read 8 min

In the first week of April, during the initial days of the lockdown, I came across Binod Bikram KC’s poem ‘Lal Bahadur Ghar Bhitrai Chha’ (‘Lal Bahadur is Still Inside his House’). In it, he writes about a working-class man who has been locked inside his house because of the state-enforced lockdown. There isn’t enough food or water at home, but he continues to follow the decrees of the Nepali governing elite:

ग्यास सिलिन्डर होस् या चामलको बोरा
कहिल्यै जानेन उसले अतिरिक्त राख्‍न
दु:खको स्टक भने कैयौँ जुनीलाई पुग्‍नी छ

दु:ख बालेर
वेदनाको भात पकाएर
खानेछ लालबहादुर

Whether it’s a gas cylinder or sacks of rice
He never thought to hoard
But stocks of sorrow will last him forever

Lal Bahadur will cook anguish
With fire made from sorrow
And fill his stomach 

Towards the end of the poem, KC warns the government that the moment Lal Bahadur realises he needs to hit the streets, he will. If nobody arrives in his congested room with relief, then he may reach “anywhere” he wants. The poem carries the pain of the urban poor, their brewing frustration and anger against the ruling elite. It has struck a chord with people from all walks of life, including singer Sugam Pokharel who posted a video of himself humming the poem to his guitar.

Lal Bahadur pushed me to explore the person behind his creation.

I discovered that Binod Bikram KC grew up in Chalnakhel, now a part of Dakshinkali, a far-flung municipality in the southern edge of Kathmandu Valley. Once, when a group of soldiers had camped at Ghattechaur in Hattiban, he had seen a commander brutally kick a soldier. The young KC was so disturbed that he sobbed for several days after. On one of those days, he realised that “somewhere, something is wrong.” KC reminisces in a 2018 interview that witnessing the soldier get beaten up mercilessly must have planted the seed of poetry in him.

A few years ago, Manu Manjil, another Nepali poet accused many contemporary poets, including KC, of over-politicising the craft of poetry. “Some of our poets are always angry. If they are angry throughout their poems, I wonder where they get the joy of writing from. Anger alone does not make poetry,” Majil wote. 

If not directly answering Manjil, KC’s ‘Jaba Jaba Ma Prem Kabita Lekhu Bhanchhu’ (‘Whenever I Think of Writing Love Poems’) justifies his brand of poetry:

जब जब म प्रेमकविता लेखूँ भन्छु
बाह्र घण्टामा तेह्र चोटी मर्ने बेरोजगारहरु
शब्द-शब्दको तुलसी मठमा लम्पसार परिदिन्छन्
त्यसमाथि लम्पसार परिदिन्छन्
मजदूरका सेप्रा पेटहरु
सहिदका भद्रगोल सपनाहरु
सहिद हुन बाँकीका गन्जागोल सपनाहरु
सबभन्दा माथि
धेरैको भागमा पर्ने
उही तेजावले डढेको कागज जस्तो देश !

Whenever I think of writing love poems
The unemployed who die thirteen times in twelve hours
Lay themselves upon my holy words
On the bed of my words
I see the hungry bellies of workers
The martyrs’ destroyed dreams
The entangled dreams of would-be martyrs
Right on top
An incinerated nation, like paper touched by acid,
Is the lot for most.

Perhaps inspired by the revolutionary Indian poet Avatar Singh Sandhu Pash’s ‘Sabse Khatarnakh Hota Hai’ (‘What’s Most Dangerous’), in ‘Danger Zone’, KC ridicules the politically apathetic urban middle-class whose concerns don’t reach beyond their private lives and thereby, reveal another reason why he isn’t after merely poetic aesthetics or joy:

जीवनमा के–के गर्नुभो तपाईंले ?
अध्ययन गर्नुभो
प्रेम गर्नुभो
घुमफिर गर्नुभो
मोजमस्ती गर्नुभो
सबै कुरा गर्नुभो
तर, आफ्नो हिस्साको राजनीति गर्नुभएन
यो असाध्यै खतरनाक कुरो हो

हुनुहुन्छ तपाईं यस्तो घातक डेन्जर जोनमा
तर, कुनै सुरक्षित इलाकामा भएजसरी
खेलिरहनुभएको छ क्यान्डी क्रस
यो असाध्यै खतरनाक कुरो हो ।

What did you achieve in your life?
You studied
You loved
You travelled around
Had fun
You did everything
But you didn’t do your share of politics
This is most dangerous

You are in a lethal danger zone
But you behave as if you’re someplace safe
You take out your phone, play Candy Crush
This is most dangerous

KC is a self-proclaimed Marxist. His poems explore uncomfortable truths and inspire readers to change the world for the better. Like you would expect a third-world Marxist to, he writes against globalised capitalism and its euphemism, ‘globalisation.’ In ‘Bhumandalikaran’ (‘Globalisation’), he reifies globalisation as a tall white man with blue eyes who visits a Nepali family, bringing numerous shiny first-world gifts. Ram Prasad and his family, the Nepali hosts, are beyond joyed to receive toys of globalisation — beer, jeans and cosmetic products. But the next morning, something unimagined happens:

भोलिपल्ट राम प्रसादको घर ब्युँझदा
भूमण्डलीकरण हिँडि सकेको थियो
खाली खाली थियो घर
गायब थियो
भकारीमा भएको दुई÷चार मुरी धान
गायब थिए
लत्ताकपडा र ओढ्ने–ओछ्याउने
राम प्रसादका आमा, श्रीमती र छोरीका
नाक–कान थिए बुच्चै

When Ram Prasad woke up the next day
Globalisation had already left
His home was now empty everywhere
Gone were the few sacks of rice
Gone were his clothes and bedding
Gone were his mother’s, his wife’s and his daughter’s jewels too

KC’s commentary on women’s rights is also informed by Marxist beliefs. He does not see the oppression of women as a result of patriarchy alone; patriarchy itself is shaped by market forces. In his poem ‘Jyoti Magar Ko Tigra’ (‘Jyoti Magar’s Thighs’) he highlights the lack of agency evidenced in the actions of Jyoti Magar, a Nepali music diva. Magar dances to the tunes of the show-business elite, according to him, pointing out an individual’s lack of agency within a capitalist set-up as proposed by Marxist ideology. Amid the sermonising, however, the poet certainly loses sight of Magar’s own agency in becoming a star who chooses to flaunt her body, and comes off as patronising:

तिमी फस्यौ ज्योति मगर!
फस्यौ नानी!

मलाई असाध्यै मन पर्छ
अबोध बालिकाको जस्तो तिम्रो निश्छल हाँसो
केही पनि नबुझी यसै हाँसिदिन्छौ तिमी
यही नासमझीले त डुबायो तिमीलाई

कसुरै के छ र तिम्रो?

उनीहरू खिच्दछन् धागो
कस्दछन् धागो
तिमी गाइदिन्छौ
‘शो–बिज’ भन्ने
मागेजति देखाइदिन्छौ

कठपुतलीको आफ्नो कुनै सुर–ताल हुँदैन लाटी!

You are trapped, Jyoti Magar!
Trapped, my child!

I adore your childlike, innocent, untainted laughter
How you laugh at just anything — you barely know
It’s this ignorance that has drowned you completely

What fault are you at?
You’ve offered naively
Everything show-biz asks of you
This body-frisking industry
Pulls your strings
And you sing
And dance

Puppets do not own any rhythm or melody, silly!

But it may be unfair to judge KC’s feminist politics based on this poem alone. Some other of his poems give the most vocal power of rebellion to women. In ‘Balaakrit Ko Yuddha Geet’ (‘War Songs of a Rape Survivor’), the rebellious persona challenges all the symbols of male domination and pledges to smash patriarchy in all its forms. She sees through the worthlessness of being a symbol of beauty and attacks men who view her as a mere aesthetic commodity. Even here, though, KC does not acknowledge those women who may want to be admired for their beauty:

जसले भन्यो मलाई नर्कको द्वार
त्यसको दैलोमा मिल्काइदिन्छु शास्त्रका बिष्टा

अब बत्तिएर हिँड्छु जुलुसमा, वेगले उठाउ“छु मुठी
र, बोल्छु कडा–कडा नाराहरू

जुझ्छु अब
कसैलाई बाँकी राख्दिनँ
बाँकी राख्दिनँ कसैलाई
राख्दिनँ कसैलाई बाँकी

सर्वत्र लहराइरहेको छ पुरुष ध्वजा
मेरो खालको राष्ट्रिय गीत गाउँछु
युद्ध गीत गाउँछु एउटा
पुराना बाउ, दाइ, प्रेमी, पति र छोराहरू हो!
पहिलो हाँक तिमीहरूलाई दिन्छु म।

Whoever has called me the door to hell
I will hurl trashy scriptures at their door

I will march briskly at protests
I will swiftly raise my fist
And shout sharp slogans

I will fight, sparing none
No one will be spared
I will spare no one

The flag of patriarchy flutters everywhere
I will sing my kind of national anthem
I will sing a war song
Old are the fathers, brothers, lovers, husbands and sons!
My first challenge is to you.

KC abhors the idea of nationalism. While being lauded as a ‘zone of peace’, it’s in his nation that Nawaraj BKs are killed in daylight because of their caste. In his answer to Laxmi Prasad Devkota’s ‘Ke Nepal Sano Chha?’ (‘Is Nepal Small?’), he wrote ‘Nepal Saanai Chha, Devkota-jyu!’(‘Nepal is Indeed Small, Devkota-jyu!’). Like many Nepalis, KC has grown up reading about Nepal as the epitome of natural beauty, the pure land of Gautam Buddha and Mount Everest. He dismisses these claims as archaic and dilapidated; besides rivers, mountains and the Buddha, how is a country to claim greatness if huge populations continue to be discriminated on the basis of caste and ethnicity?

जहाँ केही विशाल सोच्न सक्ने हरेक मस्तिष्क
कुल–गोत्रको अँध्यारोमा हराउँछ
जहाँ प्रेम गरेको अपराधमा
दलितको गला काटिन्छ
र, विष्टहरूको राज्य–सत्ता
अनवरत प्रेमको महानता फलाक्छ

Where every mind that could deliberate on greatness
Is lost in the darkness of caste and sub-caste
Where love is deemed a crime
And Dalits find their throats slashed
Meanwhile, an upper-caste state power
Boasts of the eternal greatness of love

Although KC is against the arrogant nationalism of the Nepali elite, he is equally against the expansionist policies of the Indian state. When the news of India’s unilateral decision to inaugurate a link road via Lipulekh that lies within Nepali territory had just surfaced, KC’s ‘Laila Begum Ko Singanad’ (‘Laila Begum’s War Cry’) became all the more relevant:

सुस्ता मेरो हो
म सुस्ताकी हु

सद्भावमाथि प्रवचन दिएर
कहिल्यै नथाक्ने दिल्ली भाइसाबलाई
कुन माड्साबले पढाइदेला–
छिमेकीको कान्लो ताछ्नु
सद्भावको निसानी होइन
केही छैन मस“ग
अत्याचारविरुद्ध लड्न
सिवाय सुस्ताको माया र विरोधमा उठ्ने मुठ्ठी

Sustaa is mine
I am Sustaa’s

Delhi-jyu never tires
Of pontificating on harmony
Which master will educate you —
Pruning away at a neighbour’s boundaries
Is not a sign of harmony
I do not have anything
To fight against injustice
Except Sustaa’s love
And my own revolting fist

By laying bare all the fissures in and atrocities of Nepali society and by demanding action, Binod Bikram KC continues to reflect on the times he has lived in. He gained fame during the post-2006 era, after the second people’s movement, when he was writing on the plight of women, the marginalised and the poor. His poem, ‘Aahuti Ko Mukh’ (‘Aahuti’s Mouth’), shows Aahuti, a Dalit Maoist political leader and poet, challenge an assembly full of the traditional custodians of Nepali society:

आहुतिले भन्यो–
यो देशको तकदिर तय गर्न पाउँदैनन्’
सभा क्रुद्ध भयो–
‘कसले दियो यसलाई
हजामको छुराजस्तो मुख चलाउने अख्तियार?

यसको बेसोमती मुख
के हाम्रो सलतनतको प्रधान बैरी होइन?’

आहुतिको मुख थुन्न
व्यग्रतापूर्वक पट्टीको खोजी गरिरहेको छ सभा

कालो वर्णका मान्छेहरू
मान्छे बन्न खोजिरहेका मान्छेहरू
द्वितीय लिंगी भनिएका मान्छेहरू
ताकिरहेछन् आहुतिको मुख

आहुतिको मुखसँगै
चलेनन् भने यी सारा मुखहरू
दुनियाँको तकदिर त फेरि पनि
तिनैले गर्ने छन् तय
जो हेर्नै चाहँदैनन् आहुतिको मुख।

Aahuti said —
‘No longer
Will devils decide the fate of this country’
The assembly was enraged —
‘Who gave him the right
To use his tongue like a barber’s knife?

Isn’t his foul mouth
The principle enemy of our sultanate?’

On the one hand,
The assembly searches frantically for
A piece of cloth to gag him

On the other,
Dark-skinned people
People trying to become people
And those deemed the second sex
Sit and wait, staring at Aahuti’s mouth

If all their tongues don’t move along with Aahuti’s
The fate of the world
Will be written once again
By those that want to shut Aahuti’s mouth. 

In this poem, Aahuti is both a revolutionary and the symbol of a progressive narrative that seeks to uplift the marginalised sections of Nepali society. Reading the poem at this moment helps shed light on the progressive politics of the country. Once a parliamentarian, Aahuti is nowhere near mainstream politics now. He himself is a marginalised voice within a fringe communist party. He has become silent — just as how the assembly in KC’s poem wanted him to be. When he speaks from the margins, mainstream politics can only hear his murmurs. Nepal’s identity and caste politics have suffered a similar fate as Aahuti’s. While the Adivasi-Janajati movement has retreated into the background, the Madhesh movement is also not as radical as it once was.

In these times filled with little hope, will the working-class Lal Bahadurs really come to the streets to fight for their rights? Will raped women shout sharp slogans against patriarchy? Or will the middle-class continue to be occupied by Candy Crush on their smartphones? We’re not sure what’ll happen. 

Between coronavirus, lockdown, corruption scandals, hyper-nationalism, incidents of rape and Dalit lynching, and a high suicide rate, art could offer a glimmer of hope for many. Binod Bikram KC’s poems offer a sobering perspective on the times, and wrap me in solace and inspiration, unlike the screechy, exaggerated version or reality I see in the news. Just as Huma Qureshi, a Bollywood actor I admire once said, “When has the world not been in turmoil? Pick any given time in history and there’ll always be turmoil, conflict and strife. It is through art and art alone that we try and make sense of our world.”

KC’s poems have helped me make sense of the world. Now, I’m waiting for Lal Bahadur, the women who have been violated, the poor, the hungry, Laila Begum and Aahuti to march beyond KC’s poems and let their voices penetrate the very fabric of Nepali society.