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In conversation with Para Limbu, Chairperson, Spiny Babbler
Bairagi Kainla speaks with dignity. His voice has resonance and depth that is characteristically him. He maintains equilibrium in his speech, thoughtful sometimes, silent at others. Slowly he creates an aura of stillness in which his words are heard distinctly. They carry weight, meaning and give our conversation significance. Because Bairagi Kainla is a thinker, his poetry a mode to express his thoughts. Within them, one finds philosophy and scholarship.
Bairagi (unlike his name) is not a sad, pensive poet, but one who charms lightly and speaks optimistically. What is striking about him is his firm acceptance of life. This is clearly reflected in how he carries himself: steadily and resolutely. His struggles are drawn in and on the surface his poetry is seen. It is this trait which gives Bairagi’s creations effect and a noble quality.
Part of his literary struggle is the Tesro Ayam movement. During the early 1960s, Bairagi, with Ishwor Ballav and Indra Bahadur Rai, searched unexplored realms. They became a compelling force as they added a new dimension – the third dimension – to Nepalese literature. Bairagi believes that after the trodden path, creativity needs to explore the unknown.
He comments: “At one point or the other in our lives, we may want to question old values or beliefs. We try to improve upon them and conflict arises. In this process, we search for the ultimate point at which our literature – poetry or prose – can help us shape new forms. I think this is the only way literature can grow.”
He also feels a writer’s life is separate from her/his creations. “When people read or see beautiful creations, they think the creative process is glamorous and exciting. This is not true. The poet or writer does not experience glamour portrayed by their work. There is struggle and hardship, and the process of dealing with different emotions. It is only afterwards, if they are successful, they are rewarded by recognition in society.”
Bairagi Kainla grew up in a big family. The poet was born the same year his grandfather, Man Prasad (Harkagoli), died. Among his grandfather’s four sons, his father was second and married six times. Bairagi was the fourth among eight brothers. They had six sisters.
“The best part about living in a big family was I did not experience loneliness. I was always among people. Right now, in Kathmandu, if we needed to leave our house for a while, we would have a problem regarding who would take care of it. Back then there would always be someone around.
“The sad part of big families was the mental and physical pressure on women. I remember the womenfolk in our family would wake up around four o’clock in the morning and start cleaning, cooking, carrying water, grinding cereal, cutting grass until late afternoon. They worked into the night to complete their work. Besides, they had other responsibilities like melopat (farming and vegetable gardening). I felt their hardship.
“With men, it was better. If a male member took charge of the family, generally the eldest, his younger brothers were left with less responsibilities. Of course, there were times when our family experienced money shortage, which is not surprising as children were born and expenses increased. Agriculture sustained us and it had limitations. Although we were many children, I don’t think I felt deprived of my parents’ affection. My father was able to show he protected us and this meant a lot to me. Interestingly, we had to gather courage to show ourselves in front of him!
“He was a keen social worker. He believed in improving our community: the Limbus. He felt the need to place a stress on education and fight drinking, womanizing, and squabbling – social problems prevalent among our people. His inspiration came from a religious leader Falgunanda who started a sect called Satyahangma. My father was greatly influenced by his teachings. Most probably I think he was among the first of the Limbus to emphasize education. Afterwards, he sent my brothers, sisters, and myself far away from home for further studies.
“When I was born in Pouwa Sartap Village of Panchtar (a district in Eastern Nepal), my elder brothers had already moved down to Ilam and attended school. Once on their visit home during Dashain (a major festival celebrated in Nepal), I consulted my brother Bhuwani Bikram and we decided I should run away and stay with them.
“About this time, they were staying with our mawali, mother’s place in Ilam. There was a river, Nibhu Khola, two to three kilometers away from our house, where we had a cowshed. One day I was given the task of taking salt to our cattle. I took off with the bamboo pipe containing the salt, and reached the riverside. I think I was about seven or eight years old. From there I began running all the way towards Ilam. Back home, they found out about my escape and sent an old Tamang to get me back. He met me along the way at Raksyhey, but I refused to return home with him.
“I reached Ilam and settled down with my brothers. I remember when I started school, the year was 1947. Gandhi died that year.
“Afterwards, my father bought farm land in Jhapa (south of Ilam). One to two days took us to Darjeeling. He had a good potato business. From Darjeeling, the potatoes were carried through Sillagudi and taken to Patna where the market was big. Also, hill horses from a place called Olang Gola located further up from our village were taken to Bihar for sale and my family gained exposure to the outside world through these travel experiences.
“During the democratic movement of 1950, my father actively lead the Limbus and Rais to fight for the Mukti Sena, the army of the Nepali Congress, against the then Rana government. He provided four to five rifles and pistols as well as financial support. After the revolution, because of his good service, my father was selected and given the post of Subba (Amini) in Ilam, at the time equivalent to a district court judge.
“I remember an interesting incident. A professor called R.K. Sprigg from the London School of Oriental and African Studies had arrived in Kathmandu to study the Rai and Limbu languages. He had not been able to find the information he wanted from the libraries in India. Kajiman Kandangwa (Limbu) in Darjeeling brought him to Ilam and introduced the professor to my father. Afterwards, he began to learn the Limbu language with Randhoj Limbu, a relative of ours. During his stay in Ilam, he requested my father to bring out a publication on the Limbu language in the Devanagiri, Nepali script, which I think is the first Limbu lyrical poetry to be published. Later on, I translated it into Nepali.”
As a child Bairagi played in and around the house, helped with household work, ate khaja – roasted potatoes, soybean or corn – whatever was available. “We learned basic letter writing with a Bahun baje (Brahmin priest) who lived nearby and whenever we created mischief, he chased us around the house. Often I would tag after my sisters to the forest where we collected firewood.”
In 1944, Bairagi’s elder brother, Dilli Bahadur Nembang, was sent to study in Darjeeling. He attended a government school and stayed in a hostel. In 1954, Bairagi joined him and was admitted to class eight. “I remember through the help of my father and uncles my name was printed in a Bal Mandal, citation column for children belonging to Yugabani, a magazine. I think this was a promising beginning.
“We studied Bal Krishna Sama’s dramas, Laxmi Prasad Devkota’s ‘Muna Madan’, his essay collection, and Lekh Nath Poudyal. At school, we were assigned to study the work of Nepalese poets and writers extensively. Nepali Indian writers like Rup Narayan Sinha and Agam Singh Giri were popular as well. We also studied Hindi literature and read a lot of English literature.”
Bairagi’s involvement in literary activities increased. He remembers printing costs were high at the time and handwritten Nepali magazines were quite popular. He and his friends enjoyed bringing them out and publishing their work in them. “I regarded my love for literature seriously maybe because of Darjeeling’s congenial environment. During my stay in the hill station, I wrote a lot of poetry and was also inspired to start something new.” Coincidentally, his meeting with Ishwor Ballav and Indra Bahadur Rai made this possible. He was introduced to Ballav, who afterwards came to stay with them, by his elder brother Bhu Bikram Nembang. Later on, they met Indra Bahadur who came to teach at the same school where Ballav was working. The three of them got together and started organizing kothe gostis (room meetings) where they discussed poetry and writing. They also organized elocution competitions at the district level on the Ramayana verses and brought out Ful, Pat, Patkar, a fortnightly literary journal. They presented new types of writing in it. Several of Nepal and Darjeeling’s well-known writers also attended the gostis. Among them was Ganesh Bahadur Prasai, today one of Nepal’s finest critics. He discussed with them a movement started by prayog vadi writers regarding experimentation and reason in Hindi literature.
“We felt we could identify ourselves with this movement and knew it was what we were looking for. We were ready to go beyond traditional means because we were aware that, unless we accepted this challenge, we would be unable to take Nepalese literature forward. We embarked on a journey of imagination and created a way of thinking and writing and a new concept of language and style.
“I find that people in the west survive on their capabilities, whereas people in our country seem to believe everything is in the hands of god or others. The former hold themselves responsible for their loss and achievements. That is why they experience real tragedy. I believe people in our country should become responsible for their own doings. In a way, this is how Ballav, Indra Bahadur, and I felt about the Tesro Ayam movement that we started.
“We felt many writers of the past wrote about the experiences of people, but did not address the issue of how to write it. I think there is a big difference in saying about something and writing about it. With the latter the subject comes alive. We felt our traditional way of thinking, writing, and use of language did not help us bring a subject matter to life. For this, we embraced a new concept called dimensional writing and started to bring out the Tesro Ayam journal in 1963. Most of the time, Ishwor Ballav and I wrote poetry and Indra Bahadur Rai published short stories in the journal. Indra Bahadur often stressed that a person should be able to write completely, s/he should be able to write more than they can write, because there is much more to what s/he can see and understand.
“The Limbu culture and, to some extent, Hinduism, influences the way I perceive things. Another example I can give is the famous poem ‘Pijada ko Suga’, ‘The Caged Parrot’. When it was published before the revolution in 1950, it created much talk among people. They believed it was a satire that hit out at the Rana rulers. The original poem, however, was not written to make such implications; readers applied their own interpretation to it. With the Tesro Ayam movement, we wanted to develop a writing process that would be free from this kind of subjectivity. Other poets and writers also published their work in Tesro Ayam. But I feel we were different from our contemporaries. I think my poem ‘Parbat’ (Mountain) exemplifies the movement. Once I remember I wanted to publish an article in another magazine in which I removed commas that separated three words (Bagmati, Ganga, and nil). Afterwards, the publisher put the commas back in!”
Bairagi initially studied science in college, but he was not happy with his performance. [He received second division in his Intermediate in Science exams.] He changed his faculty to arts and was preparing to give his Bachelor of Arts final exams from Calcutta University when he fell sick. Afterwards, he joined North Bengal University to resume his studies but during examinations his health failed again. Then, in 1964, he went home to Panchthar for his Dashain vacation and stayed back. Around 1967, his friends filled up examination forms for him at Tribhuwan University, but by then Bairagi had settled down to the lifestyle at home and had become content with self-study. He was interested in re-learning the language of his people. Since he stayed away from home for a long period, he had forgotten much regarding the Limbu language. Years later, he brought out several books on the mundhum, oral traditions, of the Limbus.
For the following six years, Bairagi made steady progress and during his research, he suddenly realized he wanted to preserve the Limbu culture. He knew this was possible through a movement and consequently, initiated action to form a society that would support the research, translation, and publishing of the Limbu language. Bairagi’s many visits to Kathmandu also made him realize that, besides this language, there were many other indigenous languages that required preservation and documentation.
From 1977 he began to live in Jhapa. During the national referendum of 1979, he became involved in the activities of the Nepali Congress Party. At the time they formed an underground group to carry out their work. Although he was well settled in Jhapa by then, he served the Panchthar District Committee as Vice President. In 1987, he became a member of the Nepali Congress Committee of Jhapa. Today, he no longer holds the position. In spite of his busy social life, Bairagi made sure he continued to study the Limbu language. Then, in 1990, he was nominated member of the Royal Nepal Academy. He was re-nominated in 1994 and worked for the academy for almost eight and a half years. “During my tenure, I resolved to promote ethnic languages that were facing extinction. My major work has been the compilation of a Limbu-Nepali-English dictionary. It has more than 10,000 head-words. I also took up another project: the translation and publication of the Limbu oral traditions. I published two books on the Tongsing (three-night oral ritual for accidental death). I still have to complete and publish the rest and already have about four to five translated rituals saved on my computer. Fortunately, we were able to develop the Limbu script on computer through the help of Karun Thapa, a font development expert.
“I feel that although the academy has many facilities (seminars, workshops, meetings, library, and exchange programs), its goals can be met only if members are committed to their work. Providing funding for a project does not entail success. I don’t know how committed future members will be towards preserving indigenous languages; I myself know very few people who feel for this issue. But some say, if different indigenous languages are promoted, it will have a negative effect on Nepal’s sovereignty. I don’t believe this because Nepali culture has always been an amalgamation of different kinds of ethnic groups. The Nepali language is just the state language. I don’t think we can let go of something – in my context the Kirat culture – which we have had for about two thousand years.
“Although I am proud to say there are 71 to 120 indigenous languages in Nepal, only a small population speak them. In fact, there are less than 5,000 persons who speak their own language. The heavy migration of different ethnic groups in the country has scattered settlements, and this, in turn, has decreased the use of indigenous languages enormously. More than 100,000 of the total population speak only 11 to 12 languages and languages that are spoken by less than 100,000 persons are slowly becoming extinct. Even the Nepali language is being challenged by another language – English – today.
“Although there are doubts whether the Limbu language will exist for more than a century, I do believe in preservation of indigenous languages. I think this can be done through the printing and the audio-visual media. Also, the government should take a serious initiative towards this issue. A museum would be ideal for this purpose. At present, I spend four to five hours editing and revising my previous work (oral rituals). I consult others as well. Later on, I want to go into other translations.
“I think I spend more time studying and translating the Limbu language than working on my own creations. I have no regrets. There are a lot of poets who write in Nepali today. But I am perhaps one of the few who are working on preserving an ethnic language. I believe I gave my best works when I was writing seriously from 1959 to 1970. And, if I cannot write as well or better than before, then why should I write? I find contentment in this belief. Today I feel my time is effectively spent in contributing to something that future generations will learn about one day.”