Experience itself is a book,” says the man when I ask him about the first time he wrote. The translated version of it doesn’t make the same impact though, of whatever he says in Nepali. He is a man of beautiful words, a man who makes every simple word sound lyrical. We know of Durga Lal Shrestha, famed lyricist of Phul ko aankha ma as a lyricist and a poet but he embraced literature with the role of a playwright.
It is funny how sometimes a situation orchestrated to disregard someone fails completely and surprisingly encourages the person to be the person he goes one to be. Shrestha, now 76, reminisces about his childhood years cheerfully. There used to be such a cultural environment in the Newar community of Kathmandu valley that even though he was from a lower social strata he never felt that he was poor or deprived.
Shrestha used to live in Bange Moda, located west of Naikan Tole in Ason, a place famous for stage plays. On occasions like Gai Jatra and Indra Jatra, plays were acted upon to entertain the audience among whom Shrestha, 11 at the time, was a regular. He informs how the plays at those times hired only male actors. Prem Dhoj Pradhan, the legendary singer, would play the lead female character in some of the plays.
Once, at such an occasion, Shrestha along with his friends had gone to see a play but instead returned with a literary vengeance in mind. When he and his friends reached the venue of the play, the main gate was open but the door leading to the show was closed. They could hear a chham chham sound from inside the door but nobody answered when they called. Bewildered, Shrestha sought to resolve the mystery by peeping inside the door through a hole. Just as he placed his eyes on the hole, a finger from inside deliberately poked into it. Although the person behind the door poked his eye, Shrestha shares that it was a day when his heart endured excruciating pain.
The young audience who had gone to see the play never returned. In his place, came a young litterateur in the making, who vowed, along with his friends, to perform their own plays. He then wrote his first play, Prem Jiwan Andhakar, the title to which he playfully laughs at to this date. He wrote, directed and acted in the play, which became an instant hit in several neighborhoods. Following this success, he and his friends formed a literary group of their own, performing in their own plays for several more years, doing justice to the unjust attitude of the ‘poker’.
There are times when one begins to question the purpose of being modest. Too often there are times when one begins to question the purpose of being aggressive. And there are times when one hardly questions the purpose of being aggressively modest. “I neither had the motive nor the interest to be involved in literature,” Shrestha says, adding “I am here because of the insult and contempt shoved towards me and I am grateful to that person.”
The play marked the glory of an upcoming artist but the young school boy became less eager about education. “I was a very good student but after the first play, I got more involved in writing and less so in school,” says Shrestha. “I had beautiful handwriting in the fifth grade, something my teacher would display to o students of the tenth grade,” he says. He studied in Padmodaya High School where boys from elite group like Ranas, gurus and purohits were enrolled. And Shrestha attended the school with patched trousers. All the students would gather before the class and recite a poem, Sarswati ka kumar hami Sarswati ko pukar garchau and that would dissolve all the disparity.
Shrestha returned to school after completing his education to teach. His hands never stopped jotting down beautiful lines though. He followed his own heart and wrote poems and lyrics accordingly rather than following metrical lines. This is why he is often referred to as the people’s litterateur. For the same reasons, he believes he is more of a lyricist than a poet. He used to write in Nepal Bhasa earlier and later began to write in Nepali as well. And whatever he wrote would be a subject of interest in his classrooms.
He used to write songs for children in the blackboard and sing along with the children. But when the children hesitated to pick up complex words, he realized that songs with simple words were appreciated more by children. “I am learning so much from all of you. Thank you!” he would say to his students. Time spent teaching children was one of the best times of his life, he admits. “There is nothing more beautiful than the heart of a child,” he says. Those days are gone and several seasons have passed. The silver grey hair on his head must be the only sign of his age. But he laments over the inadequacy brought upon by old age. “I have emotions to express but don’t have the enough energy to jot it down myself,” Shrestha shares.
Old age hasn’t been able to stop the man though. He still composes words while Nhyoo Bajracharya tunes his guitar and Bajracharya writes down the lyrics for him. Together they have managed to be a sound of peace and tranquility. “Nhyoo is the savior of my emotions,” he says. Thus lives the words of Durga Lal Shrestha defining new heights of perfection with each new songs.