The conflict between rural and urban tradition and modernity, and the loss of a way of life, lead to a crisis of personal and political identity in the poetry of Sikkim, Darjeeling, Nepal, and their environs.Traditionally, creativity in the eastern Himalayas has almost always been expressed in song and dance, with themes ranging from the amorous and religious to those about nature and society.
Recent writings have since moved on to issues of identity, dreams and hardships, the sense of alienation and angst in this far-flung corner. Initially, this was confined to the conflict between rural traditions and urban life; the lure of the city that has taken its toll on rural innocence. Remika Thapa writes:
The village knows not of black money,
Nor of black market
All of a sudden
Famine strikes the village
And in this famine
It is the village that has to save the seed.
(Gauma Kavita, self published)
The metaphoric degradation of traditional values is the result of a euphemistic ‘progress’. The villager is no longer the naïve bumpkin of folklore. Today he is a cellphone-toting, politically savvy individual with urban aspirations, whose rural vote rules supreme. Tenzing Gyatso, a Gangtok poet, paints this image during local elections:
Yes! It’s election time! Zindabad! Hurray!
So villagers, let us rally round our generous MLA
(and not to forget his worthy contender in the fray)
…so shake a leg, my fellow village bumpkins
let us crowd the jeeps, bursting at the seams
with free rides, meat and drinks beyond our wildest dreams!
This quest for an identity turned political in the 1980s with the demand for a separate state. This demand, however, also unleashed violent clashes, to which the writers bravely tried to bear witness. Anmole Prasad of Kalimpong writes about his friend Harka Bahadur, (an ex-school teacher and presently a Member of the Assembly):
Harkabahadur the Cat
Has nine lives
But only one wife
…balanced like a thin acrobat
On the risky wire of a working day
He goes to teach at the school
In the next town
Never knowing for sure if he’ll reach
Home again or not.
(Harkabahadur the Cat from the FLATfile collectif, Anmole Prasad, Kalimpong.)
Prasad founded the FLATfile collectif, a little magazine showcasing some fine writings in English. Although it is no longer in circulation, FLATfile once featured the writings of Praveen Moktan, Dorjee T. Lepcha and Pema Wangchuk, significant for their ethnic content set against local backdrops.
Rajendra Bhandari, perhaps the best known amongst these writers, was born in Darjeeling, schooled in Kalimpong and is presently a Professor of Nepali in Gangtok, making him a quintessential poet of the region. A recipient of numerous awards, he adopts a minimalistic approach to mundane themes and writes from personal experience. Bhandari’s wit, much of it self-effacing, further enhances his poetry. Indeed, wit and satire seem to be an inherent quality for most writers from these parts.
…my features are gradually resembling my Father’s
even my temples are graying
in the same manner
as that of my Father’s.
My Father had kept his graying hair grey
whereas I resorted to black politics there.
(Father and My Birthday. In Shabda Haruko Punarvas, Bhim Dhungel)
Guru T Ladakhi represented Sikkim at the Jaipur Literary Festival, and earlier at the Thimphu Literary Festival. His poetry straddles tradition and modernity with sensitivity. His verses weave images of home and family, with his most poignant piece being written after he lost his father:
…between the wailing, the rain
and a shuffle of doctors;
a final glance,-
and he leaves through a corridor of the night
dissolving into intangibles
(Death of a Father)
Tenzing Gyatso’s poems on the other hand, evoke a sense of nostalgia and annoyance, perhaps the most extreme emotion he is capable of, at the callousness of modern society. Ex-rocker ‘Gyatz’ is a veteran guitarist whose band played regularly at Palace parties (die Gyalmo 3 Hope Cooke mentions him in her autobiography, Time Change). His poems blend contemporary issues and musings about the ‘days of yore’ with witty rhymes.
Old Mother Nature deemed Gangtok to be lush, green and high
Our lofty ridges, hills and peaks reach up to the sky.
So the town folk simply followed Mother Nature’s cue
They built tall buildings that blocked out each other’s view…
…To the Chief Technocrat this query was posed,
“Sir, what are the new projects that you have proposed?”
Quoth he, “It is our motto to make Gangtok high in every sense,
A sky-high car parking lot is the need of the hour
Also a much higher and more redundant TV tower.”
Shanti Chettri, Sudha Rai, Meena Subba and Binashree Kharel, writing in Nepali, speak about gender discrimination, emancipation, and unrequited emotions. Manprasad Subba of Darjeeling, writes about his spiritual alienation, Udai Thulung of Mangpoo on the crisis of a Gorkha identity, while Vichandra Pradhan of Mirik writes on the loss of love and humanity. The late Jeewan Theeing of Gangtok wrote on the identity crisis of Sikkim after the 1975 merger. Among the newer writers are Prajwal Parajuly, Chetan Raj Shrestha, Yishey D, Pravin Khaling and Pravin Jumeli.
There in a dumping yard
I can see
The burnt, blonde petals of shattered marigolds
Still intact on a cotton thread
Strands of faith
Now droop into the load of the bin
I can tell you
From its sweet smell
It’s too young to die
(Yishey D, There in a Dumping Yard) Prajwal Parajuly (The Gurkha’s Daughter/ The Land Where I Flee) and Chetan Raj Shrestha (The King’s Harvest /The Light of his Clan) are two critically acclaimed novelists. Parajuly’s The Gurkha’s Daughteris a collection of short stories set against an Eastern Himalayan backdrop, while The Land Where I Flee explores the politics of society and family. Chetan’s The King’s Harvest is actually two novellas set in Sikkim and reads like a thriller. The Light of His Clan follows the intrigues and machinations of a political family in Gangtok.
Events like Converse and the more recent Chiya Kavita (literally translated as ‘Tea-Poetry’, a brainchild of the poet Pravin Khaling), have encouraged writers to showcase their work, giving them wider exposure and acceptance.
- spinach By Prajwal Parajuly: The Gurkha’s Daughter, Quercus, 2012; The Land Where I Flee, Quercus; 2013
- squash By Chetan Raj Shrestha: The King’s Harvest, Aleph Book Company, 2013; The Light of his Clan, Speaking Tiger, 2015.
- Queen The poems of Guru T Ladakhi and Tenzing Gyatso are yet to be published.
Pankaj Thapa is Associate Professor & Head Dept. of English, Sikkim Govt. College, Tadong. This essay was commissioned and was first published by the Goethe-Institut as part of its project ‘Poets Translating Poets’ between Germany and South Asia. www.goethe.de/ptp
Art: Arka Das