. My daily routine turned into putting my notebooks into a black plastic bag, drinking tea, and telling my friends that this is the novel. Eventually, I stopped carrying the notebooks. This novel is not for me, I thought. I didn’t even know if what I had written was any good.
At the Jaipur Literary Festival, it was all there, energy, excitement and a fascination with writing. Orhan Pamuk was there. As was Ben Okri. JM Coetzee. Gulzar. Books and words, writers and readers. Another planet for writing. On the third day of the festival, I was full of excitement and energy. On the way from the hotel to the convention, Dinesh Kafle and I were in the same rickshaw. He asked me, “When you get back, what are you thinking of doing?”
Tightening my fist, I said, “I will finish the novel.”
Upon returning, I finished the novel.
The book was completed at a press near the Gyaneshwor downhill. I had reached there just to see the newly cut book. Putting a fresh copy into an envelope, I got into a tempo and headed towards Sinamangal. (I had already joined the new Nagarik daily by then and I had switched to a flat in Sinamangal.) It felt awkward to rip open the envelope and caress the book inside so once I got off the tempo, I ran towards my flat. Inside, I sat holding the book until late. I turned every page, from the first till the last. Then, I flipped from the last to the first. It was like flipping through the pages of my own soul. I turned the pages for about a month, until the book itself started to fall apart.
And so, 12 years passed. Karnali Blues wasn’t written by Buddhisagar; the one who wrote Karnali Blues became Buddhisagar.
Buddhisagar on discipline
It takes me around three years to finish a novel and during that entire time, I am very disciplined. Every day, I write 800 words and I keep up that pace until the book is finished. Many years ago, at the Jaipur Literary Festival, a writer whose name I’ve forgotten had said, “I’ve published 21 books. You might think that I write day and night but that’s not true. I only write 250 words a day but I write every single day.”
I don’t get lazy and say nothing came to me today so I’ll write tomorrow. Whatever comes, that’s what I write. The next day, if I am not satisfied with what I had written the day before, I delete it and write again. I believe that writers need to build discipline and soon, writing will be easier since it will become a habit.
I also don’t panic about finishing the book. I enjoy the verses, dialogues, images, and symbols that emerge every day. I’ve written in cafes for so long that noise doesn’t affect me. I only ask that people don’t bother me when I am writing.
Buddhisagar on authenticity and accuracy
Before I start any book, I think about whether I am suitable for the subject. Does the subject fall within my sphere of knowledge? When the book is published, will the society and community I am writing about find themselves represented accurately? So I only write about the subjects that I can write authentically about. That’s why I close in on my own experiences, my people, and my land. To narrow things down in this way allows one to expand upon a moment in time.
I also think to myself that I am not the only writer in the world. If I was, then I would think about providing different flavors each time to my readers. But there are thousands of writers writing thousands of books. So I move towards that narrow lane that I can talk about in an interesting way.
Buddhisagar on style
That is also why I give due importance to the style. Whatever a writer writes has value but ‘how’ the story has been written has its own value. Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas, Dhurba Chandra Gautam’s Alikhit and Toni Morrison’s Beloved are all known for their style. I read somewhere that there are only five stories in the world but thousands of books are written on those five stories because writers have their own styles and language. The writer’s identity is in their language and style.
Buddhisagar on depicting a small corner of the world
These days, the internet has made it easy to look up reviews of the book before you start reading. If the book doesn’t have style or language and the writer themselves doesn’t have a good grasp of the material then a reader’s interest towards that book will swiftly decline. I had heard at the Jaipur Literary Festival that readers are tilting more towards nonfiction than fiction. That’s because readers want to give their time and focus to books that will teach them something authentic. That’s why I don’t want to write a lot of books. I just want to write books that readers will read and feel –
“I am reading a small story from a small corner of the world, something that we have experienced, that we knew but had forgotten, written by someone from around there, in a slightly different way.”
Tom Robertson Tom Robertson, PhD, is an environmental historian who writes about Kathmandu and Nepali history. His Nepali-language video series on writing, 'Mitho Lekhai', is available on Youtube. His most recent article, 'No smoke without fire in Kathmandu’, appeared on March 5 in Nepali Times.
10 min read
Except for a few, most Nepali authors are compelled to pursue writing on the side while they work other jobs to make ends meet. But why is it so difficult to earn a living through writing?
6 min read
When we hide behind ji, dai and didi, ageist and patriarchal relations take over the workspaces, and that is hard to shake off.
5 min read
“My writing is like a playground where I want readers to interpret their own meanings, find their own understanding in my words."
12 min read
This week, series editor Tom Robertson reflects on writing and Writing Journeys, and distills everything he’s learned into sound advice.
6 min read
Since a lot of academic writing is unnecessarily difficult to follow, here are easy tips from accomplished academics on how to write simply, clearly, and succinctly.
9 min read
This week on Writing Journeys, anthropologist Mukta S Tamang details learning to write in Nepali as a second language and English as a third, and how language is power.
6 min read
Tim Gurung reflects on his journey of writing a book that traces the history of the Gurkhas, why he wrote it and the lessons we can take away from it.
3 min read
Covid-19 forced Jaquir Mansuri to cancel his daughter’s wedding and delay his plans for retirement but the pandemic is not over yet and Mansuri has gone back to work.