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Marginality in Contemporary Indian Nepali Writing

By Man Prasad Subba

Marginality as a discourse in Indian Nepali writing is introduced relatively quite recently. Although pains and grief of being alienated and relegated to the fringes can be traced as far back as 50s and 60s of the preceding century in the writings of the writers and poets of Darjeeling Hills, Assam and elsewhere in India, they largely exhibit indulgence in bitter nostalgia of their long past and romantic expression of their grief, almost to the point of being maudlin.

Tendency to escape the hard and tormenting reality and yearn for ‘a land at once strange and familiar where the heart finds itself at home’ is an element of romanticism. These writers sang melancholic songs ‘in shady haunts’ and cried in wilderness. They were still far from using the language of, to borrow bell hooks’ phrase, ‘talking back’, language of resistance and self-assertion in the larger context of the nation.

Late seventies and eighties witnessed some poets more vocal and bold in giving vent to their resentment and protest against the calculated ignorance, apathy, manipulation and maneuvering meted out by those belonging to the class far more advantaged and advanced. All the Nepali speaking Indians throughout India had felt a sharp smack when Morarji Desai, the then Prime Minister, in 1977 had battered black and blue the whole Nepali-speaking community in India with his strangely arrogant replies to the delegates of All India Nepali Bhasha Samity (AINBS).  He slammed shut the door of Eighth Schedule of Indian Constitution to Nepali language by pronouncing it a foreign language, in spite of the fact that it was already enlisted as one of the major Indian languages by Sahitya Akademi, the highest National Academy of Letters in India. He even threatened to disband Gorkha Regiment from Indian Army. Our long cherished demand for the inclusion of Nepali language in the Constitution was thus humiliatingly dashed to the brink by the Centre.

This humiliation and insult at the hand of the most powerful seat at the centre shook the entire Nepali community of the land like never before. And the poets poured out their anguish, playwrights took their agonized protest to the stage, short-story writers came up with the theme of cultural identity and musicians also composed songs evoking the deep-rooted feelings of Nepali ethnic culture. A few lines from a poem entitled, “Backlash”, that was spurred by these anguished moments and published in ‘Haamro Bhasha’ (1978), the AINBS’s mouthpiece, may be cited here to show the different tone and texture of Indian Nepali poetry in late seventies and eighties:

“Before the crack of dawn
Without any sign of rain
Thunderbolt struck this pine tree
While I was waiting for April to arrive…

…        …      …

I, as old as the Himalaya,
But now a derelict
In my own country!

…         …      …

Now is the time to be born of death’s womb
O my Hills and mountains!
Why are you still quiet with your arms crossed?
Burst forth thunderously releasing the streams of lava all around
Against this dark chasm…” (Man Prasad Subba)

Mohan Thakuri, a well-known poet, also articulated in these words:

“I am here standing for ages
Flowing with songs of rivers
Echoing on the hills
The soil of the land where I stand
Speaks out the testimony of my being here…” (Need of the Hour, 1980)

And these sentiments and literary works re-energized the language movement.  It was, of course, a serious question of identity crisis, and the then sixty lakh Nepali-speaking Indians fervently believed that the inclusion of Nepali language in the Constitution would solve this crisis, the primary cause of their decades-long suffering – physical as well as psychological. ‘Our language, our life’, ‘We sacrifice our lives but we will reach the goal’  – slogans  rent the sky of Darjeeling Hills and the Dooars and their echo could be heard in far flung regions like Manipur-Mizoram in the east and Dehradun-Bhaksu in the west. However, even the two successive governments after Morarji only toyed with our sentiment.

Continuous apathy and hegemonic attitude on the part of the state-power towards the Nepali-speaking community in Darjeeling Hills and Dooars ultimately resulted in the eruption of the demand for separate state, the first spell of which was seen in 1981and the second one with far wider mass support in 1986. And the peaceful democratic movement of the language was pushed to the rear seat. The Communist government in Calcutta resorted to repressive measure to subdue the rapidly rising chorus of self-determination.

Scores of poetry appeared, songs were composed, short-stories woven in support of the common cause, believed to be the highway connecting to the national mainstream. However, the concept of marginality as a discourse was yet to dawn upon our minds. In the meantime Nepali language, along with Manipuri and Konkani, finally found its way into the Constitution in August, 1992. But the mercury of euphoria pushed up by the constitutional recognition of the language started falling before long as it proved inadequate to make the Nepali-speaking Indian citizens stand on a par with mainstream Indians. Moreover, it has been deeply felt that Indian Nepali community has continuously been subjected to internal colonialism that began long before India freed herself from the colonial rule. But viewing things in postcolonial perspective was yet to set in Indian Nepali writings.

It was only towards the end of 2008 when Voices from the Margin, co-authored by Manprasad Subba and Remika Thapa, was published, the terms like ‘margin’, ‘marginalization’, ‘marginality’ increasingly came into usage in Indian Nepali literature. Voices from the Margin is an anthology containing 32 poems, each author contributing 16 poems, with a Preface (penned by me) in which the concept of marginality, by way of introducing it in literary writing, has been discussed at considerable length. The fact that the first edition of the book, published in November, had all sold in just one month prompting its reprint in December of the same year, proves how warmly it was received by the readers. Its English version appeared in 2009 and that also was able to win the affection of the readers, whose language is other than Nepali. It will not be, I hope, out of place if I put here an excerpt of the e-mail I received from a noted Irish-Australian poet, Dr. Robyn Rowland. No, it will be rather convenient to me to carry forward this write-up with the points she has mentioned in the excerpt of her mail: “I have spent a lovely time on a very hot Sunday here reading your book, Voices from the Margin. Thank you so much for giving it to me. I have learned so much about the issues around marginalization and also Nepali language about which I was ignorant. I will now look further to understanding more. I enjoyed your connecting that issue with the forms of poetry in your introductory prose piece. Very interesting. I particularly loved that paragraph 2 on page xii beginning ‘the culture of the oppressed…’ Beautifully written. It was interesting, your writing on free form. I agree with much of it. Your poetry likewise I enjoyed. Especially from page 43 to 55. I liked that stinking coat image and the poems around words and language.”

The paragraph referred to above runs in the Preface as follows: “The culture of the oppressed group, kept all the time away from the national stage, is very often thought of little value. It is not given any space to show itself as a distinct colour in the band of rainbow of cultural mainstream. Each culture has its own distinctive flavor and beauty which could be truly felt by none other than the one from the same cultural group. Others may be incapable of seeing it in its right perspective or may not be able to feel its soul, its heart-beat. So, the other’s interpretation may only be intellectual (cerebral) rather than that felt with heart. As culture bears the identifying face of a race, hegemonic adopts many ways and means to deface it or to keep it aside under the murky shadow.”

The point raised in this paragraph is that of space. To be marginalized is to be denied space and everything in it. Powerful, dominant and hegemonic forces take in central and prime spaces while rendering others as weak, poor and minor, who are constantly made to remain on the fringe. And the distinct cultural values of those at the margin are left ignored, undervalued or even despised as everything is viewed from the perspective of mainstream cultural value system. It is in fact the power (political, economical, demographic and intellectual) that projects itself as mainstream and exercises, directly or indirectly, its power upon those kept away from the ‘mainstream’, distanced to be called the ‘other’. Thus they are constantly made to be under the pressure of cultural hegemony. While putting up resistance and critiquing such hegemony, the discourse of marginality turns the focus towards the other thickly shadowed or marginalized perspectives of value system, which is what has been taken up as the driving force in the writings of marginality.

In her Marginality as Site of Resistance, celebrated American-black author, bell hooks says, “Understanding marginality as position of resistance is crucial for oppressed, exploited, colonized people. If we only view the margin as sign, marking the condition of our pain and deprivation, then a certain hopelessness and despair, a deep nihilism penetrates in a destructive way the very ground of our being.” It is this ‘resistance’ that has boldly come to the fore in the contemporary writings of marginality. Unlike their romantic predecessors of the late fifties and sixties, the present day poets and writers, who understand ‘marginality as site of resistance’, do not fall victims to ‘a certain hopelessness and despair’. They have intently listened to Bob Marley sing – ‘We refuse to be what you want us to be, we are what we are, and that’s the way it’s going to be.’ Similar feeling is reflected in the poem “Mainstream and Me” at the end of Voices from the Margin:

I don’t want to sing what the
Mainstream wants me to
Until my own melody is not given
A chord in the composition
I won’t be mesmerized by its glittering words
That usually come
To benumb my own words.”

In her poem “Watering with Blood”, Remika Thapa has voiced these words straight away:

“I’m not in a state to accept
your bouquet of paper-roses
I can’t, at least, be a romantic
of such lowest point.”

In her mail to me, Dr. Robyn Rowland, quoted above, has made a mention of “that stinking coat image and the poems around words and language.” Leaving aside the poems of words and language, I quote from the poem, “This Stinking Coat”:

“For how long should I be wearing this second-hand coat
That lies so heavy on my shoulders for ages

Thrown over me without asking for,
It has stuck to my body so tightly

Overpowering even the earthy smell of my body
This coat stinks of rotten fish

I’ve sprained my shoulders and back while striving to take it off
But I’ve to rid of it even by scraping or tearing

I will rather cover myself with bark or leaves
And liberate the smell of my body.”

While presenting the grim situation of internal-colonialism, the poem unhesitatingly expresses desperate attempts made from time to time and an undaunted will to be free from such subjection. After the fall of colonial empires, postcolonial era began.  But almost in all parts of the world countless ethnic groups, aboriginals, tribes and the likes have been under the gloomy pall of internal colonialism in their own countries. Many of them have been struggling for the right of their self-determination; some are striving hard to save their culture, while many others have already succumbed to the pressure of the powerful.

In her inimitable style, Remika Thapa asks:

“In the resplendent biceps of the shade-showering bar-pipal,
planted seven generations ago by the forebears of
Ratnamaya Limbuni,
who has but suddenly hung
this large hoarding – “Masters’ Town”?” (“Those Who Live Treading the Soil – 2”)

Internal colonialism that makes inroads into the distinctive culture and society of a community shows itself in different forms of marginalization. Both overtly and covertly, it thrusts its presence into the life of the targeted group or community ever subjecting them to deprivation and exploitation and rendering them even weaker. Very often they are denied representation, as if being told, again borrowing from bell hooks, “No need to hear your voice when I can talk about you better that you can speak about yourself. Only tell me about your pain. I want to know your story. And then I will tell it back to you in a new way. Tell it back to you in such a way that it has become mine, my own. Re-writing you I write myself anew. I am still author, authority…”

And thus history dances to the tune of ‘ruling class’ pushing to the oblivion the contributions and sacrifices made by those from the margin. “Torn by the claws of your lies/ my history’s back is bleeding” (“My History”, Man Prasad Subba). “Where am I/in the group photograph of the history?” screams a question from the margin.

The age of postcolonialism also marks the development of neo-colonialism, which has been expanding in the guise of globalization. Blowing from the West Europe and USA, this wind of globalization has helped furthering the process of westernization that began with the imperial colonization of Asia and Africa. While multi-national corporations are at work to drive off the country-culture to the point of extinction, the western aesthetic sense has been continuing its invasion over the native and ethnic cultural values. This is a sort of socio-cultural marginalization coupled with an economic-political one designed by the rich and powerful nations. This is also a subject of concern with marginality in the writing.

Drawing much from the postcolonial theory, the marginalized writing in Indian Nepali literature has developed certain features of its own. It advocates all-inclusiveness and free movement of the centre and periphery so that there should be no gap or distance in-between.

In its conceptual writing, it includes all forms and types of marginalization such as feminism and also eco-literature that deals with the displacement of tribes, animals, birds and insects.

Language employed in such marginal creative writing (especially poetry) is casual, informal, simple and direct that may be appreciated both by the common and serious readers alike. It shuns the modernist language which often seems to be full of strange symbols and laboriously wrought imageries, logo-centric and elitist. It rather strives to combine the local with the global, blurring the dividing oblique between them and freely brings into use ethnic terms the poets and writers are familiar with. Modernism and high modernism gave their voice to something deep, profound and absurd, which are now replaced with momentariness or presentness. Play of moments is depicted today.

Breaking and forming the lines in a poem has also some definite purpose that suits such writing. An instance from Remika’s “Those Who Live Treading the Soil-3”:

“In history
orphans were called illicit embryos left by some bastards”

Here the word ‘history’ (story of rulers and upper class) is placed above ‘orphans’ representing marginalized common people. History has been made a high stage where the rulers and nobles play and those down below are seldom allowed to reach it. There are some other reasons directing the lines in a poem to be arranged in a particular manner. For example, in some lines several words are made to run together in a single line in order to produce the effect of intensity and sharpness of the irony contained in them. There are some lines in the Voices that give an impression of the caravan marching along the long road and also the ones creating visual image of the people being pushed to the edge in the process of marginalization. These are some attempts in response to the need we have felt to be free from the form of Free Verse, which has now become conventional.

During the last five years after the publication of Kinaraka Aawajharoo (Voices from the Margin), a host of young poets have emerged in Darjeeling with their voices confident enough that have most of the features and characteristics relating to the Marginal Writings. Manoj Bogati’s Pasinako Chhala (Sweating Skin) and Ghauka Rangaharu (Various Shades of Wound), Karna Biraha’s Shabda Sammelan (Conference of Words), Lekhnath Chhetri’s Baauko Pasina (Dad’s Sweat), Sharan Muskan’s Mooldharatira (Towards Mainstream), Basudev Pulami’s Ujyaloka Aankha (The Eyes of Light), Neeraj Thapa’s Dharatalko Aayu (The Life of Earth) are some of the collections of poems that deserve mention in this context. Some more poets, who have made their distinct presence felt with the sharp tone of Marginality in their own individual styles, are Bhupendra Subba, Raja Puniyani and Teeka Bhai.

‘Marginality in the Writings’ that consciously began in 2008 in Darjeeling and has drawn a large audience is said to have set a trend in contemporary Indian Nepali literature. Now the way of observing things has shifted from general perspective to the native and ethnic ones, which had been so far ignored, undervalued or brushed to the brink; marginalized views have asserted themselves to be in the fore. Other aspects of aesthetic value which were so far hiding behind the murky curtain of reticence have been brought forward. A postmodern adage, ‘Think globally, act locally’, has come into play in the contemporary Indian Nepali writings. Now the poets and short-fiction writers in contemporary Indian Nepali writing do not generally slip into shady resort of nostalgia and sentimentality, nor do they let themselves envelop in the modernistic ‘overwhelming question’ of existentialism and absurdity.  Rather they seem to be strong-willed to grapple with day-to-day stark reality they face at every step, and, for this, they are armed with conviction, self-confidence and irony.

Marginalized writing has also strengthened the belief that aesthetic value of poetry can be kept equally lively without the garb of imagery. In fact, this new writing has taken up as a challenge to create poetry with plainness and directness of language. Poetry is to be seen in its bare beauty.

Man Prasad Subba, a teacher by profession from Bijanbari, Darjeeling, is a reputed contemporary poet. He is the recipient of many national and regional level awards. He has published numerous articles and has 11 books published on poetry. He has also translated into Nepali from Maithili, Hindi and English and from Nepali into English. His works have been translated into many Indian languages, including English. He has presented Indian Nepali poetry in several national and international meets and seminars.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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