The Kathmandu essayist

From The Kathmandu Post (12 February, 2015)

Our reading culture cannot progress in the absence of Kamal Prakash Malla

The intellectual polymath Kamal Prakash Malla’s prodigious output of English essays in the 1960s through the 1980s constitutes a neglected national treasure. The professor’s oeuvre is there on the shelves for us to utilise to understand the intellectual stirrings of the early years of Nepal’s modern era, which also informs our chaotic present.

Malla’s body of work, recently brought before readers in two collections (one new, one a re-issue, see below), should be required reading in the English departments of Nepal’s mushrooming colleges. But first, lecturers of English language and literature must reacquaint themselves with him.

Kathmandu’s intellectualism may be shallow but its scope is broad and as such, it is incongruously vibrant. The discourse is essentially in the Nepali language, with English still playing second fiddle. This has restricted the range of conversation among Nepalis and also made it difficult for the powerful ‘diplo-donor’ community to appreciate local challenges. This is where Malla’s writings come in, even when decades old, to provide readers in English with a better sense of the texture of Nepali society, warts and all.

The ace

Presently living in retirement in Atlanta, Georgia (“at 76, no longer in proper physical form”), Malla started writing in 1957, on different aspects of Newar civilisation, later developing a speciality in linguistics. But the voracious reader in him was not to be restricted, and he ranged far in his writings, from medieval history to epigraphy, ‘bahunbaad’ to totemism and educational curriculum. Malla’s exposure to world literature/scholarship as well as his grounding in Nepali/Newar society made him the front-ranking commentator of the period from 1950 through the 1980s.

The professor was most prolific during the height of the Panchayat regime, the most politically restrictive period of our modern times. That may explain the tone of isolation one finds in Malla’s writings. One scholar at Tuesday’s launch of the two books described Malla as a ‘curmudgeon’, and that would not be far off the mark, for the don does not suffer those who profess scholarship but exhibit little rigour. I would myself depict Malla as the ace essayist of Kathmandu, for his breadth of vision and depth of research, the ability to grip the readership through reams of pages, and the wicked willingness to splatter holy cows.

Perusing Malla in the mid-1970s was my own introduction to what Nepali writing in English could achieve—while never getting quite there myself. Re-reading his essays, one notices an easy self-deprecation that is so fresh amidst the virtuous pomposity that marks much of Nepali writing in English to this day. Many remember Malla as an angry young man even when on in age, but you will also find in his essays a finely hewn sense of humour, laconic and understated.

In the foreword to From Literature to Culture, which contains essays from 1980-2010, Malla wonders why the team at Social Science Baha, led by Deepak Thapa, selected a ‘dark horse’ such as himself to curate a collection. He lightly likens The Road to Nowhere as the output of a “young intellectual on holiday”. At one point of self-reflection, Malla tries to fathom why it is that his writings veer towards such “acidity, anger and indignation”.

1950s onward

To read Kamal Prakash Malla in The Road to Nowhere is to revert back to the early 1970s. That was a time of reckoning for the Valley intelligentsia: the Rana regime had been nicely toppled but there was collective guilt in the submission to Mahendra’s royal coup of 1960. Along came this young scholar, linguist by training but evolving as an observer critic of individuals and institutions, given to “consciously cultivating a hyper-critical mind”.

The terms that crop up in the book are themselves redolent of the Panchayat era, ‘class coordination’, ‘Non-Aligned Movement’, and ‘partyless polity’. The place names too revert to a different period—with New Road, its Pipal Bot, and Sandesh Griha the hangout for the news-hungry and politically-inclined. The contemporary journals were Vasudha and Nepal Review.

The names of the men of stature of the time populate these pages: Yadu Nath Khanal, Rishikesh Shaha, Krishna Chandra Singh Pradhan, Dhanabajra Bajracharya, Iswar Baral, and Kusum Shrestha. And Dom Moraes, who created a flutter in Kathmandu by writing in Gone Away about the dying Laxmi Prasad Devkota at Arya Ghat. The Road to Nowhere contains a delightful essay of Malla’s encounter with the Goan poet at Hotel Annapurna.

Intellectual somnolence

Considering who Malla was and what he has to say, one wonders at the Valley intelligentsia of today, refusing to produce rigorous output, flush with lucrative donor consultancies, wasting the possibilities of our ‘open’ society to push the boundaries of intellect. Malla wrote for a small audience, from the heart, at a time when the aid organisations had not arrived to fund ‘action research’, conflict studies, and federal treatises.

Malla, the righteous intellectual firebrand, would never have succumbed, but there was never even the possibility back then of pandering to the stated or presumed tilt of the donor agencies. It may be a good thing that Malla is so physically removed from the Valley terra firma—he may well have been suffocated by the transformed mindscape, where society is free yet civil society and academia moribund.

Much of what Malla had to say about the intelligentsia of the 1960s and 70s resonate today. In the essay ‘The Importance of Being Critical’, he writes: “The frost of Rana rule sapped all feeble saplings of creative intelligence. However, one would have hoped that the following decades there would be some recognisable effort from among the academic community…In Nepal, the dominating academic atmosphere has always been one of abdication of efforts of every kind. It is laden with a deep somnolence.”

An excerpt from ‘The Intellectual in Nepalese Society’: “(The intelligentsia is) likely to remain a shadowy and insubstantial phenomenon—merely a band of economically castrated and socially limping angels beating the drums of their respective fads. In the recent past even the few stray intellectuals with us have tended to be less radical critics of their society than earlier. They have tended to be more concerned with solving the kind of short-term, specific problems which arise out of their complete identification with the Establishment. Of the rest, who are not-too-understandably impatient to be admitted into the pantheon, most lack character and distinction, integrity and effort, and their numerical presence, like the presence of monks in medieval monasteries, is merely ritualistic.”

On English

Nepal’s historical evolution outside the colonial umbrella gave it obvious advantages. One disadvantage was the late arrival of the English language, which we need to access the world of contemporary ideas in order to serve the people in the vernacular. Today, English has of course spread much farther than when Malla wrote about the English-intellectualism interface. But it would be correct to say that while today’s Plus Two generation may even speak with an American or British accent, the reading culture is extremely feeble. Would that someone stimulated the young adults in our colleges by introducing them to Kamal Prakash Malla!

I believe the English language can and must be brought to bear to push progress in Nepal, but would nevertheless like to end with Malla’s heart-rending endnote in The Road to Nowhere. He wraps up his last essay thus in the volume, written in August 1968: “As a student of English I am pessimistic about its future in Nepal. Hitherto English has been the strength of the modernising intellectuals … I admire them without reservation but often wonder why they write in English. In my own instance, English is the only tool I have for incision into my arteries.”

Kamal Prakash Malla, From Literature to Culture (Himal Books, Social Science Baha, 2015), The Road to Nowhere (Jagadamba Prakashan, 2015)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *