Nepal Literature Festival Books

In the mountains, you feel free: The IME Nepal Literature Festival

Hooked: Book lovers at the ‘Himalayan Reader’s Corner’, a bookshop at the Nepal Literature Festival.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Do mountains have an inherent ability to unlock the artistic? I started chewing on this question the moment I looked out of the grimy window of the Buddha Air flight to Pokhara to glimpse the snow-dusted Himalayas stretching out like miles of sugar-dusted chocolate fudge. Mann’s Magic Mountain, Ray’s film Kanchenjungha, Caspar David Friedrich’s painting of the solitary wanderer standing above a sea of mist, all started buzzing in my head, setting the stage for the IME Nepal Literature Festival, where I was headed.

When I finally arrived at the venue, my heart leapt up and icicled immediately in the cold, like the thrashing fishtail-like form frozen in the sky that is Machhapuchhre, the glorious Himalayan peak that looms over Pokhara.

The IME Nepal Literature Festival was held from December 13 to 16 at the Pokhara lakeside. It seemed to be fuelled by youthful energy — young boys and girls browsed books, roamed around chatting animatedly, taking the mandatory groufie but also talking, listening to authors. The festival director, Ajit Baral, himself impressively young for his designation, spoke about the idea behind the fest: “We started the festival on a whim in Kathmandu back in 2011 — at that time we had very little idea of how difficult it is to run a festival, but the response from people was encouraging and that drove us on.”

Translation all the way

The team at the helm comprises writers, journalists, while Baral and his friend run a publishing house, Fineprint. He said, “If we hadn’t been into publishing, we wouldn’t have started the fest. We see a long-term interest in promoting authors, that, by generating interest in reading, expands the book market.”

The 2019 edition of the IME had attracted more attention because of its association with the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature — in the grand finale, writer Amitabha Bagchi got the award at a function attended by Nepal’s Foreign Minister. Baral hopes to build on this, to tap into the potential of Nepal as a neutral forum where writers from South Asian nations can talk freely about issues which they may not be able to discuss in their own countries due to political restrictions. So while many of the sessions in this edition were in Nepali, in future the fest may acquire a more international character.

Since translation is the only way the language gap can be bridged, it was discussed with urgency all through the IME. In the session, ‘Translating South Asia’, moderator Amish Raj Mulmi, himself an author and publishing professional, sought the advice of Arunava Sinha from India, Rifat Munim from Bangladesh and Carmen Wickramagamage from Sri Lanka (the latter two were part of the DSC jury) on how to take Nepali literature to the world through translation. A remarkable takeaway from the discussion was the similarity in the literary trajectory of these neighbouring countries — the spurt of translation in the 50s, 60s and 70s funded by Russia as its Progress/ Pragati Publishers translated Bengali, Malayalam, Sinhalese works into Russian and vice versa.

Memory and nostalgia

So a particular generation grew up reading Marx, Turgenev, Gorky in translation alongside the usual Famous Five, Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew in English, thanks to the colonial influence. In recent years, while Indian-writing in English and now regional-language literature translated into English have become a sizeable industry, the same is not true in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh or Nepal. As a fairly prolific translator, Sinha drew up a practical checklist that these nations could follow to take their literatures to the world.

If translations are opening up borders, the very opposite is happening at the political level not just in India but all over the world. Jeremy Tambling, former professor of literature at the University of Manchester and also one of the DSC jury members, analysed the nature of the parochial in the session, ‘Writing in the age of populism’.

He differentiated between nostalgia, “the wish for a state of affairs that never was” — which can be said to be the driving force behind, say, Brexit or the NRC — and memory, which “attempts to piece together that which really happened”, an effort to record the past objectively, warts and all. For him, populism is an appeal to fake emotions to make up for the poverty of real experience. The novel, an “expression of transcendental homelessness” as described by Marxist critic Georg Lukács, is the antidote to the imagined community of homogenous individuals conjured by nostalgia. It is the form that brings together exiles and the displaced, speaking in raucous polyphony to drown out homophonic narratives.

All these discussions seemed to lead naturally to the climax when Amitabha Bagchi’s Half the Night is Gone — a novel where voices of Hindi, Urdu poets, landowners, labourers, defiant women, browbeaten men fuse to narrate history as it happened, how it was felt in the bones rather than constructed in retrospect — got the DSC prize.

The festival had ended — the last rays of the sun oranged Machhapuchhre, the cold hardened its grip, and for one last time there in the mountains, I felt free. I am still holding on tight to that memory.

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Printable version | Apr 12, 2021 10:31:13 AM |

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