11 MIN READ
Ramesh Shrestha grew up in Bhojpur, came to Kathmandu in 1967 to study, joined the literary circle in the capital and taught at Tribhuvan University, studied linguistics in the US during the mid-1970s, and then worked as a business and marketing writer in Thailand for several decades. He is a poet who published with Abhi Subedi and Peter J Karthak in the 1970s and is currently working on a set of recollections about an amazing cross-country bus trip he took in the US in the 70s.
In this interview, he shares about his boyhood in Bhojpur and offers recollections of the “hippie days” in Kathmandu in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although there’s much to criticize about the Western tourists who camped out in Nepal in those years, Ramesh ji fell in with a creative crowd that inspired and support his writing. It was a fruitful time.
According to professor Abhi Subedi, Ramesh embarks on a “poetic journey” that “moves from life to more life, hope to love, and from a sense of elision to one of fulfillment.”
Ramesh ji ends by offering some thoughts about writing in English. He rejects the idea that there is only one right way to use the English language and instead offers support for those who want to carefully make use of Nepali English in their writings.
Ramesh Shrestha was born in Bhojpur, Nepal in 1950. After his IA from Bhojpur College in 1967, he came to Kathmandu, where he did his Master’s in English in 1971 and taught English at Patan College. With a Fulbright-Hays Scholarship, he then did another MA, in Linguistics, from Michigan State (East Lansing) after which he started teaching at the Department of English at TU Central Campus in Kirtipur. Shrestha is an accomplished poet, academic, and essayist with a number of books to his name, including Bhojpur, Kantipur, Kirtipur: Ramesh Shrestha ko kavitayatra and Collected Poems (1970-2012).
Where did you grow up? Was it a good place to grow up?
I grew up in Bhojpur Bazaar in eastern Nepal in the 1960s. Looking back, I wouldn’t want to grow up anywhere else. My family was a big one with four brothers and four sisters, with the eldest brother already married with three children. My father’s four brothers, with their own very large families, each lived separately but right next to one another (like all Newars used to do). Growing up together with dozens of cousins only enriched my childhood.
How did you get excited about reading and writing?
My father was a poet; in addition, every year he wrote ‘Ramayana’ songs to eulogize on Gai Jatra those who had died that year. Mother didn’t read or write but told us lots of stories – I cried over the sad plight of Sunkeshari Rani each time she retold that story.
Our extended family was a relatively literate one – my elder brother Rudra was headmaster at Bidyodaya High English School (now sadly changed to Bidyodaya Secondary School). Another brother, Gajendra, also taught English and mathematics. The rest of us were all students at the same school.
Looking back, what turned me to reading literature was a shelf of books and magazines that was brought to our house for safekeeping from a fire that engulfed the Shree Ram Amar Shadid Pustakalaya, a library founded by my father in 1961. I devoured Sharada, Pragati, and Indreni magazines, which were donated to the library by the Indian Cultural Centre in Kathmandu. I still remember one particular bumper issue of Indreni with poems by Laxmi Prasad Devkota with his own translations into English. I think it was an issue Devkota and his compatriots had published to accompany them to an Afro-Asian Writers’ Conference held in 1958 in the capital city of Uzbekistan, then part of the USSR.
What was school like?
At that time, Bidyodaya was the only high school west of Dhankuta and east of Okhaldhunga districts. So it not only attracted the brightest minds from so many villages, castes, and ethnic groups – Bahun, Chhetri, Tamang, Shrestha, Shakya, Udas, and above all Kirati – the school also worked as a melting pot, leveling us all together while we each competed for our place at the top of the class.
My brothers Rudra and Gajendra were my favorites. They both taught English, my favorite subject. In my Class V English subject exam, the question paper asked us to write an essay on one of the three topics – the cow, the horse, and/or the dog. I wrote an essay on all three and was awarded 90 marks out of 100 (Rudra was the subject teacher).
I remember asking Gajendra dai in Class VIII when was he going to teach us the poem, P-salm of Life. “Not so; it is ‘salm of life’,” he told us, referring to the poem Psalm of Life by HW Longfellow.
At Bidyodaya, we participated in each ‘Kabita Gosthi’ held every Friday and won pencils and exercise books. We all competed and inspired each other. My classmates Hari, Shanker, and Ganesh have since become Norem (Ralfa), Shailendra Sakar, and Ganesh Rashik, respectively, and are well-known names in Nepali literature today.
After my SLC, I spent two years teaching at the same school. Even then, we looked to Kathmandu to catch the air of new trends in poetry. Ruprekha, a monthly magazine from Kathmandu, was the arbiter of new Nepali literature. We read Mohan Koirala, Bhupi Sherchan, Madan Regmi, and Dwarika Shrestha with awe. ‘Tesro Aayam’ poets like Bairagi Kainla and Ishwor Ballav were particularly hot.
They used Greek mythologies (Sisyphus was the most popular) and the metaphors of city life. So they were not so easy to understand. I followed with a poem entitled: Shrapit Ragat ko Bishakta Hastachher (Poisonous signature of a cursed blood). Doesn’t the title remind you somewhat of Bairangi Kaila’s Mateko Manchheko Bhashan: Madhyarat Pachhiko Sadak Sita (A drunk man’s speech to the street after midnight)? I was all of 16 years of age then.
What year did you get to Kathmandu? What was it like? For someone interested in reading and writing, was it a good place?
I got to Kathmandu in 1967, to attend my Intermediate of Arts examination. For me, the hippie scene was the most attractive feature of Kathmandu. Young westerners dressed skimpily in Hare Krishna cotton garb, going in and out of hashish shops, getting high on marijuana-laced chiya and pie at restaurants scattered around Bhimsenthan.
Kathmandu was already where everybody was – all my poet and singer friends from Bhojpur and all the Nepali writers you heard and read about were here. With new and old friends like Abhi Subedi, Kavita Ram, Shailendra Sakar, Parshu Pradhan, we visited maha kabis like Bal Krishna Sama, Madhav Ghimire, Siddhicharan Shrestha, and other luminaries at their homes on Saturday mornings. Some Saturdays we went to Parijat didi’s house in the morning and to Bashu Shashi’s in the evenings – the latter for alcohol-fueled sessions on new literature.
I wrote lots and lots of poems in Nepali and had the satisfaction of being printed in all the major magazines like Rachana, Madhupark, and Mukut – indeed all my friends did. Kathmandu was a great place then to meet poets and intellectuals under the pipal tree in New Road, read poems, and discuss literature and ideas emanating from India and the West in the nearby coffee and tea houses.
Who were your favorite writers?
Besides the Ruprekha and ‘Tesro Aayam’ poets, younger poets of my age like Hem Hamal, Prakash Premi, Manjul, Shailendra were good for mutual support and inspiration.
A new language of poetry was being born, the poetry of loneliness, absurdism, existentialism, with names like TS Eliot, Sartre, Nietzsche freely paraded. “Etna and Vesuvius are exploding all over our life,” (Etna ra Vesuvius jindagi sangha ko bidroh) wrote Tulsi Diwas. Around this time, we came in contact with the Hungry Generation poets from India (Malay Roy Choudhury, Subimal Basak, and artist Anil Karanjai). We started translating their poems into Nepali, they translated ours. One of Anil Karanjai’s drawings appeared on the first issue of Mantra monthly magazine, edited and published by Shailendra Sakar as a voice of the Aswikirt Jamat group of poets. I contributed a number of opinion articles representing the thinking behind the new group’s poetry.
I was then doing my MA in English literature at the TU Central Campus in Kirtipur. A few Western ‘hippie’ poets living in Kathmandu discovered us as we indeed found them mutually. My world began to turn around after I met the “Man Who Turned on the World.” Michael Hollingshead published one of my English poems in the first ( and I think also the last) issue of his Flow magazine.
Soon, I started writing only in English and so completely vanished from the firmament of Nepali literature except for a book of criticism, Nepali Kabita ko Prabriti (Trends in Nepali Poetry). I wrote under the aegis of the Nepal Academy in 1972 but the book was only published by Sajha in 1979.
How did you get to go to the United States?
After teaching at the English Department for two years or so, I won a Fulbright scholarship for a Master’s in Linguistics at Michigan State University. In the two years I was there, I continued to find solace in writing poems in English, especially as an escape from the cold, sunless, and lonely days in the American Midwest. I didn’t write much but whatever I was able to write was included in Manas, published in 1977, possibly the first collection of poems written by Nepali poets in English (Abhi Subedi, Peter Karthak, and myself).
After your studies, what kinds of writing did you do?
After my Master’s in Linguistics degree in 1976, I joined the English Department in Kirtipur. Besides continuing to teach English literature, I also taught an introductory course in sociolinguistics. I joined the Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies and did a research report on Adult Education in Nepal and language problems in social science.
What did you do in Thailand?
I went to Thailand in 1980. I started by teaching English but soon became a ‘cub reporter’ at a business magazine learning the tricks of newspaper/magazine writing – “keep it simple, stupid (kiss)” is what my editor/copywriter/subeditor taught me. Soon, I became a columnist monitoring the advertising, marketing, and media industry of Thailand. It was miles away from creative or research reporting but it took me to write for media magazines in Hong Kong and Chicago. I became so good at the trade that I wrote the first The Advertising Book: Thailand Advertising, Marketing, and Media Guide in 1984, which was only laid to rest in 2015 after more than 30 annual bumper editions.
Are you still writing today?
Not much. But over the last two Covid years, just to beat the boredom of staying home, I have started putting together memories of Kathmandu from the 70s and 80s, gleaned through a number of correspondences with my friends and families.
I have also been working on memories of my coast-to-coast Greyhound tour of America in the 70s. Most of this project is about one coast-to-coast travel from Tampa, Florida to Eureka, California then up to Madison and Lansing on a monthly Greyhound pass. Besides Googling the routes, talking to friends I visited is helping fill in the memory gaps.
Any advice you have for the new Nepali writers in English?
Unlike in our time, there is no ‘Received Pronunciation’ or BBC English to aspire to today. English from all over the world is now highly acceptable. So, writing in Nepali English – possibly, the educated variety of Nepali English – is perfectly acceptable and probably preferable. If Indian English is acceptable, then why isn’t Nepali English, Nigerian English, or Singaporean English?
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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