Not many people visit Sajha Publications these days. The flimsy books — with their thin covers and cheap printing — are a testament to the state-owned corporation’s repeated corruption scandals. They also do little to attract readers. But you should visit Sajha, if only because it is the sole purveyor of the works of Dr. Dhruba Chandra Gautam. Gautam is not read as much as he should be, despite being one of the most experimental Nepali novelists, and certainly one of the most prolific; he has over forty books to his name.
In literary circles, Gautam is known as the Akhyan Purush, or the towering personality in Nepali novel writing. His seminal work Alikhit bagged the prestigious Madan Puraskar in 1983. Other acclaimed novels include Dapi (1976), Kattel Sir ko Chotpatak (1980), Agnidatta+Agnidatta (1996), Swargiya Hiradevi ko Khoj (1988), Tathakathit (2002)and Fulko Atanka (1999).
From an early age, Gautam, born in Birgunj in 1945, wrote poetry, songs and plays and performed at cultural programs. He read widely, paying particular attention to the early Nepali classics and Hindi translations of the Bengali writers Rabindranath Tagore and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. In his teens, Gautam was already well-known as a poet and singer in his hometown. “That kind of cultural, literary life brought me fame and I started liking it,” he says.
His career took off after he moved to Kathmandu in the early sixties and in 1967 published a poem and an entire novel, Antya Pachi, in the literary magazine Ruprekha. He was simultaneously expanding his literary horizons, earning a Master’s in Nepali language and then working towards a doctorate. When he was not teaching at public and private institutions, and Tribhuvan University, Gautam spent his time in Kathmandu’s libraries, where he immersed himself in literature and philosophy, devouring the works of Kafka and Sartre, Oscar Wilde and Freud.
I first read Gautam in my school textbooks. My teachers would call him a prayogbadi, or experimental, writer who deviated from conventional modes of writing and storytelling. I remember skimming through a few of his stories and a novel, and having them go over my head. That changed recently when I came across Alikhit, the story of Birahinpur, an impoverished Terai village, unmarked on any map, where villagers have suffered years of poverty and violence at the hands of a local aristocrat. Things begin to change when a team of state archaeologists arrives in this forgotten village, to excavate the remains of an earlier civilization, only for Birahinpur itself — all its houses and people – to vanish overnight. The whole situation of the archaeologists trying to find Birahinpur becomes increasingly surreal and incongruous. Watching the extinction of one community as they are digging up the traces of another, the archaeologists meditate on the sociology of civilizations and the work of Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre argues that as a civilization or a tradition progresses and comes in contact with other traditions, adherents develop a fresh subjectivity and question some of their past actions and begin to correct mistakes. The community of Birahinnpur, disconnected from the rest of the world, cannot develop such a rationality and question their own misery. The archaeologists come to read Birahinpur’s death as the death of rebellion against the forces structural oppression.
“My writing is like a playground where I want readers to interpret their own meanings, find their own understanding in my words”
This sort if mix — surrealism and Scottish philosophy — might explain why Gautam’s work is often considered inaccessible, filed away under “experimental”. Yet that is a label he rejects, calling it doctrine. “Prayog simply means innovation. I have a psychological drive to come up with something unique.” He seeks, he says, to see the reality that lies beneath the surface. Explaining that is an act of imagination. “I cannot portray today’s reality by writing stories like Guruprasad Mainali, whose powerful, realistic stories reflected Nepali social and family life in the thirties,” says Gautam. “Despite the passage of time, our social problems might be the same, our relations and culture might be the same. But something has changed within us and I want to uncover that non-physical essence.”
Rather than his experimental writing style, Gautam says it is his wide reading that brings “nuance to his work”. Literary critic Mahesh Paudel agrees, saying he is one of the few Nepali writers who are aware of international experiments and movements. Gautam’s work demands some work from his readers. “My writing is like a playground where I want readers to interpret their own meanings, find their own understanding in my words,” he says.
But while Gautam’s style might be challenging, his themes are acutely relevant. In the well-regarded Upasamhar Arthat Chauthau Antya, for example, the stabbing of a protagonist symbolizes the weakening of the country’s new democracy. The novel offers four different endings, representing the possible trajectories of the country’s democracy.
Another recurring theme in Gautam’s work is that of scarcity, of deprivation. I asked whether this reflected his own temperament and experiences. “Definitely,” he says. “I was born in a lower-middle class family. And even through the latter half of my life, I struggled economically.” Gautam believes that experiences leave their marks on a person’s subconscious and that these traces are often expressed in art. He gives the example of Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan: he may live like a king, but he can still act like a poverty-stricken beggar, because, says Gautam, as a young man he slept many nights on the footpaths of Bombay. In Gautam’s acclaimed Kattel Sir ko Chotpatak, an honest professor tries to uphold high moral values but is tested by poverty and corruption. “People repeatedly ask me this, and yes, to an extent it is,” says Gautam, “Perhaps my own experience in teaching helped make the book really potent.” Kattel Sir ko Chotpatak was adapted into the popular 1984 movie Basudev, starring Neer Shah and Harihar Sharma.
Gautam’s career has had a tangible impact on Nepali literature. Poudel says his explorations of psychosocial themes reflecting five decades of social and political change in Nepal have been particularly influential. So has his willingness to break the mould of traditional literature. “Most novelists who have written novels with regional, local color derived their inspiration from Gautam, especially in the portrayal of Madhesh,” says Paudel. Two of his novels, Alikhit, and Fulko Atanka, have been translated into English by Philip H. Pierce.
At 74, Gautam still reads and writes, though he has slowed down. He says he is not concerned with whether his life’s work has been good or bad, but with whether he tried hard enough. “What else could I do except write?”