In the summer of 2014, I rented an off-season room in Namo Buddha and spent a week with ten Nepali poems by Sulochana Manandhar Dhital. They were about the night, and I was encountering them in the form of blurry photographs of pages from a book sent to me for translation. It rained every day, and when I left Namo Buddha, I had fallen in love with the poems. But as a novice Nepali literature consumer, I didn’t know Sulochana or her other deep volumes of work.
Born in 1955, Sulochana grew up in Jhochhen with a single mother and two older sisters. After completing her School Leaving Certificate, she hid from her mother while teaching at a school for Pondeys (considered untouchables at the time). Later, when pursuing an Intermediate of Arts (IA) degree, she became enamored with Marxist-Leninist rhetoric of empowering women and the poor. During the Panchayat era, Sulochana became one of the most active women leading labor unions and women’s rights movements. At times, she and her husband, Dr. Saroj Dhital, had to flee or go underground. When Nepal Academy founded its Mother Tongue Literature Department, Sulochana became the first writer to chair it. She writes fiction, non-fiction, and poetry in Nepali, Nepal Bhasa, and Chinese. A regular columnist for “Sampurna Aakaash” (The Entire Sky) and a host for a show on Radio Sagarmatha called “Jivanbata Jivan Sikau” (Learn About Life From Life), Sulochana calls herself a “peoples’ writer.”
I thought perhaps I hadn’t done justice to Sulochana’s poems that summer. Perhaps, reading about her, sifting through her oeuvre, and digging a little deeper into her life’s stories would have made me a better translator. All that changed when I met her. What was supposed to be a short coffee date turned into a three-hour-long conversation.
Now, she is Sulo to me. I write her emails in broken Unicode Nepali, and she writes back words I don’t realize I’ve been needing to hear. In our most recent conversation, Sulo and I talk about mothers, hunger, friendships, and being a true lover of light.
Sulo: I’ve made my mother cry. She used to kick her legs and cry like a child. You can imagine how terrible it is for a daughter to watch her mother cry. She was beloved, and there was no one else besides her in my life. Yet I made her cry while in search of my own path.
Muna: And now you’re taking care of her in your home.
S: It’s terrible that at this age she has broken her hip bone, but I get to spend time with her. More importantly, I got to apologize to her in her lifetime. Although a sorry might not be enough to mend her heart. My husband, who is a doctor, constantly talks to her about her foot and how best it will heal. The other day, as soon as my husband left the room, Aama looked at me and said “He is, indeed, a god.” Right in the moment, her thoughts drifted toward my sister. My sister has always been society’s darling; she has all the qualities that a woman ought to possess. And yet, she could never be happy. My mother was the one who married her off at the young age of sixteen and today she feels sorry. I tell Aama, “You finally see now that marriage is not only about marrying any man. It is about marrying the right kind of man. I may have put us through difficult times, but now you see why.”
I know that we say children will always be indebted to their mother because they have drunk her milk. Yet I feel like I did nothing wrong. If I am going to spend my life with someone, I want to spend it with someone I know, and who’s heart I can understand. You have to share a room with this person, a bed with this person, you have to share your everything.
M: So how old were you when you put your foot down about not marrying the man your mother had chosen for you?
S: Sixteen when the matchmaker came home, and eighteen when it all ended. Sometimes when I think about how I came out of all that darkness, I am in awe. I am dust, the dust under your feet. How did I get out alive? I didn’t have a father. My mother was widowed at twenty-six. We were a household of women with two unmarried older sisters, and no one to earn a living. We were poor. There was no book in the house, no pencils, no teacher, no guide, no light. And somehow I got out. My sisters didn’t. They didn’t even get to study. In comparison, I was a rebel.
M: Where did the strength come from? You were so young.
S: I guess, you could say I am a lover of light. It was also the age. I was curious like a little child, and I asked a lot of questions. I was looking for life but I knew that that life I was looking for wasn’t what I was living. I had to save myself. A few people were important in those years, of course. Shyam Prasad Sharma, who recently passed away, was in hiding in our neighborhood. I didn’t know who he was then, but I got my hands on his book Bahinilai Chitthi (A Letter to Sister). That changed a lot.
M: What did the letter say?
S: That women are strong, and that they should spend their lives being happy. Aama was not someone who raised her children to search for light. She was a beautiful woman, who raised us in darkness.
At sixteen, I was tiny like a bird. I had a small body, and now that I think about it, I didn’t get enough nutrition. In Jhochhen, where I grew up, there was a shortage of rice, and we would use flour for our meals. I grew tired of eating that. I would have to cook over firewood, feed everyone, go to school and prepare for SLC. I think I spent a month not eating. I would be dizzy in the middle of the day. But Aama never knew whether her kids ate or not. She never had that instinct in her to worry about her kids’ wellbeing. I am not saying she was a bad mother. She has her own story. She just raised us out of compulsion. I remember thinking that if I ever had children, I would make sure they studied instead of doing household chores, that they would eat well. These moments of clarity were what pulled me toward light.
M: You were hungry. Both physically and intellectually. And Shyam Prasad Sharma also brought you closer to that light, yes? How did you get your hands on that book?
S: The one who brought the book taught me valuable lessons, but she destroyed her own life. She married a man with seven children. But she saved me. We grew up together in Jhochhen. I wrote a story about her in Nepal bhasa; I call her Bhega Lati.
M: Which means?
S: Brainless person. Or, I guess, someone who is unaware and doesn’t know where she is or where she could go. I end the story by telling her: “You are Bhega Lati and you are not Bhega Lati.” Because she had a hard life, too. Her father passed away, and she was the oldest child in the family. Her mother told her that she had to bring money for the family no matter what. Now how can a young woman like her bring home money? So she did unimaginable things. After that, she didn’t want to be seen in public. Either she had to be strong and not care about what people said and just own it, or she would have to stay inside of herself.
She would come to my house every day and tell me about a “Maila Ba” who was staying in her relative’s home. I didn’t know then that it was Shyam Prasad Sharma who was in hiding and went by the name of “Maila Ba.” Bhega Lati would come and tell me about him. I guess she used to go to Maila Ba and tell him about me. Eventually he sent his book through her. She was the bridge between us. Apparently, Maila Ba had told her not to leave me, that I would be useful for the revolution later. I would get words of wisdom through Bhega Lati. Inspired by his book, I began to write poems and Bhega Lati would take the poems to Maila Ba. Then he would send another book.
M: It was like you had this ghost mentor through Bhega Lati.
S: Yes, exactly. I began to read more. I read Laxmi Prasad Devkota’s collection of essays. I toiled for days trying to read novels in Hindi.
M: Where did this interest come from?
S: I am always thankful to Bhega Lati. And it was also around then that I encountered what is today Laxmi Prasad Devkota’s famous line: Udeshya ke linu udi chhunu chandra ek. / Let your goal be one where you fly and touch the moon. I’m sure Apollo hadn’t landed on the moon when Devkota wrote that line, but you know that the writer always gets there before anyone else, right? [Laughs.]
I underlined that line and told myself that my goal was to touch that moon. So I began to jump as high as I could. All that jumping gave me a lot of exercise in life.
M: So thus began your reading life.
S: You know, just recently, I found a poem that my grandmother had written. She was actually a progressive woman, a lover of literature. So when I went to my mamaghar, it used to be full of books. But they were either being eaten up by insects, thrown in the garbage, torn, or kept in dusty storage. No one cared about these books, and it used to drive me crazy. I even took a few books without asking anyone. I mean, they were trash for the people in the house! The first book I took was a book about the earth. I memorized the entire globe—the countries, their capitals, their sizes, their colors, their shapes.
In this way, I had unknowingly created an environment for myself where I was sowing seeds of light.
M: Do you remember the first poem you wrote?
S: Of course. It was about us. You know, women power. [Laughs.]
M: And this was the time when you were arranged to be married, no?
S: Yes, the man I was set to marry had already finished his MA. I had just finished SLC. His family had two houses in Thamel and he was the only son. There was nothing crooked about his face; he was good looking.[Laughs.]
For my family, this match was more than perfect. If they were to rate this boy out of one hundred, he would obviously exceed it. It was nobody’s fault. My family thought they were doing something nice for me. Aama agreed right away. They compared my astrological chart against his and it was set.
S: Two years passed and I began to read more and know more. I was doing my IA. The students in college were politicized. It felt like I was finally waking up to understand that I had to fight against injustice. I was not involved in any party then, but I was under the influence of Shyam Prasad Sharma and others, although I didn’t know who they were. They wanted to elevate the poor and empower women. I was both. I became a different person. I fearlessly wrote essays and stories, never worrying about what I knew or didn’t know. I even acted in a Newari play. Not many girls acted in plays, but there I was.
M: Not many women acted, but were there other women around you who were in a similar place like yours?
S: I can never tell my story without including Astha Laxmi Shakya. We both grew up in Jhochhen and were both influenced by the political rhetoric on campus. But in hindsight, what was bad about being that politicized was that we were told to leave school for the sake of the country. We had to sing a song that went: BA, MA bhaneko sara rahecha hai rachhesi bangara. / BA, MA are all nothing more than the fangs of a monster.
How awful is that?
M: So you quit college?
S: We said goodbye to our education, and also to the idea of getting married. At that time, it felt like there was this large demanding society on one end, and me on the other: a small politicized woman. And in the middle Aama was crying. I remember her saying to me, “If you don’t marry, I will jump in a well and kill myself.”
M: She had her own battles to fight.
S: Yes, she has her own story. She had pressure from her family, the invitation cards had gone out. Everyone was ready but me. But you know, the more Aama cried, the more stubborn I became. “This is my life, you can’t push me into a box,” I would tell her.
An aunty, a mother of a friend of mine, finally went to the man’s house and told them that I wasn’t going to marry. That aunty asked him to marry her sister instead. [Laughs.] But they were very angry. Then I told them, “Fine, if you want to marry me this much, you can do it. But you will be marrying a corpse.” I scribbled a suicide note detailing how I had killed myself because I was forced into marriage. I had planned to get it published in the local newspaper. That was the last straw. After that, they brought my astrological chart back. I still remember the matchmaker coming to our house and throwing my chart on the ground, telling us that we had betrayed him. When he left, Aama looked at me and said, “You are not my daughter. I didn’t give birth to you.”
M: When did you meet doctor ji?
S: We met three times. The first time was in 2036 BS, someone pointed him out to me in passing. He had just come back from China after completing his MBBS.
S: I didn’t think much of him, really. I was in another world. I walked fast because I felt like I could never get anywhere if I walked slowly. I was always in a rush. I needed the world to change quickly. I felt like I didn’t have enough time.
From what little political exposure I had, I knew that if I could engage workers or laborers, I could bring change. So when I saw a vacancy ad for Nebico Biscuit Company, I immediately applied. They were introducing new machines and were keen on providing women training for how to use these machines. I knew that they were not going to take educated girls, because educated people make a lot of noise, like ask for a raise.
For the interview, I wore my friend’s mother’s sari that had holes in it. And when they asked about my education, I said I had studied till class seven. They asked me why I wanted that job, and I said I wanted to work. I told them that I sewed and knitted but that the money was too little. I had to sit for a test, simple additions and subtractions, but I purposefully messed it all up. I knew that even the smallest suspicion about my educational background would change their minds about hiring me.
But I was chosen. It wasn’t my place, for sure. I was a poet, someone who cried easily. And there I was packing biscuits. It was like putting a circle in a square room.
M: What changed?
S: Any chance I got, I would talk to the women who worked with me. I would ask them to think about their place in the world.
After two or three months into the job, eight women were let go without any reason. So we began protesting. [Laughs.]
For fifteen days or so, we set up tents outside the factory and slept there. It was a revolution. That was also the first time that I stayed out and didn’t go home at the end of the day. That was a big deal. But Astha Laxmi talked to my mother.
M: Another woman saves the day!
S: We kept each other strong, you know. Even after the whole marriage debacle, proposals kept coming to my house. It was the same for Astha Laxmi. By that time, we were both in the Marxist-Leninist party. We realized that for change to happen, we needed a network of people. When her family agreed to marry her off to a man, with the help of the party, we took Astha Laxmi from her house and sent her underground into a far-off village.
It’s like Henry Ibsen’s Nora. Where would Nora go if she left her house? My sister is Nora, but we didn’t let Astha Laxmi become Nora. And in this way, she became more involved and gave her life to politics. I couldn’t do that. I had way too many feelings. I just didn’t fit in politics.
M: You didn’t finish, or rather, you didn’t even really start your story about how you actually met doctor ji.
S: There was a magazine that we had started called Mahila Mukti, a magazine for women to consume. Most of the writing in it was anonymous, and there was a poem that was submitted called “Jail Pareko Bahini” / “The Imprisoned Sister,” submitted by a man. I needed to know who this man was because he understood women so well. It was Dr. Dhital, but I didn’t know then.
Later, in the height of Panchayat era, I had to go underground. But instead of staying at home, I thought that I could take care of a labor minister’s wife who was hospitalized in Bhaktapur. There I met Dr. Dhital again. He was the young doctor there that most patients admired. We spoke here and there, but only about things that were related to the patient I was taking care of. He never knew my name, but I knew that he was the same doctor who had returned from China.
Later I requested that our party bring in someone who would expose the women in the party to some philosophical studies. I felt like the reason our party’s leadership was completely male dominated was precisely because women didn’t have access to these kinds of ideas and reading materials. The person who came to teach us was Dr. Dhital!
M: He’s everywhere, this Dr. Dhital.
S: In our circle, expressing love through the medium of a poem was not uncommon. When we met up, just the two of us later, he brought a poem.
M: Did you have a poem for him?
S: No. I had stopped writing then because my poems had just undergone a huge mishap, and I was still recovering from it.
So he showed me his poem. It was a love poem.
M: What followed?
S: Well, later, after we got married, he had to go underground. I was pregnant with my first child with no father to show. Society scolded me, threw things at me, and I couldn’t say a word. I couldn’t tell them who the father was or give away where he was hiding. My mother had given up on me by then. I was the daughter that only caused her pain.
M: What brings you joy, Sulo?
S: I have learned that happiness is transient, so I just try to seek joy within. Maybe I am not even prepared to answer this question yet. I am still seeking.
M: What about your fears?
S: I am fearful of my own mistakes. Maybe without knowing I have caused some harm and I will have to bear the burden of that later. But I try not to feel regret, you know?
M: Before we wrap up our conversation, I want to talk a little bit about being a writer. What do you think is the responsibility of a writer? Is there one?
S: Not everyone who wants to write can write. You can try to wring it out of everyone, but unless you have something in your core, nothing’s going to come out. I am not saying I am full of talent, but I feel like I have something to say. And poets, well, they are clairvoyant.
They have gone to such great heights of feelings, through known and unknown worlds, that they have seen things we haven’t. They can imagine things we can’t. But you know, just because you’re a poet or a writer, you can’t be careless with your words.
As writers, we have to write truths. But we don’t do that often. I’ll be the first to admit that I am unable to write the truth sometimes because of society. There are things we don’t want to write about.
M: And then there are people we love who we have to protect.
M: What are you working on right now?
S: About a year and a half ago, when I was being interviewed on Nepal Mandala, a TV channel, they asked me a similar question. I gave them a list of three books I was working on. Fast forward to today, I still haven’t published any of them!
To answer your question, I hope to at least get one published this year. Along with that, I am working on a book called Aama Pathshala—lessons from my mother. You know her mother lived to be a hundred and five, and when she was in her late eighties, she used to easily walk around the hills of Chandragiri. I think that the same spirit is hidden in my mother, too.
The other day, a neighbor asked her how old she was, and I loved Aama’s response. She said, “I am just finally completing my eighty-sixth year.” The neighbor, who was amused by Aama, called her a “young woman.” I want to record these little moments and wisdom from her. If I don’t write it now, when will I write it? If I don’t write it, who will?
Cover photo: Sulochana in Godavari. Shikhar Bhattarai