Anita Tuladhar: The Gardener of Small Stories
I encountered Anita Tuladhar in a black and white 1985 studio photo. She stands with writer Toya Gurung and singer Aruna Lama. She is wearing a dark floral sari, a wavy bob and large glasses. Her arms are crossed in front of her and she smiles with her lips curling down at the corners like an upside down crescent moon.
She was born in 1950 in Biratnagar, and was a prolific writer who published four books in a short span of twelve years: Phulu (Phulu, 1977), Ritto Sahar (Empty City, 1978), Surya Grahan (Solar Eclipse, 1983) and Bidambana (Dilemma, 1989). But I could not find any of her books in the shops.
“Give me her titles, I will know the book but not the author,” booksellers said, but still could not locate her books. This is not unusual in Nepal, often the only way to get books is directly through the author. Anita’s silence as a writer that spanned over 30 years, seemed to have erased large chunks of Nepal’s collective literary memory.
Anita finally sent me all four of her books. “Please do not lose them, this is the only set I have,” she said over the phone. The four books were of different sizes all taped along the spines. Suddenly, I felt the need to wear gloves. The one I was most drawn to was Phulu, her first collection of short stories, a retro purple-pink book that fit in the palm of my hand. I had never seen anything like it, and read it in one sitting.
Anita is an expert mini story teller. After our conversation, she takes me on a tour to see the 600 potted plants that she tends to each day in her home in Tripureswor. She has a deep interest in bonsai and for the first time I see the banyan, juniper, fig, red wood, Bodhi, rhododendron, jacaranda and oak trees grown in small clay pots on a small terrace that overlooks the drying Bagmati. Standing amidst her plants, I suddenly see why Anita creates bonsai: she can have the world’s biggest trees in her home in the middle of the city, just like she can fit the world’s biggest stories in the smallest forms, so we may easily carry them with us.
In this month’s Lightroom Conversation, Anita Tuladhar and I talk about the craft of writing small stories, the politics of publishing a book, darknesses and how to come out of them.
Anita Tuladhar: Exactly at 5AM, we had to be seated in front of Ba with our books. If my brothers and I were even one minute late, Ba would not even look at us for 3-4 days. This tyrannical rule applied to Ma too – at 5:30AM, she had to bring tea for all of us. We each got 3 pieces of cream cracker biscuits, you know, the kind that came in a big tin from Bombay. Anyway, it was complete military rule.
Muna Gurung: He was an army man?
A: No, he worked for Nepal Bank and was posted in Biratnagar where I was born. When I was 3, we returned to Kathmandu and bought a small house in New Road. Ba was one of the few Tuladhars who was educated at that time. He home-schooled us, and when I finally went to school, I was enrolled directly into fourth grade at Kanti School. My father thought it would be harder for me to adjust at school, but it was my brothers who failed several times. I never failed a single class. After SLC, Ba told me that I was old enough to decide what I wanted to do. He completely cut himself off from making any decisions for me in terms of my education. It was entirely up to me – Did I want to continue studying? What did I want to study? With some friends I enrolled to study humanities at Padma Kanya Campus.
M: That is so open-minded of him. Usually parents tell you what you ought to study, do, be...
A: Ba never stopped me from studying, but he never liked that later I became a writer. He wished that I would just take up a regular office job. My Ma, on the other hand, could not read or write, but she loved literature. She accompanied me to most of my readings and events, we hung out like sisters or friends. She was married off to Ba when she was 14 and by the time she was 16, I was born, so our age difference was not that much.
M: Your father must have read some of your work though.
A: Not a single word. I guess he was not interested. He never praised me, but he also never discouraged me. I quietly continued writing. He was also unhappy when he learned that I had picked Nepali over Nepal Bhasa in 8th grade. I was the first person in my family to study Nepali. Ba thought it would be hard for me because Nepali is not our language, we do not speak it at home. But I loved the Nepali language. Maybe it was because I was meant to write in Nepali that I always felt drawn towards it. But I did not take Ba’s lack of enthusiasm negatively, I learned not to expect much from him or anyone for that matter. I don’t carry many expectations or desires. The more wishes you have, the harder it is to live.
Read more: Toya Gurung: Nepali literature’s Thulnani
M: But there was something about writing that drew you towards it.
A: My uncle wrote in Newari, but I cannot say he inspired me to write. I used to love listening to songs, maybe that led me to poetry? In 7th or 8th grade, I wrote poems about nature, hills, mountains. You know, poems I read in books. But when I was in Padma Kanya, I began to write about people and pain, these poems became little protests. Every Friday there was a literary program and I would recite poems. On campus, there was also a literary journal called Kasturi; it was there that I published my first story Mero Mann KoDhoko (My Heart’s Desire). But this feeling that I can and should write, that what I am writing is important and true, came from one person: Hari Bhakta Katuwal. He had come from Asam looking for me. Angur Baba Joshi was the principal then, she asked me to come to her office because someone wanted to see me. When I walked in, there was a man in her office with disheveled hair, crazy eyes, and I think he was slurring when he spoke. I thought he was drunk, and I was a little afraid. Turned out it was Katuwal dai who had read my story in Kasturi and had come to tell me that I should continue to write. It is the biggest boost I have ever received. A well-established writer had traveled long distances just to tell me that I was doing the right thing. It fueled me.
M: You felt seen.
A: Exactly. Later he sent my work to Madhuparka, Ruprekha, and other magazines and newspapers. Once these stories appeared in many places, he told me to create a collection, that is when Ritto Sahar came out.
M: This was after you had graduated from Padma Kanya?
A: Yes, the book came out years after I got married. The day I graduated from Padma Kanya was also the day I got married. It was an arranged marriage to a boy from another Tuladhar family.
M: How convenient, you didn’t have to change your last name.
A: (Laughs). Or my religion, but it was hard at the beginning. You know, I had a very easy childhood. Whatever I wanted to wear, whatever I wanted to eat, I got all of it. My father’s family was educated and he held these high posts at Nepal Bank and later at RNAC. I would go to Padma Kanya Campus in a long black car.
M: The princess of New Road.
A: Something like that. In those days Tuladhars were mostly merchants and traveled to Lhasa for trade. I guess one did not need to be too educated to run a business. My husband’s family was not well-off, but he was the only one in his family who was educated. Ba sat me down before the wedding and told me that he was not marrying me to wealth, but that he had wanted to make sure that the man I married was educated. But when I went to my husband’s house and saw that they still cooked over an open fire, I was shocked. I did not know how to cook and I certainly did not know how to cook with firewood. One day, when my mother-in-law was away, my brother-in-law and I destroyed that fireplace. He bought a kerosene stove. We both got a good scolding from her (Laughs); my brother-in-law was the one who taught me how to cook.
Read more: Factory of Questions: Sarita Tiwari
M: Your husband or his family never stopped you from writing.
A: My mother-in-law was the kindest person and my husband’s brothers ran a printing press in Nyokha called Yak. It was here that Katuwal dai and other writers such as Upendra Shrestha, Ashesh Malla, Bishnu Bibhu Ghimire got together. Yak published papers and magazines, including Katuwal dai’s Banki, a small pocket-sized monthly literary magazine which was so small it fit in the palm of your hand, and filled with what was called mini short-stories, poems, essays. The idea for these pocket magazines came from Japan where people are very busy and do not have time to read long stories. Anyway, I would do housework, and at that time, I already had a daughter, but she mostly stayed at my parents’ home in New Road. So, whenever I had some free time, I hung around at the press. Katuwal dai encouraged me to write for Banki and I learned how to write mini short stories.
M: They are like flash fiction, or micro stories?
A: Yes, but I had to learn how to write this kind of story. I didn’t understand the format before. I thought a mini short story was a summary of a longer story. I did just that with one of my stories and submitted it to Banki, but Katuwal dai saw that I had misunderstood the form. Slowly I read more mini stories, and found out that each mini story is complete and whole, it is a story that may be small in format but able to stand independently on its own. It is very difficult to write one.
M: This reminds me of the well-traveled quote that has been attributed to many writers. Goes something like, I’m sorry this note is so long, I didn’t have time to write a short one.
A: It is true. It takes longer to write something short. It might be easier for the reader to consume, but so much harder for the writer to create it. But I also think these small formats touch people faster, and leave a stronger impact. For instance, I am writing about load shedding right now and what a pain it is for so many people. But instead of recounting all the troubles that each character has with load shedding, it is more effective to depict the story of one specific person’s troubles. And instead of having many characters in a long drawn out scene, it’s better to say a lot with one single dialogue. Now for that to happen, as a writer you have to think 3, 4, or 5 times or more. You only get one shot to touch the reader. Word choice becomes crucial. You do not have the luxury of a novel to write lengthy, winding details. These days, people have begun to write stories in three words. There’s one that goes: Huncha, hundaina, hola (Yes, no, maybe). That is a complete story in some way.
M: It is like that over told Ernest Hemingway six-word story: For sale: baby shoes, never worn. It is an ad, and the reader can imagine what might have happened to that baby or to that family.
A: Exactly. You leave a lot to the reader and they have to think. I guess I came to writing because of Katuwal dai, and also because of the environment that was built around me. We ran a printing press, we had writers gather at home all the time. In 1977, I came out with my own collection of mini short stories and we printed that at Yak. And I also edited my own literary magazine, Jureli. I hung out with other writers daily, like Toya Gurung, who was working at Nepal Bank in Bhugol Park then. I would go to her office and read all the magazines and newspapers that came to her for free. And then we would go eat samosas at Indra Chowk. The time was right for me to be a writer.
Then in 1987, my husband and I left the family in Nyokha with our children. Brothers got into arguments as they tend to do, and when the time came to divide the Nyokha property, there was little left for us. Anyway, it was not a good time for the family and I sold whatever gold jewelry I had, bought this piece of land and built this house. We left the printing press and had to start from scratch. Once we moved to this house, I stopped writing. I did not write for 9 or 10 years.
Read more: Maya Thakuri: Writing between the lines
M: Most writers use writing as a way to get out of darkness. But for you it was the opposite. Your writing was consumed by the darkness. How did you live without it?
A: It was a time when I lived without a lot of things. Without writing, without our families, our worlds as we had known it. It was very hard. In life, we all have to suffer at one point or another. We had to start from the bottom. I was not creating literature, but I was busy creating a new world for my family. I do not like to think about that time. (Pauses.) But once I stopped writing, they forgot about me.
A: Writers, readers, publishers, the literary world. By then I had already published four books and in the short story genre, people knew of Anita Tuladhar. But during those 10 years and also after, they stopped inviting me to literary events. I think there is groupism in the literary scene. During my time, we were all writers together and everyone wrote their own things but everyone moved together. Today, if you are in one group, you move with that group. You get invited to the places your group is invited to. Look at Toyaji, she was the country’s first female academician and a historical figure especially in poetry, they should always invite her, but even she is forgotten sometimes. These days, I tell myself: We have made some sort of history and maybe one day people will come looking for us. And sure enough, look, there are still people like you out there who come to speak to us. Nowadays, writers have to beg for interviews and book reviews. It is very rare for something like this to happen. It used to happen before, but not anymore.
M: I saw a photo of you in Toyaji’s album. It was the two of you with Aruna Lama. I wanted to know about you and your work, but I could not find your books anywhere.
A: All of them are out of print and we are trying to reprint them. Phulu can be reprinted from our press because the rights belong to me.
M: You have a press?
A: In 1998, after my son returned from studying print he set up Jira Printers.
M: I like the name; fiery like jira peppers.
A: (Smiles). The ji is from Jit Bahadur Tuladhar, who was my father-in-law. The ra is from Ram Raj Tuladhar, my Ba. We wanted to remember them in our everyday, and to never forget where we came from, no matter what happened in the family. It is the least we can offer.
M: It’s really interesting for me find that most of the Nepali writers from your generation or a littler later printed or still print their own books. Often times, they sell whatever gold they have and take out some 500 or so copies. Most writers, like Toyaji herself, don’t even want to have book launches and the books are not distributed well. It may be my western schooling, but publishing a book, to a large extent, should mean that the book reaches people, that the author is known in wider circles and that some money also comes back to the writer.
A: (Laughs). The last thing one should expect out of a book is money. Nepalis do not have a habit of buying books. At best, they borrow and the book circles around a few readers and is torn or lost. Sajha published my second book, Ritto Sahar. The book was Rs3 and they said they would give me 16% of the sales. They published around 2,000 of them. You can do the math yourself. Very little goes to the writer. And not to mention, not all 2,000 are sold. Honestly, maybe 20-30 people actually buy the books, the rest we distribute them for free and it is over. I cannot reprint this collection because they have the rights and now they are bankrupt. If I wanted them to reprint it, I would have to go to them daily and beg them and who knows if it will even happen. I do not have that energy to do that and I don’t know how else to reprint this book. Like Toyaji, I, too, do not care for book launches. It just feels good to know that I have made some books.
M: It feels very generous, or selfless and…
A: Egotistical? (Laughs).
M: No, no… maybe even Marxist or Buddhist, you know, to bring a book out and not expect too much out of it. What does making a book mean to you?
A: A book is a place where I have emptied my thoughts and ideas. May others come to it sit with it. May they understand some of these thoughts and ideas. May they see from a different point of view. May they experience emotions my characters experience. May they understand that there are great pains and sorrows in this world, many are similar to one’s own and many different. And may they encounter beauty and joy in how I write about flowers, plants, nature.
M: You are working on two books, has your writing process changed from your last book that came out 30 years ago?
A: All my stories are still inspired by real life events, things I have seen, experienced, or things people have told me, or a line or two I have heard while waiting for a ride home. Once I get a character, or an idea, a sentence, I build a plot. After that, it just flows. I do not finish all my stories in one sitting, but even if I have to go open the door, answer the phone, cook for my family… the story just sits and simmers in me and I cannot wait to get back to the page to continue it.
M: Do you think that writing can be learned?
A: I think it is useless to try to teach writing or go somewhere to learn how to write. If people ask me to teach writing, what am I supposed to say? Do I tell them to write like me? Or should I tell them to write like Parijat? I do not think writing can be taught. Do you write the way the teacher wants you to or the way you want to? It is such a personal pursuit. But I also do not think writers are born with writing skills, like magic. It just takes a certain kind of person with a certain kind of awareness to want to write, to be able to write.
M: I want to close our conversation by asking you to share with us your greatest regret? Your greatest joy?
A: Two regrets: I wish I had learned how to use a computer, and also how to ride a motorcycle. Today, I would have been able to type my own stories and send them out. As for the motorcycle, I want to be able to go wherever I want to go without depending on my son, or my daughter-in-law. They will not ever say “no,” but still, it’s different. Also, I love going out.
As for joy, plants bring me the most joy. Do you know that I have 600 plants in this house? And I especially love bonsai.
M: What do you love about it?
A: Like writing, it is an art form. There are many rules to bonsai– one has to identify the face of a tree, the back of a tree, how the branches move, which way to move them. You can use wire, to guide the growth of the tree, but I do not do that. It will hurt the tree. My only aim is to turn a big tree into a small tree.
M: Just like you turn big stories into small ones?
A: (Laughs). I never thought about it that way. But yes, I guess that is what I do.
Muna Gurung is a writer, educator and translator based in Kathmandu. For more of her work, visit munagurung.com
When light paints the sky orange, Phulu wants to smile. But he does not. Instead, colours of anger and shades of death spill into his eyes. Phulu wants to bang his head against something hard and cry. But he quietly enters his room – a faded room that begins to feel heavy. His eyes fall on dates he has marked on the calendar, dates when he will hang himself … today is only the 23rd. Phulu feels like he has yet to live through a lifetime of dark days. A hot anger rises in him. He is so angry he sleeps all day. The only thing he thinks about is his wife. She never gave him trouble while he was alive, never complained about increased expenses. While his wife was alive, nothing bothered him. His life was opening up, like a flower. He feels empty now. For once, Phulu wants to forget everything. But memories surround him in all directions, like light pouring from a full moon. He cannot forget anything. Phulu stares.
Translated from the Nepali by Muna Gurung.