Thursday, August 29, 2013

The experimentalist

A good writer kneads language the way he wants, and uses the language to create parallel worlds, worlds where reality is bypassed at every step. Sixty-seven-year-old Dhruva Chandra Gautam, widely known in Nepal as Aakhyan Purush (‘master fiction writer’), has mastered both these qualities in his fiction. He has experimented with varieties of structures, attempting to bring out something new in each of his 25 novels, including four co-authored ones. He continues to churn out new fiction, still experimenting with form, content, style, and theme in each of his works. And yet, Gautam says, he hasn’t had enough.
Gautam’s works are a clear departure from traditional styles of novel-writing. From his first novel Antya Pachhi (1966) to his latest work Apriya (2010), he tries to experiment with language and form. For example, his novel Phool Ko Aatanka is a collection of 126 disparate events that have no apparent connection with each other. Yet, the work depicts the fragmentation and disjunction of modern man’s life. He picks up serious issues, but weaves them using a tapestry of surrealism to make them even more relevant. In his most-acclaimed work Alikhit (1990), the entire Birhinpur Barewa village of the Tarai disappears, and the village pond transforms into a man ready for battle. Critic Govinda Raj Bhattarai writes in his foreword to the English translation of Phool Ko Aatanka, “Gautam is the first experimental novelist in Nepali literature.” Not only Bhattarai, almost all Nepali critics call him Prayogbaadi (experimentalist). Gautam, however, shies away from this label. He isn’t comfortable with the suffix “ism”. “Experiment is rather an attempt for novelty and is the attitude of a writer.”
Sometimes, Gautam leaves surreal realities to create parodies, like in Bhimsen-4 ko Khoji (2003), where the Pandava brother Bhima is reborn in current Nepal. The work satires Nepali political actors and is infused with dark humour that scoffs at political and social evils.
One may believe Gautam sets out with an agenda to experiment, but that is not always true. Although he draws his themes from the people he encounters and the times he lives in, he does not start writing unless a “lightening occurs in the mind”, a sort of epiphany that flashes in his “inner eye.” These epiphanies become short stories or novels. “You never know when that lightening occurs. Fortunately, that has never ceased to occur for me. And I have enough themes in my mind to develop into novels,” Gautam says, giving us a glimpse into the mind of one of the most prolific writers of Nepal. Gautam has written more than three dozen books, including short stories, memoirs and plays. He is now writing his 26th novel.
I ask him how someone can be so prolific at his age. Reflecting upon one of his hobbies, Gautam refers to Indian veteran actor Dev Anand’s quote: “A child is born young, becomes mature, then dies.” Gautam lets out a laugh, then adds, “Though I have matured, I haven’t grown old.”
Born in Betaini of Bara district in 1944, Gautam was raised in Birgunj, where he studied at Tri Juddha High School. His mother died when he was seven, perhaps a reason why he always ponders over the futility of life. His writings continue to reflect an existential angst, which consistently lingers in the background. His extensive reading of existentialist writers like Camus, Sartre, Heidegger, and absurdist playwrights like Beckett and Ionesco during his college days have also contributed in making his initial writings quite nihilistic.
When he was young, he read literature, watched films, and sang songs--all in Hindi. “We were taught all subjects in Hindi in our school,” says Gautam. He wrote his first poem in Hindi and was initially published in a Hindi magazine called Utkarsha. Gautam often corresponded with the Indian writer Sarveshwor Dayal Saxena, who helped publish Gautam’s writings. But then his brothers Dhanus Chandra Gautam, known as Dha Cha Gotame, and Gopal Gautam—who wrote as Gopal Gotame—had already started writing in Nepali. Due to their influences, he started writing Nepali poetry in 1961, writing one poem every day that entire year. Though not a single one was published, he honed his talent this way. As his confidence rose, he began attempting to write novels. He wrote two unpublished novels: one of them was titled Chaar Tukraa Mutu (Heart Broken in Four Pieces). This naïve and clichéd title suggests the heavy influence Hindi films had on him. “I soon realised that my first works were quite weak as they came out merely as influences of those writers I had read and the films I had watched,” he says.
Gautam’s lifelong affection to Hindi films began from his school days. He usually bunked school to go to Raxaul’s cinema halls. “I watched three different films in three different halls in a day,” he says. He continues to watch films even today, rattling off names of recent releases he has watched.
Gautam came to Kathmandu in 1962 to pursue his higher studies, and began working in a bookstall called Educational Enterprises just off Mahankal before joining Gorkhapatra as a proof-reader. With just Rs. 120 as a monthly salary, the job was not only tedious but also reminded him how futile life was, igniting further existential anxieties in his mind. “The night duty of proof-reading was so festering that I ended up writing many dismal poems,” he says. But it was a time well-spent, for he spent his entire day reading influential Western writers in the Capital’s many libraries at the time.
Meanwhile, after much persuasion from writer Uttam Kunwar, Gautam finally came up with a 68-page novella, Antya Pachhi, for the literary magazine Ruprekha. Gautam had finally established himself as a Nepali writer of unique capabilities. While he taught at government and private colleges as a means of income during this time, he never looked back from the publication of his first work. Among Gautam’s achievements are also writing scripts for films, albeit for a film based on his own work. He wrote the script for Basudev (directed by Neer Shah) which was based on his novel Kattel Sir ko Chotpatak.
“Gautam is the stop that all those who aspire to write fiction must rest at for a while. These writers must read his works like Kattel Sir ko Chotpatak before heading on to write their own works,” says writer Khagendra Sangraula. Sangraula is, however, critical of Gautam’s prolificacy and his recent works.
“He is still focused on experimenting with new techniques but has failed to do justice to his recent works,” Sangraula adds. Gautam has heard the criticism that has been levelled at him, but still feels he has been evolving as a writer. “I write about man, society and the times we live in. Since they are going through rapid changes, I experiment to keep myself in tune with the changes.”
Gautam has been witness to tremendous changes in Nepali society, and his experimentations have captured a different side of society: a surreal, non-linear world where the real and the unreal collide. His evenings are filled with a celebration of life, songs and shayari recited by him and his friends, over pegs of whiskey. But Gautam continues to move on, bringing new flavours to Nepali writing as he moves ahead with the times.
Posted on: 2011-04-09 09:41 (The Kathmandu Post)


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