I came to Sarita like ant to honey. While in search for quality Nepali writing from women, my better-read friends often gave me her name. Some had read her but most had heard about how important it was to read her. When I read her most recent book, Prashnaharuko Karkhana (Factory of Questions), I was blown away by the first section, Aadivasi (Native), where I encountered five simple poems and songs written in Nepali and Tharu about labour, land, gender, power, discrimination, ownership, identity, patriarchy, politics and the price of living.
How had someone used two languages and a string of simple words to address and deliver with eloquence such large questions? I felt like I was being tricked. At that point, I had not seen photos of Sarita and I imagined her in a stereotypical fashion (I’m ashamed to admit) as a young woman with short hair, a brisk walk, no husband and definitely no children. In her afterword, she writes about how many call her a terrorist, a militant feminist, or worse, a woman who has now attained manhood due to how openly and bravely she writes about society and politics.
When we finally ‘met’ over Facebook Messenger, I saw a Sarita unlike the one I had imagined. Not only is she a wife, a mother, a daughter-in-law, she is also a funny, woman who laughs easily, and openly shares with you stories you don’t feel you’ve quite yet earned.
In this conversation, we talk about language, ghosts, building dream rooms for women, and Tharu songs.
Sarita: I was called kancha and babu at home. And because I only knew my father through photographs, whereas my sisters and brother got to meet him, Aama used to give me extra attention and pamper me. I was treated like a son. It wasn’t until I was in 4th or 5th grade that I fully realised I was a girl.
S: People told me I was one. They said things like “you’re a daughter, you’re someone else’s property.” They never said that to my brother or other boys around me.
M: People are the worst.
S: But at home, Aama never let me feel that difference. She, herself, was taken out of school because her family believed that if you educated your daughter, she’d elope with a male teacher. Later when she suffered with my father who was never home, and blew all his money and property away, she realised that daughters and sons should have equal access to education and opportunities. Aama sold all her jewelry to send all four of us to school. Of course, she wasn’t perfect, there were many things she believed were ‘cultural’ that today feel heavily gender biased—for instance, during menstruation, we wouldn’t go to the kitchen or the prayer room, and my sisters and I knew that we’d be married off to men that my mother would choose.
M: So, you met your current husband through your mother?
S: Yes. Aama didn’t believe in love. To her love marriages brought shame. Our society is not generous towards love. Maybe these days it’s slowly changing– back then, if you fell in love, you were rotten. Surprisingly, many people in our village were in love marriages. Aama was worried for us, especially for my eldest sister who was so pretty that boys hung around our house just to catch a glimpse of her.
M: It’s funny how we can be so progressive about certain things and so unforgiving about others. So, you relented.
S: I was unhappy at first. I was just completing my bachelors and still wanted to study further. But Aama said something that made me turn. First of all, she cried, and I’d never seen Aama cry. She is a strong woman, who moves like a man. She said, “I am getting weaker, and soon I won’t be able to care for you. You will suffer if you live your life alone.” And when I met my father-in-law, he talked very openly about how they didn’t want a buhari who would just clean the house, they wanted someone who was motivated to do something with her life. They had read my first book then, and felt like they knew me. Anyway, all marriages are a compromise, ours isn’t any different.
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M: When I talk to poets, a lot of them speak of light and how poetry is a pathway towards light. What is this light and where is it?
S: I often think that if there had been no songs in Aama’s life, she would’ve been depressed. She raised four children alone after suffering under her husband for all her married life and we were not well-off, still she was full of life. In the ratyauli gatherings, she sang the loudest, the clearest, the prettiest. Like many of us, I, too, have a lot of childhood traumas and dark moments in my life, and the only way to bring light unto these moments is through creative means. Otherwise, we would all be mentally paralysed and incredibly sad. When I think about why I’m content in life, or emotionally strong, I know it’s because I am close to poetry. I make poetry and I read poetry. Every time I read Avtar Singh Paash’s Ab Mein Bida Leta Hun or Parijat’s Manushi, I get new energy. When writing my own poems, I feel like just when I am walking along banks of despair, I get pulled quickly towards life.
M: In your poems, you write about conversing with the ghost of Parijat.
S: There were many circumstances in my life that could have brought me so much more suffering, and by suffering, I mean the suffering of not knowing one’s own self. But somehow, I came to hold a pen. And because I have the ability to write, even with my limitations of space and language, I have the ability to know the world. So, yes, the spirits of Joan of Arc, Parijat and Virginia Woolf come to me in my dreams and slap me across my face. I am in this situation where I can write and say something, they tell me that I must. Similarly, Marx and Confucius come and loosen my feet, make my gait more stable and lead me down the path they have created. If they hadn’t done the important and difficult work during their time, we wouldn’t be where we are now. But the battle for me is also that I have so many things to say but if I said them all, I would break ties with my family, who are closest to me. I have parents-in-law, a husband, a daughter, a son, a society we all exist in… I am in constant battle with myself. I wish I could free myself from me.
M: Is this the ainthan that you speak of in your poems? I’ve only ever heard that word in the context of sleep paralysis.
S: Exactly – you’re sleeping and there is something heavy sitting on your chest. And I used to feel this ainthan especially in those times when my readers and close friends would call me Taliban, or ISIS and paint this picture of me carrying a belt of bullets around my shoulders, AK47 in my hand just because in one poem referring to Devi, I wrote about how all of society’s “shame has drowned in your vagina,” or how in another, I mention “saliva and semen,” or there is a poem where a girl’s own father repeatedly rapes her. There are such disgusting things happening in our society every day, and I have written about less that 5% of that–not even written, just alluded to them– but people can’t tolerate it. There are a few poets like Ujwala Maharjan from the Word Warriors who are trying, but…
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M: What about your closest people like your family? Do they read your work and react in the same way?
S: My father-in-law is a fairly open-minded person but he and my mother-in-law still believe in some pretty traditional basic roles for man and woman and how things should operate in the house. My husband just leaves me alone when it comes to work. He doesn’t say, “Oh, I saw your article is out and you wrote so well!” but he also doesn’t tell me not to write. I guess I take that positively. I feel like we can’t expect much from the people who won’t give us much. I just have to manage my time in order to write. My life is tied to the kitchen, so I can never call myself a full revolutionary.
M: You’re better, you’re a revolutionary who feeds people!
S: I don’t know. My children want me to be that mother who makes pakauda for them on a Saturday when they invite their friends over. But on Saturdays, when I have my day off from teaching, I have programs to attend. Or my husband wants to sit with me in the sun and eat peanuts but I’m not at home. We don’t live with my in-laws anymore and that makes it easier a little. For instance, Sir cooks on days I can’t. He would never do that if we were living with his parents. I recently got into an accident and he’s been taking care of preparing the meals. I’m better now, but I still take any chance I get to sleep! (Laughs) Well, Sir has time right now, he’s off from work. So, I let him.
M: You call your husband sir?
S: Everyone calls him sir around here. He teaches chemistry and is a principal.
M: Does he call you ma’am?
S: He calls me Sarita. (Laughs).
M: I’ve always been fascinated by how we address people and what that says or doesn’t say about our relationship with them.
S: I’ve started writing an essay called What Name Shall I Give You? and it’s exactly about this. If I call my husband Baba because he is my child’s father, then people will tease me. When we were married, I knew he was six years older than me and I have never called him by his name. Later, when I heard my friends call their husbands by their name, I tried doing the same, but I think my husband felt offended. And in our Khas Bahun-Chettri communities, the man can call his wife tan but the wife always calls him tapai or hajur. In Janajati communities, I think the language is more equalising, no?
M: As far as I know, ki in Gurung means you and that’s how we address everyone from a two-year-old to an 80-year-old.
S: Yah, see. That’s incredible. We don’t have that. Even our language is oppressive. Sometimes I wrote ji to address my husband in my writings, but he would tease me and say “Oh, I’m a ji now,” as though I was creating a distance between us. Psychologically, this whole naming thing is so taxing for me. And let’s not even get started on how men can swear, but if women did the same it is seen as nasty and as something that she will automatically be responsible for passing down to her children. Life is a big zigzag, Muna ji.
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M: And in all this, at least we can retreat to our own rooms? If we have one? I see books behind you. We invoked Virginia Woolf earlier, are you in a room of your own?
S: Yes! When we moved to this house, I made a room upstairs as a library, but I hardly went there. Eventually, I set up a small table on the floor of our bedroom where I would read before going to bed. But Sir would complain about the light. This here used to be the guest room frequented by my father-in-law who came to Chitwan often for his political engagements. He’s left that now and this room became free. So very slowly, I moved some books down here. Then I set up a small table, and bought a laptop for myself. Now this is my room, not a guest room anymore. My daughter, who used to keep to herself, now wants to sit at my desk and do her homework. While she does that, I’ve set up a single bed here where I read. Sometimes I fall asleep here. The other day, she was asking me about a word I used in a poem… she’s begun to read my work! Although this is my room, I am only able to come here to write at night after everyone is asleep. I stay up till 2am writing. The only way I can write is by trading in sleep for words.
M: It’s a beautiful space, Saritaji.
S: I remember from Woolf’s essay, how she says that if you give a woman 2,500 pounds and a room of her own, she will produce works better than any man. I’ve been working for the past ten years and have been writing for over twenty, and it wasn’t until last year that I finally got to set up this room. This just shows how difficult it is, even for educated working women, to create a world of her own choosing.
M: It’s so real. I want to shift the conversation a little to the world that you have created in the section Aadivasi of your most recent collection. Do you speak the Tharu language? Do you have Tharu friends? What made you write from their perspectives?
S: Yes, I have a lot of Tharu friends and I grew up around Tharu villages both in Nawalparasi when my mother moved us there and also when I came to Chitwan after I got married. Most of the characters in my poems are people I know or I met and had long conversations with. I haven’t shared this with anyone, but my dream is to finish a novel that takes place in the native Tharu lands. I was researching quiet heavily 6-7 years ago for the book and have known what oppression they have gone through from the Ranas and most recently Bahuns and Chettris who descended from the hills and took over their lands. I can tell you whose land was taken by whom and how. It’s horrible.
M: Have your Tharu friends read your work? What are their reactions? And I wonder too, as we think more carefully about who is allowed to tell what kind of story and when, do you get accused of telling these stories through your poems even though you are not a Tharu yourself?
S: My Tharu friends appreciate my work and encourage me to continue writing. I understand what you’re saying and part of being a responsible writer is knowing that I can never write as well or as accurately as my Tharu friends. I don’t have the “authorised experience” that Tharus have. What I have done is move with the wave of the Tharu revolution to bring light to a few issues that I can and should from where I stand. I’m not a big famous writer, but there are a few people who listen to me and it’s a privilege to be here. So, I must do the work I can, while I can and while they are listening. The poem, Deilima Macha, is actually a poem that came out of Devnarayan Mahato kaka’s kitchen in Nawalparasi. I was living and working with them for over a week while I was researching and when we sat to eat, I saw a straw basket hanging over the stove and I asked Devnayaran kaka, what is that? He told me it was a deili, a basket to catch fish, but how there are no fish in the rivers anymore. So, they put garlic, onions, other vegetables in there. Whatever he told me, I made that into a poem and perhaps only the last four lines are mine. I heard Devnarayan kaka passed away last year. He hadn’t seen his children for years, they all went abroad to work and, just like the fish in his deili, never returned.
M: That poem is one of my favourites.
S: You know, we have such a rich reserve of folklore and folk literature. If we held all of that, I guarantee you it is as rich or richer than those we often read that come to us from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa… I want to continue to collect and make and keep these Tharu songs and stories. I did some in 2012, but I haven’t had a chance to get back to it again… so many everyday things keep me from getting back to work in the way I want to. Of course, I want to disappear for 2 months and make a book, go get an MPhil… but my children are my priority now. I keep telling myself that once my children are older, I will go away somewhere and write furiously.
Muna Gurung is a writer, educator and translator based in Kathmandu. For more of her work, visit munagurung.com.
Conversations in the Lightroom is a monthly page in Nepali Times on important figures in Nepal’s literary scene.
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