Book Review Pages

The Kathmandu Post Review of Books

9 May, 1999
Vol. 4, No. 3
Issue Coordinator: Manjushree Thapa

Produced by
Martin Chautari for
CSRD and The Kathmandu Post

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Contents of this Issue



Students and Politicians in '36 Saal ko Aandolan'

Ani Rudra Silwal

The uprising of 1979 has been forgotten by many probably because of the turbulence in Nepali politics since then. Not much research has been done on this topic. In one of the few works on the uprising, Nepal: A year of Decision, D. P. Kumar claims that the uprising was instigated by politicians who used the students as a mere fa├žade of their underground activities. In this essay I will argue that the politicians had very little involvement in the uprising. It was initially organized by students, and after the uprising caught momentum, the public participated to make it widespread. The politicians were not confident enough to participate actively because their strength had been weakened by Panchayat repression. Instead, they were observing the students with curiosity. I will divide the uprising into three phases and analyze this relationship between the students and the politicians.

Pre-Uprising Period (pre-April 6, 1979)

After political parties were banned in 1961, all overt political activity was left to students, who became organized into unions directed by the political parties. These unions were banned by the New Education Plan in 1973, but they still functioned clandestinely, and remained directed by the parties. Politicians, therefore, were not unaware of the students' plans for the uprising, but they could not themselves initiate an uprising against the government because their party organizations had been crippled after eighteen years of persecution. B.P. Koirala was not happy about the students starting a political uprising because he thought such a movement would hurt his move of national reconciliation. Keshar Jung Rayamajhi did not favor starting mass protests either; his faction supported the King's move in 1961, and also the Panchayat system. Neither were other politicians convinced that students could do anything significant after seeing the fruitless demonstrations of 1972 and 1975.

Students were genuinely dissatisfied with Tribhuvan University. They were continuously harassed by the government-sponsored Mandal which was the only legal student organization after 1973. Therefore union representatives of all the colleges of Kathmandu came together on their own initiative a few months before the uprising and collected demands that were mostly educational in nature, except for the demand for legal independent student unions. Students claimed that the Mandal did not truly represent them, and so they needed independent unions to voice their class interests. It was, however, evident that they wanted party activities to be legalized. It was of crucial importance that all unions approved these demands, because after the uprising began, the demands received the unified support of all the students.

The former Pakistani Prime Minister, ZA Bhutto was executed on April 4, 1979. A few hundred students gathered to file a protest at the Pakistani Embassy in Kathmandu, but were cane-charged on the way, and arrested by police. Students found the excuse they were looking for. The following day, they proclaimed an uprising by handing to officials the demands they had already prepared.

The Uprising (April 7- May 22, 1979)

An Action Committee was formed on April 9 headed by a troika representing the big student groups: pro-Congress, pro-Peking, and pro-Moscow. During this period the movement spread all over the country and to different sections of the society. Those demonstrations were called "student demonstrations," but since they were so big, it was not possible that they consisted of students alone.

It was no surprise that protests spread so quickly, like a chain reaction. Almost all sections of society were discontented with the polity and its politicians. The students of most of the parties were unified, unlike in earlier demonstrations when they always nullified each other's energies. University students in the National Development Service backed the movement in rural areas. The government's negligence and delay in dealing with the students also gave time for the uprising to spread. Although the important political leaders were reluctant to participate actively in the uprising, or were imprisoned, or were placed under surveillance, party-sympathizers actively participated in organizing protests.

The King, noticing the increasing proportion of the unrest, appointed a Royal Commission on May 2 to resolve the student issue. After negotiations with the Student Action Committee, the Commission fulfilled all demands, including the right to form unions and the disbanding of the notorious Mandal. The student movement had come to a logical end, so the troika signed an agreement with the Commission on May 21 and called off the uprising. If the political leaders wanted any more political concessions, they had to lead the next stage of the uprising. No politician was willing to do this because they simply did not have sufficient cadres or good party networks. Most of them felt that the concessions the students had won (to form legal student unions) were good enough to move to the next stage of opposition. However, to the surprise of these politicians, the uprising continued.

Last Day of the Uprising (May 23, 1979)

Events took a serious turn on the last day of the uprising. Even after the Action Committee called off the protests, the strikes did not stop. On the afternoon of May 23, students gathered at ASCOL in Thamel supposedly to deliberate on the decision made by the troika two days ago. But the gathering became violent, and turned into a mob that enlarged quickly, and started grinding through the streets of Kathmandu. The army was called to scatter the mob that evening. There were several discontented forces that gave the uprising such a violent nature at this stage. The Mandal had been banned the day before and wanted to take revenge by creating disorder. The Mohan Bikram Singh faction felt humiliated because their name was not mentioned in the public announcements as a faction involved in organizing the uprising. The revolutionary Marxist-Leninist faction was not happy with the movement being called off.

As I mentioned earlier, the student movement had triggered several other movements, and people behind those movements were not willing to stop the protests without their demands being fulfilled. Since the violence was going out of control, the King proclaimed on the following day a referendum that would allow all Nepalis to choose between an improved version of the Panchayat system and parliamentary democracy.


The uprising started out as a planned protest by the student community. People of all sections of the society had grievances against the government, and they expressed them in the name of supporting the students. Although the prominent politicians supported the students' academic demands, they did not expect the outcome to be so overwhelming, and did not bother to participate actively. The uprising of 1979 has proved that students, and not only politicians, are capable of bringing political change. When there was no one in the country to speak up against the oppressive government, students stood up and lead everyone. The uprising, however, inextricably tied students to politics, instead of allowing them to concentrate on education. The tolerance of party-affiliated student unions was a direct consequence of this uprising. Since those unions were the platform for political parties to revive their network and activity, this uprising is also important to our understanding of processes behind the 1990 Revolution.

(AR Silwal is a student at the United World College in Norway)

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Old Women
Author: Mahasweta Devi
Publisher: Seagull Books, Calcutta 1999
Price: IRs. 175

At the Margins of World Fiction

Manjushree Thapa

Mahasweta Devi's fiction stands in glaring contradiction to Salman Rushdie's suggestion, some years back, that India's best writing may be taking place in the English language rather than in the 16 other official languages of that nation. Bengali-language author of short stories, plays, and a novel based on the lives of Uttar Pradesh's tribal communities, Devi is becoming better known outside South Asia as more and more of her writing comes into English translation. Old Women, a coupling of two of her short stories translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, is the latest of Devi's translated work, and a valuable, eye-opening text for English readers of contemporary Indian fiction.

"Statue," the first of the book's stories, begins with the decision, on the part of the Calcutta Secretariat, to raise a bronze statue of freedom fighter Dindayal Thakur in his home village of Chhatim. "Naturally," Devi starts off with her fine, understated tone of irony, "the people of Chhatim village didn't know this." It was a PhD dissertation that was responsible for this event - a dissertation that none of the thirty-odd literate people of that area would ever read. Playing off a wry, knowing voice with a harder journalistic style - and some lovely, lyrical passages - Devi unravels the story of events surrounding Thakur's death, and the reactions of those who knew him as his statue is brought into the village. In particular the narrative swirls around the reactions of seventy-eight year old Dulali, a woman widowed at eight, who was loved, in her youth, by the high-caste Thakur boy. Afraid of breaking caste and widow-remarriage taboos, Dulali refused to marry Thakur, and he met his death soon afterwards in his activities as a pro-independence activist. She was, of course, blamed for precipitating his death.

Devi shows the aged Dulali, at the beginning, as a woman still paying dearly for the "mistakes" of her youth - marginalized by her own family, she is reduced to focusing, like an animal, solely on the task of survival: "When she dreams, she dreams crude dreams. In her dream she wears a whole cloth and eats a full serving of rice in a bell-metal plate. Every day. Only rice. No lentils, no vegetables. Only rice." Dulali's inner life slowly comes to life as she learns about the statue and recalls the events of her past. She becomes humanized in the course of Devi's narrative - and at the end, agrees to leave the village with a nephew, making the very break she had so feared to do as a girl of sixteen.

The second story of the collection, "The Fairy Tale of Mohanpur", paints a similarly brilliant picture of a near-blind old woman, Andi, living in the absence of government, in the surplus of superstitions and myths. As in "Statue," the plight of her main character is depicted within its larger social, economic, and political surroundings, and so the story veers from Andi's various attempts at clearing her vision - snail broth, lotus honey - to the wranglings of the more powerful: local political "patty" members, contractors, doctors. And yet the story never loses its focus on Andi, and on her persistent, hope-driven will to see.

The strength of Devi's writing lies not just in her knowledge of the marginalized people she writes about, and her powerful advocacy on their behalf, but in her sheer craft. Ethics and aesthetics are equal commitments for her. She uses, to spectacular effect, the omniscient point-of-view, which lets her depict the simplest plot development not just within the story's local surroundings, but in the broad context of the nation, and of global economic machinations - often imperial or neo-colonial in nature. It is the concreteness of Devi's language which allows her to keep her fictional world utterly vivid despite its complexity: the soil of Chattim is laterite, the price of rice is nine rupees per kilo, the local leader is Madan Khan, son of Badan Khan and father of Sadan Khan. Never does Devi resort to generalizations or simplifications, or to the well-meant but artless didacticism that can easily mar Marxist fiction.

Spivak's translation reads, for the most part, very smoothly, with Devi's various tones ringing clearly through the text. Every now and then, a few American idioms and expressions remind the reader that the work is, in fact, a translation, and as such - in the words of Spivak's teacher Jacques Derrida - it is bound, at an ultimate level, to "fail." But the artistic "successes" that accompany these theoretical "failures" are spectacular, and Spivak clearly fulfills her responsibility as a translator to bring into wider circulation narratives of those at the very margins of society. Old Women is a book everyone interested in contemporary world fiction should read.

(M Thapa is a writer based in Kathmandu)

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Selected Nepali Poems
Translator and Editor: Tara Nath Sharma
Publisher: Jiba Lamichhane, Kathmandu, 1999

Nepali Poetry and the Globe

Prabodh Devkota

Experiment, lab, test-tube...refugee, blood, death...the roaring of the bomb...the upheaval of human lamentations and cries.... Hello! Welcome to the world of modernity. I heard the sounds. I saw the people, but when I touched them, they turned out to be robots. A robot was searching for something...when I asked what, its response was - "I'm searching for my lost soul."

Selected Nepali Poems, published privately by businessman Jiba Lamichhane, is a collection of seventy-five poems by fifteen Nepali poets, beginning with Laxmi Prasad Devkota and including Kedar Man Vyathit, Gopal Prasad Rimal, Mohan Koirala, Hari Bhakta Katuwal, Bhupi Sherchan, Vasu Shashi, Vairagi Kainla, Krishna Bhakta Shrestha, Vaneera Giri, Manjul, Krishna Bhushan Bal, Vishnu Vibhu Ghimire, Ashesh Malla, and Dinesh Adhikari. Reading the poems in the collection, readers can gain insight into the psychological make-up of the Nepali people, their socio-economic conditions, their love of freedom, their anxiety for the loss of humanity, and at the very core, their invocation for universal peace.

A person can exchange him/herself with a robot, but how can a soul compromise? The soul is the soul...it cannot be made of metal. Though at the extreme heights of civilization, humanity tried to vanquish the universe, the soul defeated people. Humanity is now crying for peace; with lost souls, people have realized the mistake of their Faustian bargains, and they are searching....

I have not found my own way out of the image
I am a man who does not believe in the sky's expanse
(I am a man absolutely unable to enjoy this robot life)
tell me with which mind, Shall I enjoy to be your companion?
(Dinesh Adhikari)

Treaties are made to be broken...bombs are produced to control the soul.... Suppressed silences are more powerful than voices.... The distant cries of refugees, the moaning of widows, when coming through concrete walls, become voices of revolt:

They say a soldier wins a battle
You great fools! Who says a soldier wins a battle
The soldier only wins the widows
The soldier only wins the orphans
The soldier only wins the lame human
and this soldier has always lost within his country.
(Bishnu Vibhu Ghimire)

Dreams of making a single dream are fragmented. In the grip of modern technology, human existence is questioned. Humanity is fraught with melancholy. Though Vaneera Giri urges human beings not to be sad, KB Shrestha again and again finds man living in death, says, "Life stinks like a rotten egg." While Bhupi Sherchan, using a metaphorical expostulation, makes a pungent satire:

as in the past the earth where I live is revolving
I am the only one unfamiliar
with the changes all around
with the landscapes/with joys
like the blind man forced to sit/on a revolving chair in the exhibition.

Poet Hari Bhakta Katuwal can't bear all this panic, and so he says:

Better to have a mind made of iron
neither does it cry in blows and counter blows....

In the intoxication of power, humanity has become a merciless ruler. Voices have started to rebel against tyranny. There are tumults of revolutionary thoughts:

Is he really coming mother?
Yes my son he is surely coming
spreading his flashing light
like the morning dews
with which he will fight against injustice.
(Gopal Prasad Rimal)

Yet there is hope. Human dignity can be reestablished, the earth can be a paradise. Kedar Man Vyathit writes:

...If levels are uneven
let us employ a plane
and turning this very land into an earthly paradise
why shouldn't we ourselves become divine humans?

Humanity can destroy civilization but it cannot defeat nature. For modern people caught in the tangles of their problems, the great literary giant of Nepal, Laxmi Prasad Devkota, shows a way to escape. Nature, he writes, is the ultimate savior of human dignity:

Oh God! I am overwearied
please make me a sheep.
This trap over my head, which is my house
this accursed thought/this sin of knowing
this measure of inner heart
...this curse of having accountability
Let me fight with horns/though not in the spiritual battles
Let my death be easy/not as burning by an atomic blast
...My Lord let me have divine animal
Please come to me
and make me right now a sheep.

What is clear from Selected Nepali Poems is that Nepali literature shares many characteristics with modern global literature. The experiences of our poets are common experiences. They too are pursued by the ghost of modernity. They are anxious about the world and the decay of humanity. While reading the poems in this book, the reader can find his or her feelings and experiences expressed, no matter whether he is from Asia, Africa, or Europe.

Words are power. They can console the panicked heart, celebrate joys, and many times in history, words have defeated great Sikandars and Alexanders. Art transcends borders, states, and ages. Poetry can do for us what religion, philosophy, and technology can no longer do. The value of literature is beyond measurement. By publishing this collection of Nepali poems in English translation, publisher Jiba Lamichane and translator/editor Tara Nath Sharma have contributed much to the field of literature. This book gives foreign readers great access to Nepali literature. The only lack is that the book should have included more female voices.

(P. Devkota is a student at TU's Department of English)

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Bipannatabata Muktikolagi Swabalamban
Publisher: Gramin Swabalamban Bikash Kendra, Kathmandu, 1998

Helping the Poor

Anil Baral

Do you believe that distributing small loans to the poor leads destitute, deprived and derelict rural communities towards self-reliance and economic development? One may refute or buttress this argument; but even those who do not accede to this statement will not be harmed by reading Bipannabata Muktikolagi Swabalamban, which espouses the notion of "small is beautiful." The book's hard-fought premise is that swabalamban, or self-reliance, can be cultivated by providing small loans to the poor.

The so-called bikase projects are center and power oriented, mostly revolving around long bureaucratic processes, and therefore failing to channel resources to the target people for whom the projects are really meant. Realizing the need of the time, the path of self-reliance chose a different perspective to uplift the poor by granting them all authority to design, execute and harvest the benefits of small-scale loans and projects. At the time the concept of self-reliance was put into practice in Nepal, today's bikase buzzwords like "empowerment" and "community mobilization" were totally unheard of. Our undying patience in waiting for a bikase panacea has shackled us to the belief that development is something that has to be brought from outside; this is the thinking of the common masses.

Cultivating a sense of self-reliance among the downtrodden and destitute in a poor country like Nepal is of paramount importance. Successive five-years plans have not delivered the benefits of development to poor rural communities, and most development activities have been concentrated in urban centers. Notwithstanding decades of development efforts, the people have but extreme frustrations and plummeting confidence in their governance. They are trapped in vicious cycles of poverty that are very difficult to escape.

Bipannatabaata Muktikolaagi Swabalamban argues that one can hardly breathe an air of respite from the few scattered past and present achievements of poverty alleviation programs run by NGOs and INGOs, and tries to depict the self-reliance program as the best option available to rural poor of Nepal. However, the book cautions readers about the objectives of the self-reliance program. Self-reliance does not aim at establishing a magnificent example, nor does it take rural communities to the pinnacle of development through radical change. Primarily, the self-reliance program consists of concerted efforts to generate I-can-do-it confidence among the poor.

The program, a brain child of Dr. Devendra Raj Pandey, was born from the realization that people have to take initiative on their own for development. Therefore the self-reliance program has much to do with psychological factors and mental transformation. The main thrust of the program is that a change in mentality is key to transforming our perceptions of environment, behavior, and social conduct which spur economic development.

Despite the difficulty of assessing the impact and achievements of the program on rural communities (since the effect has different levels and dimensions), achievements can be broadly realized in the economic sector, in social conduct and behavior, and in mental transformation. Improvements in economic and material gain at the individual level are quite visible and set off chains of similar efforts by others. Equally, deprived communities witness progressive changes in social ethos, perceptions, and etiquette. Apart from cultivating self-confidence, people demonstrate enhanced authority in the decision-making process. Above all, it is asserted that mental transformation is the most noticeable impact of the program, which remarkably subdues fatalistic attitudes in deprived communities and instead sows seeds of self-respect and confidence that people can plot their own destiny.

The financial arrangements carved out by the self-reliance program to run various activities are very interesting. The Rural Self-reliance Development Center has set up two types of funds: 1. Revolving Funds and, 2. Huasala (encouragement) Grants. The income-generating committee also sets up "local self-reliance funds" on their own initiative. In addition, an Akshya Kosh has been set up to collect funds from donors. Loans are granted only to members of the income-generating committee, with the most deprived member receiving the first loans. Once the first member pays back loans, the second member in the priority line gets a loan and in this way the loan is revolved among members. The faster one pays the loans, the sooner one can get another one, and so there is always an incentive to pay back the loan in time. This fund-allocation mechanism, coupled with stringent requirements to become a grantee, insures against fund misuse.

Reading between the lines, one can sense a deep-rooted rivalry between the self-reliance program and micro-credit programs. This is understandable, as both share almost the same mechanism to empower the rural poor. The book includes a subjective commentary on the program's 13 years of torturous journey, chronicling the ups and downs over the years.

Just as any philosophical book raises more questions than it can answer, Bipannatabaata Muktikolaagi Swabalamban (though not philosophical) ends up posing some critical questions that need to be fully understood and addressed in the context of changing aspirations of our societies. Understandably, the main question is: what is the ultimate aim of the self-reliance program, and where should it end? Should it continue till all rural communities attain the status envisaged by the program, or should it set limited objectives and work towards meeting them?

The self-reliance program purports to develop a self-reliant society; by the same token, shouldn't the program itself become financially independent without having to depend on foreign assistance? The book could serve as a useful guide to those interested in studying the impact of savings and credit type programs in rural areas of Nepal.

(A Baral studies diverse subjects from environment to economics)

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