Young Nepali poets in search of poetic license
…To hell with poetry, with memories,
with my mother’s food- maybe not my mother’s biryani-
To hell the memory of turning nineteen
in quarantine. To hell with waiting. To hell
with this poem. To hell with how long.
Your friend sends you half a poem by Mukahang Limbu, with a note at the bottom: Found this gem online and thought to share with you. You go back and read it a couple more times, the way you do with poetry that reaches into you to touch certain chords and you instantly know you’ve found a place to go to.
But home can also be just a memory and you find out why as you read When I first came from Nepal by Limbu:
Missing the feeling of home
I smell the iron rust
of the Municipal Gardens.
The sour tang of home still sits
on the tip of my tongue
like the zest of sweet citrus fizzing.
There are nights when you turn to poetry for reprieve. The world closes in upon you sometimes and sometimes pushes you away, leaving you on the fringes, staring at the inner circle, where you feel you do not belong.
You discuss the imposter syndrome with your friend. What can one really do to become authentic in a world that constantly tests? Often, there is only so much to do. Perhaps it is to be and to live as you are and bare yourself to the core, even between strangers.
Deepa Bohora beams at the sight of you, asks you your name and smiles as though you are not a stranger but an old friend. She instantly engages with you in conversation about her childhood, about her struggle with Lupus.
“It is poetry that salvaged me. And Yukta Didi, who showed me that I could also write poetry,” she says of Yukta Bajracharya, poet and writer.
As you navigate a busy street in Patan together, Bohora tells you about her father’s work in India and about a fan that was her friend when she was a child. And there is that poem she narrates, about this fan. The fan.
The fan is her friend. But in her poem, she becomes a friend to the fan. The fan goes on to tell us the story of the little girl with Lupus, strung in her own metaphor of healing. The device, which has been sitting in her house for years, gathering dust, warped with spider web, becomes a symbol of her own yearning to recover.
When the fan is repaired and once again starts spinning off cool air, Bohora writes a second installment about its restoration. And as the fan rises from its ashes to become a device of use again, what we really see is Bohora’s recovery.
“I write poetry because I like to tell stories. There are so many stories in me and in the people around me. That’s why I write poetry,” says Bohora. But poetry comes to her like a song, like the humming of the fan on a hot summer’s day in Surkhet, so she becomes the little girl again, who runs around her village telling everyone the fan has been fixed.
That healing she finds in poetry is shared experience for many. “They say we are all poets at least once in our lives. And that is when the heart breaks,” says Saras Chari. He says he started writing poetry as a form of expression away from a childhood scarred by bullies.
“First it was that, and then at some point, I realised that I had some talent, but as I grew older, I realised it was my only talent. And so I write to see where I fit in this society and to talk about issues that are misinterpreted,” says Chari.
When a series of anti-government protests were staged in Kathmandu in 2020, Chari noticed how at each one of those events, the public was pitted against the government security personnel. “They’re not our foes. They’re one of us. Their families are one of us. But when they’re out there, defending the line, they become the ones who stand against us. And in that, they’re oppressed by the government, while being tasked at oppressing us,” says Chari.
And so his poem, Pyadha, traverses the minds of traffic police, police and soldiers:
Those toes locked inside boots bleed, too,
They get sucked on by leeches and
They yearn for the feel of the grass…
(translated from Pyadha)
“Look at how many ways poetry has been used in history,” Chari says. “Poetry was taught to us by pundits to propagate religions. Poetry was used to teach, but also to control. It has also been the medium for expressing love, just as much as it has been used to stir rebellion. Poetry is powerful,” says Chari.
Anand Vijay Gurung, who sits in the audience as Chari performs his verse on stage says that poetry serves its own purpose. “Or wait, why must it even serve a purpose? That’s a difficult question to answer. If a piece of poetry inspired you to feel more intensely, it has served its purpose,” says Gurung, who likes to think of poetry as a word game. And so in his poem, We Are All Migrants, he writes:
…to navigate their way in a world and find
The elusive perfect nest
etched in their mental maps.
“Poetry is pretty much everyone’s game,” says Chari. Like Deepa Bohora, he too found a community in the Word Warriors, a spoken word poetry group. And while Gurung calls writing a lonely task, Slam poets like Bohora and Chari have formed their own circles where poets come together to write and perform.
Chari and his friends Prakash Zimba, Rupesh Bhattarai and Shuvangi Khadka perform together under the name, Kavindrapur, in memory of the forgotten poets that frequented a sattal rest house next to Kastamandap, during the reign of Pratap Malla.
The king was the patron of the poets. And there in a rest house in the heart of old Kathmandu, the streets would reverberate with verses as poets wove a mesh with their words. It is this memory that has been created into a legacy by the young poets, even as they struggle with other challenges of being poet.
“Poet, but paid” is painted in white on the black tee shirt Chari wears. “We get invited to events, often to perform or to judge, but no one cares to pay for our time or expression. Poetry is not respected,” Chari expresses his frustration.
And his sentiment is seconded by Gurung: “Nepali society respects writers and poets but there is no support system to serve that vocation. There is no reward monetarily and often, poets pay for their own books to be published.”
Gurung’s anthology of poetry, Dandelion Snow was published in 2020, and most of the people who bought his books have been friends. Poetry books are published with the expectancy of a prolonged shelf-life, he says.
And yet that does not deter the courage of Bohora, who hopes someday to pull together a book of her poems. “That’s the dream, I’ve been carrying. Someday, I’d like to do a book of my own,” she says. “My words have done what my father’s sweat hasn’t.”
When the likes of Rupi Kaur and Nayyira Waheed stormed Instagram’s little boxes with their anecdotes, poetry appeared to have found a new platform for revival. While it has also given birth to debates about what really is poetry, then, if it can be dashed off in incomplete sentences and expressions.
“At least it’s helped other poets see, that it is possible to sell,” says Gurung.
In Kathmandu, a surge in performance poetry was seen in the last decade with Word Warriors performing at different events, raising pertinent personal and political questions, while also creating space for young writers to form their own groups.
But poetry has also been used to challenge. In the recent anti-government protests, the crowd cheered as Sapna Sanjeevani recited: Ab hum Sita Nai Banbo, refusing to the submission that Sita had to adhere to. And it is a sentiment that resonates with many women writers of the decade.
My country cries over
the birth lore of gods,
not the bodies of desecrated dead girls;
My country says I am a Goddess.
Neha Rayamajhi's a poem published in LaLit magazine is steeped in sadness and anger. There is sarcasm. There is mostly protest in her words:
My country asks me
for my father’s name.
Men who are dead,
or have become ghosts
they own me more than the women who birth me:
My country asks me to love this motherland.
“Writing poetry is creating something beautiful out of sometimes messy and ugly emotions. It also means clamining and reclaiming power from those experiences,” says Rayamajhi.
Her words are representative of the new generation of Nepali women, who dare to question traditions passed down to them and laws that threaten to bind them. The refrain carries the irony of the idea of motherland while being force to disrespect mothers, who are allowed to birth children but never allowed to be citizens.
But to not be citizens is not limited to being unable to pass down your identity to your children. It can sometimes be tangled in memories of who we were and who we have become.
Away in Oxford, Mukahang Limbu’s life unfolds to his audience on his Instagram stories as he cooks meals with fellow students and lives the life that has the semblance of a typical university life. But this award winning poet recreates the idea of home in his posts through foods as much as he does in unfinished, dangling sentences.
Away from home, we often discover ourselves more closely. Home, then becomes an idea. Home can be the taste of a vegan ice-cream made from cashew milk in Manhattan, sometimes. But home can also be fried-rice eaten on repeat when you live far away from home.
Home can also be friends who do not ask you questions, just as home can be a tandoori sandwich eaten during a conversation with strangers you have just begun to trust.
And so these lines by Limbu resonate with so many of us:
I know now
In this place, where I did not know, the things I did not know embrace me in ways
I didn’t know.