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“Before 1951, there were systemic obstacles because of the ruling class — but no obstacle can stop a writer. Blaming an external factor is mere pretence, although it’s possible that one might write less due to the problem of basic needs. Producing one solid piece is better than writing several mediocre ones. For a writer, systemic oppression is just an excuse. Just like the saying ‘a mustache can’t stop a mouth from eating’, a writer’s pen cannot get broken.”
For lazy writers, this really was a grand declaration.
The grandeur in the declaration is matched by his work and an inclination to accept his own weaknesses and faults. Due to his features — an expansive forehead, structured brows, beautiful eyes, red lips, a small, round nose and a fair complexion, his face appeared delicate. About five feet tall with an average body, he looked like he was in his mid-twenties even though he was around forty.
“It’s true that Nepal Academy has not been able to accomplish its tasks related to the development of literature. The condition is the same everywhere - Nepal Lekhak Sangha is in a similar situation. Its work has not been satisfactory, even though I am one of the five directors. I am a bit ashamed of that - I accept my mistake.”
I have met very few writers like him who are upfront about their weaknesses, although he seems quick to differentiate between what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate and provide his opinions on the topic — perhaps that is because he used to be a student of psychology. According to critic Ratna Dhoj Joshi and other reviewers, he has even surpassed the famous storywriter Shree Bhikchhu when it comes to psychological portraits. And regarding the portrayal of urban life, he is considered to be the only successful story-writer. He is equally able when it comes to plays that focus on a central problem. In addition, anyone interested in literature will not easily forget his editing work for Saraswati and Sharada. His other important contribution is the daily Aawaz - a stunning revolutionary feat in the history of Nepali magazines. And so, he occupies a special spot in the field of Nepali literature; or rather, one can say that the literary community has been compelled to bestow that honor upon him. If he owes these accomplishments to anything, it is his culture.
Shree Gobinda Bahadur Malla is a grandson of poet Birendra Bahadur and the eldest son of Subba Riddhi Bahadur Malla, who is himself an accomplished literary figure. He spent his childhood in the luxurious ambience of Ram Raja’s Badewa palace and received a superior training at Annie Besant’s theosophical school. In addition, since he was closely associated with literary friends throughout his life, he became Nepali literature’s ‘Gothale’ or supervisor.
A foggy morning of a wintry month! Shivering, I reached the Jor Ganesh publishing house to keep an appointment with Gobinda-ji. Even though I was right on time, I had to wait for about half an hour. I spotted Gobinda-ji in a long queue of people that belonged to a household of about forty-five; everyone was waiting to wash their faces.
“You had to wait, didn’t you?” he asked me later while ushering me to his room. As soon as I entered the room next to a balcony, I noticed a large table. Hanging next to the table was an oil painting of his grandfather; on the other side was a similar painting of his grandmother. Across from the table was a bed, next to which, on the floor were bedclothes enough for an additional three to four young people. Scattered across the room were basic items necessary to move into a new home; an impact, perhaps, of the terror that had swept across town earlier in the year. After chatting about the details of that unnecessary period for a bit, I focused on the task at hand: “Gobinda dai, what are you writing these days?”
“I’m trying to compile stories published in various newspapers in order to come up with another collection. Along with that, I’m also trying to publish an entire play as well as a one-act play that has already been performed. Mainly, I’ve been working on a novel and I have plans to write a lot more. But I haven’t been able to become a professional writer. I haven’t been able to write due to the struggles of daily life - there is no time. I write once in a while when I get some spare time. What can I say - managing enough food to eat has turned into a problem as well.”
The response was a bit sombre but what could I do? I had no other option other than asking questions, “In general, when do you write?”
“Most of the time, I can’t find time to write when I get into a writing mood. I hold onto the ideas and write when I can find time. Mostly, I write in the morning and I try to study at night.”
“Speaking of studying, whose works do you especially like?”
“I especially like Bal Krishna Sama, Siddhicharan and Rimal. And I can never forget works like Nepali Sanchhipta Mahabharat, Panchatantra, Kalidas ka Mahakavyaharu and Kiratarjuniya.”
“And what about international writers?”
“When it comes to international writers, I’ve become extremely fond of and also look up to Rabindranath Tagore, Sharad Chandra, Prabodh Kumar, Sanyal, Prem Chand, Jainendra Kumar; Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Ibsen, Shaw, Vyas, Tolstoy, Emile Zola, Gorky, Camus, etc.”
A woman in her mid-twenties wearing a striped shawl and carrying a cup of tea, an omelette and toast entered the room. Gobinda-ji introduced her as his wife. The tea was placed in front of me. After exchanging greetings, she left the room. I was surprised because earlier Gobinda-ji had pointed at a photo of a different woman hanging on a wall and introduced her as his wife. Referring to that same photo, I asked, “Then who is she?”
“She was my first wife. Left behind two sons. I married her sister after she passed away.” He was the second Nepali writer who had married his wife’s sister. Pointing at the three children who were still asleep, he said, “These three are from the second one.”
Since the decor of the room was quite simple, I was curious about his financial situation. So I asked, “Your finances…”
“I don’t have to worry about basic necessities. To be honest, I’m grateful to my father and grandfather for that.”
Managing a mere “Oh”, I once again turned away from the personal towards literature: “Who has been an inspiration to you in your literary life, Gobinda dai?”
“Siddhicharan inspired me to write, Gopal Prasad Rimal to become modern and Devkota to become disciplined…”
“What is the state of our literature…?”
“Nepali literature has been making progress. Today’s sentimental generation is intent on forging ahead. But they need to try to broaden their perspectives.”
“Let me ask you something else. Which thesis do you support? Is literature for the sake of art or society? Let’s hear your thoughts on this topic, Gobinda baa.” Oops. I repeated the same old question and adopted the term ‘Gobinda baa’ used by his friends since he looked much younger than his forty odd years.
He responded with a chuckle, “No no. It is ‘Gobinda dai’, not ‘Gobinda baa!” and started to express his opinion: “Well, do writers construct thesis? Doesn’t that depend on critics? Secondly, even if it is written for the sake of society...if the writing is done properly, it will be artistic anyway.”
Picking a piece of paper with a list of books he had written, I asked, “What do you consider to be your best work?”
“I wrote everything sincerely but I feel that my later works might reflect a level of maturity I did not have before.”
He was known for not opening up easily but when he did, had a habit of deepening the intimacy over time. His expression was usually serious; it was a bit difficult to make him relaxed. I had grown to like his chuckles, just like anything hard-to-get becomes attractive. And even though I had already experienced it, I wanted to watch him smile again. That’s why I asked, “Gobinda dai, it seems like you also became influenced with the modern trend of using nicknames, right?”
The question did make him smile but the response was rather grave - “The nickname is not because of a fashionable trend; the reason is actually different. My first poem ‘Mamata’ was about to get published in Sharada. Around the same time, I got summoned to Singha Durbar regarding some kind of political propaganda. Bhikchhu-ji was concerned that I might get a harsher punishment after the publication of the poem. Since the name ‘Gobinda’ is closely linked to ‘Gothale’, he suggested that I use the nickname during the summons. And these days, no matter how much I try to run away from that nickname, I can’t seem to succeed. In this way, my nickname originated due to the political circumstances.”
As soon as the word was uttered, the usually serious Gobinda dai became even more serious. After a thoughtful moment, he resumed, “Politics! Even though there was a political revolution in 1951, there hasn’t been a social revolution to date. For Nepal, this is quite unfortunate.” Staring at a map of Nepal hanging on a wall, he became a bit emotional, “Our spiritual conditions might be fine, but the physical circumstances are really pathetic. It’s extremely important to make progress in that direction. Our contemporary literary aspirations are comparable to that in Europe but Nepali society is a hundred years behind. In this context, anything that threatens to obstruct literary development needs to be removed.”
“And how can one become a modern, contemporary writer?” I expressed my curiosity after listening to his long complaint.
Maintaining the same level of gravity, he continued, “By immersing oneself in society and keeping it close to heart. By moving along in a way that corresponds to it. Literature is a direct reflection of society. Life and literature ought to go hand in hand.”
“Life? What kind of life?”
“External as well as the closely associated internal life.”
“Gobinda dai, have you used these principles in your writing?”
Just like my questions, he provided quick, free-flowing answers: “Since I believe in these principles, I have also tried to apply them in my personal life. Not only that - my internal life tries to gain independence from my external life; I have also attempted to portray this struggle in my writing.”
“How did you get into psychological portraits?”
“I can’t exactly pinpoint how it all started. But I have been studying it for a long time. For the most part, I explore the psychology of the upper class and the middle class. When it comes to the lower class, I don’t have faith in myself. I feel like I will not be able to represent their pain accurately because people’s lives are not problems to be solved. And their psychologies don’t necessarily fall within a strict boundary.”
Someone called him from the kitchen. I also stepped out of the room after thanking him for his precious time. Downstairs, the Jor Ganesh publishing house - Gobinda-ji’s source of income which has also made important contributions to the development of Nepali literature - had begun work for the day.
Development of Nepali literature? Instead of devoting his time to creativity, a competent writer like Gobinda-ji was compelled to manage a publishing house in order to fulfill basic needs, was compelled to waste his creative energy. Apart from a few, most literarily inclined Nepalis were in a similar situation. Those who have received some form of financial support tend to become more money-minded and those who haven’t - their situation is altogether different. And development of Nepali literature...how is it possible?
February 14, 1962
Gobinda Bahadur Malla ‘Gothale’ was a prolific and widely read writer. He was arrested in 1940 for his involvement in the democratic movement. He gradually stopped writing due to unfavourable circumstances and diverted his attention to business.This is a translation by Niranjan Kunwar of an article from Uttam Kunwar’s anthology of interviews, Srasta ra Sahitya (Authors and Literature), published by the Uttam Kunwar Memorial Award Fund.
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