Thursday, August 29, 2013

A continuing quest for meaning

Much might have passed since Abhi Narayan Subedi came to Kathmandu in 1963, but his search for meaning continues to this day. Things around him have undergone myriad changes, but he says the quest that brought him to this city initially is one that he still clings to.
The Ranjana Cinema Hall was a New Road landmark in the 60s and the Rashmi Restaurant right across the street from the theatre was another sort of landmark, a hangout for literary heavyweights of the time like Bhupi Sherchan, Krishna Chandra Singh Pradhan and Mohan Koirala among others. It was within this consortium that Sudedi became embedded, an experience he believes fortified his own budding work. Reading and interacting with these big names inspired the young Subedi to write himself, the first step in his transformation from Abhi Narayan Subedi to the Abhi Subedi we know today. With time, the cinema hall and the restaurant disappeared, and the consortium too became part of Nepali literature history 
Subedi recalls that when meeting the above-mentioned writers or others like Ratna Shamsher Thapa, Madan Regmi, Upendra Shrestha, and Tulsi Diwas, he would address each as dai. And to find out that all these respected figures had in fact, read one of his articles published in Ruprekha before he'd come to the city, gave him a real boost. "After going through the literary magazine Tesro Aayam published from Darjeeling, I'd written a critical article on the literary movement of the same name," Subedi says. "It was how I gained recognition amid Kathmandu's literary circle."
Of course, as we all know, today, half a century since then, Subedi has made his way to the very top of that circle. And he seems to have embraced the changes that the years have brought. Sitting at Himalayan Java in Thamel where I met him and his student Shiva Rijal, Subedi takes a sip of coffee and says, "I never feel like an old man. Much of it has to do with the fact that reading and writing both keep me invigorated and feeling young." Across from him, Rijal is beaming at his guru's words. 
Born in 1945 in Sabla of Terathum, Sudedi completed school in the village itself before going on to Biratnagar for further studies. While in college in Biratnagar, he found himself increasingly inclined towards leftist thinking, eventually trying his hand at politics. Along with some like-minded friends, Subedi began holding protests against the state. "We were focused on calling attention to the issues of students and we were planning on taking the movement to the national level," he remembers. But these ambitions were quelled when the police intervened. Compelled to leave, Subedi headed to Naxalbari in India where he met Bharat Babu Prasai, the think tank of the Nepali Congress Party, which at the time was struggling against the Panchayat. "The few days I stayed with Bharat Babu, I read a lot of books on politics," he says. "But he was very insistent that I continue my studies and now I feel like he knew what I was really destined for." Upon his return from Naxalbari, Subedi was arrested but released soon after, a sobering experience. "It became clear that my stint in politics was just a part of my deeper search for meaning, and that scholarly undertakings were the only way I could actually achieve what I wanted to," he says. 
While Subedi had been pursuing his IA and BA degrees in Biratnagar, he frequently visited Kathmandu, moving here eventually. After graduating in English literature from Tribhuvan University, he started teaching English at the women-only Padma Kanya (PK) Campus. "I was new to the place and very young, and it made me very nervous to be around so many girls clad in sarees. One of them even pulled my hair," he says. A few months later, Subedi joined Patan Multiple Campus as an English literature teacher. Literature and linguistics became and remain to this day, Subedi's forte. After completing courses on these subjects from Edinburgh University in the UK, he went on to teach at Tribhuvan University for more than three decades, during which time he was also vested with the role of Head of the Department of English at TU. 
It was during this university tenure that an infamous incident took place, where Master's students in English—venting their dissatisfaction with the marks they'd received—vandalised and burned down the department office along with the library. "The circumstances resonated with similar incidents across the country and this got me thinking. There were fires in other colleges at the time; people even set alight monasteries," Subedi recalls. It was this creative rumination that led to Agni ko Katha, a play that has been staged numerous times by Aarohan Gurukul in Kathmandu and many other cities the world over, becoming one of the most acclaimed Nepali plays in history.
Subedi generally defies categorisation; he is all at once a writer, a playwright, a poet, a critic and an essayist. But it's safe to say that he is fonder of essay-writing than anything else. In the anthology Nibandhamaa Uttarwarti Kaalkhanda, Subedi writes that essays for him represent freedom. It is his belief that there is an element of anarchy in the medium, an element that is part of his personality as well, and one that becomes starkly evident in the pieces that he frequently contributes to newspapers and magazines. Subedi's writings are often a cluster of far-sighted ideas, and there is a certain expectation of presumed knowledge from the reader. "I try to inject my columns with my impressions, the things I read, see and the ideas that I gather talking to people," he says. 
Subedi's friendship with the hippies during the late 60s and early 70s, might have added to his detachment with convention. "Their peaceful means of dissent and the openness of their creativity was something I internalised," he says. The hippies, who had become dissatisfied with the existing system of the West, were a jumble of poets, writers, painters and artists, and there was a freedom in what they created that inspired Subedi, particularly the works of Beat Generation writers like Allen Ginsberg, Ira Cohen and Gary Snyder.
Having authored more than two dozen books so far, Subedi is one of the most prolific writers in the country. And although retired from TU at present, he continues to write not only for newspapers and magazines but also for academic purposes. And with his work as a supervisor for PhD students, Subedi remains exceedingly busy. As of now, he has not yet written fiction but is planning to take it up soon. Speaking from his own observations over the years, Subedi says that Nepali writers are lagging behind in terms of actual output. "We rarely expect even prolific writers to produce more than 2500 words a month when we should be expecting much, much more," he says. 
Subedi's works like Sabda ra Chot, Carpet Taangiyeko Aakash, Nibandha ra Tundikhel, Srijana ra Mulyankan, Chasing Dreams, Manas and others, have all played a significant role in the evolution of Nepali literature. He recalls that as a child, he'd been told by a passing sadhu that freedom and spirituality would come from turning away from one's life. But it was in encountering the works of poets like Lakshmi Prasad Devkota that Subedi realised there is no turning away. And it was that moment that was decisive in making him the writer he is today—an unwavering, stalwart figure in Nepal's literary world.
Posted on: 2011-10-15 09:24 (The Kathmandu Post)


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