Monday, March 28, 2016

Marginality in Contemporary Indian Nepali Writing

                                       Manprasad Subba

Marginality as a discourse in Indian Nepali writing is introduced relatively quite recently. Although pains and grief of being alienated and relegated to the fringe can be traced as far back as 50s and 60s of the preceding century in the writings of the writers and poets of the Darjeeling Hills, Assam and elsewhere in India, they largely exhibit indulgence in bitter nostalgia of their long past and romantic expression of their grief and sorrow, almost to the point of maudlin.

Tendency to escape the hard and tormenting reality and yearn for ‘a land at once strange and familiar where the heart finds itself at home’ is an element of romanticism. They sang melancholic songs ‘in shady haunts’ and cried in wilderness. They were still far from using the language of, to borrow bell hooks’ phrase, ‘talking back’, language of resistance and self-assertion in the larger context of the nation.  

Late seventies and eighties witnessed some poets much vocal and bold in giving vent to their resentment and protest against the calculated ignorance, apathy, manipulation and manoeuvring meted out by those belonging to the class far more advantaged and advanced. All the Nepali speaking Indians throughout India had felt a sharp smack when Morarjee Desai, the then Prime Minister, in 1977 had battered black and blue the whole Nepali speaking community in India with his strangely arrogant replies to the delegates of All India Nepali Bhasha Samity (AINBS).  He slammed shut the door of Eighth Schedule of Indian Constitution to Nepali language by pronouncing it a foreign language in spite of the fact that it was already enlisted as one of the major Indian languages by Sahitya Akademi, the highest National Academy of Letters in India; he even threatened to disband Gorkha Regiment from Indian Army. Our long cherished demand for the inclusion of Nepali language in the Constitution was thus so humiliatingly dashed to the brink by the Centre. This humiliation and insult at the hand of the most powerful seat at the centre shook the entire Nepali community of the land like never before.  And the poets poured out their anguish, playwrights took their agonized protest to the stage, short-story writers came up with the theme of cultural identity, musicians composed songs evoking the deep rooted feelings of Nepali ethnic culture and the young painters like Krishna Subba, Sonam Sherpa and Hemu Rai irresistibly drew people’s attention on their canvases come alive with bold strokes.

A few lines from a poem entitled ‘Backlash’ that was spurred by the anguished moments and published in ‘Haamro Bhasha’-1978, the AINBS’s mouthpiece, may be cited here to show the different tone and texture of Indian Nepali poetry in late seventies and eighties:  
         Before the crack of dawn
         Without any sign of rain
         Thunderbolt struck this pine tree
         While I was waiting for April to arrive.. 
         …        …      …
         I, as old as the Himalaya,
         But now a derelict
         In my own country!
         …         …      …
         Now is the time to be born of death’s womb
         O my Hills and mountains!
         Why are you still quiet with your arms crossed?
         Burst forth thunderously releasing the streams of lava all around
         Against this dark chasm…
-          Subba

A year later this poem was honoured with Diyalo Puraskar by Nepali Sahitya Sammelan, Darjeeling.

Mohan Thakuri, a well-known poet, also articulated in these words:

         I am here standing for ages
         Flowing with songs of rivers
         Echoing on the hills
         The soil of the land where I stand
         Speaks out the testimony of my being here…

-          Need of the Hour (1980)

And the language movement was re-energized. It was, of course, a serious question of identity crisis, and the then sixty lakh Nepali-speaking Indians fervently believed that the inclusion of Nepali language in the Constitution would solve this crisis, the primary cause of their decades-long suffering – physical as well as psychological. ‘Our language, our life’, ‘We sacrifice our lives but we will reach the goal’- slogans rent the sky of Darjeeling Hills and the Dooars and their echo could be heard in far flung regions like Manipur-Mizoram in the east and Dehradun-Bhaksu in the west. However, even the two successive governments after Morarjee only toyed with our sentiment. Agonised at being ignored and pushed off as an unwanted, a significant modern Indian Nepali poet like Khadgasingh Rai ‘Kaanda’ in his poem Patriotism in Me had to voice his grim discontent in a deliberate prosaic style –

       My Indianness
       Struggling in the midst of injustice and ignorance…
       I wish
       My speech could reach you –
       Of the right
       That enables me to be agile
        In sovereign India
        O my country! The right to love.   

Continuous apathy and hegemonic attitude on the part of the state-power towards the Nepali speaking community in the Darjeeling Hills and Dooars ultimately resulted in the eruption of the demand for separate state, first spell of which was seen in 1981with the emergence of Pranta Parishad led mostly by intellectuals and the second one with far wider mass support in 1986 when the whole Darjeeling hill region supported by the Doors violently thundered with the emotionally charged chorus of Gorkhaland. And the peaceful democratic movement of the language was pushed to the rear seat. The government resorted to its repressive measure to subdue the rapidly rising chorus of self-determination.

Scores of poetry appeared, songs were composed, short-stories woven in support of the common cause believed to be the highway connecting to the national mainstream. However, the concept of marginality as a discourse was yet to dawn upon our minds. In the meantime Nepali language, along with Manipuri and Konkani, finally found its way into the Constitution in August, 1992. But the mercury of euphoria pushed up by the constitutional recognition of the language started falling before long as it proved inadequate to make the Nepali-speaking Indian citizens stand on a par with mainstream Indians. Moreover, it has been deeply felt that Indian Nepali community has continuously been subjected to internal colonialism that began long before India freed herself from the colonial rule. But viewing things in postcolonial perspective was yet to set in Indian Nepali writings.  

It was only towards the end of 2008 when Kinaraka Aawaajaharu (Voices from the Margin), co-authored by Manprasad Subba and Remika Thapa, was published, the terms like ‘margin’, ‘marginalization’, ‘marginality’, ‘marginal’ increasingly came into usage in Indian Nepali literature. Voices from the Margin is an anthology containing 32 poems, each author contributing 16 poems, with a Preface (penned by me) in which the concept of marginality, by way of introducing it in literary writing, has been discussed considerably at length. The fact that the first Nepali edition of the book (किनाराका आवाजहरू) published in November had all sold in just one month prompting its reprint in December of the same year, proves how warmly it was received by the readers. Its English version with the title mentioned above appeared in 2009 and that also was able to win the affection of the readers whose language is other than Nepali. It will not be, I hope, out of place if I put here an excerpt of the e-mail I received from a noted Irish-Australian poet Dr. Robyn Rowland. No, it will be rather convenient to me to carry forward this write-up with the points she has mentioned in the excerpt of her mail: “I have spent a lovely time on a very hot Sunday here reading your book Voices from the Margin. Thank you so much for giving it to me. I have learned so much about the issues around marginalization and also Nepali language about which I was ignorant. I will now look further to understanding more. I enjoyed your connecting that issue with the forms of poetry in your introductory prose piece. Very interesting. I particularly loved that paragraph 2 on page xii beginning ‘the culture of the oppressed.. .’ Beautifully written. It was interesting, your writing on free form. I agree with much of it. Your poetry likewise I enjoyed. Especially from page 43 to 55. I liked that stinking coat image and the poems around words and language.”
The paragraph referred to above runs in the Preface as follows: The culture of the oppressed group, kept all the time away from the national stage, is very often thought of little value. It is not given any space to show itself as a distinct colour in the band of rainbow of cultural mainstream. Each culture has its own distinctive flavor and beauty which could be truly felt by none other than the one from the same cultural group. Others may be incapable of seeing it in its right perspective or may not be able to feel its soul, its heart-beat. So, the other’s interpretation may only be intellectual (cerebral) rather than that felt with heart. As culture bears the identifying face of a race, hegemonic adopts many ways and means to deface it or to keep it aside under the murky shadow.
The point raised in this paragraph is that of space. To be marginalized is to be denied space and everything in it. Powerful, dominant and hegemonic forces take in central and prime spaces while rendering others as weak, poor and minor who are constantly made to remain on the fringe. And the distinct cultural values of those at the margin are left ignored, undervalued or even despised as everything is viewed from the perspective of mainstream cultural value system. It is in fact the power (political, economical, demographic and intellectual) that projects itself as mainstream and exercises, directly or indirectly, its power upon those kept away from the ‘mainstream’, distanced to be called ‘other’. Thus they are constantly made to be under the pressure of cultural hegemony. While putting up resistance and critiquing such hegemony the discourse of marginality turns the focus towards the other thickly shadowed or marginalized perspectives of value system which is what has been taken up as the driving force in the writings of marginality.
Celebrated American-black author, bell hooks, in her Marginality as Site of Resistance says, “Understanding marginality as position of resistance is crucial for oppressed, exploited, colonized people. If we only view the margin as sign, marking the condition of our pain and deprivation, then a certain hopelessness and despair, a deep nihilism penetrates in a destructive way the very ground of our being.” It is this ‘resistance’ that has boldly come to the fore in the contemporary writings of marginality. Unlike their romantic predecessors of the late fifties and sixties, the present day poets and writers who understand ‘marginality as site of resistance’ do not fall victims to ‘a certain hopelessness and despair’. They have intently listened to Bob Marley sing – ‘We refuse to be what you want us to be, we are what we are, and that’s the way it’s going to be.’ Similar feeling is reflected in the poem ‘Mainstream and Me’ at the end of Voices from the Margin
       I don’t want to sing what the
       Mainstream wants me to
       Until my own melody is not given
       A chord in the composition
       I won’t be mesmerized by its glittering words
       That usually come
       To benumb my own words.  

Remika Thapa in her poem ‘Watering with Blood’ has voiced these words straight away:
       I’m not in a state to accept
       your bouquet of paper-roses
       I can’t, at least, be a romantic
       of such lowest point.
Dr. Robyn Rowland in her mail to me quoted above has made a mention of ‘that stinking coat image and the poems around words and language’. Leaving aside the poems of words and language, I quote the poem ‘This Stinking Coat’:
       For how long should I be wearing this second-hand coat
       That lies so heavy on my shoulders for ages

       Thrown over me without asking for,
       It has stuck to my body so tightly

       Overpowering even the earthy smell of my body
       This coat stinks of rotten fish

       I’ve sprained my shoulders and back while striving to take it off
       But I’ve to rid of it even by scraping or tearing

       I will rather cover myself with bark or leaves
       And liberate the smell of my body.

The poem while presenting the grim situation of internal-colonialism, unhesitatingly expresses desperate attempts made from time to time and an undaunted will to be free from such subjection. After the fall of colonial empires, postcolonial era ushered. But almost in all parts of the world countless of ethnic groups, aboriginals, tribes and the likes have been under the gloomy pall of internal colonialism in their own countries. Many of them have been struggling for the right of their self-determination; some are striving hard to save their culture while many others have already succumbed to the pressure of the powerful.

Remika Thapa, in her inimitable style, has questioned in the poem ‘Those Who Live Treading the Soil – 2’:     

       In the resplendent biceps of the shade-showering bar-pipal,
       planted seven generations ago by the forebears of
       Ratnamaya Limbuni,
       who has but suddenly hung
       this large hoarding – “Masters’ Town”?

Internal colonialism that makes inroads into the distinctive culture and society of a community shows itself in different forms of marginalization. Both overtly and covertly, it thrusts its presence into the life of the targeted group or community ever subjecting them to deprivation and exploitation and rendering them even weaker. Very often they are denied representation, as if being told, again borrowing from bell hooks, “No need to hear your voice when I can talk about you better that you can speak about yourself. Only tell me about your pain. I want to know your story. And then I will tell it back to you in a new way. Tell it back to you in such a way that it has become mine, my own. Re-writing you I write myself anew. I am still author, authority…”        

 And thus history dances to the tune of ‘ruling class’ pushing to the oblivion the contributions and sacrifices made by those from the margin. “Torn by the claws of your lies/ my history’s back is bleeding”- My History (ByMPS). “Where am I / in the group photograph of the history?” screams a question from the margin.

The age of postcolonialism also marks with the development of neo-colonialism which has been expanding in the guise of globalization. Blowing from the West Europe and USA this wind of globalization has helped furthering the process of westernization that began with the imperial colonization of Asia and Africa. While multi-national corporations are at work to drive the country-culture off to the point of extinction, the western aesthetic sense has been continuing its invasion over the native and ethnic cultural values. This is a sort of socio-cultural marginalization coupled with economic-political one designed by the rich and powerful nations. This is also a subject of concern with marginality in the writing.         
Drawing much from the discourse of postcolonialism the marginalized writing in Indian Nepali literature has its own distinctive features evolved and developed in the socio-cultural-historical milieu of its own. Opposed to centralism, elitism and all forms of absolutism, it advocates all-inclusiveness and free movement or the open space with no divide so that there should be no static gap or distance in-between that constructs the adjectives like ‘us’ and ‘them’ or ‘other’. And it does not aspire, as some ideology does, to seize the central power and drive those seated at the centre out to the periphery. Inclusiveness, indeed, is the key word with the advocates of the Writings of Marginality. It strongly believes that since everything in existence is relative, one cannot but be inclusive. In its conceptual writing it includes all forms and types of marginalization. So, included with equal concern in the study of Marginality are the discourse of feminism developed from the resistance to the phallogocentric attitude that has, for ages, generally treated the woman as subservient or as ‘second sex’ and also eco-criticism that brings into its discourse the displacement of tribes, animals, birds and insects and destruction of natural habitats. Displacement is not just another form of marginalization but can be viewed as an extreme form of marginalization that has pushed into black hole of extinction countless of indigenous languages and cultures in the world. Standing opposed to such state of things urges the marginal writing to explore, to discover the aesthetics of those values hitherto oppressed, dumped and devalued, and make their presence felt in the world arena.     

Language employed in the writings of Marginality (especially poetry) is casual, informal, simple and direct that may be appealing to both the common and serious readers alike. It shuns the modernist language which often seems to be replete with strange and outlandish symbols and laboriously wrought imageries, logo-centric and elitist. It rather strives to combine local with global, thus going for the portmanteau term ‘glocal’ blurring the dividing oblique between them. And it freely brings into use with freshness the ethnic and native cultural terms the poets and readers are familiar with. Modernist and high modernist gave their voice to something deep, profound and absurd which are now replaced with momentariness or presentness. Play of moments is depicted today.

Breaking and forming the lines in a poem has also some definite purpose that suits to such writing. An instance from Remika’s ‘Those Who Live Treading the Soil-3’:

       In history
       orphans were called illicit embryos left by some bastards

Here the word ‘history’ (story of rulers and upper class) is placed above ‘orphans’ representing marginalized common people.  History has been made a high stage where the rulers and nobles play and those down below are seldom allowed to reach it. (The Marginal Writing has raised question to the history handed down to them by those in the mainstream; and history is now studied from the perspectives of the marginalized, or let us say that the history is rising with new voice from the fringe that was so far suppressed.)

There are some other reasons directing the lines in a poem to be arranged in a particular manner such as in some lines several words are made to run together in a single line in order to produce the effect of intensity and sharpness of the irony contained in them. There are some lines in the Voices… that give an impression of the caravan marching along the long road and also the ones creating visual image of the people being pushed to the edge in the process of marginalization. These are some attempts in response to the need we have felt to be free from the form of Free Verse which has now become conventional.      

During the last seven years after the publication of Kinaraka Aawajharoo (Voices from the Margin) a host of young poets have emerged in Darjeeling with their voices confident enough that have most of the features and characteristics relating to the Marginal Writings. Manoj Bogati’s Pasinako Chhala (Sweating Skin) and Ghauka Rangaharu (Various Shades of Wound), Karna Biraha’s Shabda Sammelan (Conference of Words), Lekhnath Chhetri’s Baauko Pasina (Dad’s Sweat), Sharan Muskan’s Mooldharatira (Towards Mainstream), Basudev Pulami’s Ujyaloka Aankha (The Eyes of Light), Neeraj Thapa’s Dharatalko Aayu (The Life of Earth) are some of the collections of poems that deserve mention in this context. Some more poets, who have made their distinct presence felt with the sharp tone of Marginality in their own individual styles, are Bhupendra Subba, Raja Puniyani, Teeka Bhai, Bhagiraj Subba, Gyanendra Yakso, Sharan Khaling et al.

‘Marginality in the Writings’ that consciously began in 2008 in Darjeeling and has drawn a large audience is said to have set a trend in contemporary Indian Nepali literature. Now the way of observing things has shifted from general perspective to the native and ethnic ones which had been so far ignored, undervalued or brushed to the brink; marginalized views have asserted themselves to be in the fore. Other aspects of aesthetic value which were so far hiding behind the murky curtain of reticence have been brought forward. A postmodern adage ‘Think globally, act locally’ has come into play in the contemporary Indian Nepali writings. Now the poets and short-fiction writers in contemporary Indian Nepali writing do not generally slip into shady resort of nostalgia and sentimentality, nor do they let themselves envelop in the modernistic ‘overwhelming question’ of existentialism and absurdity. But rather they seem to be strong-willed to grapple with day-to-day stark reality they face at every step, and for this they are armed with conviction, self-confidence and irony. 

Marginalized writing has also strengthened the belief that aesthetic value of poetry can be kept equally lively without the garb of imagery. In fact, this new writing has taken up as a challenge to create poetry with plainness and directness of language. Poetry is to be seen in its bare beauty.     
Bijanbari, Darjeeling.