Nepal’s Many Voices

Formed in 1768, Nepal is South Asia’s oldest nation state, and yet it is extremely young in spirit.

It joined the free world late, in 1990, when a democracy movement ended centuries of an absolute monarchy that had left the state impoverished. Censorship fell away only then. New scholarship, critical thinking, and open debate—as well as long-suppressed social conflict and an armed Maoist rebellion—have since challenged the old national myths, replacing them with new truths and also new myths. These are in turn being challenged, and vociferously.

This nation of twenty-seven million is, at present, gripped by an ontological struggle to define its very being. The drafting of a new constitution has been underway since 2008, without result so far. Stalling the constitution is a sharp quarrel over the nation’s identity. Some argue that, with 126 identity groups, Nepal is essentially pluralistic, and they demand that the state be restructured to ensure equality between these groups. Others remain loyal to the unitary vision that formed the nation. They argue that existing inequalities will gradually ease with education and awareness.

It is unknowable, at this juncture, what kind of state—plural or unitary—will result from the new constitution, but there are some abiding truths about Nepal, and diversity is the first of them.

Nepal’s geography encourages isolation. The southern border lies just a hundred meters above sea level, while the high barrier of the Himals, the local name for the Himalayas, form its northern border. The sliver of terrain in between is so rugged as to be unworkable: road coverage remains among the sparsest in the world. With only a handful of cities and towns, this remains a nation of villages cut off from each other.

This isolation has bred many small cultures. There is no majority group in Nepal. The largest identity group, the Chhetri caste, accounts for just over 16% of the population, but it contains multitudes: a Chhetri from the western hills would be hard-pressed to identify with a Chhetri from the east. Even the largest indigenous communities, the Magars and the Tharus, who make up 7 and 6 percent of the population respectively, have internal differences—some minor and others definitional.

Language is one of the more defining differences within and between identity groups. Nepal’s 126 groups inhabit an extraordinarily complex language ecology, with 123 recognized languages from four different language families.

Indo-Aryan is the largest language family here. It includes the 48% who call the Nepali language their mother tongue, as well as Nepal’s 12% Maithili speakers, 7% Bhojpuri speakers, 6% Tharu speakers, and 2% Awadhi speakers. The Tibeto-Burman language family includes Nepal’s 5% Tamang speakers, 4% Nepal Bhasa speakers and 3% Magar speakers. The remaining 13% of the population speak over 100 other minor, and in some cases, near-extinct languages, including a few languages from the Dravidian and Austrasiatic families.

And so the stories Nepalis tell—about ourselves, about each other—come in a multitude of languages, too, peppered with regional dialects, expressions and patois. In addition, gender, class and any number of other factors inform each individual’s experience. There is no typical Nepali experience or typical Nepali story.

All of this represents a wealth of material for the writer; but interestingly, little of this diversity comes into literature.

Literature has long been an exclusive activity in Nepal. Education, to begin with, has been limited, especially in areas where the language of the state—Nepali—is not the mother tongue. Even today, the literacy rate is 75% for men and 57% for women, with the overall rate going as low as 48% in the remotest villages.

And so only a select group has been in a position to engage in literary activity. They tend to be Hindus who were traditionally considered “high-caste.” They tend to use Nepali as their mother tongue. They tend to be men.

There have always been exceptions, of course, and now, following the spread of education and a growing pride in other identities, diversity is on the rise in literature. And yet most literary gatherings still give off a stale air of segregation. Most publishers’ lists are insular. The Nepal Academy—the state’s primary institution for the promotion of literature—can be tokenistic toward women and the historically excluded. Literary production is yet to be truly inclusive. It is impossible not to notice that, to date, most of Nepal is absent in Nepali literature.

The three works in this issue of Words Without Borders were originally written in the Nepali language. In selecting them, I tried to bring in Nepal through the authors’ choice of subjects.

Nayan Raj Pandey’s story “Candy” takes a satirical look at the hollowness of Nepal’s political leadership. Pandey often writes about the intersection of ordinary people and power, and he does so with a critical mind and an absurdist sensibility. His fiction is as entertaining as it is incisive. If his subject in this story—the Minister—is buffoonish, it is because the citizenry cannot but perceive its leaders as intellectually and morally bankrupt. Following 1990, in election after election, they have proven inexplicably indifferent to the needs of those who helped them rise to power.

By contrast, Sulochana Manandhar’s linked poems, “Night,” have the hushed interiority and contemplative tone of a monologue with the self. The selection here is from a book-length work of the same name. Each poem reflects a different impulse, a different tone. The poems were written over the course of a decade, and many were occasioned by the events of the day, be they social unrest or political conflict or war. In addition to being a poet, Manandhar is an essayist. She writes on social and political matters, always with an individuated personal voice. Her background in Chinese literature, and her grounding in her own mother tongue, Nepal Bhasa, add complexity to her relationship with language. In her poetry, the turbulence of the times becomes intimate, transforming into mood and metaphor.

Amar Nyaupane is part of a more recent crop of writers. The young protagonist of “The Latch” is a member of the Tharu community, indigenous to the southern plains. The story focuses on the practice of child marriage, and the protagonist’s befuddlement at the import of the rituals that his family makes him go through. Interestingly, Nyaupane is not, himself, of the Tharu community. It is unusual in Nepal for writers to write about those outside their immediate community. Nyaupane does so with empathy and gentle humor, allowing readers from outside a glimpse into a wholly unfamiliar way of life.

For me, the pleasure of selecting these pieces was matched by the pleasure of pairing them with the right translators. Weena Pun, Ajit Baral, and Muna Gurung are English-language writers in their own right, and first-time translators. In my experience, translation is one of the most rewarding engagements a writer can have. My own growth as an English-language writer has hinged on learning how to translate my Nepali colleagues’ work.

This issue of Words Without Borders includes, of course, a very small sample of the literature of Nepal. It cannot be considered representative. In addition to the literature of languages other than Nepali, oral literature is entirely missing. Also missing are many popular nonfiction genres such as essay and memoir. Slam poetry has come into its own in recent years. The tradition of Dalit minstrels wandering the hills, singing songs full of news, continues. Each community has its own lore, its own mythology, and these coexist with more revolutionary narratives, narratives that aspire to social and political and economic equality.

My hope is that this sampling will inspire readers to seek out more, for Nepal is a nation that speaks in many voices. They all deserve to be heard.

© 2014 by Manjushree Thapa. All rights reserved.