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#DarjincSochaai - Why Don't We Read More Nepali Literature?

Updated: Apr 29

On the occasion of World Book Day 2021, Darjinc Sochai presents the musings of Anjalina Pradhan on Nepali literature

For someone like me who never grew up appreciating my own mother tongue to suddenly feel so emotional and restless on seeing the current state of our language today is rather unexpected even to me. The fact is though, I wonder so much about the future that this language is headed towards.

I did not grow up in an environment where Nepali was spoken all the time. At school too, the emphasis was always on the English language, and rightly so; after all, one of the main reasons we were sent to a private English boarding school was so that one could become learned in English, right? In a language that was considered more important and that would ensure the chances of getting a good job faster. Nepali was the ‘second’ language. So it was always English. Expectedly, I was weaker and scored less in Nepali as compared to my fluent English. In addition, now that I think of it, I don’t think I ever enjoyed any of the stories or poems we were taught throughout school, saving a few stories from senior school. As with many of us today, the result of that has been of considering myself as a byproduct of this place, experiencing a disconnect rather than feeling one to the place I supposedly belonged.

Somehow though, just as everything in life takes a full circle, so has my relation with the Nepali language too. Suddenly after all these years, there is a strong desire to reconnect with the Nepali language, in a big or small way. There were a series of events that led to this. Ever since I moved back home a few years ago, being back in an environment that predominantly speaks in the local language and required me to do so, got me curious on our local history and politics, our dialect & vocabulary, certain expressions, the nuances of grammar and even our lost folktales. But it was recently during the lockdown that I found myself building more on the curiosity. I spent more time on social media and found myself following people who were in different areas of arts and culture, representing us in different ways nationally. The commonality for me was the fact that they were all diverse yet Nepali speaking. On one such occasion, I happened to have a conversation with an avid reader who shared the same discourse as mine with regards to being more comfortable and expressive in English than in Nepali. We had the utmost pride, love and respect for our language yet somehow didn’t find the means to read in Nepali. I found out that the majority of the people I knew hadn’t read in Nepali since school too. Soon then, the Purple Pencil Project was running a campaign for the occasion of International Mother Language Day and was asking viewers to submit an excerpt in their own language as a contribution for the campaign. I found myself wondering why so few people had reacted to the post or worse still if anyone was ever going to contribute. All of this only reinstated my desire to reconnect with the language and further question so much more on why as young people we are so disconnected with our own language. Why and when had we let English overshadow Nepali?

I also began to realise that despite the willingness to reconnect with the mother tongue, doing so isn’t easy, unfortunately. Not because the language is difficult or has barriers, but because accessing it and finding ways to reach the language has made the disconnect wider and dealing with it more directionless. Do you go through dusting the old books in the local district library? Oh but well, the library is mostly closed, hardly has any books or requires a tedious amount of work getting done simply to get a membership in place. Do you try to find a bookstore that offers a variety of books to choose from? Only to find the old classics perhaps out of print or no new books across genres, or worse still your usual book shop only sells popular English novels and subject help books. You could turn online, surely in this modern digital world, there would be something available. But, if you so much as just go online and try to Google Nepali books written in or from Darjeeling, the search results will be an eye opener for you. Google comes up with a few, most of which are Nepali writers from Nepal. How is it possible that the likes of Indra Bahadur Rai have not made it on Google, I wonder, someone who literally depends on Google for everything in this whole wide world.

We’re alright reading a Nepali writer’s work translated in English, but we’re not when it is written in Nepali, simply because we read slowly in Nepali. It’s easy to say that you’re fluent or read faster in English than in Nepali but, hey, I’m guessing you weren't able to sing in Korean so fluently on the first try either, right? So reading again in a language you ‘think’ you’ve forgotten can’t be so bad, isn’t it? We have loved how the colloquial words and expressions are brought back in Nepali songs, then haven’t you wondered how beautiful, nostalgic and fun reading those expressions would be in a book too? A translated version, no matter how great, could never do justice to the real raw adaptation. We take pride in our Darjeelingé bhasa that is full of unique onomatopoeic colloquial words and expressions, then wouldn’t it be so much more beautiful if more of us not only spoke in it but read and wrote more in it too? Wouldn’t it be more beautiful if we could pass them down to the next generation too, and they to theirs?

The world has run faster than we could have ever imagined but our school story books remain outdated as ever. Perhaps children do not even connect or relate with them anymore. We have beautifully written historical stories and novels, but they aren’t talked about or made available in the most accessible ways. We have people studying and pursuing higher studies with majors in Nepali but we don’t appreciate or recognise them enough. We don’t encourage or share the works of those who so passionately write in Nepali and wish to add to our existing literature. Haven’t you ever wondered why you’ve never seen a bestseller writer in Nepali, or a Nepali book from Darjeeling? If we aren’t willing to read then how are we going to ever encourage Nepali writing or readership? You may have heard of that neighbour uncle who writes in Nepali but never is able to sell even 500 copies of his books. Is his book really so bad, or is it that we just don’t care? Why is it that authors from Nepal are making it there, recognised but none from here? Why is it that the land our language came from still prefers to read in their language while the majority of us have found comfort in the language we once slaved for instead? We want to fight for our land and want a separate state, but have we forgotten that every state that was ever granted a separate statehood has been on the very fact that the people spoke a different language? And yet, we seem to be so ready to give away with the very language that speaks of our unique cultural identity and being.

Alas, where we stand today looks very patchy. Our language is distraught in vocabulary, grammar and sometimes even pronunciation. We resort to Neplish instead. It is bad enough that our spoken language today lacks the original sound and feel of the language and even though it has found a place of its own, it would perhaps be a greater loss if the very base of our existence were to disappear just like that, simply replaced.

So where do we go from here? The need of the hour is to revolutionise and save our language from the plight that it is in. We aren’t always to blame for this state that we find ourselves in, but we must find ways to make more people realise, appreciate and reconnect with what we already have in a better way.

The fact is that the small circle of people who are writing and publishing their work are mostly limited either to those in academics or of a literature society consisting of members of the previous generations, which is perhaps why there is this disconnect between those who are the producers and the consumers or potential readers. This gap is widening and it is making us lose our language further. We need to make Nepali literature more accessible, digitise them, make them fun. We need to have them readily available for sale and consumption online. We must provide more platforms for writers and consumers to access freshly produced works. We ought to grow as a community in being able to decide, review, critique and bring Nepali literature in front of the many ‘literature in language’ recognising communities and forums. We need readers, writers, publishers, admirers and enthusiasts to all come together.

Language is more than a mere communication tool. Rather, it is the very base of how we communicate what to whom and how it becomes a means of passing something down to the future generations. It is an expression, manifestation and representation of our culture and identity. It is language that helps us pursue and explore further into our curiosities but also that which takes us back to our roots. Furthermore, when we speak particularly of literature in our language, it only amplifies our ability to communicate and record every nuance of our existence as a community.

Language, culture, history, geo-politics, like it or not, is all interrelated and interconnected. I believe that there needs to be a certain degree of patriotism, passion, desire and willingness to belong to where one’s roots are. Mere admiration for our assets and beauty superficially isn’t enough to feel proud about where you come from; saying you come from Darjeeling isn’t enough, neither being a tea-drinker is. You’ve got to want to understand and be one with this place in the truest sense to be able to feel the willingness and accept the apathy we are continuously surrounded by. Being strong in English will forever remain a boon to us, but taking pride in our roots alongside our history (during the British era and before that) would serve us better. For some things can be passed down and retained in its entirety only in our local language.

Just as how we are seeing an upsurge in the production and interest of our local arts, cinema and music in our language, the optimist in me wants to believe and hope that the revival of our Nepali literature will also see its day soon. Until then, let us keep encouraging, appreciating, supporting and trying to make small efforts in ourselves and push others too to work towards this. It is never too late to restart. Otherwise, soon we are bound to see the rise of a new language and the death of this existing beautiful language. There are plenty of people in the country that belong to tribes who speak in their unique local language but can only write in Hindi, or use Hindi as their language for official communication. Let us not let that happen to the future of this language.

You may think how ironic that I would talk so much about the near-death of our Nepali language and yet ramble about it in English, but the very fact that the realisation has sunk in for me and that I have picked up my old Nepali books to re-read them is a testimony to my contribution to save our language. I’ve made my start, what are you going to do about this?

This World Books Day, try pondering on picking up a book in your mother tongue to reconnect, than making a post of the many English books you’ve listed.

Write to darjinc@gmail.com if you wish to share how you plan to save the Nepali language. Buy a book today from the Darjinc website and contribute towards the conservation of all things Darjeeling.

About the author: Anjalina is a writer in progress who takes great interest in the Nepali diaspora and all things related to ethnography, local history & culture. She also has a research paper published in Multicultural learning in Conferences in the Journal of Event and Convention Tourism. Follow her potpourri of musings on Instagram: @being_places

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