When national poet laureate Madhav Prasad Ghimire died on Tuesday 18 August at the age of 101, it marked the end of an era in not just Nepali literature, but in Nepal’s nationhood.
Ghimire embodied the Nepali soul in prolific poetry, many of which were rousing enough to be turned into national anthems. They resonated with love for country and its landscape, rich descriptions of mountains and valleys, rivers and forests. He wrote about the nurturing power of nature, observing and describing creation in all its spectacular glory and diversity.
Born in the village of Pustun near Bahun Danda of Lamjung district, Ghimire was raised below Himalchuli, a mountain that crops up over and over again in his poetry. He grew up grazing goats in the high pastures, roamed forests picking wild berries, the hum of the Marsyangdi River constantly flowing through his mind – sadly whispering in winter, gurgling with happiness in the spring thaw, wild and angry in the monsoon.
He ran away from home at age 12, stealing some money from the family coffers, so he could get a better education in Kathmandu – then known as ‘Nepal’. He got his college degree in Banaras, where many educated Nepalis sent their children in the Rana days when schooling was frowned upon by the state.Many of Ghimire’s poems have been rendered into song by Nepal’s famous musicians like Narayan Gopal and Ambar Gurung, and his plays have been performed for decades in Nepal’s theatres. Generations of Nepali children have grown up memorising his ‘Gaunchha geeta Nepali...’
Ghimire has said he was always inspired by Nepal’s nature, and believed in its healing powers. This intimacy with the land and its inhabitants is a constant refrain in all his works. There were critics: he was deemed to be too close to the Panchayat rulers, helping Queen Aishwarya with her poetry (some say he even ghost wrote some of them), supporting King Gyanendra’s coup in 2005.
Lately, some labeled him with retroactive correctness, as a proponent of a unitary Nepal. He was unapologetic about this, but also celebrated in his poetry the ethno-linguistic rainbows that make Nepal Nepal.
He tread lightly through life, never taking himself too seriously, and did not have time for cynics and people with strong, too rigid, convictions. He made a distinction in his poetry between flag-waving nationalism and patriotism. And along with his deep affinity for this land, he had a special place in his heart for his birthplace in Lamjung. It became a matter of great regret for him that he could not go back more often in later years.
His observational skills were phenomenal, using simple similes and rustic colloquialism to describe in the minutest detail the sound of night rain on blades of corn during the monsoon, Himalchuli glistening like a diamond in the moonlight, clouds massing up against the dazzling Himalayan sky, the slanting golden sun after a shower.
Ghimire had vowed to finish his poetry epic Ritmbhara before he died. He did indeed finish it, working on it till he became frail. The poet was cremated in the midst of a spreading pandemic on Wednesday morning. He leaves behind a rich legacy of words and music, many of which are available in reprints of his books and in songs on YouTube channels.