14 MIN READ
Raju Syangtan was once afraid of writing. Today, he is a celebrated poet and journalist. His story, on this week’s Writing Journey.
Most of Nepal is obsessed with the new, the modern, the flashy.
But in his wonderful article ‘The fishing village and the stolen boat’, Raju Syangtan visited a Majhi community by a river in Sindhupalchok, sought out the oldest group of residents he could find, and sat with them. He then did something rare and important: he listened. And he took notes. Then, to make sense of what he heard, he sought out historical and anthropological readings about the time and place and people he had grown attached to. He wove together what he heard and what he read with great empathy, insight, and artistry, and turned it into an article.
Few people decide to be ‘writers’. That term, Raju ji writes, “carries too much weight.” More often, what happens is they get attached to something – ‘committed’ would be another word – and pursue it where it leads them. Writing, as many other contributors to this series have noted, is often a way to explore, to deepen understanding, and to share. Becoming a ‘writer’ smells of ego and ambition. But writing in this other way is different: it’s about caring and curiosity. If you care deeply about a person or place or subject, you often end up writing about it.
In this personal and honest essay, Raju recounts his own journey toward this kind of writing. It’s a story of family, history, war, leaving home, seeking truth, returning home, finding his own way, caring and curiosity. Thank you, Raju ji, for caring and for sharing. We all look forward to more of your writings.
Features and poems by Raju Syangtan have appeared in numerous publications. His journalism includes जसले प्रेम पाउन जमिनदारी त्यागे (He who gave up landlording for love, Annapurna Post), माटो खोसिएको एउटा गाउँको कथा (The story of a village that had its soil stolen, Naya Patrika), and ‘खरानीले अक्षर सिकेर अधिवक्ता भएँ’ (‘I became an advocate after learning the alphabet from ash’, Naya Patrika). A translated version of his report on the Majhi village, ‘The fishing village and the stolen boat’, appeared on The Record in August 2021.
His poems include ‘पोस्टमोर्टेम स्थलबाट सुर्यबहादुर तामाङको आग्रह’ (‘Surya Bahadur Tamang’s request from the post mortem site’, Nepal), ‘छुटेको प्रचण्ड’ (‘Prachanda is missing’, Kantipur), आमा तिमी मात (‘Mother, get drunk’, Mulyankan), and ‘Those who went’.
Raju Syangtan has been working in journalism for half a decade and is currently the coordinator for Naya Patrika’s Saturday edition, ‘Jhan Naya’. He is in the final stages of preparing a poetry collection for publication.
My ancestors came down from Sindhupalchowk to Mahottari in the 1930s. At that time, the fear of the Ranas and the fear of starving to death were probably stronger than the fear of malaria. In the 90 years since, my ancestors lost their lands, their culture, and their self-respect. My ancestors had fled from the pains of exploitation and gotten to the plains, only to fall once again into the trap of marginalization. It then became the turn of my generation to suffer exploitation.
After our lands were seized, our home was surrounded by extreme poverty. I had barely stepped from a child to a youth when I started following my father to work as a mason. With my father, pulling on a hand plane, pulling on a saw became my daily routine. Sometimes when I went to school, I would sit on the backbench and when sir or madam came looking for homework, I would escape through a hole in the back wall. I barely went to school for 15 days out of a year, but managed to pass grade 6. In my heart, I felt that I had to study. But how? If I went to school, I didn’t understand what was being taught. If I stayed home, I would have to pull on a saw. I spent my adolescence in this dilemma.
It was in 2058 BS (2001 AD), I was 15 years old at the time. While I was following my father with a plane in my hands, the Maoist people’s war was reaching new heights. Strange rumors about the Maoists spread in the village. One night, at our home next to the forest, the Maoists arrived. They gave us a book wrapped in black plastic. The name of the book was Shining Red Star (चम्किलो रातो तारा)
I finished that Chinese children’s novel in two days. I saw myself in the protagonist. My perspective of the people’s war changed and I wanted to meet those who had left the book with us. After a few months, they came back, gave us two more books, and left again. One was The Communist Manifesto and the other was a book about women’s liberation by Hisila Yami and Baburam Bhattarai.
I liked these books much more than the ones from school. I didn’t understand The Communist Manifesto and the book on women’s liberation very well but all I knew was that these three books were on the side of the poor. These books would show us poor people the path to freedom. These three books changed the course of my life.
Earlier, I couldn’t raise my head high in the village, but after reading the books, I was able to give speeches. I would give speeches to my family at home and to my friends when we took the animals to graze. My friends had never heard the words Marxism, Leninism, Maoism, feudalism, capitalism, imperialism, the proletariat, the bourgeois, and stared at me with unblinking eyes. I didn’t know what all of those words meant and neither did they.
I feel embarrassed remembering those times. A backbencher who had never been able to even stand and speak in class was now giving glib 15-minute speeches by asking the teacher to step outside. I asked my friends to stop pursuing bourgeois education and to join the revolution.
Eventually, I said goodbye to my parents and went underground.
I became active in the party that waged a people’s war from 1996 to 2006. I spent about half a decade in the midst of the war, participating in dozens of confrontations and battles. At the same time, I also read books like Maxim Gorky’s Mother, Nikolai Ostrovsky’s How the Steel was Tempered (अग्नीदिक्षा), Luo Guangbin and Yang Yiyan’s Red Rock (रातो चट्टान), Ngọc Nguyên’s The village that wouldn’t die (अजम्बरी गाउँ), Yang Mo’s Song of Youth (युवाहरुको गीत), Julius Fučik’s Notes from the Gallows (झुन्ड्याउँदा झुन्ड्याउँदै), Aahuti’s Naya Ghar (नयाँ घर), Sarad Paudel’s Likhe (लिखे), and Parijat’s Anido Pahadsangai (अनिँदो पहाडसँगै). I also read newspapers like Janadesh, Kalam, Mahima, and Naulo Bihani. These readings helped my adolescent mind become more mature.
I kept walking the path of war. I believed that one day, we would win and our land that had been seized by the feudalists would be returned. But as time passed, the train we had been on for thousands of miles began to run on a different track, and I got off.
After this, the books I read did not satisfy me anymore, especially those written about the war. They felt like they were written by the privileged for the privileged. The books might be about the poor working person but the poor were just naïve. I began to think, why are the poor only made into objects of pity? Why is there no literature on the side of those who decorate the world? Why do writers use indecipherable language to say big things? Who will write about us? I decided that I would henceforth only read literature that was written for workers by workers. But sadly, this kind of literature was very limited.
I began to think, if there’s no such literature out there then I should become a writer. But how? I was the first to learn to read and write in my family. How could I do something that no one in my family had ever done? I panicked.
I started to read the biographies of famous writers to learn how they had started but that made things worse. They were all upper caste and upper class. I couldn’t understand whether to be a writer is to be a great man or to be a great man is to be a writer. I decided that I couldn’t become a writer.
Despite the fear, I still wanted to write. I read more of Maxim Gorky’s stories and essays and then it hit me – he was an ordinary poor person, just like me. If he could become a writer, then why couldn’t I?
Gorky became my idol. I put up a black-and-white photo of him in my room and looked at it as I started my day. But as time passed, I also began to think that I shouldn’t idealize someone so much. How could I write about the issues of the 21st century by idolizing a 20th-century writer? I took down Gorky’s photo from my room. But he remains forever in my heart.
I started writing with poetry. But as soon as I even thought of this word, I got scared again. All the poets and writers were well-educated, with homes in the cities and well-paid jobs. Images, symbols, and figures of speech danced on their fingers. They walked around carrying bags full of unpronounceable Sanskrit words. It was their poetry that used to be – and still is – recited in large seminar halls, poetry workshops, and theaters. Occasionally arriving in such spots, I would return with feelings of inferiority. I thought of writing in the Tamang language but I was a Tamang from the Madhes and I didn’t have a proper grasp of my mother tongue. I thought of writing in Khas Nepali but I couldn’t access it well and I didn’t know the rules of grammar. So I came to a conclusion: I couldn’t be a poet.
But, as scared as I was, I started writing poems from the year 2070. Still afraid, I wrote about my father who had built the Mahendra Highway. I wrote a poem about a woman who spent her entire life around rice pounders and stone grinders. I wrote poems about anonymous mahakavis, adikavis, rastrakavis, and swor samrats from the country’s hidden corners. I wrote about my ancestors the regime made into slaves.
People who had seen troubles like mine liked these poems. They encouraged and inspired me. After that, I wrote with more enthusiasm. Only later did I understand: just as the ruling class had captured the storehouse of knowledge, so had Nepali poetry been captured by one section of society.
After that, I started to read more poetry. I read the works of poets like Parijat, Bhupi Sherchan, Gopalprasad Rimal, Aahuti, Shrawan Mukarung, Bhupal Rai, Binod Bikram KC, Swapnil Smriti, Keshab Silwal, Raabat, Nibha Shah, and Sarita Tiwari. Reading their works, I began to gain the courage to say “I too can write.” I also sought out and read translated works by foreign poets. Reading these poets gave me additional courage – such as Bertolt Brecht, Pablo Neruda, Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Awatar Singh Pash, Sarbwardyal Saksena, Dhumil, Manglesh Dabral, Uday Prakash. Reading them, my courage swelled and I wrote. Fiction from Parijat, Khagendra Sangraula, Nayanraj Pandey, and Rajan Mukarung also helped. In building my understanding of society, Mary Des Chene, Swanam Sathi (Shashi Sherchan), Aahuti, and Rajendra Maharjan played special roles.
I wrote poems, but it was difficult to survive. I needed to survive or return to the village, or move to the Gulf. How could I return to the school where I had given speeches on the way to the war? I didn’t have the courage to go to the Middle East for work either. After searching and searching, I started working for an online webpage. Doing this work, I arrived in the so-called ‘mainstream’ media. But after joining the media, another challenge appeared.
In the media, there are very few Tamangs. And whenever they appear, they are door guards, receptionists, or drivers. By chance I got to do some reporting. I had to call up politicians and celebrities. Before calling, I would take a deep breath and make the call with a shaky voice. I had to say nice things to a politician I didn’t like in order to write the news. Forcing yourself to speak in a sweet voice to someone you don’t respect has to be among the world’s most disgusting chores. And it struck me, is our work just to put a mic in front of a politician or a minister? Is the media’s duty just to cover the day of businesspeople, industrialists, and celebrities? After this, I left the media house where such reporting was necessary. It seemed to me that journalists’ cameras were only looking up. Journalists’ pens were only writing the songs of the wealthy and powerful.
I started looking toward the grassroots. I began looking for stories about the downtrodden crushed by power, strength, and structures. And so, I sometimes found myself in a Majhi community, sometimes in a landless settlement. Sometimes I met porters, sometimes workers in huts. And I started writing their stories. Speaking with them, I never felt any fear at all. Instead, many times I broke into tears. In their lives, I could vividly see my own past. Sitting among them, I felt like I was with my own family members.
Among the articles I’ve written until now, the work on the Majhi community feels special to me. Last year, we were in the middle of the Covid terror. Indigenous filmmaker Sanjog Lafa Magar, poet Raabat, and I went to the Sindhupalchok village of Bodgaun, about 50 kilometers from Kathmandu. We met with elderly folk from this settlement on the banks of the Indrawati River. They knew we had come from Kathmandu, but were eager to share their stories. With 95-year-old Asman Majhi, we talked about events from the Rana period to the Republic. He told us, “Wherever the Majhi go in this country, they are poor.” He blamed fate for pushing his community into poverty. As the conversation unfolded, one thing became clear: they just wanted to be able to live according to their traditional ways. They weren’t ready to accept any modernity or program the government had introduced in the name of development. When we said goodbye, it had already gotten dark. They invited us to stay. Even in the time of a pandemic, the kindness that they showed was very pleasing.
But when I see these stories turned into objects and sold in the market, I get sad and even angry. The market turns the tears of these people into letters, spreads them around and sells them. It does not value their self-respect, self-esteem, and their contributions to our society. The pain of marginalized peoples turns into an object of trade in the marketplace. As long as this class of people doesn’t begin to write, this disgraceful business will continue to flourish.
I don’t know how much of a poet, writer, or journalist I have become now. I’m not interested in giving myself a label. These titles are much too heavy. Because stories from the margins have yet to be written. The process of marginalization has not stopped. I am going to continue trying to write these unwritten stories.
Tom Robertson Tom Robertson, PhD, is an environmental historian who writes about Kathmandu and Nepali history. His Nepali-language video series on writing, 'Mitho Lekhai', is available on Youtube. His most recent article, 'No smoke without fire in Kathmandu’, appeared on March 5 in Nepali Times.
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