11 MIN READ
A conversation with the first recipient of the Madan Puraskar literary prize.
“Which one is Ramesh Bikal’s house?”
An old man in Gokarna’s Arubari answered: “We don’t know anyone called Ramesh Bikal.”
After this umpteenth response, I finally realized my mistake. And so, taking more care, I asked again, “I meant Rameshwar Subba’s house.” Because Ramesh Bikal’s official name is Rameshwar Subba.
“You should have said so! Subba Rambabu’s house is that one with the new tiles.”
I headed towards the house pointed by the old man and after a few minutes, ended up on the front yard. Having heard me, Bikal-ji peered from a window and requested that I come up.
A narrow room painted with wet mud stretched out below bamboo rafters. The window latches were unfiled, rough. An antique cupboard, large and wooden, stood at the center of the room. The bed was at one end and at the other end a striped blue rug above which lay another carpet. When I entered the room, Bikal-ji was sitting on this carpet and working on a watercolor painting. My sweat was still wet, a result of a hike up Jagadol hill. Wiping off the sweat while taking off my shoes, I announced, “Guru-ji, I have arrived!”
“I was also waiting for you,” he said cheerfully. And started to put away the brushes and colors.
“Oh! You also paint?”
“I do, in leisure. Sometimes I paint and sometimes I make statues of mud. Look at those statues by the windowsill. One of them is my wife’s and the other one is X’s.”
Since I had never seen his wife, I could not tell how close the resemblance was. But X’s statue was very similar to the real person. It also looked nice. Apparently he had created that statue with the aid of memory. Once again, I asked, “Is this it or do you pursue other hobbies during your leisure hours?”
“I also like music, especially the flute and the violin. But these days, more than anything else, I focus on writing.”
“That means you must have written a lot.”
“Not a lot, Kaji. I’m working on a story called ‘Hotel Boy’ and trying to complete my plan.”
“I want to write about the world’s famous women in the form of letters and also some essays.”
“But how come only one story?”
“Actually, ‘Hotel Boy’ is almost done and there are another two unnamed ones. I am merely trying to figure out a method for writing stories.”
“What kind of method, Guru-ji? Let’s hear it.”
“Kaji, what I mean by method is,” - his introduction indicated an elaborate response - “...the books I read, the characters I encounter and the incidents I hear about inspire me to write stories. First, I prepare a rough sketch of the story in my mind and spend up to twenty days pondering on it. Then I write a draft of the story in one sitting and leave it alone for a few days. Finally, I rewrite the whole thing. It takes me about a month and a half to complete one story. I haven’t been able to finish a story in less time. That is what I mean by method, Kaji.”
But I was still unsatisfied: “It must require a certain kind of mood to complete the final version?”
“Earlier, I didn’t need to be in a particular kind of mood. The right time of day provided the right kind of mood but these days I do need to be in a specific mood.”
“How come you need ‘mood’ these days?” I was intent on getting to the heart of the matter.
“Because these days, I have started to get afraid. I only get a fleeting sense of satisfaction from my creation. Reading world literature compels me to reflect on the state of Nepali literature in general, not just about my own work. And I get scared. I wonder if Nepali writers like us are all amateurs. To clear this doubt, I focus on producing qualitative work. On the other hand, once someone gets a certain level of respect, it is difficult to hold on to that. One needs to put more effort to carefully maintain that kind of enhanced expectation. I’m afraid of writing a story forcefully in case it turns out bad. That’s why I’m compelled to wait for the right mood. Even then, I get into the right mood only in the morning; but when it’s there, it’s really there. And when that happens, the writing does not stop even if I’m in a noisy, chaotic environment!”
“Guru, I have a few questions based on what you said." After receiving his permission, I resumed my questioning: “When you mentioned world literature, I felt like you also study a lot. Are there a few writers whom you like?”
“What kind of question is this, Kaji? Is it even possible to study world literature in its entirety? One ought to read the works of famous writers whom you can connect with!” His words were laced with sweetness even though he appeared a bit flustered.
“Right. So who are your favorites?”
“Dostoevsky. Steven Zweig, Tolstoy, Sharad Chandra, Chekov, and O’ Henry.”
“And from here?”
“I like stories by Govinda Gothale, Shankar Lamichhane and Daulat Bikram Bista; Balkrishna Sama’s works that are full of wisdom and talent and Bhupi’s poems because they are so accessible. Along with them, I also admire the literary songwriter Madhav Ghimire and poet Krishna Bhakta."
This history of writing, the problems faced by writers are actually comparable to those faced by readers.
Bikal-ji, with his gentle face, patchy hair and plain, thin body, was extremely hardworking. Every day, he walked the six-mile stretch from Arubari to Singha Durbar to collect submissions for his journal and regularly completed other tasks related to reading, writing, sculpting, painting and music.
I continued. “Another thing, Guru. When you were explaining your method, you indicated that you get inspired by other people's work. Is there a particular story that was heavily inspired?”
“Well, depending on the kind of state I am in, various conditions leave various marks. For instance, I wrote the story ‘Bhanjyangko Chautari’ while I was reading an English translation of the Bengali story titled ‘Waiting.’ I might have been indirectly inspired during that process.”
“Are there other stories like that?” I asked.
He responded in an even tone: “As far as I know, the rest of the stories are quite original. But they say that the story ‘Aakashma Taraharu Chhatpataeeraheka Chhan’ has been influenced by elements of certain foreign stories; but I haven’t even read those. Apart from those, the themes and characters of most of my stories are still alive and can even be recognized today.”
“For example, as a result of taking care of buffaloes at my maternal uncle’s house in the hills, I produced ‘Lahuri Bhaisi’; ‘Bireki Aama’ is from this village; and the elderly couple in ‘Singari Bakhra’ are still in the village; the New Road beggar boys are ‘Footpath Ministers’ and ‘Subedar Rane Budo’ is from…”
Saying “That’s enough,” I redirected the conversation from story-elements towards literary-elements: “What are your thoughts regarding Nepali literature, Guru?”
“Recently, there has been a proliferation of conceited writers who claim that it’s easy to write stories. Self-dignity and conceit are two different things. Everyone likes their own creation. But our prose-writers - especially those who write stories - are neither disciplined nor well-read and the production is also meagre. Most write poems - I wonder whether that’s because they think it’s easier to get famous. Because of these factors, prose-writing in Nepal hasn’t flourished.”
“But to the extent that it has flourished - would you say that you have contributed to the field?”
“This is not something I can comment on, Kaji. I merely write and in doing so, attempt to contribute.”
“That is good enough. And Guru, what is your overall perspective regarding the development of Nepali literature?”
At the spot on the carpet where he was sitting, Bikal-ji criss-crossed his legs once more and replied, “As far as literary development is concerned, it is happening. But the course has not been smooth because there have been gaps. Regardless of the sporadic gaps and disconnections, there was a kind of natural progression from the time of Bhanubhakta to Bhimnidhi; but after Bhimnidhi, there was an abrupt break. All of a sudden, Mohan Koirala and Shankar Lamichhane’s modern style appeared. The break between these two trends is quite stark. Consequently, the common reader got stuck with Bhimnidhi. On the other hand, writers like Bijay Malla and Koirala beckoned a new wave of immortal, international literary style. And so, organic development could not happen - I wonder whether this is also because of the rather dismal state of education in the country? This history of writing, the problems faced by writers is actually comparable to those faced by readers. One group of readers is critical even of world literature and the other group do not even understand the pathos in local literature. In a situation like this, a rather dangerous question has arisen - who should one even write for?”
Ramesh Bikal is the only son of Lieutenant Chandra Shekhar. When he was employed as a surveyor, Chandra Shekhar took his son along with him during his travels, to places like Biratnagar in the East and Darchula in the Far West. Consequently, Bikal-ji’s formal education was constantly interrupted but he somehow managed to study at home. Since his mother had passed away when he was only eighteen months old, he was deprived of motherly love and since his father also died when he was eighteen, he was compelled to embrace a harsh existence. The financial state of the household was also delicate, a truth that is still applicable today.
He said it himself: “There was a time when even getting salt and oil was a huge issue. But these days, because of the job and after receiving the Madan Puraskar, I haven’t had to face problems like that. But the finances are still shaky. Nepalis spend a few rupees at hotels every day but hesitate to spend a few paisas on Nepali journals and newspapers. Then how does a writer’s financial situation improve?”
His family life and relationships were not that great before. Since he got married at the mere age of twelve, he was not content. But these days he says, “Love, struggles, fights and compromises are common occurrences in the family context; I don’t find those particularly special.”
It was in 1950 that Rameshwar Prasad Chalise became Ramesh Bikal, the same year when he started to get involved in political activities. Concerned with social upliftment and awareness, he had helped set up schools in Arubari and Chabahil and produced dramatic plays and dances. The year 1950 is extremely important for Bikal-ji because he also entered the literary field that year because of his acquaintance with Shyam Prasad and encouragement by him. As a result, Ramesh Bikal is now known as a writer.
Placing a plate of curry - a mixture of tender maize and peas - in front of me, Bikal-ji said, “Here. Let’s eat our rural food." But what could be more joyful than this rural experience inside a house surrounded by green fields and gardens, eating maize and peas, listening to the sporadic, musical cooing of doves and the uncertain rain? Actually, Gokarna was special to me because I had spent various chunks of my childhood in the area and I was rather thrilled that I was able to visit after five years or so. In addition, since I was there to meet a writer, I didn't even mind the hike up the steep hill.
After snacks, Bikal-ji also decided to come to the city. It was rather scenic - the green Gokarna forest, the Arubari hills and the Nagbeli road snaking next to the Bagmati muddied by recent floods. We were in a cheerful mood, perhaps because I was able to accomplish my task and Bikal-ji was heading to Naxal to meet someone influential. We were already close to the village. Pointing at the school he had established, Bikal-ji said, “This is it - Arunodaya Bal Vidhyashram.”
He was the first person to receive the literary Madan Puraskar. That was in 1962 for his collection of short stories titled ‘Naya Sadakko Geet.' In fact, he holds a special place in the field of short stories. According to critic Ratna Dhoj Joshi, no one can surpass him when it comes to stories set in the countryside. And these days, he does not limit himself only to rural settings. He has ventured into urban life. Some of his stories that deal with sexual problems are even considered to be successful. No one in Chabahil or Arubari had probably imagined that a boy who used to gather children and relay folk tales would one day turn into Ramesh Bikal!
“Literature is neither a hobby nor a profession. Everyone attempts to express - some through politics and some through drawings; a writer expresses with words. Because every person wants to introduce herself to the society -
“Anything written with this goal can be considered literary,” says Bikal-ji but he does not stop with this thought. He continues, “In fact, in an indirect way, a society is incomplete without literature. But then, writers who say that they only write for the sake of society are arrogant. Because writing is about self-expression and overall satisfaction. I despise those who say 'I did not get recognized for my writing.' They write for themselves and simultaneously expect to get something from the society. A writer’s task is simply to write. If the writing is useful, then the credit ought to go to the members of society who recognizes its use and benefit from the writing - and don’t even get me started on the arrogant writers!”
We were walking, sometimes down a rough path and sometimes along the edge of a field, splashed with mud. When we arrived at old Boudha, I asked about the new trends in literature: “Guru, what is your take on contemporary writing?”
After lighting a cigarette, he responded, “I have already said that I find it difficult to differentiate between modern works and classics. I merely write. Anything published in the future can be considered more modern than the ones before that. But then the idea of modernity has not been clarified when it comes to our literature. In the international context, modernity is equated with realism. What I think is, any kind of writing that goes beyond external descriptions, that portrays internal conflicts and highlights the minutiae in an objective, almost scientific way can be considered modern. In other words, writing that sifts through every single aspect of humanity and attempts to find resolutions is a sign of a modern literary style.
“Every character carries conflicts. But it’s not that I pursue conflict; rather, conflict pursues me,” Bikal-ji had once said. Reflecting on the obstacles and inspirations, he continues, “I have faced several obstacles but I haven’t been directly inspired by anyone. Madan Puraskar provided some financial support but not inspiration. Since my task is to write, I would’ve written regardless of whether I had received the prize or not.”
Towards the end, I expressed my wish to find out his views regarding the two organizations known for being the cornerstones of literature. He started: “The Academy has done absolutely nothing even though there is actual work to be done like introducing Nepali literature to the world and monitoring literary activities. Publishing books is only one out of thousands of tasks. And then there is the Madan Puraskar Guthi which has contributed immensely to literary development, especially the library that filled a necessary gap. Rana-jis much richer than Rani Jagadamba have quietly deposited their wealth abroad, but she did quite a bit for the sake of literature; this is very remarkable and admirable. Trying to dismiss an accomplishment like this is a sign of envy, don’t you think, Kaji?”
“Yes, Guru,” I replied, realizing that we had reached Chabahil. He could have remained self-satisfied with works such as ‘Dui Rupaiya ko Note’, ‘Bhanjyang ko Chautaro’, ‘Meri Kaanchhi Maeeju’ and ‘Lahuri Bhaisi’, but the writer was still intent on creating something better. Our paths diverged in Chabahil; our destinations were different. I headed towards Gaushala to catch a bus and Bikal-ji turned downhill from Sifal to get to Naxal.
August 19, 1963
Ramesh Bikal is known for portraying rural life and the lives of common people. He was born near Gokarna. Since his earlier stories had socialist and anti-establishment themes, he was imprisoned three times. 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.
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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