Bhupi on a revolving chair

Bhupi on a revolving chair

Michael Hutt's new biography is a heartbreaking and beautiful book. Heartbreaking because it holds up a mirror to Nepali society, and the image that it reflects back is tragic. Yet the book is beautiful because the image is also true.

The Life of Bhupi Sherchan: Poetry and politics in post-Rana Nepal; Oxford University Press, 2010
By Michael Hutt

So iconic a figure is the poet Bhupi Sherchan that, in Nepal, he is known by first name alone. Quoted liberally at times of national crisis, he is idolised by the left and admired by the right. People can recite stanzas from his classic collection, Ghumne mechmaathi andho manchhe (A blind man on a revolving chair), at will – whether to dismiss the latest unverifiable claims with 'This is a country of hearsay and rumour,' or to decry feebleness with 'I do not want to sleep today/wake me up, wake me up!' or to utter, in despair, 'The history of my country seems wrong to me.' Though Bhupi's best poems were written in and around the 1970s, they seem to capture the tortured spirit of contemporary Nepal.

And yet – so intellectually impoverished is Nepal – his oeuvre is not available in its entirety in Kathmandu's bookshops. Hutt, a London scholar who has worked for years on Nepali literature, points out that Bhupi's corpus is slim to begin with, consisting of one play, Parivartan (Transformation), and three poetry collections, along with a fourth published posthumously. Of these, Hutt can find two only in photocopy form. The secondary sources on Bhupi, too, are limited to two memorial volumes dedicated to him, two small books of literary analysis, a few published interviews, some essays and articles, and one Master's thesis on his work. To research this biography, then, Hutt was forced to rely on interviews with people who knew the poet personally, or with those who knew people who knew Bhupi. Out of their memories he has wrested the details of the poet's life.

Bhupi Sherchan's early life was marked by material privilege and emotional deprivation. He was born in 1935 in Tukuche village, in Thak Khola, in Mustang, in north-central Nepal. The Thakalis had long been successful traders between the Tibetan plateau and the Nepali midhills. Bhupi was the youngest of five sons of the richest, and most powerful family of Thak Khola. As it turned out, he was born under a mul, or inauspicious alignment of the stars. According to Hindu superstition, his parents would die if they so much as looked upon the baby's face. So, for five years he was raised by the family of his elder brother, Krishnaman. Yet, despite this precaution, his mother died when Bhupi was only five years old.

He later claimed that the absence of parental – and sisterly – love during his boyhood gave rise to his poetic sensibility; he would roam the nearby pine forests, wondering how he could have wrought such harm upon his mother. According to his second wife, Kanti, the difference between how he was treated and how his brother's children were treated gave rise to a certain rebelliousness of spirit. His loveless childhood certainly became part of his legend.

Bhupi's life followed a tragic trajectory. His father, Hitman, was the customs contactor for the lucrative trade route that ran through the Thak Khola, which had been the basis for the family's ancestral wealth. Bhupi did not, however, inherit his ancestors' business acumen.

Following his father to the places his business led him, Bhupi studied in Parasi, in the southern Tarai plains, and then in Nautanwa and Anandanagar in India, before being sent away for a proper education in Benares at age ten. By this time he had been presented, by his father, to the Rana Prime Minister Juddha Sumshere, who had, during the 1940s, ordered the execution of the four martyrs of the country's first movement for democracy. (Bhupi would later write in favour of the martyrs.) The political upheavals of pre-democratic Nepal and newly independent India left their mark on him, even though he was an indifferent student and an indulged, solipsistic young man. Also during the 1940s, the Nepali Congress had found its beginnings in exile, in Benares; while in Calcutta, Pushpa Lal Shrestha and others had set up the Communist Party of Nepal. By 1950, at age 15, Bhupi had decided he was a communist.

Poet as proletariat
His first works of literature were authored at 18 under the name Bhupendraman 'Sarwahara' or 'Proletariat'. These include his play, Parivartan, which he dedicated to a prostitute named Chandra, and which was set in Nepal's anti-Rana, pro-democracy movement. It consisted of flat, formulaic progressive writing, with the characters breaking through, at the end, to revolution.
Bhupendraman Sarwahara's second work was Naya jhyaure (New folksongs). Like his play, the poems in this collection were progressive, and prone to sloganeering:

See there it shines,
Our Socialist sun,
Smiling down on us.
The capitalist night
Has passed now, it says,
Crowing like a rooster.

Naya jhyaure is also full of anti-America rants, as prescribed by the progressive writing of the time. As Hutt points out, both of these early works are what Nepal's Maoists, today, consider proper 'revolutionary' literature.

There were three phases in Bhupi's literary life. The progressive phase was the first. The second saw the kind of work that today's Maoists dismiss as 'revisionist'. This phase was epitomised by his masterwork, Ghumne mechmaathi andho manchhe.

Photo credit: Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya

By the time Bhupi authored this collection, he had married Om Kumari, with whom he would go on to have six children. He had also been part of several movements, political and literary. He had been jailed for six days in the 'civil disregard' movement of 1957; had initiated the rodi literary movement with the poet Vasu Sashi and others (rodi being a song-and-dance tradition of the ethnic Gurung); and had given readings at the American and Indian libraries in Kathmandu, which had been attended by stalwarts of Nepali literature such as Balkrishna Sama and Laxmiprasad Devkota.

Also by this time, Bhupi had seen his brother, Yogendraman, a member of the Nepali Congress, jailed for eight years, and then killed in a motor accident (believed by many to have been a political assassination) after his release. Bhupi's own political zeal had lessened after a 1960 plenum saw the Communist Party of Nepal fracture along Sino-Soviet lines, with Bhupi himself ending up on the Soviet side. At this point he was drinking heavily, earning nothing and squandering the money that he received from his family on an irresponsible, bohemian lifestyle.

In terms of his writing evolution, Bhupi had already turned away from progressive writing to focus instead on 'critical realism' – allowing life's contradictions into his poems. This sensibility had begun in his previous collection, Nirjhar (Waterfall), but ripened fully in Ghumne mechmaathi andho manchhe, in which there is a keen feeling for all the suffering that was part of life in Nepal at the time – and still is today. There is also Bhupi's characteristic accessibility of language, and a hard, bracing and sardonic tone:

My courtyard is on a narrow street.
What do I lack? Everything's here:
Countless diseases,
Unending hunger,
Boundless grief;
Only joy is missing –
Here it is banned.

This collection questions authority, exposes the hollowness of patriotism, and captures the tortured quality of life in a society trapped in traditionalism and political somnolence. With its references to everyday life, to officialdom, to cultural events and national myths, the collection still feels very contemporary:

In the newspaper's 'wanted' column,
I seek the face of my days to come
I search for a foothold in every procession,
Every assembly, every speech,
The files of every new Plan.

Writes Hutt: 'Bhupi Sherchan's great achievement was to restore the link between Nepali poetry and its readership.' His aesthetics were influenced by those of the revolutionary poet Gopal Prasad Rimal, and by 'low' folk forms – the jhyaure, the rodi. He remained idealistic in orientation, his politics bolstered by a visit to the Soviet Union. Bhupi was also in dialogue with other leftist writers such as Parijat and the poets of a literary group called Ralpha, including the young Raamesh, Rayan, Arim and Manjul. He was also a close friend of Nirmal Lama, who had started off as a commander in the Nepali Congress Mukti Sena and had ended up a staunch communist.

Despite these connections, Bhupi was no longer willing to write progressive poetry. Perhaps he was softened by his association with non-communists such as the prominent singers Narayan Gopal and Ambar Gurung, for whom he wrote songs. Or perhaps his idealism had become tempered by a sense of human failure – including, most acutely, his own.

Till this time in his life, Bhupi had only ever taken a single job, working as a contractor in Bhairahawa in western Nepal, as part of the family business. He quit after three months. Unable to pay the rent in Kathmandu, he and his wife and children moved to a family home in Pokhara. He still relied on the money passed on by his brothers to support his family. He was, by all external measures, a failure.

His poems were honest to this reality. Bhupi's most unforgettable image – that of a blind man on a revolving chair at an exhibition – equates Nepali subjectivity with helplessness. Indeed, by this time Bhupi himself was helpless before alcohol. There was then, and there still is, a romance surrounding alcoholism in Nepal's literary circles. Alcohol would go on to ravage Bhupi's health and his poetry, but at the height of his powers, he was defiant about it:

Oh friends who are angry when I drink,
Drink and you'll see: drinking's much harder.
Oh you who will die and be martyrs,
Live on and you'll see: living's much harder!

Panchayat parody
Living did become harder as time went on. In the third phase of his literary life, Bhupi abandoned his wife and family; bigamously married a second wife, Kanti Rana; cut himself off from his leftist friends and acquaintances; and did an abrupt political about-face to become a member of the Royal Nepal Academy, the cultural organisation set up by the royal regime.

What fractures in the psyche explain such dissonance? How could the same man who wrote 'Rise, rise, peasants and workers / Carrying the red flag upon your shoulders!' also have written 'We are brave, but we are stupid / We are fools, but heroes too'? And how could he have gone on to write this, in reference to Nepal's king:

Exceedingly worthy, hero of Nepal: Birendra Zindabad!
Peacegiver, hero of earth and heaven: Birendra Zindabad!

Your great ancestor achieved Nepal's unification,
Your grandfather ushered in democracy,
Your honoured father achieved its Nepalisation,
Today you are strengthening the royal nation.

Firm, pure and wise, Birendra Zindabad!
Exceedingly worthy, hero of Nepal: Birendra Zindabad!

So artless is this ode, it is hard not to wonder whether it was not, in fact, meant as a bitter parody. In fact, it was not. Bhupi spent the last part of his life in the fold of the 'partyless' Panchayat system, to the immense dismay of his former friends and acquaintances.

Hutt chases down several explanations for Bhupi's rightward drift, all a bit unsatisfactory. By the reasoning of those on the left, he was returning to the aristocracy from which he had come: his foray into the left had just been youthful adventurism, and an aberration. Some blamed his second marriage – to a sophisticated urbanite, a Rana woman – for the new desire to distance himself from his past. Others pointed to his lifelong penury: perhaps he simply needed the salary that came with the Academy membership. Or he was eager to build his legacy. Or he had a personal fondness for King Birendra. Or perhaps, as Hutt suggests, the reasons were more deep-seated: the absence of parental love in his childhood might have made him hunger, at the end of his life, for acceptance. In any case, his creativity dwindled, as did his health. He died in 1989 at age 53, leaving behind two wives and eight children.

Hutt's biography is powerful because the Bhupi it portrays is the archetypical tragic figure of Nepal: the failed man. This is a recurrent figure in the best of Nepali literature, including in Bhupi's own finest poems. Bhupi failed to meet the expectations of masculinity, such as making a living and supporting one's family. He failed to live up to his own high ideals: to bring about the revolution of which he had dreamed. He failed his friends and family, and ultimately he failed himself and his art. And yet, for a while, how he shone. By writing this biography, Hutt holds up a mirror to all of Nepali society, yesterday and today.

Manjushree Thapa's latest book is a novel, Seasons of Flight. She is based in Kathmandu and Toronto.

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