Nibha Shah: Nepali poetry’s mansara
Born in 1971 into an aristocratic Rana-Shah family in Kathmandu, Nibha Shah spent most of her early childhood in Kailali, and later in Achham where she completed her school leaving certificate (SLC). Nibha’s memories of her Kailali days are of running around barefoot with the children of Hari Pyari or Gobreni aama, a Tharu woman who raised Nibha. “We used to dig up field mice to roast and eat,” she says, smiling. “I was closest to nature then.”
The narrative of Nibha’s jungle days as a Maoist cadre, and her time in jail, precedes her. It is with this lens that many (including herself) define Nibha. So, I wasn’t surprised when she warned me over the phone: “Just so you know, I’m a Marxist and I fought in the civil war,” she tells me. “And before we speak, please understand the French Revolution, and read my articles.” Her no-nonsense quality is both intimidating and charming; and although I have read all of her work that I could dig up, I simply nod over the phone and say, “Yes, will do.”
Nibha has published three books of poetry, Inqalab Jindaabaad (Long Live the Revolution, 2006), Kalapani Ki Draupadi (The Draupadi of Kalapani, 2009) and Mansara (Mansara, 2015), and is currently working on a novel. She also writes non-fiction pieces regularly for local papers, her latest one being ‘Communist Trauma Centre’ published in Kantipur just last month. Nibha has been awarded the prestigious Parijat Srijanshil Puraskar, Garima Puraskar and Krishna Sen Pratibha Puraskar, amongst many others.
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Nibha writes in Nepali, Tharu, Sinja and Hindi. Her poetry is like fire -- urgent and wild. And like fire, her poems are built to spit, pop, crackle, burn and then slowly engulf the reader. I am struck by the way her poems appear as songs sung over a loudspeaker, powerful and melodious. Her 2015 poem, Mansara, which Nibha tells me means “a free bird of the heart,” rang in my head for days before the interview:
When the firewood you split
is lit by another,
the fire is no longer yours, Mansara–
those without their own fire
don’t have light, Mansara–
the world of those with no light of their own
does not change, Mansara–
have you ever heard the flames rage, Mansara?
the fire is speaking, Mansara.
When we finally meet at Shilpee Theatre, I encounter a beautiful woman with a short pixie hairdo and eyes, still and sharp. She appears – at first – to be keeping a distance, shrouded in the thin veil of her cigarette smoke, but slowly she softens, and our laughter battles the sound of rain outside. In this month’s Lightroom Conversation, Nibha and I talk about how to be a poet, writing across genres, menstruation, revolutions, loss and the importance of teaching and learning how to love.
Nibha Shah: It’s like creating a child. You have to keep the baby inside you for months before it can come out into the world. ‘Mansara’ alone took me nine months to write. I had already come out of the jungle then, and I was in Mangalsen in Achham walking up a steep hill. There I saw a Chief District Officer (CDO) and a porter walking the same path, but the two were vastly different. At that time, Hisila didi, who had just become the minister of tourism, had asked me to join her on a trip to Australia. I still don’t have a passport, and I could have one made and gone, but I knew I couldn’t leave. I had sweat, blood, fire on my mind – the beginnings of Mansara, and I knew I had to keep at it; I had to keep sifting through thoughts and words, examine them, put them together. If a poem is easy on the ears, then you can be sure that it has taken the poet a long time to write it. It's a rule of nature: a poem needs time.
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Muna Gurung: They cite your poem ‘Maile Najanmayeko Chhori’ (The Daughter I Didn’t Give Birth To, 1994) as your first poem, but surely you’d written before that.
N: The Tharus keep immaculate gardens, they love flowers. As a young girl, I wrote about the butterflies that visited these flowers, and then in 7th grade, I sent my first poem to the radio show Bal Karyakram that Basudev Munal used to run. I remember it aired at 5PM every evening and the poem I sent was called ‘Hami Deshka Karnadhar.’
M: You were one intensely nationalistic 7th grader.
N: (Laughs) I don’t know where that came from, this idea that we are the generation responsible for our country. Probably from listening to the radio? My father wrote many novels, but more than literature, I grew up around my mothers singing – Mummy sang Hindi songs and Gobreni aama sang in Tharu. I wrote about whatever I saw, but later, once I became a Marxist, I wrote to change the society we live in.
M: How and when did you take on this identity of being a Marxist?
N: When I think of it now, I was always a rebel. Growing up in Achham, we lived in a joint family with my parents, my uncle and aunt and my grandmother. My brother was studying in Kathmandu and my uncle’s children were married and settled elsewhere. I was the only grandchild in the house and I made sure they knew it. (Laughs). For instance, in Achham, we still practice chhau – when you’re on your period, you have to stay in a goth that is outside of the house. Granted I had one of the fancier goths because I was from a Thakuri family, I still used to be terrified to sleep in it alone. We would see who else was menstruating at the same time and then share goths together. And mind you, Thakuris stayed in Thakuri Goths -- castes never mixed. But one time, I was alone in my goth; the friend I thought was coming didn’t come and I spent the entire night crying because I knew that the old man next door was recently murdered. I was certain that his ghost was going to strangle me in my sleep. (Laughs). The next morning, I made up my mind to never return to the goth again.
M: How did that go over?
N: A war with my grandmother ensued. My parents were both educated and so were my uncle and aunts, they didn’t care much. But my grandmother? She said deutalagcha.
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M: That god will possess you?
N: When I think of it now, it’s depression or some kind of mental unease. They didn’t have a language for it then, so they said the gods were acting up, and this usually happened to women. She would instil fear in me that if I entered the house while on chhau, then something bad would happen to me or the women in the family and sometimes to the entire village! Little natural things like the cow dying, or a fruiting plant not giving fruit that season, or someone falling ill… But I didn’t care and I think because my parents didn’t believe in deutalagne either, I stopped going to the goth. My grandmother was furious! She started shaking in her room and spoke in tongues; she said because of me she was being possessed by different gods and spirits. Coincidentally, nothing bad happened that month or the months that followed. No one fell ill, nothing died, we were all fine except for my grandmother, who was what we call in Achham “planting gods.” Then I understood that there was absolutely no relationship between my menstruation and something bad happening to the family if I didn’t practice chhau. But I never went to the kitchen, though (laughs). It was convenient for me to keep that part of the twisted tradition alive, because it meant that I didn’t have to do any of the kitchen chores!
M: Smart move.
N: They used to call me baamaa in the village, and I never knew what it meant. They were calling me Baampanthi! I was a leftist to them even before I identified as one. But it was only in 1996, when I was studying in Delhi, the relative I was staying with was an active member of the Marxist-Leninist student union then and her home was littered with all sorts of leftist literature. I read Mother by Maxim Gorky. Although he was writing about a Soviet society, I saw clearly an accurate parallel portrayal of the societies that I had lived in. I saw my mother, my aunts, my grandmother and how the system had oppressed them. I learned that everything a woman could do or could not do was not tied to sin but to the state. I had never seen a husband not beat his wife, and this includes my own father. Gorky’s first chapter opens with one such scene, and I felt drawn to it because I recognised it. I discovered that the state oppresses people, that it has nothing to do with being fortunate, that there are rules that are made.
M: By men who run the state.
N: Exactly, and that is why the state is patriarchal. There are deeds, and if there are deeds there is property, if there is property there is a master and a slave. The slaves are the Tharus I grew up with in my own community, and those in power and control of the state believe in caste and hierarchy because it benefits them. I saw that the Manusmriti we were taught about how certain humans emerged from the feet of god and therefore were lower than others was total nonsense. Until then, I used to read romance novels. Nothing wrong with them, but I realise that the ideas in the novels I read were reinforcing the old habits of society that I despised. So I began to search for other books like Gorky’s and came across Percy Shelley’s Masque of Anarchy… I kept reading and reading.
M: Did you ever have to confront that fact that you are by birth a person of the state, and privileged in many ways?
N: (Smiles) No one has asked me this question before but it is something that I’ve been wrestling with and want to write about. Yes, I confronted it every day. In the party, they were suspicious: Why is this woman who has everything joining this revolution? Some saw me as an informant of the state, or even a CIA agent. For the first 6-7 months I went underground, they wouldn’t give me anything to do, just menial tasks here and there. They were putting me on trial, and I had to prove to them that I was authentic and real. Outside the party, in my family and society-at-large, they were enraged that I had chosen to join the Maoists. They scolded my mother for letting me run wild throughout my childhood. Many said I was a prostitute, looking for men to sleep with. I mean, I don’t think I’m that bad-looking, (laughs); I can find myself a man if I wanted one.
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M: Or if you even wanted a man in the first place.
N: That, too. So you see, I became a Maoist not out of necessity or poverty, but out of an awareness that something should change. And I do understand that no matter how much I rebel against the state, I am a Shah. I will always be theirs. If I say I give up this revolution, they will invite me back. By birth, I’m a person of the state, of power. Sometimes, my family sent me money when I was in the jungle. Later, when I was caught in Delhi in 2002 with three other Maoist party leaders and brought to Nepal, most of the officers at the border in Nepalganj were people who knew me because I had family in the army from Achham. When they handcuffed me, they said, “Eh, it’s maiyya.” (Laughs).
M: Did you experience any physical violence during your time in jail?
N: I was afraid they might rape me in Delhi or on the way to Nepal. But once I entered Nepal and saw that some of the men knew me, I knew they wouldn’t touch me. They tortured me verbally, called me all sorts of names, and we were blindfolded for a month and I didn’t know where I was, but I knew they would never physically abuse me. They couldn’t. In fact, there was one policeman who maybe took pity on me. My nails had become very long and he cut them for me. He took off my blindfold for a moment, I saw his face. He was young, 19 or 20. His name was Krishna Tamang. Later, I found out that he had died in an encounter with the Maoists.
M: That scene of him cutting your nails is so tender.
N: Yes, they were young boys and they would call me didi and give me tips sometimes. They would tell me that I shouldn’t put my head down, that I should stand tall otherwise the officers would treat me worse.
M: And this privilege we speak of also seeps into your life as a writer.
N: Most certainly. Financial security is the most important thing for a writer. What will a couple of thousand rupees for a piece of article do? Nothing. My mother passed away in February and she left behind her land in Kailali and a bank balance for me. I am lucky, and this is something that she chose to give me not because I would have been the rightful owner but because I am a woman. If I didn’t have this and the support of my family, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking to one another. I would be in the streets, or I would be making bad literature because I would have to write carrying a calculator in my heart. And a calculator cannot write poetry.
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M: Who can write poetry?
N: No one can make a poet out of someone. Even the most powerful people cannot do that. If Prachanda wants, he can make his daughter, Renu, the prime minister of Nepal, or the mayor of Kathmandu, but let me see him turn her into a poet -- never. Maybe he can hire someone to help her write, and she can be a poet in that way, but not a true poet. It takes a certain kind of person to be a poet. The heart that you carry when you’re writing poetry has to be the softest. A poem has to be able to give you the experience of an ocean but through a single drop. That is why it is the hardest to write poetry. You have to put your entire focus on a very small area. For instance, you can write about a flower by studying each and every petal and part, but it might be harder to write about it if you are staring at a garden as a whole. Also, a lot of poetry has to do with reciting it. Sometimes I am unwell or I have terrible period cramps -- I know on those days my poetry suffers.
M: I cannot agree more about the debilitating nature of period cramps. Thank you for saying that. So, if the softest Nibha writes the poems, which Nibha writes the plays and articles and novel?
N: (Laughs). So many Nibhas live inside me. Poetry, play, novel and essays are all separate rooms of the same house. If poetry is the hardest to write, novel comes after that. It requires the deepest and most thorough amount of research. If you don’t have your research down as a novelist, you’re gone. It’s good if a novelist has rich and diverse life experiences, but that alone is not necessary. A novelist needs to be able to empathise, they need to have light in them, so that they can write with truth and honesty about the experiences of others, too. Making a novel is like making a nest -- if you have spent time looking for small twigs and then built your nest, laid the eggs, fed the babies and taught them how to fly, then your novel won’t fail because it holds honest effort that goes with the law of nature. If you are building your nest from twigs that someone else has picked, then forget it. That novel won’t survive. (Pauses). With a play, you have to look at it from all angles and be soft when you are asked to be soft, and tough when you need to be, according to the character.
M: What is your play about?
N: How nobody asks women any questions. So, in one scene Buddha is confronted: Buddha, did you ever ask Yasodhara, ‘Yasodhara, is there a sky inside you? Yasodhara, is there liberation inside you? Yasodhara, is there love inside you? Yasodhara, is there light inside you?’ Buddha, you never asked Yasodhara. Buddha, there are no questions for women here. And when I am writing this part, I am Yasodhara and I am sitting beside Buddha. I am embodying her, and then I have to switch to someone else in the next scene. This is the play-writing process. And articles? They are the easiest! You just express what you feel, keeping in mind what others around you have said, what you have read… like a collection of conversations.
M: I want to go back to what you said about there being no questions for women. It’s such a simple yet powerful way to devalue someone’s existence. Just don’t ask them anything.
N: Especially when it comes to their desires. I call a woman’s desire a bhirphool, a flower that grows on a steep edge of a cliff. She cannot go near it, or touch it, let alone pick it to make a bouquet for offering. She can just look at it. And if she expresses it, she is called names or worse still, punished. Look at the Ramayan. What happens to Surpanakha when she expresses her desire? Her nose is cut off! A woman’s love is sin, a woman’s desire is sin, but a man’s desire? It is always fulfilled, always acquired.
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M: And histories and stories around us continuously confirm this. This is why the role of a poet is important.
N: Absolutely. As my mother’s body was burning in Pashupati, a poem came to me: I saw her giving birth to me, she was my mother / I saw her body burning in the pyre, I was a daughter. My mother has the experiences of me being in her body, of my first touch, things that I don’t have. Even at 40, or when I was away living my own life and principles in the jungle, she was still my mother. I heard that she took sleeping pills at night and she never once listened to the radio or watched the news for fear that she might hear of her daughter’s death. What must have gone through her? I met a mother in Makwanpur who said the Maoists had taken her son. When he returned, she said that she bowed down and touched his feet as though he was her god. I was my mother’s god, and I never had time for her. I was so busy sacrificing for “others,” going on a mission to make the country and this world better for everyone but my mother was suffering while I was doing all that.
M: Do you regret it?
N: I don’t think the mission was wrong. I just feel betrayed by the leadership. What kind of a guide was I following? What kind of a boatsman did I devote my life to? Someone who ferries across to safety and leaves us in the middle of the river… but I think about Bhagat Singh, who at 23 was a martyr. I am sure his loved ones suffered, too. Someone always has to suffer, and in this case, it was my mother… or at least that’s how I console myself.
M: Writer and thinker bell hooks says that any kind of revolution is driven by a “love ethic.” You were in love, so you did what you had to do.
N: Without love, you cannot be a revolutionary. I was carrying bombs in my bags. I didn’t care if I died. I was young and stupid, but I was also in love with the mission of making Nepal into this beautiful country where food, health, clothes, homes would all be free and everyone would be equal. I was 22 years old, dreamy-eyed and heavily schooled by the Maoists. (Pauses) I wish someone would have schooled me on how to love, too.
M: Say more.
N: People don’t know how to love. It has to be taught by parents, by the society and in school. No one taught me how to love my mother. No one told me that I should listen to her, spend time with her, talk to her, ask her questions. She loved watching movies and I never once took her to the cinema. I don’t count the time that I spent with her when she fell ill right before she passed away -- anyone will come see you when you’re ill. It’s when you’re not ill, how are we treating one another? I was always running around like a train; I was the train car and I was also the driver, empty, rattling down some track of my own.
M: Sometimes people have love in them but they don’t know how to express it, even in romantic love.
N: We don’t communicate. We are not clear with ourselves or with each other. You know, before my mother passed away, I had this strange kind of pride in me. I felt like I had done something for the country and would look down at others and feel self-righteous, like they had done nothing but sit and eat, and that they were bourgeois and blind. I wouldn’t talk to many people and hardly expressed myself even to my friends. I smiled little. Once my mother passed away, I saw how useless all these things were. I began to open up. (Pauses). We look for things outside that are separate from nature when we should just be paying attention to nature. To the small, everyday things. Like the beak of a bird. Have you seen how small it is? And yet all the work it does to build a home, take care of its children –– is there anything bigger than the love of that tiny beak? Do we need to look for god anywhere else? We are all hungry for love, because love is not taught to us.
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translated by Muna Gurung
Dear death, I love you
I will continue to scatter poems in your path
pick them up as you walk to me–
when you are close,
bring a hurricane
and just like a hurricane plucks a twig
pluck me and take me away––
Dear death, I have no complaints
Because I love life, I love death
because you exist, life exists,
my beloved death, I love you––
LibraryTranslated by Muna Gurung
one day she asked me
what am I like?
I said, like a library
where the books speak
people are silent
like the fire in the mud of volcano
people are silent
waiting to explode
you feel like that, sakhisakhi,
Lightroom Conversation is a monthly page in Nepali Times on interesting figures in Nepal’s literary scene. Muna Gurung is a writer, educator and translator based in Kathmandu (munagurung.com).