Manjushree Thapa’s novel now in Nepali
At Café Soma of Baluwatar on a recent morning, Manjushree Thapa is sitting by herself at a table and is recognisable even from a distance. Not just because she looks exactly like her pictures on Google Images, but because she has an orange notebook in front of her.
Pen in hand, she is writing cursive words in blue ink, words that must either be coming out of her in spades, or maybe trickling down like water from ancient stone spouts. Nevertheless, they were words that must have been important to this Nepali writer in the English language.
There is much to learn about Manjushree Thapa from an Internet search. The columns she wrote for Nepali Times twenty years ago are fascinating profiles and translations of Nepali writers and poets. The columns introduced the best of Nepal’s literature to the outside world.
Now, the Toronto-based writer is introducing her English writing to Nepal. The Nepali translation of the 2016 book All Of Us in Our Own Lives by Ujjwal Prasai and published by Shangri-la Books was launched on Friday in Lalitpur.
‘What differs between my current writing process and when I started to write in my twenties is that I must now figure out the pragmatics of the writing life,’ Manjushree wrote last year in an article for The Record. She called herself an ‘engaged writer’, and I ask her what she meant.
“In Nepal, writers are not just given the space to pronounce on things, but are also expected to. They were part of the first democracy movement, the democracy movements in 1979, 1989, and the conflict years,” she explains. “We were all very much part of speaking out against injustice, or about atrocities or whatever was going on. Engaged writing is a very established tradition.”
Manjushree considers herself to be a part of the post-1990 generation where everyone was involved in the process of learning about each other and the country. She says, “A lot of the castes, communities that had been somehow embarrassed about their past had begun to assert themselves. Now, there isn’t a big existential search for a soul in the way that my generation experienced it. Then, for me, it became inseparable with my own personal search for what it means to live in Nepal, and what it means to be a Nepali. There has been such a strong push for change over my lifetime and things are changing so fast that one of the things it means to be a Nepali is to be totally open to see where things are going to go. For me, this search of self-discovery and self-redefinition is very much central to what it means to be a Nepali.”
Manjushree Thapa is eight novels old. She does not look her age, her skin glows in the morning sun and spurts of laughter resonate in the cafe’s corners. Yet, she confesses that no matter how much experience you have with it, writing does not get easier with time and every book is a creative challenge on its own.
There is something confessional and self-aware in Manjushree’s words, in a way similar to her own books, and the way she talks about them. She talks about the ethical and aesthetic responsibilities of being a writer.
“As a Nepali writer, I can write about Nepalis. Or I could be writing about people who have lived experiences different from mine. I feel that becomes ethically challenging. Not that you should never do it. But if you’re going to do it, you need to really put in the amount of work it takes, to really understand someone else’s experiences,” she says.
“If you want to write about characters who are not part of your immediate lived experience, then, aesthetically, you need to give them the same complexity, the same beauty, the same importance and value as you would anyone else, and not caricature people, or stereotype. That’s an aesthetic consideration that is very much linked to ethics.”
Especially as a writer in the English language, she says, authors already tend to have more privilege because the audience is more international. Perhaps for Manjushree Thapa, some part of the ethical and aesthetic consideration is also part of her decision to provide creative license for translating All Of Us in Our Own Lives into Nepali.
“When the novel first came out in English it had a few responses, but not much. Now, once it reaches its target audience, I want to see what the response is going to be,” says Manjushree about the novel that is set around the world of development assistance in Nepal for which the discourse does exist, but mostly not in the language Manjushree writes in.
“For many years, I’d been wanting to write about the aid world in Nepal because it’s so omnipresent, so important,” she says. “I wanted it to be about how people who seem to have very separate lives can bump against each other and change each others’ lives. This idea of interdependence.”
Indeed, All Of Us in Our Own Lives starts with characters who seem far apart with considerable space and indents in between. Ava lives her fortified life away from Nepal, whereas Sapana and Chandra weave their dreams of stars and the moon, and also their futures in a rural Nepal.
Gyanu makes his living in the desert of the Gulf, and Indira is a member of that significant segment other of the urban Nepali population: the working housewife. But as the story progresses and the lives of these characters collide, the gaps become smaller. Spaces remove themselves and the characters see how their lives affect others, and how we go on to live our own lives, severing the ties that we had with each other.
By the end of the novel, the world feels different again, disparate for some characters as they move away from each other, but stable for some who find solace in the company of others, more so in the company of their own self. Yet, the trace that one person leaves on another is still there. The ripple of even the simplest of interactions remains.
Reading Manjushree’s writing is like swimming in a clear, blue pond. Each page is dip into the waters that readers immerse themselves in as the characters introduce themselves. Every sentence has a purpose. Every scene is an imaginary stage that author creates in the reader’s mind.
The reader becomes a part of the experience, living the story as their own.
But what of Ujjwal Prasai’s Nepali version of the novel? Is some of it lost in translation? “A lot of the sections are actually stronger in Nepali than they were in the English,” she replies. “It’s like the story has been returned to the language it should have been written in originally. It suddenly comes to life. Ujjwal has put a lot of work into it.”
We circle back to Manjushree’s ‘pragmatics of the writing life’, and I ask her to explain it. She pauses for a while before replying: “There are several aspects to writing. One is the actual nuts and bolts -- the money. But outside of that, there’s an interesting process of protecting your creativity. Nepal is a densely social place.”
“There’s a lot going on, particularly if you are at all interested in social and political issues. I still struggle with this, because, in a way, all of my inspiration comes from this society. All of my neuroses”, she laughs. “But it’s very hard to protect the working time and the creative space because it’s not a society that values individual time.”
But so much creativity is also being able to read, she says, and it is not as easy in Nepal. “But, on the other hand, in Toronto there isn’t a, sort of, inspiration everywhere. It’s not ideal there either. I feel my source of inspiration is very far away when I’m writing from there, but I have time and space and mental peace to write. It’s a balance I haven’t quite worked out.”
Manjushree Thapa signs my copy of All Of Us In Our Lives with the same blue cursive hand-writing and a creased smile. I drive my dirty, black scooty back into the streets of Kathmandu, thinking about impending deadlines, protecting my creative space, and the ripple of the intersection of our lives.
The Nepali translation of All Of Us in Our Own Lives by Ujjwal Prasai, is titled ‘एक्लै एक्लै’ by Shangri-la Books.