Bimala Tumkhewa: Putting kinema on the map of Nepal
Born in 1978 in Tehrathum, Bimala Tumkhewa is not an unfamiliar name in Nepal’s literary scene. Popular for her hard-hitting journalistic articles where she writes about women’s rights, literature, politics and society, Bimala is at heart, a poet. She has published four collections of poetry, Bimala Tumkhewaka Kabitaharu (Bimala Tumkhewa’s Poems, 1999), Nadi, Chaalra Tarangharu (River, Waves and Ripples, 2004), Samsmaran Euta Budho Rukhko (The Memoir of an Old Tree, 2009) and Hatkelama Prithvi Liyera Ubhiyeko Manche (A Person Who Stands with the Earth in Their Hands, 2019). In addition to being a poet, Bimala is at work full-time as the General Secretary for Sancharika Samuha (Forum for Women Journalists and Communicators) and a core member of Women Security Pressure Group.
After a hiatus of 15 years, when Bimala came out with her collection of poems in a beautiful hardcover last year, I was in the audience. The room was packed to the brim, and I was in the spillover outside. What I admire most about Bimala’s writing is that it is loud, fearlessly straight-forward and kind. She is honest and unafraid to question not only others but her own deeply held beliefs. She shared with me an intimate dilemma she has about writer Bairagi Kainla: ‘I have always looked up to him and in fact, I had recently written a profile on him. He is a beloved writer in our community and I respect and love him. Yet, the other day, I came across a poem where he used the word randi (prostitute) in a way that sat with unease inside me. I want to know, who makes a randi? At the same time, I do not blame him, he is also flawed and not immune to the stroke of the patriarchal brush–– just like all of us.’
In this month’s Lightroom Conversation, Bimala and I talk about death, Radio Nepal, the madness that is love for poetry, ideas of beauty and disgust, and putting kinema on the map of Nepal.
Bimala Tumkhewa: I was born after my parents had been married for 19 years. By then my Aama had been called baili, thaari all sorts of names for being barren. I was a miracle, born when she went into labour after carrying 17 dokos of straw. It was seven in the evening. After me, came two brothers, but both died. One got what we used to call jangali, looking back, it was some sort of seizure or epilepsy. The other one was born with TB.
Muna Gurung: How old were you when they died and how did you make sense of death then?
B: I was about five. I remember my mother holding my second brother’s body in her lap for three days after he had died. She only put him down when his body began to smell. Dead bodies rot. Later, he was burned on top of a hill nearby, I could see the smoke rise from our home. Meanwhile, Aama was waist-deep in a pond next to our house catching small fish with her hands, and placing them into a pot.
M: I can see how focusing on catching fish can be easier than burning your dead child.
B: I can never unsee that image. But that was neither the beginning nor the end of our problems. My Buwa had been in the British Army and was one of the soldiers who were returned home empty-handed after 1947. His failure as a penniless lahure, now I see, had sent him into depression, but I didn’t know it then. In the middle of the night, Buwa would walk up to the cemetery near our home in Okhre, and sit there watching the moon, lost in thought. With two dead children and a husband who didn’t bring in much money, Aama traveled everywhere looking for work. By that time, Buwa had already brought a second wife. Aama wandered off to Pathri, where there were a few huts and a lush jungle. It was a place perfect for a woman with a broken heart. So she settled there, and we followed her. We lived the life of squatters. Pathri today is a fairly large town. It is where I grew up.
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M: How and when did you start writing?
B: My Buwa was a lahure who read literature, which is rare. He would tell me stories of Laxmi Prasad Devkota and and Bam Dewan. When I was around 10, Maxim Gorky’s Mother and Parijat’s Sirishko Phool fell in my hands. I understood very little of both books, but I still remember the cover of Mother, the son Pavel with his hands up in the air, something about that image stirred me. And at that age having seen all the financial hardship and experienced loss we had gone through as a family, I was no mindless broiler chicken. I had begun to notice and understand certain things around me: like the fact that a social order existed, and some had more than others. In seventh grade, I started to write poems. My first one was called Ma or I and it was about me (Laughs). I mean, what else would a seventh grader write about? But there was a big pipal tree in Pathri and there used to be cultural shows there sometimes, and I read my poem to a crowd of 1,500 people who were gathered from nearby villages.
M: It must have been electrifying.
B: Yes, and it was precisely that feeling that made me chase after poetry for years. By the time I was in 11th grade, I was seeking out poetry events and running off to attend them. In Pathri, there was no one else who was writing and everyone used to say that Jetha Subba’s daughter is completely rotten, that it is better to have a dead child than have a child like her at all. Growing up, I had a peaceful kind of nature, but I was also stubborn. I’m a Limbuni afterall (Laughs). Whenever I got a chance, I would read all the papers and magazines I could find -- I especially loved reading Madhuparka, Yuvamanch, and Garima to familiarise myself with the kinds of writing that was happening then and the names of writers and poets. I learned that at that time in Biratnagar, there was a writer called Narengra Chapagain, in Itahari, Krishna Dharabasi, in Dharan Badri Palikhe and Govinda Bikal.
M: How did you find out where these poetry meets were happening?
B: Radio Nepal. Acharya Prabha used to run this program called Giti Katha and Dahal Yagyanidhi had a program where she took calls from people all over Nepal. I would send my poems and stories to these programs and also to the magazines I was reading. When I was 17, one of my poems was published in Garima, which was a big deal, hait! This meant that I was established, in some way, on a national level. Suddenly, they saw me, and I was young.
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M: Gosh, I love the radio. It connects so many people.
B: Absolutely. In 1999 in Damak, Acharya Prabha ran an event called Kothe Sahityik Yatra. Writers and poets from Jhapa, Morang, Sunsari would meet every first Saturday of the month. After I went there, I was suddenly connected to a whole new world of writers. I would meet them, and at that time we had a PCO satellite phone in Pathri and I would give them the PCO number. These writers and organisers would call to ask me to attend different poetry events, and it cost me Rs12 per minute. Also, the phone people charged for the 3 minutes it took for them to inform me to come to the telephone booth!
M: The cost of choosing literature.
B: It’s expensive, hait! I used to have hair that went beyond my knees and when I was 19, I started wearing white saris as a protest against the practice that women had to wear white once their husbands passed away. They used to call me The Widow.
M: Shortly after, your first collection was published.
B: Two years later, in 1999, Dharma Rai helped me publish that book. I began to be established, at least in eastern Nepal, as a poet. Honestly, it was a kind of crazy love with poetry that I had developed. I knew very little about how to take care of myself but I was running around half of Nepal calling myself a poet. After that, I began writing for Dharan’s Blast Times. When I saw my byline in the paper, the happiness I felt knew no bounds. Later, a group of us started Hello, Pathri, a newspaper where we reported on all sorts of things like deforestation, road accidents, animal grazing management. It all feels like some child’s play now (Laughs). But it was really from there that I began to get into the world of journalism and slowly enter Kathmandu. The time was right because the Maoists were growing a stronghold in Pathri, too. Not me, but my family had been strongly Congress for seven generations, and so we were a big target. I remember there was one chakka jam called by the Maoists right before the Peoples’ War started. And during that time, I remember them beating up anyone who was not Maoist. After that, I knew that Pathri was no longer a safe place for me. By then, my Buwa had passed away, his second wife had gone missing. So I moved to Kathmandu in 2001.
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M: And your mother?
B: After a month, she sold whatever little land she had and joined me in Kathmandu, but when I left Pathri, Aama gave me Rs2,000. I bought some meat and ate lavishly for the first few days, but then I quickly ran out of money. I also found out something strange about Kathmandu. The people who said they would help me before I came to the city suddenly had their own problems. And I understood that people in Kathmandu love to say Hi! Hello! to you but when you find yourself at their doorstep, they say, Oh, you must have already eaten. I’ll eat and come. I don’t want to name names, but that happened to me when I went to a pretty well-known poet’s home. I came from a tradition where we would go hungry but always make sure our guests are well fed. In Kathmandu, people closed their doors in your face and ate. Eventually, an old acquaintance from Dharan, Tulsi Shrestha, let me stay in her flat.
M: I guess that’s what cities are: the worst and the best things happen to you within minutes of each other.
B: I spent all my days running from one literary event to another. Believe me when I say, I attended every single one of them. I was hungry and these spaces gave me energy. In those days, I did not think about anything else in my life. Around that time, there was this craze of making a Hong Kong ID and leaving the country. My uncle found four different IDs I could have used, I did not go because I was scared that I would have to give up reciting poems. There were two proposals from lahures in the UK, and I turned both of them down because I knew getting married and going off to the UK would mean, again, that I would not be able to recite my poems. It was a disease. A madness.
M: How did you make ends meet?
B: I started writing for newspapers. To be honest, I became a journalist so that I could feed myself. I would throw out one article a weekend. Rajdhani used to pay Rs1,200 for an article, which was a lot for that time. But my true love had always been poetry. Because of that love and because I was slowly opening my eyes to a society that was rapidly changing after the Peoples’ War, and by the beginning of the second revolution, I was able to write lines like:
Even today, in Pashupati’s banks of deaththis heart, emptied of all senses, will spend yet another day staring off –a cold wall, a night without youand the life of a stateless person
M: How does a poem come into being?
B: Something has to touch me deeply and sit inside me for a long while, saathi. When I was younger, I used to write like a wild wind, aimless, directionless. But slowly I realised that to be in literature is a huge responsibility. I have to understand the structures of the society I live in, the making of nationhood, love, religion, everything. Only then will anything I write mean something, otherwise, I might as well just open up a small roadside bar with dirty curtains. Like the poem, about an ex-British army man, Khadka Bahadur Limbu, that I wrote. It is something that has been haunting me since I was a little girl and saw my Buwa decay in the aftermath of being returned home with little money, no glory, just pain and nightmares. These men lost their limbs and eyes for a queen who was never theirs. The Nepali government has done nothing about these men and their families. The British government is also quiet. There is a fight that is ongoing and things seem to be moving slowly, but how long has it taken? I have to speak about it. And I cannot speak about it alone, other writers have to speak about it, too.
M: Do poems come to you in Limbu? Do you write in Limbu?
B: I don’t write in Limbu and before I used to think it was my problem, but I realise now that it is the state’s problem. It is a type of oppression from the state that I have to write in Nepali. Even if I wrote in Limbu, the fact that I have to use the Nepali devanagari script, already puts me at a disadvantage.
M: This system was never built for us.
B: Precisely. I came from a typical Limbu community and I am still someone who doesn’t know how to use big Sanskritic words. I speak ‘impure’ Nepali for many, but it is not my fault that I think and feel in Limbu. I experience water not as pani but as chuwa. And by writing in Nepali, I am making their language richer. And still, I get so much criticism from both Nepali-speakers and Limbu-speakers. My community thinks that I am betraying it by furthering the hegemonic project of this Parbate language, while I am never enough for the brokers and keepers of the Nepali language.
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M: But sitting within the Nepali language, you are able to make powerful moves in your poems that close the gap between the Nepali and Limbu. In some ways, could it be more powerful than writing in Limbu? Like in your poem Jethi Subbeni. I love her character but also that she says she doesn’t want to do naathey yoga. That colloquial Nepali word naathey, insignificant like nose hair, sounds perfect coming from her mouth.
B: I see Jethi Subbeni as any Limbu woman and I wanted to make a point that doing yoga is not our thing. We would rather dance. Also, I wanted to praise her beauty. In one of the stanzas, I say: What is it about Jethi Subbeni’s face? What does it hold? That lovers who have read it have committed suicide, and those who decided to live have made it their life’s dream. We have hardly encountered the physical beauty of a janajati woman in Nepali literature. Look at BP Koirala’s Sumnima, she is pictured as naked and ‘uncivilised’. Why do we have to mould our small eyes to fit the standards of beauty that they have thrust upon us? For my community, someone who looks like me is most beautiful. Why is it then, that sometimes many of us feel like we need to fix our eyes with operation or make-up, that we can’t break free from this market controlled by Brahminical standards.
M: I am also fascinated by the concept and politics of disgust, and who can be disgusted by whom. When disgust is othering, it is highly contagious and hard to reverse. And this is not only in beauty but also in food that different communities consume, the way they move, what they wear … the list is endless. You have written about kinema.
B: It is all about power. For me kinema is delicious, but for them, it smells like poop. For us, to serve pork with kinema to a guest is the highest level of respect that we can show. The logic is that pigs eat poop, and because we eat pigs, we are therefore equal to poop. The same with clothes. They can say all sorts of things about the clothes we wear, but I can never say that the woman who is dressed in red from head to toe looks like a sacrificial goat. To me she does, to me, she is not an image of beauty. But I cannot say that out loud without being accused of being an enemy of the state.
M: Please write an essay about all this, especially about eating pork and kinema.
B: I really should. And also about Yuma and Theba. You know I have always believed that the religious texts of any community is crucial in shaping the way the men and women in that community see themselves. These religious texts are the first and most powerful forms of literature available. In the Limbu mundhum, which is a collection of myths and origin stories of the Limbu people, for any puja or ritual, Yuma, which is the woman of the house always comes before Theba, who is the male figure. It is because of this that I feel that most Limbu women do not feel disempowered in their surroundings. I am not saying we don’t have other issues, but feeling like we have no power in our homes is perhaps not one of them. So when we are talking about the larger feminist movements in Nepal, it is important for us to realise that the issues of janajati women are different, and that it differs from group to group. We are diverse, our problems are not all the same. So just like in our religious texts, what if in Nepali literature and in other Brahmanical texts, the women were to appear before the men, and bold and respected? Don’t you think that would slowly change our society?
M: A Tibetan writer friend of mine, Tenzin Dickie, speaks about the importance of being able to see one’s reflection in literature and the devastation of being ‘literary orphans’, to quote a phrase by author Edwidge Danticat. It is so important for us to see ourselves reflected in literature.
B: Absolutely, saathi. I am tired of seeing women in Nepali literature who are always crying. Because that is not the case in real life. The majority of women do not just sit and cry, they do something about their problems. A woman can survive without a man, in fact, often times we will see a woman who is a single-parent raising four kids on her own. A man without a woman is broken.
M: You mentioned earlier that there is a distance between you and the Nepali language at the DNA level, you subvert dominant narratives to bridge that distance, yet I couldn’t help but notice a few places where I felt like I lost you. Like in Jethi Subbeni, the use of the very properly conjugated verb garchin, stood out for me. I think the colloquial garcha would have worked better, what do you think?
B: That is the state’s oppression. I had written garcha but while the poems went through an edit, it had to be proper. There are people who fix the grammar and they fixed that.
M: But shouldn’t poetry as a form especially be able to break all that? I mean, you do it in the last poem about kinema. You say tihun instead of tarkari to denote the dish.
B: That is so true. Right there in the tihun, I am fully me of me. I find myself there. You are right, in the grammar of Jethi Subbeni, I have lost myself a little.
M: So much of this is internalised though.
B: Just like patriarchy, saathi. When I first moved to Kathmandu, I finally understood how strongly patriarchy is rooted in our society, both in men and women. A big gender revolution is pending. For that women have to come together. We are too divided and too comfortable in our own cliques. I mean look at how so many women in leadership positions couldn’t rise beyond their party’s beliefs and stand up for Shiva Maya Tumbahangphe. We need to unite against patriarchy yesterday, it is too late already. Because here is what it comes down to, in a patriarchal society, you cannot be a good wife, a good mother or a good daughter-in-law if you are engaged in a fight against it, but when you die, you will become a symbol even if it might be to a small group of people. But what we do not need today in Nepal is someone to be a good wife, a good daughter-in-law, a good mother but when she dies, she is nameless. Death is the ultimate silence. The question is what will you decide to do in this one life you have?
Lightroom Conversation is a monthly page in Nepali Times on interesting figures in Nepal’s literary scene. MunaGurung is a writer, educator and translator based in Kathmandu (munagurung.com).
Kinema on the map of Nepal
by Bimala Tumkhewa
I have to say something no one long ago, or ever has said
How many poems about hunger can I write?
How much anger can I spew?
How many poems of love can I write?
Like a meal without salt,
like the incredible sight of phedapeni kanchi, with half a headache, sitting on the belt of her house
muttering to herself.
What kind of game is my own life playing with me?What kind of game is my own awareness playing with me?
What kind of game are my own tears playing with me?
Sometimes, I see the image of an old angry grandmother in my poems
Sometimes, I see the creator Tagera Ningwa Fumang
You might ask,
How dare you see images like that, so carelessly, in poetry?
Just because it’s poetry, why only write about stifled knots of pain
sewn from a lack of comfort,
pain that no one has experienced?
I’d rather write a poem about the rich taste of kinema
I’d rather write about the delicious sting of akabare chilli peppers
Why speak what Kainla has already spoken?
Why speak what Bal has already spoken?
Knowing-unknowingly, I will put forth my own words,
If only in jest,
I have written now in poem, how the map of a country called Nepal
is smaller than my thumb.
Translated by Muna Gurung