News Makers 2017

Rewriting myths for the modern world

A writer who inverts religious myths to bring out the injustices of our times

- Sandesh Ghimire, Kathmandu

Poet Madhav Prasad Ghimire once described Ghanashyam Kandel as a writer capable of making nature cry, but had Kandel not won the Madan Puraskar, the prestigious literary award in Nepal, most reader would have never encountered his poetic vision.

 He is one of the few writers, who believes that an artist exists as the vehicle of his work and once the book is written the writer is no longer needed––naturally, a man with such beliefs has maintained a low profile.

When you visit him at his residence in Kuleshwor, his personality can challenge the popular, even mythical image of a writer––reading his works, one might imagine him to be an eccentric man bent on changing the ethos of religious myths, but when you meet him, he will only complain to you about the throes of old age.  However, prompt him to speak about language and literature, and he might as well forget that he exists in a body. For a few seconds, he stammers and struggles to find words, but soon he enters into an eloquent soliloquy explaining to you the intricacies of this or that piece of literature. And, as he speaks he can recall from memory some of his favourite lines to explain his thought. “K ho Jiwan ko satya Janna Sakdainan kohi pani/ payeko jindagi bhogna byekti badya cha thehi pani—this is what Dhritarastra felt and I feel this too… I saw the injustice in society and fought against it, but I also cannot claim to have understood life.”

Kandel through his literary creations has been fighting the social injustices of the modern world. He has been actively writing for over four decades, and his literary vision culminated in Dhritarastra, for which he won the literary award.

Dhritarastra is a monologue given by the blind father of the Kauravs, Dhritarastra, in the Mahabharata. Kandel said that his poem reflects on the nature of humans and the reasons for war. In the historical narrative of Mahabarata, Dhritarastra, though blind, is a morally reprehensible character with whom Krishna and the Pandavs find necessary to go to war. In Kandel’s narrative, however, that necessity is questioned, and Dhritarastra wonders if Krishna made the right call by preaching the Gita to Arjun, who became the catalyst for manslaughter during the Kurukshetra war. 

“I had suffered from retina displacement and I was blind on one eye for a long time,” Kandel elucidated the inspiration behind his poem, “I was searching for a blind character to portray the woes of differently-abled people.” Despite the moral undertone of the epic poem, many criticised Kandel for distorting the myth and some who were Kandel’s friends were upset with the writer for depicting the Hindu god Krishna in a negative light. “I am interested in taking the skeleton of a mythical story and recasting them in a new light,” Kandel said, “As a writer, I am more interested in using my pen in raising the voice for social justice and my way of doing that is by deconstructing popular myths.”

After Dhritarastra won the Madan Puraskar, Kandel was regularly criticised for distorting mythical reality, and on the rare occasion that a critic asked him why he changed the original narrative of the Mahabharata, he responded with  the words spoken by Dhritarastra in his epic poem: “Jhamtancha rey biralole pani banda gari kute/ bidrohi bancha re manis usko ashmita lutey—This is a warning to all those who consider physical disability as inability.”

Deconstructing myths to bring the issues of the modern world to the reader’s attention is a technique often employed by Kandel.  But the poet laments that in the name of raising voice for social justice, many writers have started sloganising. “It is not literature, but propaganda when somebody starts telling rather than showing the reader.”

The writer said that Marxist literary figures often fall in the trap of becoming too bland while writing about class struggle in literature. Kandel, on the other hand, has found a way of rewriting the myth to indicate the ongoing class struggle in the modern world.  In Devyani, also written in traditional Nepali verse, demons are hard working servants, while the commanding gods are lazy because they enjoy the de-facto benefit of being “born” in heaven.

Though Kandel’s works has largely escaped the media’s attention, Nepali academia has taken notice of his works.  Devyani, is already a part of the curriculum in the Nepali department, and it has been translated into English by two different translators. Along with the translation, his works are being studied for dissertation papers by doctorate level students. 

During his literary career, that has spanned more than four decades, Kandel also penned four volumes of literary criticisms and a book of poems, but those cannot be found in the shelves of book sellers of Kathmandu either. “Even I don’t have a copy of those works, but maybe the PhD students researching my work would know,” Kandel said.

The Madan Puraskar Award, along with the ongoing interest of academia, indicates that Kandel’s literary creations are seminal works of Nepali literature. Yet most of his works have run out of public circulation. Aansu ka Akshyar, the work for which Madhav Ghimire claimed that the poetic power of Kandel can make nature cry, can only be retrieved from the dusty corners of a few library that  have taken the pain of archiving Nepali literature.

As Kandel is struggling to cross the 77th winter of his life, it is doubtful that he will be able to produce another seminal work–it becomes an imperative that his work be reintroduced to the literary reads of the country.

Kandel never desired any attention for himself, but he does want his works to last.

Published: 2017-12-31 13:34:17