13 MIN READ
Sanjay Upadhya has a long history as a journalist and writer, from Biratnagar to Kathmandu to the US. Mixing personal history with journalism’s history, this Writing Journey interview offers a lot to anyone interested in nonfiction writing, not least thoughts on “artful alliteration and playful puns.”
As with many of us, Upadhya learned to write by imitating favorites. As a boy in Biratnagar in the 1970s, he parroted the satire of Keshav Raj Pindali and Bhairav Aryal (and learned an important lesson about potatoes). Later, he copied Time magazine articles word for word, studying how famous authors wove together history and politics and kept things concise. “The writing was tight. There seemed to be no word that didn’t belong there.” What a great lesson to learn early!
Sanjay ji opens a window onto life at The Rising Nepal in the 1980s before Nepal’s move to a more open society. It’s fascinating to hear strategies for evading the palace censors – the pen names, the passive voice, the use of English’s nuances to say a lot without saying too much. “Ambiguity is our byword,” a colleague noted.
The interview is packed with useful tips, in catchy language. Upadhya recommends “short, simple, and declarative sentences.” He suggests viewing things “from different vantage points.” He calls attention to how “the flow of the spoken word” can give new insights on prose. He notes that those who try to impress with a big vocabulary “often look foolish.” He describes a wonderful 300-word first-draft strategy to get articles off the ground: short enough to be quick, doable, and unintimidating, but long enough to create an outline for a longer article. Brillant.
Writing Journeys essays discuss good writing but also try to model it. Sanjay is a master at what I consider the sentence’s most important word: the verb. His verbs are simple, short, and effective: imitate, show, probe, admire, mesh, slog, dread, fall into, consume, catch, water down, blunt (Did you know it could be a verb?), express, impress, vanquish, make peace, delve, annoy, refuse, vex, stop, disrupt, resist, tighten, check, endure, sting, analyze, revise, come to light, prevail, enliven, ease, shine, proclaim, recap, point to, challenge, affirm, elaborate, accommodate, simplify, accuse, adopt, pose, miss, question, play, and knead.
Not fancy, but beautiful in their own way. Thanks for sharing, Sanjay!
Sanjay Upadhya is a US-based Nepali author and journalist specializing in the country’s politics and foreign policy. Raised and educated in the United States, Thailand, India, and Nepal, Upadhya has worked for The Rising Nepal, The Times of London, Inter Press Service, Khaleej Times (Dubai), and the United Nations Secretariat. He holds master’s degrees in journalism from New York University and business administration from Tribhuvan University.
Upadhya’s latest book is Backfire in Nepal: How India Lost the Plot to China (New Delhi: Vitasta, 2021). His previous works include Nepal and the Geo-Strategic Rivalry Between China and India (New York and London: Routledge, 2012) and The Raj Lives: India in Nepal (New Delhi: Vitasta, 2008).
Next week: Amish Mulmi
Who taught you to write? How did you learn?
As a high schooler in Biratnagar in the mid-1970s, I tried imitating Keshav Raj Pindali and Bhairav Aryal. My Nepali writing didn’t take me beyond a few family recitations. However, those master humorists/satirists taught me a lot. Pindali showed me that something as commonplace as the potato had an interesting story if you probed deep enough. Aryal introduced me to the richness of Nepali idioms and how eternally apt they were to daily life.
Having graduated as one of the early batches of the Nepali-intensive New Educational Plan, I began studying English seriously only in college – and as an engineering student. There was a course called ‘Scientific English’ which was as arcane as hydraulics and soil mechanics to me. Until then, I wrote and spoke English without knowing there was a method to the order of words I used. I knew ‘its’ was entirely different from ‘it’s’, but not why and how. At home, I tried to cover all the grammar bases I had missed in school.
Around this time, in my mid-teens, my father suggested I copy Time magazine essays every week. The likes of Lance Morrow, Roger Rosenblatt, and Charles Krauthammer became my early teachers. I admired the way they meshed current events with history and philosophy into such vivid prose. The writing was tight. There seemed to be no word that didn’t belong there. I included a few books of great quotations, along with the dictionary, thesaurus, and almanac, next to my typewriter.
After slogging through two years of highway engineering, I was lost. The 1979 student protests had upset Tribhuvan University’s academic calendar. Since India didn’t recognize Nepal’s engineering curriculum then and China had just come out of the Cultural Revolution, the only option was to go to the Soviet Union or one of its satellite states. Or get a job as an overseer in the districts. Dreading both, I began writing letters to the editors of Time, Newsweek, and India Today. After about a dozen got published, a Nepali journalist called Ashok Raj Pandey working for India Today suggested that I contribute articles. An imprimatur from someone of his stature!
I began writing articles for The Rising Nepal, where I later became a sub-editor. Mentors like Mana Ranjan Josse, Parasuram Kharel, and Kunda Dixit each had distinct styles. There was a lot to learn there. Apart from the craft of journalism, Josse taught me through his writings that prolixity was not a no-no in journalism. When I saw Kharel writing on politics, sports, and movies with equal flair every week, I discovered how edifying the interaction between subject matter and language could be. Dixit, already a legend, was on his way to Columbia Journalism School. I remember wondering ‘Even he needs to study more?’
How do you choose the topics you write about?
Having started as an editorial writer at The Rising Nepal in 1984, I looked for all kinds of news stories around me. There was a weekly column called ‘Newsroom Chatter’ where staff contributed 150-word pieces on anything they reasonably expected the partyless milieu to tolerate. Mindful of avoiding controversy during the Panchayat years, it was easy then to fall into self-censorship. Far more difficult was to avoid self-imposed restraints from consuming you, especially since there was no statute of limitations on what the palace censors could catch and demand a written explanation for. An accumulation of such explanations was bad for your career. Mercifully, the English language is rich in words of varying tones and shades. The thesaurus helped you ‘water down’ the language to a point of safety. The passive voice also helped (‘it was said by X’ instead of ‘X said’ did often blunt the sting).
What tips, realizations, or activities helped you improve?
Short and simple declarative sentences are always the best when you know what you want to say. Artful alliteration and playful puns come in handy when you have too many points or want to keep things between the lines. I decide whether I am writing to express or to impress. When others try to impress, they use big words and often look foolish. Instead, I tried hard to make my words unpretentious and pleasant. That impressed more.
Who are your favorite writers or books/articles?
Political memoirs and autobiographies, along with historical biographies, were an early interest. Living in New York City and Bangkok in the 1960s when my father was posted as a diplomat, I found several books on Benjamin Franklin, including ones he wrote himself. How he and others wrote about their diverse experiences was revealing. In the late 70s, Robert K. Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra and William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich brought a human touch to epochal stories.
Reading about a diversity of subjects unwittingly facilitated the study of parallel histories. In 1792, a vanquished Nepal signed the Betravati Treaty with China; Lord Macartney was on his way to Beijing as first official envoy from London; George Washington was elected to a second term; Louis the XVI was arrested and the first French Republic proclaimed; and Catherine the Great made peace with the Ottomans. It gives you a new outlook and approach.
Salman Rushdie’s early books, Andrew Roberts’ biographies, William Dalrymple’s works on India, Jung Chang on China, and Vince Flynn and Brad Thor thrillers are part of my routine. More recently, the audiobook format has let me delve into the worlds of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Leo Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Listening to books I had read years earlier is instructive, as the flow of the spoken word gives new insights into sentence structure, cadence, and pacing.
Why is writing so hard? Have you ever been really discouraged? What do you do when your writing energy flags?
At times, it’s annoying when the words just refuse to come. At others, it’s vexing when you can’t convey the simplest thought in a simple sentence. But I wait in the expectation that the words will eventually come. And they invariably do.
Where do you write and at what time? Do you have writing rituals?
To start, I try to produce a rough piece of about 300 words, even if there are many blanks/holes in yellow. Stopping to check things kind of disrupts my flow. The rewriting process takes care of the facts, word count, etc. A lot depends on the personality of the penname I am writing under. Sanjay Upadhya tends to be more academic. The others – who I shall identify in an upcoming book – are more frivolous and acerbic.
Any favorite technological tools?
In recent times, I’ve found Grammarly and ProwritingAid – among the most popular subscription-based softwares – useful. But I use them only after completing everything the old-fashioned way. I use the software mostly while editing for organizations that have their own templates and style books. Still, during my personal writing, I can’t resist the temptation to know where I could have tightened sentences or used a better word.
Any favorite books about writing?
There are too many good ones out there to name – old and new alike. They can be helpful, so it's worth checking them out. I regularly check the free section on Kindle and invariably download useful ones.
What are the biggest mistakes young writers make?
I think it is taking things for granted – facts, fame, fortune.
What do you like about writing? What part gives you satisfaction and why?
I still carry a reputation as a propagandist in some quarters because of my pro-Panchayat writings in The Rising Nepal and subsequent support of royal activism. I went against conventional wisdom because of certain convictions I held owing to my understanding of Nepal and its place and possibilities in the world. When I reread some of those articles today, I like the element of prescience whenever it is evident. It also helps me endure some of the more stinging hate mail I get.
How does journalistic writing differ from general or academic writing?
Immediacy. Being able to analyze and offer opinions instantly is a precious art. My late colleague and friend Sushil Sharma was great at that. “You analyze based on the facts you have, not the ones you wish you had,” he would often say. If new facts came to light, the analyst had the obligation to revise one’s opinion without feeling bad about what was written earlier, Sushilji would add.
Are there tricks for explaining technical, scientific concepts to a general readership? What writers do this particularly well?
Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times is great at this. So are Yuval Noah Harari, Niall Ferguson, and Walter Isaacson. At The Rising Nepal, I always found Kamal Ratna Tuladhar particularly adept, both as a writer and editor. He used Shakespearean literature, modern song and book titles, and the prevailing lingo to enliven his writing and ease comprehension. Also, he wrote with nouns and verbs, almost considering adjectives crutches of last resort. As an editor, he had a sharp instinct for reducing clutter. His headlines were succinct and sonorous. ‘Ambiguity is our byword’ he would proclaim in The Rising Nepal newsroom during Panchayat rule. Yet clarity and precision always shone in his work.
What are the secrets to an effective op-ed?
In your mind, say what you are going to say, say it and recap what you just said -- without letting the reader know you just did that in the final product. While it does sound flippant, it kind of works for me.
How do you learn quickly about a new topic?
Wikipedia and wherever else it points to. ‘Explainer’ pieces from the Economist, and the BBC are always helpful. More in-depth resources on a variety of topics are available at think tanks of all hues.
What strategies are helpful when interviewing someone? What mistakes do many interviewers make?
Having been the interviewee most of the time, I like questions that challenge my premise and perspective. That way, I can affirm, elaborate, or accommodate.
What advice do you have for academics who want to write for a general audience?
Write the first draft in your own way. Then simplify it for a seventh-grader. The greatest tribute an academic writer can get is to be accused of making things sound so simple.
What helps you be productive?
Beyond reading a diverse range of subjects and viewpoints, adopting different personas for different subjects and styles and even opinions. I learned this from a senior journalist called Kishori Raman Rana. A very unassuming man always wearing daura-suruwal-topi and a luminous smile, he would write under several pen names in both English and Nepali. Nepal’s vibrant weekly press during the Panchayat era was split along party lines. In a single afternoon, Rana would write in defense of the Panchayat system, go on to contribute to a pro-Congress weekly, and proceed to provide a perspective from the left. Asked how he did it, ‘it’s my job’ he would tell me. I think he was being modest. He had this inherent gift.
Once selecting a name, I try to create a personality. That helps me view things from different vantage points and adopt distinctive writing styles. Writing under my own name, there are things I often miss or have to revise. The material may not be enough to warrant a full-fledged article without repetition. Pseudonyms thus provide me an important outlet. Many might perhaps consider this mendacious. It may be, but I focus on the challenge it poses to the writer. You constantly question your assumptions, play the devil’s advocate, and knead your thought processes.
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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