Thursday, August 29, 2013

Chronicling the lives of home-grown figures

Despite an evident interest in biographies among the reading public, writers and publishers in Nepal seem reluctant to devote their time and resources to this particular genre. Whether owing to the lure of well-written works on global personalities, or because authors are often unclear on what a biography should entail, the lack of quality books on the lives of Nepali personalities is concerning.
Reviewing Gandhi’s recent biography Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle with India by Joseph Lelyveld in New York Review of Books, Anita Desai writes, “Lelyveld does not repeat the well-documented story of Gandhi’s struggle for India but rather his struggle with India, the country that exasperated, infuriated, and dismayed him, notwithstanding his love for it.” Desai’s comment on Lelyveld’s writing shows that biography is no more a genre that eulogizes an individual as an all-winning protagonist. Rather, it involves chronicling the significance that the subject’s life holds in the society he lives in, the vagaries of his relationship with this society, and more importantly, provides access to previously-untold areas of his life. In his book, Lelyveld writes about Gandhi’s compromises, defeats, and evasions of his active political life. More controversially, he also unveils Gandhi’s close and “romantic” friendship with the East Prussian Jewish architect Hermann Kellabach, which led to the book being banned in Gujarat by the Narendra Modi-led state-government.
Likewise, Patrick French, with his access to the private papers of the celebrated author V. S. Naipaul, has brought many unreported aspects of Naipaul’s personality to the fore through his biography. The book titled The World is what it is has been well-received among Naipaul’s fans as well as critics. Biographies of the likes of Adolf Hitler, Indira Gandhi, Albert Einstein, etc are eagerly sought—the genre has always enjoyed a widespread popularity. 
As testament to this popularity, more than 60 percent of the figures we have featured in the Sunday column Bookwormbabbles in this newspaper have referred to biographies as their favourite genre. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of quality biographies in the Nepali literary scene. Audiences in Nepal are generally seen opting for books on international personalities rather than Nepali figures. While we do have a steady number of autobiographies and memoirs being published in the country, these aren’t taken up with much interest by readers. Among the thousands of books collected by Nepali literature-researcher Shiva Regmi, for instance, there are hardly five biographies. The only one out of these of any significance in his opinion is that of Lakshmi Prasad Devkota written by Nitya Raj Pandey titled Mahakavi Devkota. Similarly, Govinda Bartaman, who has written extensively on Nepali literary works, only remembers two biographies: one of Devkota and the other about the writer Parijat. Also telling is the fact that Ratna Pustak Bhandar—the oldest private publisher in Nepal—has yet to publish a Nepali biography. Owner Govinda Prasad Shrestha says, “We have published a collection of profiles of different literary and other personalities but not a whole book as a biography of an individual.”
What is the reason behind this slow  trickle of Nepal-based biographies? According to one journalist, who is also a voracious reader, “We have very few inspiring personalities in Nepal whose biographies can appeal to readers.” This seems improbable, though, considering the fact that over the years, Nepal has seen so much political and cultural change, and there have been many people who have played a role in accelerating these changes—not just political leaders but writers, artists, and personalities from different fields who have been pivotal in the ups and downs of Nepali society. Wouldn’t their lives and their stories make interesting reads? The real issue, in my opinion, lies not on the lack of “inspiring personalities” but on the amount of research and study it takes to write a biography.
“My friends once suggested me to write a biography of acclaimed fiction writer Ramesh Bikal, which I also liked, but after I calculated the amount of time and effort it needs, I dropped the idea,” says Bartaman. Naipaul’s biographer French has also expressed similar feelings. In an interview French gave to the BBC, he says, “It took five years [to write Naipaul’s biography]; it would not have been possible to produce a book of this range in much less time than that.” In the Nepali context, a writer putting more than a year’s time into a book is a rarity. “How can I devote that amount of time to a work without the guarantee of a return?” says Bartaman. He believes that it is not possible to take on these projects on an individual level, but if organizations like Nepal Academy or other established publishers were to back them up, more writers would be interested in the genre. An instance of this is Nepa~laya, a relatively well-known publishing house, which is all set to release three biographies—including that of singer Aani Chhoying Dolma—in the near future. Jagadamba Prakashan, another established publisher, has recently published a biography of the president Ram Baran Yadav. Similarly, Oxford University Press has also published a biography of the poet Bhupi Sherchan written by the researcher Michael Hutt.
Herein arises another question: are these recently published biographies really appealing to readers? Newspaper reviews of these books do not indicate that they are. Most of the reviews do not rate these biographies as interesting, or even useful. For example a review of Hutt’s book reads like this, “Hutt’s linear prose of Sherchan’s life events, interspersed by his accounts of the political events of the times, fail to hold attention as they are written at length, but seldom connected strongly with the poetry that follows.” Another potential risk in penning a biography is the possibility of having it sound like hagiography—written in gushing praise of the concerned individual—as opposed to an honest portrayal. Award-winning biographer Hilary Spurling has said, “Good biography has to penetrate as deep as possible into the inner recesses of another person’s mind and mechanisms, and to do that, you have to use your own imagination. It’s much like using the techniques of a novelist and applying them to real life.”  
Had they been well-written and critical, biographies of  personalities like Bhupi Sherchan, Shankar Lamichhane, Junga Bahadur Rana, and many others would’ve been
welcomed by Nepali audiences. Despite the presence of a number of memoirs and autobiographies of B.P. Koirala, it would be an honest and engaging biography on such a charismatic leader that people would find more interesting. Sandesh Sharma, an avid reader of biographies, says, “There are many Smriti-Granthas, collection of articles written by others about an individual, in Nepal, but they lack serious analysis and research. I would love to read about writers like Shankar Lamichhane who was always in different kinds of controversies and who was also a maverick essayist of Nepali literature.” Sharma cites as an example the biography of Maoist leader Prachanda, written by Indian journalist Anirban Roy, which he believes fails at exposing facets of Prachanda’s personality which is yet unknown to the general public. He says, “It also does not see Prachanda with a critical eye so it is more a hagiography than a biography.”
Regmi perceives a similar problem with autobiographies, where they run the risk of being biased, simply because people are rarely critical of themselves. It is precisely to counter this kind of self-indulgence that biographies become important. Readers like Sharma, Regmi and many others are waiting for writers and publishers to finally take an interest in putting out quality biographical works about Nepali personalities that can sustain their attention from cover to cover. The genre has been neglected for far too long.

Posted on: 2011-04-30 09:08 (The Kathmandu Post)


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