in conversation with Para Limbu, Chairperson, Spiny Babbler
Madhav Ghimmire is a living legend. Born in 1919, he is among the last of the older generation of poets in Nepal. His contemporaries – Bal Krishna Sama, Laxmi Prasad Devkota, and Siddhicharan Shrestha – have become historical figures in the annals of Nepalese literature; Ghimire is the only link to their past. A time in which these poets created some of the most powerful verses in Nepali literature. Today, their works are studied in school, college, and university.
Madhav Ghimmire does echo the past. His eyes twinkle as he fondly remembers old times. At this point in his life, he is eight-one years old, he expresses contentment regarding his personal and professional experiences. Ghimire knows his destiny has been proven and he is pleased about it. His childhood, youth, and adulthood are now memories he reflects upon calmly. His innate love for the study of literature has made possible the growth of his poetic genius. As he recites a few lines from “Rupa Rani”, one can appreciate the rhythmic use of his words. What comes to mind is the play of sunlight on water, the breeze soft on the skin, and the sensation of lightness. Ghimire caresses words like an ardent lover; he seeks for emotional gratification in his creations and is comforted.
His childhood was spent in Lamjung District – among the hills, trees, rivers, and birds of rural Nepal and he grew up playing nearby cowsheds – the herders, cows and calves his close companions. Ghimire’s father was the second son in the family and was responsible for looking after cattle. They lived as a joint family and had enough to go by. The eldest son looked over household affairs and farming. Ghimire’s father along with the herders would stay high up in the lekh for several months in the cowshed and during winter, they would bring the cattle down to graze in the besi. Eight-year-old Ghimire would often accompany them and during his stay, loved having rice and milk amidst surroundings rich with natural resources. Sometimes when the cattle were fed salt, a customary practice in cow herding, his father would also add salt to young Ghimire’s meal.
Since he was most of the time away from home with his father, he was unable to develop close ties with his cousins. He became used to his loneliness and found solace in the natural beauty of his environment. In this way, the poet’s relationship with nature became a bond he feels as strongly about today. “It has been years since I last visited my village. I know the cattle are no longer taken up to the same area for grazing, but I desire to visit old haunts. Most probably I won’t recognize anyone in the village, but I feel the same about the place. I can feel the river flowing, the small trees growing; they must be big trees by now, and the heat of the sun on the riverbank’s stones. About this time, mid-April, kafuls and aisalus fruit would be ripening and bird songs would burst from the trees.
Ghimire’s mother died when he was about one and half year old, he tries to remember her but the memories are old. What he does acknowledge is the longing he had for her – to be held in her warm embrace and experience her compassion. “I coveted the way my jetho buba and jetho muwa (his father’s elder brother and sister-in-law) showered their affection on their son, Mohan Lal, my cousin who is about three to four months older than me. I also wanted to hear the sound of my mother’s voice calling my name. I wanted her to protect me like a hen with her chicks. I searched for the same kind of privilege I felt my cousin received from his parents. My jetho muwa cared for me, but I couldn’t help feeling insecure knowing she was not my mother. I think this is my childhood’s only greatest loss.
“Sometimes I thought my jetho buba and jetho muwa were indifferent to me. I was under the impression that my jetho buba wanted his son to do better in life – study hard and get an education. My grandmother adored me, but I think she felt uncomfortable to openly display affection on me. Maybe she thought it would displease her eldest son and jetho buhari.
“My father was always happy to see me after his sojourns in the lekh. He loved pampering me. I feel however, no matter how much a father loves his children, I think a mother’s love is irreplaceable. I desired to call my jetho muwa or grandmother ‘mother’ and whenever my father was around and heard me call them, he would come towards me, lift me up, and carry me. My father was sensitive about my need for my mother. I think he understood how much I wanted her.
“My father enjoyed singing. He had a good voice and his listeners would become enraptured. Especially when he recited slokas, poetical lines, they could feel the emotion in his voice and the experience would bring tears to their eyes. I was always impressed with the way my father sang; I also wanted to sing like him. Maybe unconsciously his singing and the dancing that went on in my village developed in me a desire to do something creative and beautiful. Later on, I wrote many lyrics besides poems."
Proper educational opportunities were lacking in Ghimire’s village during his childhood. Someone who could set tithis, auspicious dates, for events like “marriages”, “Ekadasi” or “Osi” or someone who could do basic letter writing, reading and arithmetic was considered educated. “I used to sit on the pidi, outside our house and write Ka, Kha, Ga, Gha (Nepali alphabets)… on the ground with a bamboo stick. I remember a jogi, holyman, used to live on our farmland. He taught us English alphabets from an old grammar book he had; text books were non-existent then. I found studying alphabets through illustrations enjoyable.
“My father wanted me to receive educational opportunities jetho buba wished for his son. He knew unless he made the effort, his elder brother would show no interest in me. So he thought it over and decided to send me, I think when I was about twelve years old, to a jotishi, astrologer; astrology played an important role in our family and village life. This was probably the beginning of my formal education.
“Afterwards, a relative suggested to my father to send me to a school when I was fourteen or fifteen years old. It was called Bhasa Patshala, Language School, and was situated five kosh, about one or two hours walk away from our village. The guru, teacher was a Sanskrit pandit, scholar and was looking for pupils who wished to learn Sanskrit. Since our relative knew I had studied astrology and could read and write, he thought my educational base would help me study without problems. He was right because I enjoyed myself and did well.
“Depending on the season, the number of students in our class would vary. Sometimes there would be 15 to 20 of us and at other times, just about two to four students. During winter, the number of students would increase to 40 because there would be less much farm work. On the whole, I think this unrestricted kind of education suited me. Since I was attentive and listened carefully to what our teacher said, I was given a lot of attention by him when there were few students. Once I received the Ramayan as a prize. I read it, I also read the Mahabharat, and from there I selected poems of Lekhnath Poudyal. The difference I found between the religious books and Lekhnath’s poetry was the writing confidence I gained with the latter. I was able to approach Lekhnath’s work without being overwhelmed with the religious, historical or cultural context of the Ramayan and Mahabharat. Lekhnath provided me an example of how a contemporary person could create literature without feeling inhibited by his ordinariness (human weaknesses).
“I tried to create poetry and showed it to my teacher. I wasn’t sure what I had to write; the only thing I remember was I wanted to write. He liked my poems and encouraged me to continue. I sent one to the Gorkhapatra, a weekly at that time, now a national daily and it got published. I was amazed. Someone told me I would most probably become a poet. I was further amazed. To people it seemed the word ‘poet’ connoted greatness. In my experience, they were willing to read what I wrote and accepted it as literature. I think my first inspiration came from here.
"For about three years, I remained at Bhasa Patshala. Then, one day, my teacher's younger brother returned from Kathmandu after giving his exams at Durbar High School. He told me that in ‘Nepal’, a popular name used for Kathmandu in those days had many learned people and were considered maha (great) gurus. When I heard him describe the golden temples I became in awe of ‘Nepal’; such a place could only exist in my imagination. I suddenly felt the urge to change my present state of education as well as see the world. I also knew I had already reached my potential as a student at Bhasa Patshala. By this time, my father and jetho buwa had started living separate.
“Without telling anyone at home and with seven mohar (a mohar is 50 paisa today) in my pocket, I associated myself with a trader going to Kathmandu. On reaching the capital, I became acquainted with students of the Sanskrit Patshala situated nearby Rani Pokhari (it’s still in existence). Since I had nowhere to stay, they generously shared their lodgings with me during the initial years. I helped with their cooking and ate with them. Afterwards, I sent a letter home informing my father about my whereabouts. I think he suspected me to be in Kathmandu because, I don’t remember him becoming alarmed after my departure. Later on, from time to time, he sent me money to cover my educational and living costs.”
So began Ghimmire’s student’s life in Kathmandu during which he learned to manage his cooking, cleaning, and washing chores. He comments on how things have changed today. “Nowadays, students who live in Kathmandu are provided with every kind of facility to study in. They have access to good books, libraries, educational programs, and the internet. Back in my time, my student life revolved around two things: studying and learning by rote.”
Ghimmire’s advantage over former students was his writing experience. Within six months’ time, he ranked second among 150 to 200 students. He became surprised with his performance. After this, he was considered budhimani, highly intelligent. Ghimire then realized that if he failed, he would lose face. He decided to work harder. His teachers impressed with his good grades recommended him to take up literature and mathematics. Towards the end of his studies, Ghimire was able to achieve first rank in his class and passed his Madhyama level of studies.
Although his studies took much of his time, eighteen-year-old Ghimmire made the time to work on his poetry. “For five years, I continuously wrote poems and published them. Slowly, I began to build up a reputation among my teachers and classmates. One day, my friend took me to Nepali Bhasa Prakashini Samiti and introduced me to Bal Krishna Sama and Krishna Shumshere. A vacancy for a writer was available in their committee and they selected me. From 1944, I started working and writing for the samiti, committee. Two years after my arrival, Laxmi Prasad Devkota joined us.
“About this time, Devkota, Gopal Prasad Rimal, Kedar Man Byathit, Siddhicharan Shrestha and I would meet regularly at the samiti. We would share and comment on each other’s work. I think this environment was congenial for our growth as poets and writers.
“Our greatest fear with our writing was the then Rana government. We had to be careful that we did not criticize them openly because they were suspicious about what we wrote. Occasionally, the samiti published a satire or two but these were very obscure. To read we had to smuggle books for ourselves. Still, I remember I was able to read and write a lot during this period.
“I think challenges are part of every situation. Each time you want to do something, you will face difficulties; this is a natural process of life. We came through the problems in our time and today, if you look at the world, you’ll see the “competitiveness” between people – writers, poets or journalists in our context – becoming a big problem. In the old days, creating a name for yourself was easier; fewer people wrote or created.”
Ghimmire’s writing career developed gradually and in 1946, he became the editor of Gorkha Patra. In 1947, he participated in a poetry competition on the national flag of Nepal. Besides winning the competition, his reputation as a good poet spread. Sharada and Udaya were other journals in which he began to publish his work. He continues: “Then my first wife Gauri passed away and I was shattered. I began writing poems on her.” His poetry collection Gauri was received very well and the journal became enormously popular with the public.
Ghimmire worked for two more years at the Gorkha Sansthan. However, because of his wife’s death, he realized raising two of his children, at that time his two daughters, was becoming a difficult task. For a while, he took over the management of a school in Gausar – a small town in the besi, hilly flatlands of Lamjung. Then in 1952, he participated as a trainer in a teachers’ training program in Tahachal located in the capital. Later on, a college was established in the same area, where Ghimmire taught Nepali literature until 1957. That same year, the poet who had now become nationally established, became the member of the Royal Nepal Academy. “My involvement in the academy’s activities reinforced my commitment to Nepalese Literature. My whole environment was filled with literature and creativity and, I felt, there was nothing more I wished for.” Ghimmire became Vice Chancellor of the Royal Nepal Academy from 1979 to 1988 and Chancellor from 1988 to 1990. During his tenure, he led delegations to China, Russia, and Bangladesh. For his work, he has received the Distinguished Academy Medal, Shree Prasiddha Praval Gorkha Dakshinabahu, Bhanubhakta Award, and Tribhuwan Pragya Puraskar among others. And his literary achievements are Gauri, Malati Mangale, Himal Pari Himal Wari, and Shakuntala to name a few.
As he reflects on his life, he expresses his desire to talk about the poet and poetry. He finds it helps him to identify himself better. “People may be able to differentiate between the physical beauty of a stone and plastic bag. When they are asked to select between a flower or lalupate leaf, it becomes difficult. Both things are part of nature’s creation and are attractive. I think, here, the poet becomes indiscriminate. Here, they are able to distinguish between that subtlety and describe both things with equal poetic intensity.
“Similarly, people differ by their personalities. They respond differently to the same situation. If a person is slapped, she or he may react violently or angrily. We may regard this response in two ways: objectively and subjectively. I think the expression of poets is based on the latter. They look beyond the person’s violence or anger and, reach into the depths of her/his mind.
“For example, a lahure, Nepali soldier working for British or Indian Army, is known to his commander by his role number. When he dies in battle, news reaches his village and people think highly of his valor. His brave deed is regarded objectively. However, what are his mother’s feelings? She has been expecting him to return, maybe bring her a gift, and when she hears about her son’s death, it is not a role number but an integral part of hers that dies. She thinks she should have died instead of her son. How would you define her feelings?
“When a mother’s child cries, she feels pain. So whether it’s the mother who lost her son or the mother whose child is crying is not the issue. The emotional content both mothers convey is important. This is what comes into the poet’s poetry. Pain, anger, joy, or sorrow subjectively described is what makes poetry real.
Talking about today’s literary environment, Ghimmire is speculative. “In my time, even though we feared the Rana government, we did not let go of our commitment. We did tapashya, penitence with our poetry. Nowadays, although competition is strife, a lot of young people have the freedom to follow their interests. But how long they will want to commit themselves to writing or art – a path of mental, emotional, and physical struggle – is something else.
“Also, because of economic and technology progress, youth today have access to modern amenities. Nowadays they have computers at home. Although these changes have helped lives become better; at the same time, they have developed a more relaxed view in people regarding work – the grit and perseverance that makes creation brilliant – which I think is missing.
“The way appreciation is being given to people is disappointing as well. When you watch television, you see this person or that person being acknowledged. Whether their work is worth it or not; it doesn’t seem to signify. The publicity stunt seems to weigh much more. And in time, this kind of process will devalue the meaning of literature and art.
Ghimire rationalizes that poetry should stand up for human values. “Children are brought up learning values that later form their perceptions. Sometimes, they are learnt to believe the wrong things. Look at our caste system. It leads to a misunderstood perception of class structure that is damaging. When I was a child, I used to play with a boy from the Damai, tailoring class (Before, in Nepal, vocations were allocated according to a person’s caste). Once while I was bathing in the river, he came by in a dhunga, small boat and I playfully tried to catch him. He then splashed me with water. Everything about us was natural and spontaneous.
“I feel poets should be able to go beyond the social hierarchical boundary and give humanity vision. By using their poetical skills, they should be able to seek the truth and broaden minds.”
Ghimmire believes as poets or writers we should be able to advocate world peace, justice, humanitarian deeds, etc. We have leaders who govern the country but they try to solve problems through political or administrative means. With poets or writers, wisdom should emanate from their writings.
“Most important is the conscience of the poet – how s/he perceives things; to be able to feel for the sufferings of others is what a poet should be able to emote in words. Like in Devkota’s “Muna Madan”:
Manche thulo dilale huncha, jatale hundaina,
A generous heart makes you profound and not your family/caste.
“These are the words of a compassionate man and they make you feel deeply. “Why did Devkota feel like this? Who can understand? Why do poets feel the way they feel? Who can understand? I think being able to write good poetry is a boon for others. People have the opportunity to look through the eyes of a poet and sense the beauty, ugliness, sadness or happiness in the world. Sometimes in ugliness or hardships, poets see things differently. Here, their hearts rule over their minds.
“In the past, I wrote many poems on the Himalayas. People started to call me the ‘poet’ of the Himalayas. Then someone questioned me whether I preferred the hard life in the hills to the less difficult life in the plains. I feel, however, the richness of the mountains move me; I cannot stop it. I loved my first wife Gauri dearly. She had scars on her face from small pox. Yet it mattered little to me. When I wrote poems on her, I was writing from my heart.”
To the eight-one-year old poet, social consciousness is another strong element in poetry. His awareness regarding a catastrophe like the effects of nuclear warfare indicates his sensitivity towards the future of the world and, the reason behind his poem Ashastha. He especially feels strongly about the status of women in Nepal. For him, they represent a symbol of struggle and hardship. “I find I strengthen my poetry by writing on social issues. This does not mean that poetry that comes from the heart is less significant. I feel poetry that comes from the mind is as important; it only takes a different mode of expression. Besides, this kind of poetry requires enlightenment. It cannot come from experience alone.
“As poets or writers, we cannot expect our work to make tangible changes in society, but down the years, it should be able to give the human spirit that conscience, courage, and foresight to make those changes possible.”