A Piece of Charcoal and the Makings of a Poet: Kesar Lall

Features Issue 91 Jul, 2010
Text by Don Messerschmidt / Photo: ECS Media

A piece of charcoal
Is all I can think of
To compare myself with
At this late hour.
Yet it might still be used
If one has the skill
To draw a picture of my life.
—Kesar Lall

As a boy, he never attended school. Yet, he speaks, reads and writes in four languages, publishes popular books on folklore and travel, and composes marvelously simple and poignant poetry, in the one language (English) that is far  from his mother tongue (Newari). Several years ago I penned a tribute to him that read “Every now and then one is lucky enough to meet a poet whose poems reveal a subtle new consciousness, are ‘beautiful’ in the simplest sense of the word, and though intangible at one level are easily grasped and understood at another. Someone whose poetry you read, pause, reflect, and say to yourself, ‘Yes!’”

Yes! – Now let’s take up that piece of charcoal and see what more we can say about the life and times of one of Nepal’s most remarkable poets and writers, Kesar Lall.

I spent one morning a few weeks ago at Kesar Lall’s house near Bansbari, north of the Ring Road. He and his wife Subhadra have a way of making visitors feel supremely welcome and comfortable in their modest home. I entered through the garden, which is small, yet the holly and the peach and the peepul tree in a pot, and the pond and the bamboo that he has written about in several poems are still there. I especially like ‘My Pond’:

I reckon I am no longer young
The moon having circled the earth
Nine hundred times since I was born.
Still my unshackled mind seeks to scale
The mountains seen from my rooftop.
But of necessity I must restrict my range
From the window down to the garden
Where between a holly with prickly leaves
And a peepul in a pot is a pond —
An earthen tub full of the monsoon rain —
And in it blooms, like a maiden,
A lily, fresh and pure,
Which gives me a true measure
Of my space and time on earth.
Another hundred moons, if I live that long,
And if I still have the lily and the pond
I reckon I would be looking Narcissus-like
And get lost forever
Like a grain of sand in the water.

Inside the house, after removing my shoes, I admired the photographs on the walls, pictures of people and places that have meant a great deal to Kesar Lall and his wife over the years. Some of their best friends and some of the destinations they’ve visited together are featured there.

The day I visited, we sat and chatted quietly over a cup of tea. Later we ate dal-bhat together, a wonderfully simple meal. The rest of the time was spent reminiscing on the main events of my host’s long life. We laughed together at some incidents, and I marveled at his sharp memory of events, especially those that took place well over half a century ago, in his youth. Kesar Lall has led a full life as a writer and as a translator and advisor to politicians, diplomats, other writers and, for one memorable month in 1967, to one of the world’s finest portrait photographers on assignment in Nepal: Vogue magazine’s Irving Penn.

In a reflection written last year for a London magazine, Kesar Lall described himself in the third person as “A lone wolf [who] loves the mountains and the fields. He is quite at home in a lonely place and often enjoys the rain, the wind and the thunderstorm. His place of pilgrimage is Silu (Gosainkund). Conversely, he is ill at ease in a crowd.” His poetry reflects those mountains and fields and lonely places...

He was born in 1927 as the son of Jagat Lall Shrestha (b.1903), a teacher who ran a small school in Keltol on the lane between Asan and Indrachowk in the heart of old Kathmandu. His father was taught by Jagat Sundar Malla (b.1885), who was also an educator and a visionary who advocated teaching the English language to Nepali students at a time when most Nepalese were barely cognizant of the outside world. For many years, Kesar Lall’s father taught English to local boys living in and near Keltol. And, though Kesar Lall did not formally attend school (due to ill health as a child), it was from his father and grandfather that he developed a love of the English language.

By the age of seven he was learning the Nagari script with which to read and write Nepali. Then he took up the Roman script in order to master English. His first words in English were “Please come up”, which his father taught him to say one day when a foreign stranger came to visit. His memory of those early years is phenomenal; he can still name the titles and authors of the books from which he first learned English: the First Book of Reading by Peary Sarkar, an Indian educator; the Royal Readers series used in British schools; J.C. Nesfield’s English Grammar; and the comprehensive Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary, a classic lexicon first published in 1901. He became a voracious reader of English and by the time he was a teenager he had read the famous works in English by such authors as William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, Daniel Defoe, Sir Walter Scott, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Alfred Tennyson, and many others.

His writing career in English took off in December 1945 when, at the age of 18, a story he penned about a lake in Kashmir was published in a Bombay magazine called Pushpa The Children’s Own Paper. He wrote it under the pen name ‘Asoke Paul’. Over the next few years more of his stories appeared in periodicals in Bombay, Calcutta and Bangalore, and farther afield in Myanmar when it was called Burma and Sri Lanka when it was called Ceylon. In February 1947, for example, an article he wrote about the Kathmandu winter festival of Shivaratri was published in the Calcutta daily The Statesman. He  was particularly encouraged when two photographs taken by his father in Bhaktapur appeared in the London Times weekly edition, in March 1947.

Kesar Lall realized early on that he would have to find employment other than writing, if he was to earn a living. At first, he worked in a pharmacy at Marutol near Bhimsenthan, on the southwest side of old Kathmandu. While working there he continued to write, and successfully published an article entitled ‘The recovery of Nepal’ in Nepal Today. It was 1951, a time of great political change in Nepal. Shortly after that he took a position as assistant private secretary to Prime Minister Matrika Prasad (‘M.P.’) Koirala. He also worked for Bishweshwar Prasad (‘B.P.’) Koirala when he was Home Minister.

Kesar Lall considers his time working for B.P. to be among the most interesting and important of his life. “That was a time when we were all full of great expectations, when Nepal was finally going to change for the best,” he says. “We admired B.P., especially the way he dealt with people. He didn’t mix words. He didn’t care for a person’s rank. Rajas and ordinary people, rich and poor, were all the same to him. And he had no bias about caste. These were among his greatest characteristics...”

He remembers clearly when B.P. Koirala first hired him. “He talked with me for a few minutes,” says Kesar Lall. “Then I showed him an article I had published in India, and he said ‘You can work for me’, he said.” The salary was 75 rupees a month. “So I went to work with him for the next nine months...” B.P. Koirala went on to become the first democratically elected prime minister of Nepal, 1959-1960.

In 1955, Kesar Lall joined the American government’s first aid mission to Nepal. A few years later he moved over to the U.S. Embassy where he served as advisor and translator to ambassadors and many diplomats, until he retired in 1985.

1962 was a memorable year in Kesar Lall’s life for the publication of his first of over 50 books. It was called Lore and Legend of Nepal. It has been reprinted in several editions over the years, and is still available in Kathmandu bookstores. In retrospect, Kesar Lall considers it his best book. “It reflects my childhood, the stories I learned as a young boy,” he says. After it was first published, it garnered some interesting kudos. For example, a reviewer in the Times of India observed that “Apart from being of interest to the anthropologist and the sociologist, these folk stories provide pleasant reading for the laymen.” The Statesman (Calcutta) made a similar observation. And a reviewer in Link noted that “Many of these tales are highly imaginative and form the basis of Nepali customs today.”

While telling me this, Kesar Lall laughed at the memory of a less considerate comment that appeared in Blitz, a Bombay magazine, dated October 2, 1962. There, Lore and Legend of Nepal was summarily dismissed as a “worthless publication”..., “a book by an obscure person, a Nepalese student...” Tsk. Tsk.

Another surprise came, he says, when a few years later he found one of his stories from Lore and Legend of Nepal reprinted verbatim, but without acknowledgement, in the 1970 book The Wildest Dreams of Kew: A Profile of Nepal, by the popular New Yorker magazine writer Jeremy Bernstein. (The title of Bernstein’s book is borrowed from a well known line in Rudyard Kipling’s 1851 poem, ‘In the Neolithic age’: And the wildest dreams of Kew are the facts of Khatmandhu.) Despite not being credited for the story, Kesar Lall was pleased: “I was proud of that,” he says, “for a man who writes for the New Yorker saw no need to change my English.”

It was also in 1962 that the American Embassy asked him to assist the first American Peace Corps Volunteers to Nepal, a group of 75 mostly young men and women who came as teachers and agricultural workers. Kesar Lall’s special style and his contributions to their acculturation impressed the volunteers. They still remember him fondly. During a recent reunion, one wrote this tribute: “Dear Kesar Lal – we now view you as a critical cultural treasure. Just as Dwarika Shrestha [of Dwarika’s Hotel] collected wonderful windows, you are the storehouse of stories, folklore and memories. Thank you.”

Over the years, who has most influenced Kesar Lall the writer? When I asked that question he gave me a simple answer: “Ruskin Bond.” For a number of years now, Kesar Lall has been infatuated with Ruskin Bond, one of South Asia’s most well known writers. Bond is an Indian writer of British descent who was born in the Punjab in 1934. Given his prodigious career as a writer, and his immense popularity among several generations of readers, Bond is sometimes called the “William Wordsworth of India”. He is an enviable writer with a long and successful career, whose many stories and books reflect a special attachment to the Himalayas.

Kesar Lall discovered Ruskin Bond’s writings during the 1970s, and after they met in 1995 he described Bond as such a nice man that he simply could not describe him! He became so infatuated with Bond, in fact, that he has amassed a large collection of the famous author’s books, and has traveled all the way to Darjeeling to purchase some of them. He once described Bond as “a natural writer [who] focuses on his own life and twists it to fiction somewhere in between, [so] that it becomes difficult for readers to differentiate between fact and fiction.”

Now approaching his mid-80s, Kesar Lall still claims writing to be his principal pleasure, his hobby, his passion. He has worked for prominent politicians in the formative years of the making of modern Nepal (the 1950s). He has been a major figure among the Nepalese employees of the American Embassy in Kathmandu (1960s-80s). He has inspired Peace Corps Volunteers, countless writers and readers of folklore and legend, and some of his books have been translated into other languages. He has trekked all across Nepal, from Baitadi in the far west to Illam in the east, and north to south from the Tibetan to the Indian border. The map in his 1992 book Nepal: Off the Beaten Path is peppered with dots indicating all the places he has been. He has also traveled widely outside of Nepal. In short, he has had a busy eight decades – but as busy as he has been on other things, he’s always considered himself a writer and a poet first.

Before I left Kesar Lall’s house after our interview, he showed me where he writes his poetry. It’s a plain, uncluttered desk in the corner of an almost empty room. There are a few of his favorite photographs on the wall overhead, and there’s a window that looks out over the small garden. Poetry should be uncluttered.

What makes a poet? In a recent poem entitled ‘A drop of water’, it is sensitivity to simple things he tells us:

When a man sees in a leaf
A drop of water, thinks it a jewel
And paints it in words,
A poem is written.
If he waits, until in the sun
The drop is gone, thinks it’s all transient
The poem ends before it’s begun.

The poems ‘A piece of charcoal’ and ‘My pond’ were published in Reflections: Poems of Kesar Lall, by Vajra Publications (Kathmandu) in 2006. The quotation near the start of this story – the one that ends in Yes! – comes from the Introduction to that book. The tribute to Kesar Lall as “a critical cultural treasure” was written in 2000 by Rolf Goetz, one of the first Nepal Peace Corps Volunteers. The description of Ruskin Bond as “a natural writer” is quoted from an article about Kesar Lal in Personality magazine (vol. 2; no date). The poem ‘A drop of water’ will be published soon in Kesar Lall’s next collection of poems entitled The Mountain is Forever, from Vajra Publications (in press).