Postmodernism, Nepali Literature and the Question of Theoretical Consonance

Mahesh Paudyal


Without being burdened by the imperatives of defining categories—as those related with ‘postmodernism’ are terms overwrought by discussions across the academia all the world over and are conceptually indefinable—this paper claims that there is very little detection of symptoms that are conspicuous and identifiable as symptoms of postmodernism in Nepali literature, though in painting, music, films and fashion, one could probably make a tally of things, both structurally and thematically, and make a table of the postmodern. Postmodern is not something that conforms to strict bracketable traits; rather, it encompasses many things at once, and therefore, is plural. There are many postmodernisms, and different authorities of the theoretical conundrum position themselves on different ends of the same thing, sometimes even to the degree that they contradict one another, and nullify the whole attempt to define. In fact, postmodernism sprang from the debates about finalities, and sought to jeopardize any attempt towards finalizing, normalizing, stabilizing, defining, fixing, coding, symbolizing, classifying and universalizing a concept or a code. Still, for a purpose Spivak might call ‘strategic essentialism’, we might tacitly agree upon a few trends that have been recognized as postmodern, as cited in several occasions by critics of high acclaim like Govinda Raj Bhattarai and Krishna Gautam. Thus, we can see if Nepali literature—whose one facet has been claimed as strictly postmodern qualifies to that rank.

One important irritant persistently creeping into any theoretical discussion about modernism or postmodernism is history. The discipline is so pervasively and so intricately connected with politics that it cannot be done away with, when literature is discussed, both in relation to modernism or postmodernism. Besides this, history is an indefinite repository of meta-narratives and grand-narratives, and hence its inevitable relation with modernism and postmodernism is quite self-evident. Modernism was necessarily about criticizing history and seeking a break from it—a move away from history’s totalizing and centralizing impact towards individual self-awareness, and therefore, away from institutional identities towards individual identities. History—along with religion at its core—as modernism depicts, was an eclipse that cast a heavy shadow of pessimism, fragmentation, hopelessness, spiritual banality, and loss of faith in politics, religion, and God, resulting into a conditional continuation of faith in science and reason. For postmodernism, history is an epoch of the past to be objectively alluded to— neither to criticize nor to eulogize—but to present it in a form different from the one presented by the traditional, nationalistic historiography and to lay bare paradoxes and contradictions within itself, so that it looks altogether different and multiple. Krishna Dharabasi’s Radha which deconstructs the traditional Radha-Krishna binary could be a case in point, but it alone doesn’t make up an example of postmodernism in Nepali fiction simply because of its feministic bias, which creates another set of binaries. Nabaraj Lamsal’s Karna, which topples the meta-narrative of the Mahabharata in relation with its depiction of Karna as villain is interesting and calls for a confused attention whether it is a postmodern experiment, but the author’s  bias—which the postmodernists would never show—is very apparent, and hence, the epic, both in form and content, is still modern. Jagdish Ghimire’s Sakas is apparently too critical of history and deals more with its psychological impacts than the structure of history itself, and therefore, continues to be an example of a modern text.

It will be a beneficial idea to continue the discussion by considering the very term ‘postmodernism’ as a tripartite: post-modern-ism, as Eva T.H. Brann suggests. ‘Ism’ as she claims, is “running in droves” and for this, we must locate a whole group of writers—not critics who foist incompatible categories—who make such an ‘ism’ a trait of a group. In case of Nepali literature—be it in poetry, novel, story or any other genre—the claim is repulsive, because there is no such group. Some critics claim, the practitioners of Leela Lekhan, a type of writing that sees life as a game with various facets, like the life of Lord Krishna, are postmodernists. Leela Prastav of Indra Bahadur Rai and his followers, does, to a great extent, identify its proposal with postmodernist practice, but writings coming out of the pen of most of these writers do not rigorously foreground postmodern ethos. The Prastav is Derridian to a great extent—as it allows no finality to any interpretations and leaves everything to a lidless end—and it will be a lame mistake to claim everything Derridian—which is a linguistic, and strictly speaking semantic idea—with postmodernism, which is a cultural category. Leela Lekhan, as it has a definite manifesto, summarily defies the quality of being postmodern, because it defines itself, sets rules for itself, and claims definite patterns for itself, and this is something postmodernism never, never does. A postmodern work, as Leotard contends, is not composed in accordance with any previous universal rules, or meta-narratives. This is to say that a postmodern tendency doesn’t rest on a set manifesto; its traits evolve out of itself, and need not—and does not—conform to any proposal.

There is (was) a group of poets in the east that incepted in the 90’s as Rangavadi, and their practice, to a large extent, defiled most set rules, and sought to identify for itself a unique identity as poets. They even took up concrete poetic trends, and defiled classical rules and norms for poetry.  Rangavad attempted to see life as a spectrum of colors, and its different combinations. But by the very name and definition, it has a structuralist inclination. Moreover, thematically, the group chose issues of identity, race and recognition, and picked characters from the lower strata of life, especially from the ethnic minorities in the Eastern hills of Nepal, thereby making their positions more akin to structuralist Marxists, and not sustainably postmodern. There is no other group identifiable in Nepali literature which has practiced a sustained exercise of literary endeavor that qualifies to the rank of ‘ism’, and is still identifiably postmodern. A few authors tried something called ‘mixism’—a name neither theoretically accepted, nor established as an experiment. It was an attempt to mix generic forms of poetry—ghazal and lyrics—but unlike collage and pastiche that settled down as identified postmodern experiments—owning mainly because of the fact that its pioneers could produce their own practitioners and successors—mixism failed to gain currency, and did not evolve as an ‘ism’. It was aborted before late.

Another test-case is in relation with the prefix ‘-post’ in postmodernism. Modernism in Nepali literature doesn’t coincide with modernism in the West. Modernism in the West overlapped with the rise of industrialization and the maxima that marked the limits of colonial expansion. It also took along settled polity, established political systems, expanse of the market, rise of education, and pervasion of market economy. These parameters are repulsive in Nepal. The latest political questions in our case is not one of experimentation as is true for it the West. It is more a question of finding ways to replace the erstwhile feudal set up—represented by the vestiges of monarchy and landed nobility—by a more egalitarian society. These are questions America tackled in the 1770s, France also in the 1770s, England in the second half of the nineteenth century, Russia in the 1920s and China in the 1950s. This political modernism prepared grounds for their literary modernism, and now when the modernisms in these countries have matured, it is obvious that they seek an escape from their own tedious continuity, and so, postmodernism became inevitable.

But the same is not true for Nepal. The collapse of Ranarchy in 1950 marked the first most remarkable manifestation of a consciousness for modernizing. It intended to end and did end a centralizing, closed, dictatorial, conservative and coercive rule of the Ranas, to be replace by a better, humane and democratic system. But, since the 1950s, our politics has not been moving forward; it has just been oscillating between a mean position, the back-tracking being more apparent than forward swinging of the pendulum. The most important question the nation was facing back in in 1950 was as to what kind of polity should replace the Rana oligarchy. The same question loomed over in 1960, 1971, 1979, 1991, 2005-06, and continues to pose today in 2020: what kind of polity should replace the past system, and by the same token, the Rana legacy of dictatorship, feudalism, inequality, and willfulness?  Ever since the question was settled in 1947, for once and (seemingly) forever, India has moved ahead. We have oscillated, more backtracking than swinging forward. We have, therefore, failed to cash the most important political event that was apparently modernist in the sense that it was a show-cashing of the highest degree of consciousness, something like what Kant called a freedom from ‘self-incurred tutelage’ for enlightenment. All political movements in Nepal since 1950 are nothing but newer versions of the same thing; just a revised echo of the 1950 revolution. Even by claiming that we have accepted the idea of federal system doesn’t confer upon us a title of the postmodern. This was a question most Asian and African nations dealt with, long before the onset of modernism, or almost during the time we have identified as modern. This is, at least, a step towards modernizing ourselves.

If modernism in literature is to be seen in connection with the ground reality of the country and not just as a disjoint category called consciousness—this the Marxist might refute as impossible—Nepal is still struggling to achieve a good shape of modernism. Accepting literature as realistic depiction of the fact supplies us the reason that ‘fact’ in today’s Nepal is pre-modern. I am aware, that in urban spaces like Kathmandu and Pokhara, due largely to the expanse of media and the Internet and direct interaction with the Western culture, symptoms of change are traceable, but literature—if it has to be Nepali literature in strict sense of the word—cannot behave as an island by neglecting the voice of the 70 percent of the nation’s population, which, as facts claim with authority, is living in a pre-modern situation. We are still seeking to define our political system. The fundamental question, still, is to replace the economically stratified society strewn with untellable inequality by an egalitarian equation, to ensure the minimum rights of women and children, to allow roads to every village, to manage an uninterrupted supply of power to every household, to manage rice in remote districts of Mugu, Humla and Kalikot, to supply pills to the victims of diarrhea in Jajarkot, to manage text books for school-going children etc. Even the minimum that makes a country modern has remained a far cry in our country. How then comes the questions of the postmodern, unless it is willfully foisted upon an incompatible cultural space by ambitious critics and reviewers at an incompatible time?

What is plain, therefore, is that like the nation itself, our literature is struggling more to register its departure between pre-modern and modern. Since there was no strictly identifiable literary phenomenon that spark-plugged modernism in Nepali literature, its bracketing within the limits of time is a question without answer. Critics have identified 1937—the year first prose poem “Kaviko Gaan” was published by Gopal Prasad Rimal and “Prati” was written by Laxmi Prasad Devkota—as the point of departure, but I am of the opinion that a generic form can never set in motion a new movement in literature. It has to be an epoch-making political event, or a ground-breaking, edge-cutting, content-determined work of art—like Joyce’s Ulysses for example—that should mark the limit. Seen this way, real and visible modernism started in Nepal, politically, only around 1950 with the of collapse, or attempts to topple the Ranarchy, and the exercises to replace it with a more democratic system has not been achieved even today. Time, therefore, is not politically ripe, to think of postmodernism in our case. If literature can divorce with politics and can carve for itself a new trajectory of development, I am unsure what actually inspires and propels literature. The same is true for postmodernism, and I agree with Linda Hutcheon: “What I want to call postmodernism is fundamentally contradictory, resolutely historical, and inescapably political” (4). If it is merely ‘imagination’ that matters, we are simultaneously in all ages: pre-modern, modern, postmodern, and to contain all these at once, we are in a romantic era, which will last forever, because imagination will last forever.

There are critics who cite the case of increasingly dominant body of writings that echo the voice of the identity groups and the subalterns to bolster their claims that such writing is postmodern. In the first place, much of such ideas are inspired by the Marxist dialectic of have-verses-have-nots, and are bent on giving the have-nots a voice. There’s nothing new and strictly postmodernists in that. The whole premise, if explained as postmodernist, has the fear of being self-defeating, because in order to refer to and identify a group, the writer has again and again got to pull into discussion the existence of another group—allegedly a dominating one, a bourgeois one—and once again, the structuralists’ favorite binaries figure out. Postmodern text should, instead, try to dismantle the very premise that enables such binaries to stand, and theoretically argue that nothing that defines groups as haves or have-nots, or oppressed or dominant, ever existed. Postmodernism is never prescriptive; it is merely demonstrative.

As for the subalterns’ claims, nothing save the denouncement of nationalistic historiography is postmodern, and the whole project—led initially by Ranajit Guha in India—was pointed out to be neo-nationalistic in the sense that all that led the project were elites, and the subjectivity of the subaltern was, in the long run, their invention. The project was, therefore, plagued by the fact that it contrarily confirmed Spivak’s concern that a subaltern lacks the infrastructure that allows it a real voice. The same is true for all writings about the subaltern in Nepal. It has neither questioned the foundations of binaries, nor developed a methodology markedly different from nationalistic historiography. A few novels in this line like Taralal Shrestha’s Sapanako Samadhi, Yug Pathak’s Mangena and Rajan Mukarung’s Damini Bheer have dealt with history and juxtaposed the subaltern vis-à-vis the bourgeois history, but structurally, they reproduce the traditional novel, and thematically, there is nothing like the nouveau roman—like Alain Robbie-Grillet’s The Erasers, for example—that questions the very praxis of the binaries that enable the visibility of the subaltern in comparison with the elites and the aristocrats.  The project, therefore, is not postmodern.

The last point this essay tackles in relation with the confused idea of postmodernism relates with the literature of Nepali Diaspora. In the first place, the theoretical premise in which Diaspora is being confused with emigrants is pathetically wrong. There is no doubt that a huge chunk of Nepali population is abroad—most of them for work, and a few naturalized in the past two decades—but most of them are emigrants and not Diaspora, because they still have homes and families here and are likely to return any day. Those naturalized abroad have an extremely short history out of home, and therefore, they do not possess the qualities necessary for defining a population as diasporic—namely a faint memory of the homeland, an ambivalence of conformity, a situation of cultural hybridity, a difficulty that impedes coming home, an organized effort to create an imaginary homeland, and an inability to mix with the host culture, etc. Their children can be diasporic, but they have not become writers yet. The real Nepali Diaspora are people living from centuries in North-East India, Bhutan, Burma and some settled ex-army men’s families in Hong Kong, UK and Brunei. But they either have contributed little to the corpus of Nepali literature, or, their writing doesn’t show postmodernist trait in an extent that it inspires a different theoretical classification.

What then is all this fuss about postmodernism in Nepali literature? Much of it is a confusion, coming out from critics who are not, in fact, attempting to show postmodernity in any work of art, but are trying to explain and interpret western postmodernism to their eastern students. Secondly, there is an anxiety associated with our critics to cash in hand any fashionable western theory and use it outright, without considering whether the soil and air here is prepared for that. Third, the confusion of postmodernism and postmodernist is rampant. Fourth, the tendency to lump every post-structural experiment as postmodern too is there in our case. All these points—one to four—are at once prone to questioning by the single fact that postmodernism tries to locate that the owners of information in the news age have now changed from institutions to individuals, but in case of Nepal, almost all the information and knowledge is still controlled or regulated by institutions—either directly by the state, or private institutions that control the information technology—and therefore, the postmodern condition is not yet traceable. Yes, the question that our literature reflects a neo-natal category called postmodernism—at least on our case—can be accepted at least.

The best idea, therefore, is to see how Nepal can streamline and nurture its own alternative modernity—as projected by Sanjeev Upreti. We need to see if we can combine our nascent modernity with some of the strengths of the western postmodernity—like its apologies for pluralism and liberal humanism—and carve a more defined and matured modernity. We have to wait and see if more of experimental fictions like those of Kumar Nagarkoti—gradually moving out of Joycian hangover, though—and poems like those of Manprasad Subba come and enrich our literature till a formidable body of work that is postmodern in the real sense becomes traceable. We must wait and see if the likes of the film AClockwork Orange Time Bandit or Blade Runner, or novels like 1984 and novels of Thomas Pynchon become visible in Nepali literature. Since the possibility is a far cry as postmodernism is fast dying out and becoming anachronistic, it too will be a good idea that literature can still do well by foregoing or dispensing with postmodernism. It is not necessary that we must always subscribe to any idea that is Western. How about making genuine and committed efforts to identify and define our own type of unique modernism, and free ourselves from the anxiety of postmodernism? Harold Bloom’s children-of-mind better remain silent; anxiety of influence is not always a good idea!

A note of caution before I end! There are two groups of people, who have made postmodernism a buzzword, of late, in Nepal. In the first group are vehement critics of the phenomenon—most of them being Marxists—who are inspired by Frederic Jameson’s explanation that postmodernism is the “cultural logic of late capitalism”, and therefore quite coercive. Second group consists of the enthusiasts of critical theory—most of whom are democrats—who champion the postmodern claim for multiplicity, and therefore, argue that it can give voice to the hitherto silenced communities. Both the stands have their strengths, but are pathetically plagued by sheer limitations. The first group oversees the idea that postmodernism has vaporized before settling down—even for a brief spell of time— in Nepal, especially in literature and therefore, their fear is about a non-existent Sandman. The second group makes up a contingent of neo-normativists, who want to replace one state of affairs—namely, a society characterized by one group’s hegemony—by another, but they oversee the fact that by siding with another prescriptive or idea, they become positivist, and put the very notion of postmodernism into question by being prescriptive. I am, therefore, arguing for a third polemic: postmodernism only sparingly influenced Nepali literature in apparent fashions, and therefore, it will be the best idea to explain it away as something that came in the western metropolis, and died out there itself. Its aftershocks did reach our thresholds, but subsided without leaving any traceable change or damage. We are already in an era of planetarity and a borderless globe. What we need to embellish, at the present, is the idea that our modernity needs maturity, and we must work in that line for a few more decades, and give a final shape to our alternative modernity.

[Paudyal (b. 1982) is a faculty at the Central Department of English, Tribhuvan University, and a critic. Author of books in various genres including fiction, poetry and plays, he is also a translator of high acclaim. He has represented Nepal in several academic conferences abroad. He is the Chief Editor of The Gorkha Times. He can be reached at]

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