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Manoa 13.2 (2001) 67-73
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Reaching One's Own People, Reaching the World
Modern literature in Nepal is quite recent, dating from well after the start of the twentieth century. The region's literature in traditional forms is, of course, much older, beginning as early as the thirteenth century with epigraphs, devotional poems, folklore and folk ballads, and the translation of texts from Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu, and other established languages of South Asia. Khasa-bhasa, or "old Nepali," was spoken by the rulers of the principality of Gorkha, and so when the Nepal valley was uni�ed around 1790 by the Gorkha ruler Prithvi Narayan Shah, the new kingdom of Nepal adopted Khasa-bhasa as the dominant language. Today, Nepal is home to at least sixty-one caste and ethnic groups and seventy-one languages, but a modernized version of Khasa-bhasa is the of�cial "Nepali" language, used for governance, education, and commerce. Nepali is also the language in which most of the country's literature is written.
The founding figure of Nepali literature is traditionally held to be Bhanubhakta Acharya (1814-1868), who has been canonized, somewhat inaccurately, as the country's aadikabi, or "first poet." Other early writers who played major roles in the development of Nepali as a literary language capable of incorporating modern, secular forms were Motiram Bhatta (1866-1896), Lekhnath Poudyal (1884-1965), and Guruprasad Mainali (1900-1971). Over the course of the twentieth century, important new forms of Nepali literature were pioneered by approximately a dozen significant poets and about twice that number of fiction writers; their names are listed at the end of this essay.
Despite their skillful forms and linguistic beauty, Nepali poetry and fiction remained narrowly confined throughout most of the twentieth century. There are many reasons for this, beginning with the country's social conditions. In Nepal today, for example, less than thirty percent of the population of twenty-five million is functionally literate; of that fraction, only a negligible percentage can, or does, read literature. A print run of five hundred is the norm for a short-story or poetry collection, and a print run of two thousand is considered phenomenal. For the rural masses, traditional oral literature--recitations of religious texts, folk dramas, and folk songs--is far more accessible than modern writing. [End Page 67]
Even for those in Nepal who are literate and who seek out new writing, the Nepali language itself presents difficulties. Attempts to standardize its grammar began as late as 1820, and the process is still continuing. In addition, all but a few Nepali dictionaries are marred by irregularities. Writers and poets of the twentieth century have had to invent the Nepali language as they went along, and today's written Nepali is still evolving towards greater flexibility.
The economic situation in Nepal, one of the poorest countries of the world, also works against the development of its literature. Nepal's undeveloped and disorganized economy--a mix of agrarian and market systems that keep half the population below poverty level--provides scant reward for the literary writer. The few publishers who are willing to print fiction and poetry offer no royalty payments; more often than not, writers must subsidize their own publication. To support themselves, even the most established writers work as teachers, bankers, lawyers, newspaper columnists, accountants, and editors--or they must rely on patrons or family wealth. For most writers, the purchase of books is beyond their means, and in any case, few books are available in the country. It is humbling to think that almost all Nepali literature is still laboriously written and revised by hand on foolscap sheets.
Another obstacle to Nepal's literary growth has been the country's geographical remoteness and politically imposed isolation. Nepal opened its doors to the world only in the 1950s, and in many ways it remains a sequestered land. There have been periods of political censorship and monopolistic control of the press, and these circumstances, along with poor roads and the lack of modern communication lines, often slowed the arrival...