Shanti Chaudhary: Poet-at-large
When Shanti Chaudhary was born in Kathmandu on 28 December, 1955, she possibly was the first Tharu person to be born in the capital. Her father Radha Krishna Chaudhary was an educated and influential person from Bara district who walked over Bhimphedi to settle in Kathmandu where he was attending Tri-Chandra College. Shanti is known as the Nepali writer who has written more books than her age. She is 63, and she has written 65 books till date. A lot of these were part report and part poems and songs, mostly written after the establishment of her Srijana Bikash Kendra (Creative Development Centre) where underprivileged rural and urban women could not only share their sorrows, and but also gain income-generating skills.
A lot of Shanti’s early writing were specifically about raising awareness and educating her audiences. She was explicit about the nature of her poems and the way she hoped they would be used: in classrooms and trainings. She wrote about daughters and their plight in the Tharu community, poverty, child marriage, rape, drug addiction, justice, peace. Later, she spent many years writing biographies of leaders both national and international. Shanti, the poet, is found in writings to her mother, her fellow Tharu women, or simply to herself. There is a song-like repetitious quality to these, that makes them sound fresh. It is her own brand of villanelle. In 1999, Shanti received the Rastriya Parijat Pratibha Puraskar (National Parijat Talent Award). Her works include, Hamar Dudhu (My Mother, 1996), Pustak Upahar (Book Gift, 1997), Mero Ragat Saddamko Lagi (My Blood for Saddam, 2000) and Bhai, Tarai Roirahekichhin, Tyesaile Pharkinna Ma Kathmandu (Brother, Terai is Crying, That’s Why I Won’t Be Returning To Kathmandu, 2007).
I meet Shanti Chaudhary in the quiet north wing of the library at the Department of Archaeology. She has her notebooks spread out before her on a large wooden table, and wears a black sleeveless coat over her sari. This is an essential part of a lawyer’s identity, she says, ironing her coat with the flat palm of her hand. The tall ceiling of the room makes Shanti look smaller than she is. Behind her are rows of bookshelves neatly padlocked. The fan spins a comforting sound of old metal cutting through air, and Shanti tells me that we will have to move to the balcony in case another reader comes. But no one comes for the next three hours.
As Shanti tells me about her life, I keep interrupting her to ask about the timeline – When did that happen? Roughly which month, which year? This not only throws her off, it also proves useless because the math never does add up. At the start of the interview, Shanti tells me she had two children, but throughout, she only speaks of one. Later, when I call her to verify, she tells me about her oldest son who drowned when he was two. Then, right before I close the interview, I find out that Shanti is currently homeless. And suddenly her intimate knowledge of the library space and the way she hosts me as though we were sitting in her living room makes complete sense.
In this month’s Lightroom Conversation, Shanti and I talk about justice and perseverance, home in the form of our own bodies and public spaces, and we question what literature is and who gets to create it.
Shanti Chaudhary: I had a happy childhood for the most part. Even after my father lost his government job at the Department of Forests because he raged against the Rana regime, and we had to move to a smaller house, I was happy. Every winter, we would go to Karahiya, our village in Bara district. The winter I turned 15, when we arrived in our village, I saw that our house was freshly painted, and all the women were making beautiful designs on the walls. I loved drawing roses, so we decorated the entire house, and there were a ton of people milling about like it was some festival. Later, I found out that we were getting ready for my wedding that night.
M: Wait, what?
S: The women dressed me up and asked me to stay in my room, but when the janti arrived with noise and music, I ran out to see them. The women would drag me in and ask me to behave like a good bride. But I really wanted to see my groom. He was 27 years old, previously married, and an alcoholic.
M: Your father was an educated man who sent you to a school in Kathmandu. Why someone like him would marry you off so suddenly, and that too, without your knowledge.
S: My father was worried that he would not be able to find an educated Tharu man for me, and my husband was a ‘graduate’ then. He had finished high school.
M: And you?
S: I was in 9th grade. I remember coming to Kathmandu later to fill out the form for SLC. I needed Rs100, but when I asked my brother, he said, Why does a married woman need to pass SLC? I knew that Nepal Academy was a refuge for writers and literature, I thought they would definitely help me. I spoke to Surya Bikram Gyawali, who was the chairperson then, and told him my story and how I wanted to complete my education. But I did not get any money from them. Later, when my family sent money for me to go back to Janakpur, I used that to fill out the form. In 1975, I finally passed my SLC exam.
M: You were in Janakpur?
S: Yes, both my husband and his brother had jobs at the cigarette factory, so we lived there for a few years. I already had a son by then. It was difficult living with my brother-in-law and his wife. Being the youngest daughter-in-law, I always had to eat last, and my meals were predominantly leftovers. Rice would go sour with time and heat, but I ate without complaints because I was hungry. I had to not only do all the housework, but also listen to my brother-in-law and his wife call me all sorts of names: they said I was a shameless woman who stood on the balcony looking at men, who went out of the house instead of looking after her child … it was endless. But I had begun to write about the pain and struggles of being a married Tharu woman. I would run to local newspapers in Janakpur and ask them to publish my poems.
M: Did your family read these?
S: No, but I will never forget the incident that changed our lives. We lived in a small community of Tharus, where we all had little plots of land in which we grew herbs. Because my coriander and onions grew larger than my sister-in-law’s, my brother-in-law destroyed my garden and started calling me a prostitute. I was angry and hurt. That night, I left the house with my son determined to drown us both in the talau (pond) nearby. But as I sat there getting ready to jump in the water, I got angry and thought, Why should I die? If I die, they will just continue living their lives and no one would know how they drove me to madness. These people should be punished. So at night, I set out to find the Chief District Officer (CDO). I made it to his quarters but the guards would not let me in, I told them I was not moving unless I got justice. After a few hours, he emerged. He was tall and fair, and I told him about my plight. He sent me home with some police officers, who brought my family out of the house and told them that they cannot torment me anymore.
M: Did that work?
S: I still had to do all the housework, but they stopped saying nasty things to me for a while. I remember feeling like I had won.
M: But it was short lived?
S: I don’t know why my husband left the job in Janakpur, but his family insisted it was my fault, that I had urged him to leave. We moved back to his village, Gadahal, in Bara. I did not think that life could get worse. But ideas of touchables and untouchables were prevalent in the village, we had to wear ghunghat and cover more than half of our faces, we woke up before the sun and started our chores. For toilet, we had to walk half an hour to the river, and rich landowners regularly impregnated Tharu and Dalit women. These women would jump into the river and kill themselves.
M: I guess sex is never an untouchable matter.
S: You may not believe it, but there have been countless cases of rich men killing people for beautiful Tharu and Dalit women, all for sex. I feel disgusted talking about all this. But it was moving back to the village that gave me more fuel. I saw my younger brother-in-law, Thakur Prasad, marry a 12 or 13-year-old girl through this terrible Tharu system of kanyauti. A widower, he could marry any girl from a poor family by giving them carts full of wheat in exchange. So he brought this little girl home and she would run away. And why wouldn’t she? She was a child who was being raped every night. One day, all the women were called to gather in a house where she was hung by her waist on the ceiling, swinging back and forth like a cloth doll. They told us that if we ever tried to run away like her, this was what would happen to us.
M: So how did you begin to speak against these practices?
S: One day, the village well was contaminated. All of us were throwing up. The villagers thought gods were angry with them. I suggested cleaning the well. Maybe it was because they were so sick, or perhaps they had heard about me going to the CDO in Janakpur, they actually listened to me. But apparently, to even clean any well, one had to get permission from the person who build it. I over walked to another village to speak with the landowner there. I got some water purification pills, and we got people to clean the well. It was only after this that the village began to listen to me a little more. Slowly, I began to write about what was happening in the village.
M: Like a reporter, or a bridge.
S: Yes, exactly. Once I wrote a report, I would take it to the CDO office in Kalaiya. I wrote about the burden of the tax system for Tharus, about labour laws, about land rights, about women rights...I was just writing what I was seeing. Soon, the rich and powerful began to despise me. They called me a communist, a Naxalite. My husband’s relatives accused me of being a prostitute. They said I was going to Kathmandu, talking to men, and bringing back money. (Pauses). My husband was unemployed, and spent most of his time being drunk, if I did not bring home the money, who would? So, I would take hand crafted items that the women in the village made and sell them in Birganj. These were things like woven baskets and tea mats. Then, Meera Bhattarai who had set up a women’s skills organisation paid me a monthly salary of Rs150 to bring these Tharu handicrafts from my village to Kathmandu. That’s how I bought food for my family.
M: Was this around the time you set up Srijana Bikash Kendra (Creative Development Centre)?
S: No, that happened much later, after I fled to Kathmandu because the CDO office produced a paper summoning me – apparently, some rich landowners had complained. I brought my son and I stayed with my brother and his family in my old home. They did not like it. They asked me to go home to my husband. It was around this time that Former Attorney General, Sarbagya Ratna Tuladhar, paid me a monthly salary of Rs500 to work for him. I learned a lot about law through him. My son went to a school here in Kathmandu, and every winter, he went to see his father. But one winter, school resumed but my son was not brought back. I went looking for him and found out that he had been sent Janakpur.
M: At the same brother-in-law’s house you told the police on?
S: Yes. But when I got there they would not let me see the child. So I went to the police again. But my brother-in-law told the police that I was a negligent mother who had left my husband and frequently interacted with different men, and that if my son stayed with me, he would rot. They said the child’s father had brought him to Janakpur and without his permission, they could not give the child to me. The police asked me to produce my husband. But I could not find him anywhere.
M: You were separated from your son.
S: Yes. I only saw him later when he was 18. I was invited to a poetry event in Janakpur, and I went looking for him in the old house where we used to live. My son had already become a man. We spent some time together. I bought him a watch.
M: Did you have to explain to him why you were gone?
S: He still thinks I chose to leave him behind. He is here now in Kathmandu and I see him sometimes. But those years apart have done the damage they needed to do.
M: And your husband?
S: I heard he died a while ago. The last time I saw him was in 1980. (Pauses). I got really sick in 1983, and realised that I did not have anyone in my life to look after me. Then, like a sign, I saw an ad in the newspaper seeking for a caretaker three motherless children. It was a Newar man. I applied for the job and got it. I would bathe his three kids, make food for them and send them to school, all while working for the lawyer. Slowly, I began to build a relationship with the family and I began to live in their home as their mother and the man’s ‘wife.’ Things were beginning to look up, but that too ended. One day, when the children’s phupu was visiting, I casually referred to ‘my husband’ as a donkey. I did not know that I was not supposed to do that. She was outraged and told him. I had to leave the house and start from scratch. This was when I started Srijana Bikash Kendra.
M: And that’s when you wrote most of your books. These are detailed reports, poems and songs related to the issues you are reporting on, and then a section of newspaper clippings and letters you have written to the government concerning the issues addressed. . .
S: But my career as a social worker declined, too. Maybe if I was someone like Anuradha Koirala, I would have been treated differently, but people started distrusting me and questioned where the money was coming from. Operations of large projects, such as the one funded by OXFAM, halted. (Pauses). You know, it’s hard to live in a Tharu woman’s body -- you are never qualified enough to gain their trust, and your body is always at risk, always sexualised. I have realised that even as an older woman today with white hair, I am not safe. My age doesn’t protect me.
M: What does?
S: Education. I thought that writing 65 books would bring to Nepal Academy’s attention, but that never happened. I spent some time reflecting on why that might be the case, and came away with three things: all academicians were highly educated and I only had an SLC degree, I was not affiliated to any political party, and perhaps I was not old and experienced enough. So, at 57, I enrolled at Padma Kanya to finish 11th and 12th grade, majoring in Nepali. But soon after, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, so I had to lose a year. But I am strong now, and I am studying law. This is my second year.
M: So you go to school every day?
S: I go to college, yes. By 10am, I am done. I eat at the canteen there. They know me now and I can even eat on credit. Then I go to either the library in Jamal, the one at Nepal Tourism Board, or come here to study and do my work till the library closes.
M: I dream of building a large library. One that connects all the resources of all existing libraries across Nepal.
S: Can you build a night library for me? Then I will not need to pay rent! (Laughs). The library is my home, my temple. When I am here, I have shelter and safety. I have access to electricity, water and toilet.
M: When I called and told you that I had read some of your works, you gasped loudly on the phone and said I should not read those books. That they are not good. Are you embarrassed of them?
S: Not all of them, but many of them, yes. See, I had spent all my time and energy fighting for justice, writing about women and janjati issues and no one seemed to care, no one wanted to read them. No library, no school bought my books. It did not matter that they came from within. So, I shifted my approach. I thought if I wrote books on powerful and successful people, then maybe I would also be powerful and successful too. (Laughs). And sure enough, when I began to write biographies of leaders like Surya Bahadur Thapa and Girija Prasad Koirala, their offices bought my books and they would invite me to their events and offer me coffee. These were books that took me maybe a week or two to finish. I was not producing good work, I was trying to make a living through writing.
M: I also read the book you wrote on Saddam Hussein; a book of love poems dedicated to him. Were you really in love with Saddam?
S: (Smiles). After I wrote a biography of Bill Clinton, a journalist called Pradip Thapa Magar told me that a writer should always be unbiased and balanced. Since I had written about Bill Clinton, he suggested that I write about another leader who is fighting against everything Clinton stands for. He encouraged me to write about Saddam. But I could not find much on him in Nepal at that time. Pradip told me that if I wrote about love, then I wouldn’t have to research much. (Laughs). So I began to think about the qualities I could love in Saddam – What could they be? Certainly, he was brave, I thought. To stand against a superpower like America, one has to be courageous. I wrote a book praising his fearlessness, and titled it, My Blood for Saddam.
M: Okay, so, you were never in love with him?
S: I did not even know the guy. But my own Tharu community began to call me all sorts of names. A Tharu writer, Ram Ekwal Chaudhary, published an article in the papers about how a Hindu Tharu woman had disgraced her community by falling in love with a Muslim man. Eventually, it blew over. He later apologised and I forgave him. But, what drama!
M: In your poem, Mulyankan (Evaluation), you claim diary writing to be useless and a waste of time, that you wish you had written something else. What would you have written instead of the diary?
S: It is not like I do not believe in diary writing, I just do not believe in the idea that a diary should be kept hidden, like a secret. Diaries should be public. Whatever you write in a diary, you should be able to write for everyone, because often times these are things that need to be written and shared. I was young when I started writing books in a frenzy of wanting to set some delusional world record. I laugh at myself now. I had such young and unbridled energy, but what happened? I churned out low-grade books that did nothing for literature, did little for the country. Now I want to make good literature, write poems better than the ones in Hamar Dudhu (My Mother). I want to write things that feel true, and I want to be the pride of our country. I want to be known as a Tharu’s daughter who left an impact on Nepal and its literature.
M: It is admirable and confusing to me that despite your struggles with the state for all your social justice work, you still believe in this project of a nation.
S: The country is innocent. It is the people who run it that make it hard for us. But, I have always believed in fighting for others. (Pauses). I did not think I would share this with you, but I have been homeless for the past month and a half now. Why? Because I live in Gwaldaha, Dakshinkali, where the CDO is building his home over indigenous Nagarkoti land. I am taking him to court. He did not like what I was doing, so he encouraged my landlord to kick me out of my apartment. I had to leave in the middle of the night with one sari and my backpack.
M: Where are you finding home in this city? With your son?
S: No, not my son. I would not feel comfortable reaching out to him. But I am staying with a few kind people. I do their dishes, clean, and sweep their homes and they let me stay the night. It works for both sides. Also, they give me clothes – this blouse, this sari, and these slippers I am wearing are not mine. It is frustrating not to have my books when exams are around the corner, and to not be able to go to my own place, but we have to fight for the right thing, and for others. My time will come, but right now it is not about me. Fighting for one’s own self, well, even cats and dogs do that. If we do not fight for others, what difference is there then, between us and dogs?
Translated by Muna Gurung
Hey, Good Person
if you say,
time might stop
certainly, it will halt–
I would go to my village to build a home.
I would go to my village and
not to the city.
I would build a home in my village that
cannot be inherited
by my own, but
only by those who labour, those who serve.
Hey, Good Person
you know what I will say then–
I will say, Look, an ugly woman like me set an example
I would build a home in my village with
simple, big thinking
14 March, 1997
Lightroom Conversation is a monthly page in Nepali Times profiling Nepali literary figures. Muna Gurung is a writer, educator and translator based in Kathmandu. For more of her work, visit munagurung.com.