An Onion: Contemplating the Abstract

I met Bangdelji last evening in New Road. “Shankarji”, he said, “I just read your essay, you know that essay ‘Shankar Lamichhane in Shankar Lamichhane’s Opinion.’”

“Did you like it?”

“It was entertaining. But too realistic. Why don’t you make the next one a little more abstract”.

“But it is you who paints the abstract. How could I attempt painting at this point in my life.”

“No, …..but what I mean is, why can’t you adopt an abstract style for your ‘pen-picture’?”

I continued to smile. (Indeed, to know how to smile is a great art in itself. As man matures, he begins to develop infinite shade and nuance in his smiles). So with a smile, I bid Bangdelji goodbye, and shrugged off his suggestion.

Vyatithji was holding the cover design for Himani. In the same way that the name Himani immediately evokes Vyatith’s penmanship, I instantly recognized Bangel’s brushwork. “You use your pen so skillfully”, he says, “you could finish writing something for me in just a day or two, in time to publish this issue for Dasain. You know I am going abroad to do it.”

I continued to smile. (It is an art to know how to smile. Indeed, if you don’t know which smile to employ at the right time, you would suffer as though you were in tears.) With a smile I bid Vyatithji goodbye, and tried to shrug off his suggestion too.

But neither Vyatith, nor Bangdel, Himani or Abstract would leave my mind. The mind is a strange beast…and once an idea takes seed, it is difficult to get rid of it. In fact, the harder you try, a struggle develops between the individual and the individuality of the idea itself. And eventually, the form in which it emerges from your mind is changed subtly from when you first conceived it. So I began to play with the idea, to see where it would lead me.

Vyatithji, just as Krishna allowed Yashoda to view the entire universe by simply opening his mouth wide, please be ready to view my universe. But do you really wish to observe the contents of my mind? To begin with, I must remind you of this: I am a thinker inhabiting the 20th century (of the western calendar), from a middle class family, and married; I am a father, young and healthy, progressive in thought and a model citizen. I am also intensely anxious, and I face many problems.

The biggest problem being: I stand here on my small ten bigha of land. It is bordered on one side by the traditions of my ancestors, and on the other I am bound by the trust of my children. I am delighted by the flight of Sputnik. I am proud when the Russians unfurl their hammer and sickle on moondust, as proud as though Khrushchev himself came to borrow the hammer and sickle from my house. However, during a lunar eclipse, I fret about being touched by a pregnant woman, and expiate by giving generous alms to beggars and sweepers, acting as magnanimous as though Maharaj Manu himself was the patriarch of the Lamichhane clan. I stay informed of all sorts of news, reading the Gorkhapatra, Newsweek and Time, and further supplement my reading with Filmare and Romance. I garner nuggets of truth within each piece of news. I am plagued by Marilyn Monroe’s suicide, weighed down by the problems of Elizabeth Taylor’s latest affair. The death of Dag Hammarskjold, the affairs of UNO chief U Thant, the Cold War, Laos, Suez, the Golan, Kashmir, Malay, Iran, Ceylon…all such problems beset my mind. I just finished Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer”, and now am worried, where am I going to find “Capricorn”? I hear Sir Winston Churchill has a broken limb, and am concerned, will it heal or not? What is Nepal going to say in the UNO? Who will get the vote in the Congo? My son has finally recovered from typhoid, but I hear it is Ekadashi both today and tomorrow, so I don’t know whether I can buy meat at all. A scientist has been successful in transforming grass into milk; a terrorist has crossed the border and shot somebody; there was an attempt to assassinate the premier of France; how is the Algerian problem to be resolved? I have been reading “Myth of Sisyphus” by Albert Camus, and Camus himself is from Algeria; Telstar now has begun broadcasting television in Europe; meanwhile, the jyapu from the neighboring field has just died; he used to ask me ‘ja nai dhuna la, bajye?’ the jyapu had no children, and Bangdel too has none. But Bangdel asks me to write in an abstract style, just like his cover art in Himani, very similar to the language of Vyatith…..

Enmeshed in, and limited by this multitude of ramblings, I hold on to my individuality, fenced within this ten bigha of land. So understand, you Vyatiths and you Bangdels, that this, my life, is in itself an abstract; that with this life’s abstraction I am continually distracted, and it is this abstraction I continually try to deflect. Each day my morning begins with, “We need money to buy fresh vegetables”, and each day my afternoon is spent searching for sources of this money; each day my evening concludes with “I am a little more exhausted today”. Every day, someone known to me dies, and I spend a little time trying to forget his death. Every day I remember a little of the past; every day I anticipate a little of the future, and every day I evaluate the present. Every day, I barter, buy and sell, pawn and redeem, my confidence, my beliefs and my desires. “Our servant is being cheated by Sukuchha, the butcher, did you see the meat today, nothing but bones..”; “today the milk is so watered down….”; “firewood has become so expensive and yet it is so wet..” all these complaints, brought to me in desperation by the wife, the cook and the child, these are the very complaints which define my boundaries. On top of which, I burden myself with additional worries; such as, Nehru’s proclamation in Parliament today…is there any truth in it? Khrushchev’s action in Berlin, how will it affect the world? Where will the next World War begin? How many children will live their lives in darkness because of the effects of Thalidomide? Where did Alfred Noyes end up dying? I hear that he always wished to die on the mountains.

Bangdelji, whose life is not an abstract? What person’s life is not abhorrent to himself, until he learns to deaden the horror of living by being simply mute? Who does not experience acute despair, until he learns to mask it, bury it behind smiles? Vyatithji, which person does not feel greed and envy, until Nara himself finally extinguishes his life? This is no longer the satyayuga of rishis and seers. Today, every alert living being claims an intellect which is no less than the infinite form of Krishna.

Every human being is a god today. A god, who creates his own world employing deceit, envy, betrayal, murder, legality, obligation, superstition, faith, devotion and ignorance. God today is not confined to a particular religion, but finds expression in Christ, Mohammed and Buddha. Today, god is also diplomatic, like a Brahmin purohit,…. just like the accommodating purohit who responds, “Of course, why not sir…” when we request, “Could we not use this shortcut purohitji?…” God, today, is anti-god just like Buddha. Today, we make use of god, just like we use birth control. If we need his presence he appears, if we don’t, he is conveniently absent. Whatever dose of god is required, that is the very amount prescribed. When he is needed for Poetry he appears as Meter; when he is needed for divine Hymns, he appears as sacred Vocabulary; when he is needed for Sycophancy, he is present as the Encyclopedia; he is the Destitute in Urdu, the Compassionate in Sanskrit, and of course the Consummate in purest Bhanu Bhakta Nepali. As I was saying, man has become god today, and is replete with all the godly virtues. He has appropriated all the virtues, except one, which man has irrevocably lost, the virtue of being human. He is no longer that honest man, who lives his life remaining true to being a man, to die in the end, simply a man.

This man of today, the one who has lost humanity but has not yet achieved divinity, if this is the man you seek Vyatithji and Bangdelji, please come see me. No other greater “inhuman” person will you find; certainly no one who will expose himself as I am willing to. Vyatithji, how can I explain it? I am not labeling myself “inhuman” in rage. Look, since I call myself Hindu I am by instinct, polytheistic; nevertheless, I am also drawn to Christ, Buddha and Mohammed. I delight equally, in the veneration of God, as well as all the historical atrocities that have been committed in God’s names. If not for those atrocities, those Crusades, those Shankaracharya persecutions, those victorious conversions by Asoka’s ambassadors, those jihads by Tuglag Shah…if not for all that, then how could the Vyatiths become Hindu, the Bangdels Christian and the Shankar’s Muslim? And I would have ended a mere believer in all, and a devotee of none. How could I possibly say Om Brahmasma, when instead of believing in the Self, I only have faith in the Other?

It is because, Vyatithji, I am not a man of the present. I am a man who is yet to be born, a thousand years from today. And in that distant future, these limitations of nationality, religion, faith and politics will no longer exist.

I tell you now, why I still stand on my ten bigha of land. It is because, simply, I have no desire to be restricted by your definitions. I have no wish to be tainted by your colors. If I cross these boundaries, I will be forced to adopt citizenship, and this is why I prefer to remain an alien, without any citizenship at all. I simply exist, and am myself, that very frontier which separates present from the past, and the past from the future.

You must have seen it. It is a five faced linga, set within that ten bigha of land, undefined, unadorned and bare of any devotee’s offerings. Yet if that linga had to be removed, it would require the greatest sacrifice, that of blood. Bangdelji, do you see the color of that frontier? Is it white as in the boundary marking lattha, brown as in the earth, or red as in the lines on a map? Does it flow like the river, or is it cloaked like the mountain peak? When you transform these lines of distinction into abstract art, Bangdelji, only then will I attempt to express my thoughts in the abstract style.

Until you are capable of doing so, and while you remain unsuccessful, I also wish to remain undefined. If I did express myself in the abstract style today, then you would have to go back to the ambiance in Paris to fully comprehend it. In order to understand my abstract character, you will have to commit to memory, “One Day” all over again.

This is why I continue to smile.

And this is why, in my smile, there are subtle variations. One smile is for Vyatith, one for Bangdel, and one for my son.

And so I continue to live. Simply because I have, as yet, portrayed others and myself always with truth, and with realism. And in a realistic depiction, I would be an onion; drenched with color, twisted within layers, eternally pungent and profound.

Today, even Krishna can take on the cosmic form of an onion. So Bangdelji, draw a still life of an onion. And Vyatithji, compose an epic upon an onion. Your creations will be truly monumental. They will be authentic expressions of today’s individual and today’s society, in all its eternal desolation. And within that same painting and epic, I too may find eternal life.

If that painting or epic is not created today, then tomorrow, with the inevitable passing of Himani, Bangdel and Shankar, the future will have lost all memory of our existence.

…In the same way, a thousand years from now, all of these very distinctions too will dissolve.

Translated by Shikha Lamichhane-Mayer

( The translator is the daughter of Shankar Lamichhane, now lives in the USA)