September 1959 saw Devkota, Nepal’s non-drinking but chain-smoking Dylan Thomas, tossing in the agony of impending death at Kathmandu’s lonesome Bagmati riverside. The pre-historic Pasupatinath kept vigil over his last gasping days, as it has eternally done over so many of His dying devotees. Amongst those that shared Devkota’s painful last moments, there was the now-famous Dom Moraes. *
Devkota’s premature end was preceded by months of acute suffering resulting from cancer of the polyrus. Earlier, he had been taken to a Calcutta hospital for treatment. Then followed a trip to Moscow, also for treatment, and, still later, once again to India. It, however, fell to the lot of a Kathmandu missionary hospital to wage an unsuccessful last-ditch battle against Devkota’s destiny. A series of blood transfusions later, Devkota himself realised the futility of fighting against an unrelenting fate and begged that he be removed to the banks of holy Bagmati. “I grew tired of drinking human blood”, Devkota is recounted as having told Moraes, “so I have come here to die.”
Thus passed away Nepal’s most versatile literary genius of this century. And, as the years go by, Nepal, almost with a smitten conscience, is increasingly realising that, in the person of Devkota, she had produced – and callously lost – almost all that epitomised the spirit and achievement of the twentieth-century Asian literary resurgence in this country. For, in his works, we can discern the very spirit of Renaissance – expansive, humorous, powerful, and, above all, human.
Most of Devkota’s one hundred and fifty written works are yet to be published, but the dozen-odd that have seen the light of the day is enough to set his name firmly on the saddle of fame. Devkota’s uniformly high-standard of published works cover a wide range from epics to erudite essays, from prattle to politics, and elegant translations. What’s more, all these were products of the rare moments of leisure amidst the hectic and penurious life of Devkota, the college and school teacher, and Devkota, the rebel-politician.
His prolific creativity is attributed to his pronounced Tennysonian capacity of writing poetry at instant notice.
* Apart from figuring in a Moraes memoir, “Gone Away”, Devkota also received a pensive homage at his hand in the form of an article in the London “Observer” which was reproduced in the Hindustan Times dated August 14, 1960.
Devkota, a publisher once noted, had agreed to write twelve short stories for a proposed collection. But when the publisher called on him on the appointed date, the promised stories had not been written, not even one. Devkota had perhaps forgotten, as was his wont. “But would you mind”, Devkota ls said to have asked, “if I dictated a few right now ?”
“When I emerged from Devkota’s residence five hours after”, recounted he, “my platter was full. But that I could not bring all the twelve stories was not because Devkota’s dictation had been slow or halting; it was I who could not write fast enough. I wish I had learned stenography”.
On another occasion, the perennially penurious Devkota, when in need of some urgent cash, wrote a two-hundred-page verse-lyric called Kunjinee, almost overnight. But again, as was his habit, he forgot all about it soon after.
Some years later, a local group of stage enthusiasts adapted the same story in the form of a play and invited Devkota to witness the show. When the play was over, Devkota was asked to comment on the performance. “It is very well-written”, the poet retorted, but, forgetful as ever, asked, “Whose work is it?”
When he learned that it was an adaptation from one of his own works, Devkota was amazement personified!
A law graduate from the Patna University in India, Devkota had been to Calcutta during the ‘Thirties, presumably to to complete his Master’s degree. There, it is said, he got a taste of Bengali literature and became enamoured with it, especially with Tagore and his works such as the Gitaanjalee. He is said to have kept himself confined to his room for weeks at a stretch, studying Tagore. Apprehensive of a developing mental derangement in him, friends tried to break this spell, and despatched him, post-haste, to Ranchi Mental Hospital. There, perhaps, his literary ‘flowering’ began…
Back home on recovery, Devkota himself called that spell of derangement a “bursting forth” of his latent talents, as summed-up in his The Lunatic, thus:
“In the frigid winter months, I basked
In the first white heat of astral light
And people called me crazy…
Shocked at the first streak of frost
On a lady’s tresses
For a length of three days
My sockets filled and rolled
And they called me one distraught!
…. …… ….
I laughed with the tempest one day
And the wiseacres of the world
Despatched me promptly to Ranchi!”
The well-known Indologist and Hindi scholar, the late Rahul Sankrittayana, compared Devkota’s poetic genius to that of Valmiki and Kalidasa, and added that Hindi literature had yet to see a poet of Devkota’s calibre. “One of the greatest sons of the Himalayas, wrote he in his well-known work, Atit se Bartamaan (‘Past to Present’), and equated Devkota to the famous Hindi literary triumvirate, Prasaad, Pant, and Nirala. A more lavish commendation from such a famous scholar is hard to come by.
Devkota led his country’s delegation to the two Afro-Asian literary meets, once in New Delhi and, later, in Tashkent. The signs of his failing health, however, were already becoming gravely apparent and, in response to invitations from the writing fraternities in India and Russia, he made a trip to these countries for medical treatment.
But, ironically enough, his own countrymen were too slow, or indifferent, to come to his rescue even during his last days when his precious life was fast ebbing away. It took much, indeed too much, time for the authorities to grasp the gravity of the situation. Considering that B.P. Koirala, the then Nepalese prime minister, was himself a life-long associate of Devkota, both as a litterateur and a fellow revolutionary during the long years of the country’s struggle for democracy, it was utterly callous of him not to have been smitten by a qualm of conscience till a vigorous and popular protest forced him to act. Act he did, but it was almost far too late in the day.
To Dom Moraes, the dying Devkota described this phase of his life cryptically, yet pathetically, thus: “I went to Russia and they called me a Communist…Alas, I was a mere poet”.
Utterly unconventional in his approach to God and spiritual values, Devkota’s poems are often reminiscent of the revolutionary fervour of the Nazrul school of Bengali literature. In the Song of the Storm, for example, Devkota almost speaks the language of Nazrul Islam when he writes:
“The wild flight of the smoke-like looks
Of the Doom Dancer, Shiva,
I bear the standard of the deluge;
My flight is frantic free,
Untamed in an upward sweep,
I rage over ocean and heaven,
Sweeping them in a wild commotion
In a mighty swirling motion.
Like a Lady of Terror,
Pleased with my own dread beauty,
Beaming with my smiling flashes
And, apparelled well, I swing
Then I sing my sorrows maddening
With laughter that sting
And let loose the furies of the wind.”
He also blazed a new trail in Nepali literature with his satires against the accepted human values and human civilisation. In “The Donkey Speaks”, for example, Devkota subjects civilisation to the satirical scrutiny of a donkey, thus:
“Have you the power to create grass
Without its seeds, out of the Law?
Master Man, hee-hee-haw, hee-hee-haw!
What is the meaning of the Vedas four,
Before the twin principles of man, Hunger, and Lust,
A spark in a glow-worm’s tail
And a nut of the squirrel?
I have my fantasies too, Master Man,
But I speak not, write not, pour not,
Like you, I belch not;
Look at your cruel idols,
Wreathed in skulls,
In your worship of the Earth,
And of the Phallus, Master Man,
The sides of my stomach swell and burst,
Although not an outright skeptic, Devkota was a free-thinker all the same; the wheel of his ideas apparently turned a full cycle only towards the end of his spasmodic but short career. The almost incredible tale of woe and agony were writ large on his face when I met him in his Calcutta hospital shortly before his sad demise. His prolonged illness had reduced the five-foot-six sturdy build of a Rugby forward to mere skin and bones. “What you see before you is the carcass of a man,” he said, ” I once weighed 175 lbs. Now I weigh just 52.” His eyes were two liquid pools, full of tears.
Death, he knew, was lurking too perilously close to him, and his words sounded like a pathetic confession: “Perhaps my life-long atheism is at the back of my suffering…I have suffered both at the hands of man and god.”
To Dom Moraes also, he had confessed, “My poems were too materialistic…they were too much of the world. But I will not renounce them.” And, in conclusion, he etched his own epitaph, as it were, in these words: “I am the most unfortunate of the writers of Nepal”.
One of his very last poems summarises this disillusionment and is hauntingly elegiac:
“Void and empty,
In a fire of repentant thoughts burning
Like a grain of desert sand,
In eternal dumbness, I toss
Dying and burning.”
[ Courtesy: “This Is Nepal”, published by Sajha Prakashan, Kathmandu, 1977.]