Manprasad Subba’s Primitive Village and Other Poems: A Critical Review

– Binod Pradhan

A text is a device conceived in order to produce its model reader. I repeat that this reader is not the one who makes the “only right” conjecture. A text can foresee a model reader entitled to try infinite conjectures. The empirical reader is only an actor who makes conjectures about the kind of model reader postulated by the text. Since the intention of the text is basically to produce a model reader able to make conjectures about it, the initiative of the model reader consists in figuring out a model author that is not the empirical one and that, in the end, coincides with the intention of the text.

– Umberto Eco, Interpretation and Overinterpretation: World, History, Texts [1990]

  1. The Poet and Poetry

Poetry is preeminently the art of language where the poet continuously reorganizes the vast complex web of communication and Manprasad Subba is unarguably one such poet  in the contemporary Indian Nepali literature who is occupied not only with the intensification and exploration  of the techniques of experience but also with the evaluation of its forms and structures as well.  The book ‘Primitive Village and Other Poems’ published by  Sahitya Akademi in the year 2013 is a self-translation of Manprasad Subba’s collection of Nepali poems ‘Aadim Basti ra Anya Kavitaharu’, which was first published in October 1995. This collection had bagged him the Sahitya Akademi award in the year 1998. A close reading of these poems indicates that the poet is not only concerned with the immediate relation of the individual experience or with judgment but he has been well aware of the extensive implications of his world. There is an aesthetic underpinning in the form that he uses to array the experiences and thoughts which is strongly sensed in his translations as well.

The original poems in this collection can be traced to be written from the 1980s onwards and it seems to be a phase when the poet’s creative sensibilities were greatly influenced by the western modernistic aesthetics. The existential crisis surfeiting the zeal of iconic modularity designs the theme of the poetry in this collection. The core ambience each of these poems reflects is that of decentralized, disintegrated fragmented human world and human life with multilayered complexities that that turns oblique and impassionate which camouflages the myopic reality. In the poem ‘In the Bank of Ganga’ there is chain of signs interlinking to cultural systems, for example, the poet tries to represent ‘Ganga’ as an image of sanctity or purity but he rejects himself to be purified with the water of Ganga. The poem demythifies the cult image of the holy water frolicking a kind of irony. The irony is released to its ultimate vehemence when he says, “I’m coming from the bathroom/ to bath in your riveriness”. The sole tone of ‘riveriness’ embodies the cultural, ritual and co-historical significance with which the poet wants to involve himself but not with a preordained notion rather subverting and debunking the culturally constructed mythological stratifications. So ‘bathroom’ becomes something extravagantly opposed to ‘riveriness’ of Ganga, as bathroom is a place for physical cleansing whereas Ganga is a place for spiritual cleansing. Thus, the bipolarity of images are contused and fused which determines the poetic mechanism that Manprasad Subba is trying to built; but a doubt or query may arise that whether the poetic usage of words- ‘bathroom’ and ‘Ganga’ is limited to its literal sense of meaning or does it carries a wider scope of meanings- are they paralleled to some metaphor, allusions, allegory, double sense that bears a sign for multiple signified; as I.A. Richards mentions, “. . . The wild interpretations of others must not be regarded as the antics of incompetents, but as dangers that we ourselves only narrowly escape, if, indeed, we do. We must see in the misreadings of others the actualisation of possibilities threatened in the early stages of our own readings.” [Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment] But notions regarding the texture, tones and criticisms of poetry should not be limited to Richard’s argument of “their effects upon feelings” because these associations employed by the poet also construct the forms of the poetry.  To make this sound more appropriate there is a certain statement that will clarify it:

“A semiotic programme, studying the operation of individual signs in literary texts as opposed to broader elements of textual or discourse structure, emphasises the way in which meanings are produced and organised into various areas of experience through binary oppositions.”

[Poetic Thoughts and Poetic: A Relevance Theory Account of the Literary use of Rhetorical Tropes and Schemes, Adrian Pilkington]

The poem ‘Wine’ tries to amplify poet’s sublime accelerated prowess which reveals the substratum engulfed in some lines that continuously transmits the poet’s inner and outer forms of harmony. The wine entwines as exclaimer of life force which is embodied in a more trans-cultural sphere with the Dionysian myth- “Please, Dionysus! Pour some more’. The poetic craft in this poem is the parallelism that the poet has drawn between the wine and his inner desires-

“Descending down and down in this glass

I’ve remained mere a gulp

Replenish this glass once again”

Here ‘glass’ can mean one’s life that is eventually coming to an end, ‘remained mere a gulp’ could be a reference to the last breathe that one is left with but this end could be surpassed through the life force i.e. the wine, hence there comes a remark-“Replenish this glass once again”. All he seeks for is the revilement of life force that could be only be perched by wine. If his need for replenishment is not fulfilled then his self might never grow or explore further; he believes in renewing old facets with new charisma. ‘Wine’ can be a symbolical asset of impetus or stimulator. He longs for a reformation upon himself discarding death; rather he wants to defy death with the excabulating essence that will be vested upon him with the sensational attribute of wine which could also have a spiritual connotation:

“Do not make me meet with

An end of an earthen cup”

Thrown by a traveler’s unfeeling hand out of running train”

A mere assumption can be  drawn that “an end of earthen cup” denotes the role of death  upon the earthly life or an ultimate end of something that once had an existence/ significance/ essence of its own. It seizes to hold its essence and throws a reflection upon the impact of time upon all animate and inanimate objects of the world.  Hence, time becomes as an agent who determines the durability of each essence. The role of time can be depicted in the lines, “out of the running train”. Time is a component that travels continuously taking everyone inside it. In general the poet’s intra- time spectrum of time and its influence upon him can be broken only by the eternal elation that can be salubrious and different than the normal vision of life. The poet’s quest and desire is much longer and acrogenic; he is not going to settle or agree ‘just for this much inebriation’. This poem has an invoking tone musing to Dionysus who is the God of wine and celebration and fertility in the Greek mythology. Thus, the undertextual meaning of wine can be the vigor for life not bound by indoctrination through which his sole self can be metamorphosed into oleander existence.

The content of the poem should not be the sole concern in modern theoretical discourse-“Form is content-as-arranged; content is form-as-deployed” describes Helen Vendler. Taking this note into consideration Manprasad Subba’s ‘The Primitive Village and Other Poems’ has been analysed from both the content capacity and the form inbuilt in the poem. His poems come up with certain monological tones and there are certain imagist techniques that he applies in his poems, for instance:

“Thus a tree I stand always

Unfolding myself

Ever on a journey while standing…

No matter if someone with the eyes of electric bulb

Looks at, but sees not, this openness of the tree.

I may not be seen as I am” [page 7]

The entire tree is not looked up as a concrete object but the object is been dilapidated, fragmented- each fragments designating different meanings to the object. A ‘poetic thought’ is a special kind of thought (involving a special kind of thinking) that is difficult to express and communicate accurately. At least, this is the view of many poets. Seamus Heaney has made the point (in discussion during a poetry reading at the Kent Arts Festival in 1986) that poets have to balance the conflicting claims of ‘accuracy’ and ‘decency’. By this he meant that poets are primarily concerned with the accurate expression of ‘poetic thoughts’ and only secondarily with making such expression accessible to an audience.


  1. The Primitive Village: In context to the long poetry:

The long poetry ‘Primitive Village’ is divided into three sections- section one, two and the epilogue. The first section deals with the primitive and savage human nature. It is also a depiction about an apocalyptic vicissitudes that entrenches and human beings from dimensional velocity. The village is very much like Eliot’s Wasteland but the difference that lies between ‘Wasteland’ and ‘Primitive village’ is that- Eliot tries to depict futility of human beings in the context of modern European society whereas Subba has tried to depict the primal passion, animality and rawness with human being in a universal context. Therefore Subba’s ‘Primitive Village’ is a place where ‘faith’ is tied to a nail which never functions with the mutuality amongst the residents of his village. The drastic strokes of words paint a very picture of the existence within his village which is actually like an ‘endless tunnel.’ Even the man’s own belief is lost and dimmed into his endless tunnel. The significant factor in this village is the ‘presenteness’ where man is choked in insomnia like state. There are numerous illusions nailed into the time that seems constant and fixed; there is no going forward from this place, and this existence is like “shipping down on the hard surface of meaninglessness”. Life becomes very much absurd, there is no absolute reality, and every image shows the decentralized survival of every being. This decentred existence has been exemplified very well by Martin Heidegger in his philosophical work ‘Being and Time.’ ‘Being’ is always in the process of becoming but his ‘becoming’ in Subba’s ‘being’ seems to be constant or fixed:

“With this endless

Has remained the same

Every frenzied song and dance

Composed ever the corpses of

Innumerable ecstasies in hypocrite

And gatherings’   – page 53.

Heidegger in his philosophy explains that ‘Being’ is free from all worldly essences and in imperfections; this is similar to the Nietzschean concept of ‘Unbernansch’ and Kierkegaard’s notion of the ‘Holy Knight’. But Subba’s ‘being’ are caught in the imperfections of world hence they will never be able to transform into ‘Being’ (with capital B).  They lack the Nietzschean notion of ‘Transvaluation of values’ because Subba has made it clear in his ‘After word’ – ‘with an inner urge to write a whole poem’ started the long poem Aadim Basti (The Primitive village). And for this, man with his fundamental attributes has been taken up as the theme. This poem is one of man’s eternal imperfections spread over the undivided stretch of time.’’ Subba has called such existence of people as “Man’s fertile imperfection’ which discards all the barricades of time division:

“This endless passing has remained unbroken

despite division of tense in grammar

yesterdays are always today and now today

and now have ever been a cold scarcity of each awakening.”

Time becomes just an assumed determinant that has no past, neither any future. It has been knotted into present and it is this present that has been elongated since moment immemorial.  Even Henry Bergson’s theory of ‘prima duree’ suggests that time is always internal and external. The internal time is the one that is within the mind of the people and the external time is the ‘clock’s time’. Subba’s might be more concerned about the ‘external time’ while he was writing this poem or he was closely thinking in terms of Einstein’s concept of ‘relativity’ where time becomes a relative component in association to the mass and speed of different objects.

“No need to talk of tomorrow

Has it ever come in our life ?

Only a mirage,

A doodle on sand,

On easy pretext to hold on the life”.

But still time has on unravelling influence upon the mankind. It makes or sets a routine in the life of every one of us. And he expresses this passing phase and appearing of routined version of time in a metaphorical way:

“The days and the nights

Are only a tortoise’s head

Frequently getting into and out of its shell

Or the face of a barrow woman

Covered and uncovered with burqa”

This fixidity of time has never allowed life to be free. The radical individual freedom that is one’s own recognition of one’s mortality has been lost somewhere. Jean Paul Sartre is the most commonly discussed existentialist who was writing after the World War II. Sartre has asserted that the key concept of existentialism is that the existence of a person predetermines his or her essence. The term ‘existence precedes essence’ subsequently became a maxim of the existentialist movement. According to Sartre, “Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world and defines himself after words.’ Thus Sartre rejects what he calls ‘deterministic excuses’. Some sections of these poems try to come up with the deterministic excuses that have pushed back people to move towards the longer space of existence:

“ How man,

On the pretext of searching by himself,

Gets list entering into the snail shell !

And bearing the heavy shell on the back

Man moves around silently

Squelching in thick mud

Finding his self nowhere!”

A strong voice creeps in speaking about the importance of the individual – just like Beckett’s ‘Godot’, Eugene O Neill’s ‘Emperor Jones’, Defoe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe’s, Parijat’s ‘Sakambari’, .The leading question about each of these characters is ‘what does it mean to be existing as a human being?” there is also a question concerning what is right and wrong in a world of mortal chaos. There   is the daunting issue of what constitutes a meaningful way of life in a world in which all talk of purposes has become obscure. There is a realization that the human concerns and human experience count in a world that has proven to be mostly knowable. A question can be posed that what does heavy shell on the back of man indicate? –  is it despair? is it alienation?, is it isolation? or is it hollowness? These are multiple indignations but these are also the significant elements which people strive to overcome but will never be able to do so.  To break this shell means to overcome all the rules and regulations that operate on social, political, social, ethical, religious and moral grounds. It would be important to note that Nietzsche has raised something in context to the overcoming of boundaries and terms it as “Ubermansch” which in German means “to overcome” (some critics even call it ‘Superman) – the one who has gone beyond the moral, ethical, social religious and political restrictions. This is how one throws away the heavy shell on one’s back.

The poet also remarks about the ‘lack of communication’ amongst the individuals which has disabled a proper contact between them. Here each of these individuals is not able to understand one another or oneself because they never make an attempt to reach one another:

“we may speak for speaking sake

A heap of words

One can fill one’s own hollowness

With straw- like strings of sentences”[page 60]

Words spoken here mean nothing because it is hollow as people never speak to establish a real contact rather just to fill up the vacuum:

“why are these words that danced in corn ear

Now just as breakfast for the swarm of locusts?

Why can’t they turn in new leaves of trees?”[page 60]

There is no sympathy and compassion amongst the people- one needs to understand the pains and pleasures of others in order to establish a perfect bond but this mutuality is decrepit and full of malady. The distancing of one from the other are suggested in certain lines like:

“sentences are but falling hairs from the heads!”[page 60]

The falling is not a an instant phenomena; rather its like a falling of hairs which depicts that it happens time and again and it cannot be recovered. Same is the scenario for the spoken words and their impact upon the speaker and the receiver. The unfulfilled contact attempted through conversation and communication can be seen in lines like:

“Just go and listen

To irritating croaking of frogs

In the village gatherings.”

[page 60]

“Ears are often stormed

By the noise of sacred sucks

And the brawls and barks of stray dogs”

[page 60]

Section two of the longer poem ‘The Primitive Village’ deviates from the pre-inscribed sensibility towards the subtle deprived scenario, here there is no evidence of primordial animal instinct of section one. Subba entails a fresh thought in section two. He uses the same stylistic affinity and imagistic prevalence only to show that the village is not only a place of hopelessness and negative vibes but it has the other side as well.  The other side of this village is presented in section two- the colour of the village changes, new aroma seems to enter just like the coin has flipped to the other side. The poet has artistically produced these dual standards in this long poem harnessing phases of this village. Manprasad Subba has claimed in his Afterword that:

“Even in the dense fog of mysteries he feels tickle of his soles urging him to move ahead. But those very feet, being tied with shackles of worldliness, are walking back and forth across the swamp of common human nature since the time he dwelt in cave.”

Hence, there is a certain tinge of hope and looking ahead anoxia that still lingers along inside this village and the villagers despite of all the vicissitudes:

“man always strives to break

The formidable fencing of his own flaws

Refusing to be suppressed he struggles

To push away the suppression of his own weakness” [page 67]

Concepts can never be neutralised, neither can they be denied but they can always be argued and modified- the striving energy that Subba presents is the Heidegger’s discourse ‘being is always in the process of becoming’ which came out from the philosophical notion of phenomenology admixed with existentialism. The most balanced word that the poet uses here is “suppression of his own weakness”.  He does not say ‘discarding his own weaknesses’ because weakness is a necessity for striving, he believes that, it is a measuring rod for struggle, weakness determines the strength. So one cannot completely cut off or do away with weakness. That is the reason ‘suppression’ is an apt act of overcoming of weakness that brings the continuity of human struggle. If there would be no weakness there would be no desire to win over that weakness and move forward. Hence enacting the momentum of weaknesses men transform themselves into something more than what he frames into. In- framing and out -framing of self and ideological counteractions coalesces with a proportionate and relative action. The ‘formidable fencing of his own flaws’ has a strong aesthetic compatibility with the universal human entity.

The endless striving that has been manifested in the poem is not only a physical striving, it is not just the physical entity of the man but the discourse traces the spiritual realm as well. The poet makes it clear that people are striving for spiritual recognition as well. The larger spiritual self is essential for the formation of existential identity:

“Man wants to slough off his meek self

Tirelessly he battles with the confines of his body.”

Composite ideas automatically stretches over these lines and it can be pondered that if man wants to head towards the perfection then he has to escape away from the physical pleasures and pains. Tillich’s formulation expresses this point beautifully- he speaks of our anxiety due to the threat of non-being. The forms of non-being are many and various and each prefigures the ultimate loss of being that is death and contingency of being that is birth. Both of the chance exerts and extreme situations of life make evident that the threat of non-being can cause us anxiety. Being human is finding oneself thrown into the world with no clear logical, ontological or moral structure.

Discussing about the meaning and absurdity Sartre spoke of an unfulfillable desire for complete fulfilment and thereby expressed the meaning of absurdity. Meaning must therefore be constructed through courageous choice in the face of this absurd situation. This kind of choice cannot be understood as achieving moral certainty; rather it is moral heroism within an essentially morally vague and chaotic world. So, the importance of choice becomes very important and through this choice man can transcend to any sphere:

“Octaves of surrender and submission

Do re mi fa so la ti do

Do ti la so fa  mi re do

He keeps composing endless variety of tunes

Attempting to transcend the extreme scale,

Aspires to reach no one knows where.”[Page 68]

Each desire and aspiration is like a notation of music and man is free to make a choice for how would he wish to be played. Each tune contributes towards composition of complete music/harmony. The poet might also be indicating towards the construction of harmony out of chaos.

To gain perfection, completeness and harmony is not an instant task but it is a gradual process and this gradual process is expressed in a metaphorical technique:

“Man exerts to be the full moon

though he knows the moon cannot save

its stark nudity even beyond one night!

1st 2nd 3rd …Full moon night”

Man’s journey towards perfection is like moon’s different phases until the night of a full moon appears. It is an increate thought that Subba is acquainted with. He even builds up nihilistic philosophical linkage:

“If wholeness is contained in void

Man struggles to expand all over it

But does not want to be void himself

And dares to go even beyond void”[page 69]

The self awareness sometimes stretches unto self exhalation in this primitive village, the villagers are sometimes overfilled with self vanity and sometimes they are turned up into non entity:

“Sometimes he’s Narcissus in water charmed by himself!

Sometimes a salt-grain in water invisible to himself!!”[page 71]

There is also a conflict between two opposing forces, two contradictory elements in the village. This is the very essence of this village and the villagers. The last stanza of section two will explain this notion more properly:

“where man is absorbed in giving forms to formless,

Where man gets soaked

With words dripping from the eyes of speechless,

Where man rises Phoenix from his own ash- heap,

Where Robert Bruce gathers himself

After witnessing spider’s journey…”

[page 75]

But finally in the epilogue the poet has claimed that this primitive village is a confluence or a composite of both evil and goodness, it is an adjoining site of both the animalistic and the aspiring beings. The best lines that express this is dual core tendency of the village is:

“The village

Dimmed by the haze of noises

Where conflicts pull man until the shirt is torn

… …

And sometimes with the torn shirt on

A smile like a cloudless day.”[page77]

  1. Poet and the Translator in Conclusion:

In conclusion the commendable issue to be discussed is Manprasad Subba’s art of translation. He has translated his own poems from Nepali to English; these are languages that belong to different linguistic family. It is perhaps axiomatic to say that translation is as old

as language, for the different language communities renders translation mandatory for their interaction. With translation as an indispensable activity there emerged diverse theories and theoretical reflections to guide it. This diversity stems from the diverse perspectives and approaches to translation with corollary of a plethora of definitions.

There has been a plethora of definitions which E. Nida (1964: 161-164) has elaborately surveyed . He rightly elucidates:

“Definitions of proper translating are almost as numerous and varied as the persons who

have undertaken to discuss the subject…. for there are vast differences in the materials translated….”

Manprasad Subba has deliberately focused on the various trends in his translation capability with the oldest ‘literal’ vs (versus) ‘free’. Others subsume ‘literary’ vs ‘non-literary’, semantic vs communicative, static vs dynamic, among others. He shows and imparts pairs concerns the closeness, sometimes referred to as fidelity or faithfulness to the ST (source text). This type tends to emphasize the inseparability of form from content. Secondly, it can also be seen that the source message has been made conveyable in a different form.

Subba has made a great balance between this interlingual and intersemiotic translation and this shows his capability and command over both the source language and the target language which has proved his translated edition of his Nepali poems into English a success.

Binod Pradhan,a resident of Lamagaon, Bijanbari,Darjeeling is currently serving as Lecturer at Southfield college Darjeeling.