Bhupi’s dream: What is world literature?
Chiran Raj Pandey
It was the German writer Goethe who coined the term Weltliteratur, but it is the Nepali poet Bhupi Sherchan who compelled me to consider, seriously, the idea of world literature. Sherchan was born in 1937 in a Nepal ruled by the autocratic Rana regime. By 1960, he had taken on the name Sarvahara — meaning Proletariat—and was actively involved in political uprisings against then-king Mahendra who, following the fall of the Rana dynasty, initiated a coup against his own government and declared an autocratic Panchayat rule over Nepal. Sherchan was later jailed for his involvement in political uprisings against the Panchayat.The English scholar Michael Hutt writes in his book, Himalayan Voices: An Introduction to Nepali Literature, that while in jail, Sherchan developed “colitis and several other related complaints,” and was never healthy again.
Apart from the political ghosts that haunted him, Sherchan was heavily tormented throughout his life by the class struggle in Nepali society: Sherchan was born into a wealthy family in Tukuche, but Sherchan’s move to Kathmandu, the capital, forced him to contemplate the contradiction between his family’s wealth and his socialist beliefs. In his poem A Blind Man on a Revolving Chair, translated by Hutt, Sherchan writes:
“I am the only one who cannot see / the changes all around me, / the only one who is unaware/ of all this world’s beauty and pleasure, / like a blind man at an exhibition, / forced to sit on a revolving chair.”
Sherchan is the perfect example of what I call the Troubled Cosmopolitan: a person who attempts to break social boundaries and, in the process, is severely confounded by the many relationships and dynamics he has to re-navigate and reinvent. Within his poetry, Sherchan rejected meter, even though one of his earlier works had been a folk song collection written in the typical Nepali jhyaure meter, perhaps echoing the poet Laxmi Prasad Devkota, who, long before Sherchan, had rejected Sanskrit meters to compose his short epic, Muna Madan, in jhyaure meter. He also wrote poetry for the Nepali people in a style that Hutt notes as “almost totally devoid of the Sanskrit-derived vocabulary… so that his poems could be readily understood.” In another poem called Bhairahawa, Sherchan, in two quick, imagistic lines, reverses the nature poetry of his predecessors to criticize the city of Bhairahawa, now called Siddharthanagar: “Dry, disgusting Bhairahava, / Bellowing like a buffalo emerging from its wallow.”
A Blind Man on a Revolving Chair is among the most influential poems ever written in Nepali. Part of an anthology of the same name, the poem is perhaps best described as a eulogy to the Nepali soul of Sherchan’s time. Although I cite Hutt’s translation of the poem in this essay, I cannot overstate the destructively beautiful experience of being able to understand the poem in Nepali. But it is also a poem that has distinctively stood the test of time. When Sherchan writes, “In the evening, / when Nepal shrinks down to Kathmandu, / and Kathmandu shrinks to New Road, / which breaks up, trampled by countless feet,” I am returned to the rather fresh memory of the 2015 earthquake; in the place called ‘New Road’ that Sherchan writes of the quake toppled a nine-storey tower, killing over 300 people. Later, Sherchan writes: “I rise like a soul on Judgment Day, / but I do not find the Lethe, river of oblivion, / so I slide down into some wine to forget / the past, my previous lives and deaths.”
No other line of poetry sums up that split second of remembering but wanting to forget — the earthquake, the Panchayat, the People’s Movements, the 2015 blockade, the countless strikes: all the things the country suffered. Hutt’s translation does not manage to capture the pain of that experience as Sherchan’s Nepali does: having failed to find Lethe, “river of oblivion”, Sherchan dives into a glass of rakshi — a word that means alcohol but, here, connotes a much more powerful experience, resulting in a state closer to death than to intoxication.
As a student of literature, I have found it rather difficult to reconcile my Nepali identity with my literary ambitions. Very few people know about Bhupi Sherchan and yet he is, most certainly, a poet — an important one. But Sherchan’s works will perhaps never be considered part of the canon of world literature, which David Damrosch in his book What is World Literature, describes as “all literary works that circulate beyond their culture of origin, either in translation or in their original language.” Hutt’s own book features short chapters on 37 modern Nepali poets and writers in mere 309 pages. Each chapter contains a short introduction to the writer and a portfolio of their works, translated by Hutt himself.
Hutt’s extraordinary scholarship has done a great deal to introduce Nepali literature to the rigors of literary analysis — but what I fail to comprehend is why the scope of the project is so limited. The book that I cite here is a condensation of the entire history of modern Nepali literature; its binding posing as the boundaries of of structured literary scholarship of Nepali literature. What is even more strange is that Hutt’s analyses are not literary in nature: they are historical.
Of course, I believe that there is much to be said about Sherchan’s works. Certainly, in A Blind Man on a Revolving Chair, one can make something of the rather interesting use of intertextuality in which the Greek mythological river Lethe makes its way into a poem that is so distinctively Nepali. Damrosch writes, “a work enters into world literature by a double process: first, by being read as literature; second, by circulating out into a broader world beyond its linguistic and cultural point of origin.” No one will doubt the first criterion and in the case at hand, certainly Sherchan’s is a work of literature. And if the second is a valid criterion then the real question, for me, is how do we get these works to circulate out into “a broader world beyond its linguistic and cultural point of origin”?
In What is World Literature?, Damrosch writes about the discovery of the cuneiform tablets of the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh in 1839 by Edward Mitford and Austen Henry Layard. While the two men, and later Hormuzd Rassam, discovered the tablets, it was only in 1872 when George Smith, “a young banknote engraver,” discovered that a fragmentary tablet “seemed to tell the story of a worldwide flood, with details closely resembling the Noah story.” Damrosch writes of Smith’s translations as a telling example of a profoundly assimilative reception. “In his drive to associate the epic to historical events,” Damrosch continues, “Smith takes [the epic] almost entirely out of the realm of literature as such.”
Damrosch identifies that one of the greatest dangers of world literature is its potential to be misread: “The variability of a work of world literature is one of its constitutive features — one of its greatest strengths when the work is well presented and read well, and its greatest vulnerability when it is mishandled or misappropriated by its newfound foreign friends.” In his own example, however, the only reason the story of Gilgamesh gains so much traction, and hence circulation, is because it is misread, so to speak, in the search for a Biblical narrative in England. The underlying narrative of this event is profound: it informs us of the struggles of the cosmopolitan project of world literature.
As an institution, then, it seems that Damrosch’s idea of world literature must take into account the means of circulation as much as the act. The means of that circulation encompasses those things in society that affect change: culture, the relationship between a work and its audience, the place of origin of the work and its identity in relation to the globe, the mediatization and the lack thereof — all this points to how a work’s context, and relationship to world literature, greatly affects its potential identity as a canonical work of world literature.
Sherchan’s works fail to be read as world literature, as much as I would like them to be, because of their Nepali identity. Nepal’s relationship to the world is mediated by its much larger neighbors, India and China. While the literary works of Indian writers, such as Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri and Amitav Ghosh, who write in English, are considered global works of literature, which they surely are, that of the quieter Nepali poets are ignored. Perhaps being distinctively Nepali is something to shy away from, not strive for.
Manjushree Thapa’s 2016 novel All of Us in Our Own Lives is the perfect example of an identity that is neither entirely Nepali, nor global. It is perhaps best described as confused: the novel draws portraits of its many different characters — each archetypes of their own — and the way in which these lives are intertwined. One is a Nepali laborer who works in Sharjah, one is his sister, one is a woman who works in an international organization, one is a Nepali woman who was adopted by a Canadian couple. Undoubtedly Thapa, who is Nepali but lives in Canada, feels strongly about all these identities. In 2015, Thapa wrote a powerful piece, Women have no nationality, following the promulgation of Nepal’s constitution, which discriminates between genders, disallowing citizenship through the mother.
But like any other literary enterprise, Thapa’s characters prompt me to ask: why are they here? What brings them to this discussion and what makes them so important that they are portraits in a whole novel? At the beginning, Ava Berriden, the Canadian of Nepali origin, returns to Nepal after quitting her job and her marriage. It seems that Berriden’s role is to provide an Orientalist window to Nepal. Her identity intrigues me: she is Nepali-born Canadian, who has never really been Nepali. But it is lines like these that convince me of the superfluous nature of Berriden’s character: “The Canadian turned to Indira with a smile. ‘You won’t have wine?’ / ‘No, I never—at home.’ What would foreigners know of the restrictions on a Nepali daughter-in-law?” As Damrosch writes, “writing for publication abroad can be a heroic act of resistance against censorship and an affirmation of global values against local parochialism; yet it can also be only a further stage in the leveling process of a spreading global consumerism.”
Thapa’s characters are real, and I cannot deny her the validity of her own fictional universe. But I reject the manner in which she exploits national identity to participate in a global brotherhood that appeases the West by reinforcing, omitting and downplaying identities and characteristics. What could have been a brave reversal of the Orientalist portraits of the West turns into an un-ironic pastiche of those very portraits: “Years later, she still kept in touch with Abena Kwasima from Accra, Rudo Gamble from Cape Town, W. Werry from Jakarta… Together they formed a sisterhood of global change-makers.” This illustrates that to consciously choose to be global does not seem to help either.
One way in which we can address the shortcomings of Damrosch’s model for world literature is by thinking about the ways in which any given text is circulated. As Cyrus Patell writes, “mishandling and misappropriation are inevitably parts of the process that accompanies the monumentalization of a text that interests me. What Harold Bloom famously called ‘misprision’ or ‘strong misreading’ and what I would call ‘appropriation’ and ‘adaptation’ are crucial parts of the conceptual framework I am proposing.” Patell’s proposition can be extended to a Marxist framework of thinking about hegemony in a global context: indeed, Patell, in his book Cosmopolitanism and the Literary Imagination, is contemplating the relationship between emergent literatures and the dominant cultures they are arriving into. This relationship can be expanded to encompass a more global platform of world literature.
I believe, however, that a broader revision must take place. Patell ends Cosmopolitanism and the Literary Imagination with a rather hopeful note that I believe we — at NYU Abu Dhabi — can and must expound upon: “my best advice for those who wish to pursue a cosmopolitan reading practice is this: when you find a text familiar and comforting, look for ways … to make it feel strange, unfamiliar, and different … And when a text makes you uncomfortable … find aspects of sameness and … make yourself comfortable with its difference.” The best cosmopolitan reader hence does not shy away from works that talk about identities different from his own; instead, he tries to find in those identities points of sameness, and in the same identities, points of difference.
Being Nepali matters to me, but so does being cosmopolitan. The one most compelling intersection I have found is the relationship between my national literatures and the cosmopolitan project of thinking about those literatures in a global context. I do not need to be a cosmopolitan to appreciate the beauty of Sherchan’s poetry — nor would you have to be a Nepali to appreciate its beauty — but we both must be cosmopolitans to be able to even consider, briefly but seriously, the potential of Sherchan’s works becoming part of the canon of world literature. The cosmopolitan project is a way to engage ourselves cerebrally in the lives of each other, to immerse ourselves in values that differ from our own, and to find points of intersection between seemingly non-intersecting identities. I believe that there is no better platform for us to begin this project than through our different literatures.
The writer is Opinion Editor at The Gazelle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
-(c) The Gazelle/Chiran Raj Pandey
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