10 MIN READ
An interview from 1962 reveals the inner workings of the celebrated writer’s mind
We were forbidden to take the Lord’s name. There was widespread terror; everyone was scared. Darkness and ignorance ruled. It was as if we lived in Hiranyakashyapu’s time. But the astonishing fact is that there was a period in Nepal similar to the darkness described in the Puran. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, a similar kind of terror reemerged. The other astonishing fact-- during Hiranyakashyapu’s time, it wasn’t just him, there was also Pralhad. In other words, during an evil reign, a virtuous person was born; and in Nepal, when Hiranyakashyapu’s evil reign was repeated, a person just like Pralhad was born. One might bite a finger in disbelief at the similarity in the experiences of these two Pralhads. When the first Pralhad took the Lord’s name as an attempt to spread light, he was thrown off a mountain and when the second Pralhad wrote Aryaghat, also an attempt to spread light, he was chased off a mountain and compelled to discontinue his education. The one from the past was kept away from religious service whereas the one from the present was kept away from serving society through literature. Actually, upon pondering, one can’t find much difference between the intentions of these two. History truly repeats itself.
The first Pralhad rebelled against his clan, successfully sang religious sermons, provided peace and prosperity to the citizens and the nation. It was definitely a great deed. The achievements of our Pralhad from the present is also comparable.
The person being discussed is Balkrishna Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana who was deeply impacted by the sacrifice of martyr Nhuchheratna in the year 1951. Wanting to step into the ordinary public sphere, he abandoned the ‘sher’ in order to purify his name and only went by Balkrishna Sama. Most Nepalis are probably aware of Balkrishna Sama’s contribution to Nepali language, literature and art. When it comes to a refined prose-style and a powerful usage of Anushtop prosody in poetry, no other contemporary Nepali writer comes to mind. It is difficult enough to create literary work; but to create literary work and become involved in its publicity and development during the Rana regime was no small feat-- the Rana regime, which, as described above, was repeating Hiranyakashyapu’s evil reign.
“Love is the main religion; people prosper only with love. One ought to write and speak up only as long as it furthers a loving cause and develops humanity. I believe in physical science and I also believe that there is a lot to learn from it. But physical science does not contain adequate moral knowledge that is necessary for humanity. There is a lack but I also believe that this lack will get fulfilled in the future.” Shree Sama was expressing his hope towards scientific advancement, this man who was once hopeless due to the sudden death of his eldest son. But after becoming acquainted with the ideas of Shukraraj Shastri and Punjab’s Lala Hardayal, he realized that he had been immature. He decided to adopt a new worldview and move on.
We were sitting on chairs in the middle of a lawn in front of Shree Sama’s house, enjoying the midday warmth of a wintry month. But my conversation with Sama-ji was giving me more pleasure than this Magh sunshine.
While chit chatting, I put forward a simple query, “Have you been successful in introducing your principle in literature?”
“I can’t say that that has happened because a work of art can become highly qualitative only if artists are completely free. That was the case with the late Devkota-ji. Due to social norms, I was compelled to restrain myself in the middle of my literary career. I did try my best to overcome these restraints but I could not. I could not get liberated. I became philosophical but could not become enlightened; became patriotic but could not cross the line. Consequentially, I tried to insert my principles in my writing but received mixed success.” This was his clarification.
And even with regards to his writing, he has had to face immense restrictions. After the publication of his play Pralhad, he was almost exiled from the country due to restrictive laws. He could not always save himself from his own father’s harsh rule and from the cruelty of the Ranas. He was even jailed because of his participation in the 1951 revolution. There were continual efforts to destroy his identity, efforts launched by caretakers as well as the country’s prime minister. Limited by his artistry, he was even compelled to sell his wife’s jewelry in order to cover the dual costs of Mutuko Byatha. So much so that, even someone brought up under his own tutelage--someone who earned a monthly salary from him upto twenty-four rupees and had learned the alphabets from him-- regularly attempted to defame and dishonor him.
Later, in 1958, when he was a member of the Academy, a high official and his friends, inspired by jealousy and malignancy, had successfully put all kinds of unlawful pressures on him. Faced with such adversity and deplorable obstacles, an ordinary person would have become discouraged and given up. But since he was Hiranyakashyapu’s son Pralhad or Samar’s son Balkrishna, he was able to persevere and overcome each obstacle; he has been continuing these efforts for the sake of Nepali literature and art. This is an unpleasant yet ultimate truth.
Since his family was invested in the arts, Sama-ji became inclined towards art and literature from a young age. A poem he wrote when he was eight years old proves this point. That poem was--
Language-- it captures all
The king is Narayan; with Vishnu, I am in thrall.
This poem paved the way for forty-one books. His plays Tansenko Jhari, Milinad and Aja didn’t get published but later in 1930, his fourth play Mutuko Byatha became his first published work. And then, as if in an attempt to relieve a heavy heart, he published Pralhad, Dhruva and Mukunda Indira and presented these works to the public.
“Even though you have already written a lot of books, we are expecting more from a writer like you. We believe that our wish will be fulfilled because as far as I feel, your dream hasn’t been complete yet.” I wanted to learn something about the future. Meanwhile, these lines printed above the main gate of Sama-ji’s house caught my eyes.
This is a temporary resting place, dear Lord, in my life’s path.
I will walk towards you after my dream is complete.
Understanding my intent, Shree Sama instantly responded, “I’ve written eighteen books including Gangalal, Pratidhwoni, Char Ekanki, Smriti, Swami and Maharaja but I haven’t been able to publish them due to financial difficulty. I am also going to write Tato Chulho in response to the current socio-political climate. These days I’m writing a book about my life, Mero Kabitako Aaradhan, and I have already written a five-hundred page memoir detailing the events of my life until age thirty. I will be writing its sequel in the near future.”
When I expressed a desire to listen to an extract from his memoir, Sama-ji instantly agreed. After listening to a few pages I felt that this was not just a memoir but a reliable retelling of Nepal’s history from the year 1903. “This will definitely acquire a special spot in the intellectual field,” I felt, a sentiment that rapidly became stronger.
“Was it only Shakespeare who influenced you or were there others?” I suddenly remembered how well-known he was for using the Anushtup prosody in his writing, without any alliterations.
Sama-ji was saying, “No, Shakespeare is not the only one who influenced me. International writers like Walt Whitman, Dylan Thomas, Elliot, Rabindranath Tagore, Byron, Homer, Keats, Shelley, Bernard Shaw, Sophocles, Euripedes, Schylles, Somerset Maughm, Ibsen and Vyas; and I really love Kalidas and Laxmiprasad Devkota when it comes to Nepali writers. And I tremendously enjoy Bhanubhakta’s language and Lekhnath’s style. As it typically happens, I have been influenced by my favorite writers; I also get inspiration from them. Since I was also impacted by the Vedas, I use the alliteration-less Anushtup prosody quite a bit in my work.”
Sama-ji’s statement that he was influenced by the usage of Anushtup in the Vedas and the fact that he uses that same style in his writing further substantiates a new idea that he has been formulating recently. Many people believe that the Anushtup prosody started only with Shakespeare, but not many people have examined the patterns of rhymes and sounds in the Vedas in a deep way. Basically, Sama-ji is saying that Shakespeare must have become influenced by the writing style in the Vedas and that is what led him to use the same style in most of his work. In essence, according to Sama-ji, one of the most supreme creations of the human civilization is linked to Nepal, tucked within the Himalayas. The Vedas was also conceptualized in Nepal. The naturally pure and cool environment that created the Vedas can’t be found in any other place other than Nepal’s Himalayas. The Purans have also mentioned that most saints went to the Himalayas to meditate and gain wisdom; these are all pieces of evidence, says Sama-ji. Since the Veda was imagined and written in the Himalayas, it can be deduced that the beginnings of human knowledge started here, Sama-ji says, which in turn influenced the practice of knowledge-construction in general. Sama-ji’s ideas are not limited to one particular kind of knowledge. He believes that Nepal’s Himalayas nurtured the germination of humanity’s primary scientific and artistic ideas. As examples to strengthen his point, he mentions the saint Chyawan, known for his science and Arniko, known for his architecture. Sama-ji continues: “The abstract art popular in the West these days was practiced in Nepal hundreds of years ago, but the trend disappeared; artistic practices were well-developed here, even before they were first embraced in Greece; in Nepal, people knew how to mix and use colors; the art and craft currently found in Nepal proves these points.”
Shree Sama also maintains that the Western ballet was influenced by Nepal’s ancient dance techniques. According to him, we are moving away from mysticism and embracing reality but the Western countries are discovering mysticism only now; that is what’s attractive to them. Just like a coin, Sama-ji’s ideas must have two sides. They may be insightful but to be straightforward, might contain faulty logic as well. If he is proven right, it will be a matter of nationalistic pride for us, but we still need to double-check these assertions. Perhaps because of their familiarity with these ideas, a few intellectuals have noticed a previously absent streak of feudal pride in Sama-ji these days.
But whatever the case may be, Sama-ji did not pull these thoughts out of his imagination. There is a serious academic concern in him, “I couldn’t find a reliable academic who could help turn these ideas into facts. I’m afraid that whatever I have learned might disappear with me.” This is his one major complaint and it is because of this reason that he looked quite worried. Since he was equally interested in the visual arts, sculpture, music, dance and literature, he could not focus properly on one particular medium. Even though he was able to gain some knowledge about these diverse topics, perhaps he has yet to become an expert? There is this ambivalence in him. Besides, since he has directed plays and even acted in some out of interest, a twenty-four hour day was too little for him. If there were at least seventy-two hours in one day, perhaps he would have had enough time?
Just like the present, Sama-ji’s past life was also equally busy and full of ups and downs.
After an incomplete intermediate education, Sama-ji was deprived from a college education. When his classmates Janak Raj Shrestha and Mahendra Bikram Shah graduated with a Masters in Arts, he was jealous, a common human weakness. But I also know that he continued his self-study without showing any signs of discouragement. When it came to academics, he had always been sharp.
I was still curious about him and very eager to find out more. I asked: “Which one would you say is your best work?”
Without hesitation, as if he had thought about the answer beforehand, Shree Sama replied, “Aago ra Pani and Ma Kahilyai Mardina; as for plays, it is Pralhad.”
“Grandfather, it is already one. Isn’t there a meeting today?” A warning from inside, conveyed in a soft voice. I also became startled; two hours had passed since my arrival. With a respectful tone, I said, “Just one moment; I just want to find out one more thing. What is your take on the literary movement these days? Progress or regress?” This was my final question that day.
“It would be true to say that there is progress. There is already an abundance of literary sensibility in today’s youth. I am even willing to state that if anything has made progress in Nepal so far, it is definitely literature. The field of literature is getting wider every day; its future is very bright.” I received a rather moving and satisfying answer. Since it was time and there was another warning from inside, I stood up. Sama-ji also prepared to rise, saying, “This meeting is quite important; we can meet later. So I asked for his permission to leave. I was quite pleased, having met Pralhad in person and quelled some of my curiosities.
But when I remembered that due to financial difficulties he had been compelled to stuff eighteen of his books inside a dark closet instead of getting them published, my happiness dropped me in a sea of sorrow, and, along with Gyaneshwar’s cool breeze, floated towards Aryaghat.
January 28, 1962
Translated by Niranjan Kunwar
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Uttam Kunwar Uttam Kunwar was the publisher and editor of Ruprekha. He won the Madan Puraskar in 1966 for Srasta ra Sahitya, an anthology of literary interviews.
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