Becoming Nepali: Projects of Self- Making in the Writings of Laxmiprasad Devkota, Balkrishna Sama and Bisweshwor Prasad Koirala
Taking the writings of three literary figures in mid twentieth century Nepal, this paper shows how a close reading of literary texts allows us to access the constitution of particular kinds of selves at a particular historical moment. Drawing on the literary texts of Balkrishna Sama and Laxmi Prasad Devkota, and Bisweshwor Prasad Koirala, well known figures in Nepali literature, the paper asks, how do these writers write about the becoming of modern middle class Nepalis within their texts? The attempt is to suggest that different levels of mediation with notions of respectability, progress and nation are at the heart of the literary projects of these authors. The historical conditions that pushed for self-reflection, self-definition and readjustment of ideas of the self in Nepali literature were perhaps greater exposures to the political and social changes happening across the world. If modern education allowed access to an engagement with the literary production happening across the world, it also allowed access to an understanding of the world and the place of the self within this world.
The imagination of a collective identity that of being Nepali, was invariably a response to the historical changes of the early to mid-20th century. All involved in the self-reflective project however did not always imagine the collective identity in similar ways. Thus, the attempt is to read more critically certain discourses, particularly the discourse of stereotypes that provide too easy and simplistic notions of collective identity. Two of the most easily available tropes of the Nepali identity available are that of the brave Gorkha and that of the isolated and backward community. While the force of these tropes cannot be denied, and it even plays out in the authors explored in this essay, the contentions over these tropes, attempts to define new tropes for self-identity, are productive grounds for understanding the projects of self-making in Nepal. This will also entail processes of drawing on other tropes and projecting alternative stereotypes.
The attempt is not just to look at what kind of notions or ideas constituted these literary imagining but also to look at the kind of writing practices that are employed to engage in these conceptions. Thus, the attempt is to deal with both the content and the form of the literary writings under question. In exploring the ways in which the Nepali authors in question deal with and employ different modes in their writing, attempt will be made to under different levels of mediation in their writing, a mediation with Western forms of writing as well the prefigured Indian engagement with the Western modes of writing that Nepali writers draw on from their Indian counterpart. Thus, the attempt is to understand the possibilities that different forms of writing provide them.
While historiographical writings on Nepali modernity stress on the crystallization of particular discourses about the nation and identity in mid twentieth century, the attempt here is to ask where and how such processes break down and fracture and where they congeal. The focus is therefore on the contingency of the processes of self-making through writing. This paper takes autobiographies, short stories, reflective essays and plays as both texts and sources of history. The attempt is to show that a close reading of literary texts coupled with the methods of social theory and intellectual history can be productive ways of looking at the past.