Bhupi Sherchan died thirty years ago, in 1989, and Michael Hutt’s biography of the famous Nepalese poet was published almost a decade ago. It is time to revisit his life and his poetry. Hutt’s book reveals new insights with each reading.
In Michael Hutt’s word – ‘Good poets speak of their times and to their times. Great poets speak to all times.’ Bhupi Sherchan certainly spoke to all times.
Foreigners writing biographies of Nepalese luminaries is challenging. Navigating their life stories requires proficiency in language, history and social complexities. And, depending on the life under scrutiny, the writer may choose to draw upon other knowledge such as literary art forms and contemporaneous politics. In Michael Hutt’s The Life of Bhupi Sherchan: Poetry and Politics in Post-Rana Nepal, the biographer’s skills at managing the complexities are clear. Bhupi Sherchan (b.1935) wrote most of his poetry after 1950 in the context of post-Rana Nepal, and Hutt portrays his life and writings within a maze of political, social, literary, and personal complexities.
Although Professor Hutt never met Sherchan in person, as a literary scholar he has long admired Bhupi’s poetry and its significance to modern Nepal. At one point, Hutt characterizes his subject as ‘the creator of Nepali literature’s most incisive poetic insights.’ Bhupi lived a life that ‘began with great promise, but it ultimately descended into ill health and compromised decadence.’
Bhupendraman Sherchan, or ‘Bhupi’ as he was known and most familiarly remembered, was a Thakali, a mountain ethnic group from the northern district of Mustang. According to family tradition, he was born under inauspicious stars, and though another astrologer later repudiated that early prediction, some aspects of it apparently lingered on in Bhupi’s mind. After his mother died when the boy was five years old, Bhupi spent the rest of his life feeling somehow responsible. That dark shadow on his soul can be felt in many of his poems.
His father, Hitman Sherchan, was a successful businessman, so Bhupi had access to plenty, but as a young man he seemed always to be broke. That made becoming a poet relatively easy.
When Bhupi was sent to India to study in the 1940s, like many young Nepalese of his time he came under the influence of anti-Rana sentiments. He was attracted to communist ideals, though he never formally joined the Nepal Communist Party.
Michael Hutt wrote The Life of Bhupi Sherchan in eight chapters. Chapter 1, entitled ‘Thak Khola, the Thakalis and the Sherchans,’ is a synopsis of the poet’s ethnic and cultural heritage, and ‘Hitman’s Wayward Son’ (Ch.2, with its provocative title) covers Bhupi’s problematic youth and schooling. The next two chapters, ‘So Here in my Courtyard’ and ‘In the Shadow of Machapuchare,’ reveal aspects of Bhupi’s family life and the influences of other poets and Nepali litérateurs on his personal philosophy and poetic feelings.
Chapter 5 – ‘A Blind Man on a Revolving Chair’ – is at the heart of the biography. In it, Michael Hutt analyzes the main characteristics and meaning of some Bhupi’s most significant poetry. The poem from which the chapter draws its name, for example, reads like stages in a-day-of-his-life, and ends on this low note –
It is always like this.
A sun always rises from the tea kettle,
A sun always sets in an empty raksi glass.
The earth I inhabit turns as it has always done,
I am the only one who is unaware
Of the changes,
The pleasures all around me.
Like a blind man at an exhibition,
Force to sit on a revolving chair.
It is in Ch.5 that Hutt categorizes much of Bhupi’s writings as Critical Realism. ‘Mero chok’ (My courtyard), for example, ‘conveyed a message that spoke directly, and with both irony and compassion, to contemporary social realities in Nepal,’ Hutt writes. Its brevity and linguistic simplicity are also striking –
My courtyard is on a narrow street
What do I lack? Everything’s here:
Only joy is missing―
Here it is banned. ...
In ‘Hami’ (We), the poet speaks of the time King Mahendra dismissed Nepal’s first democratically elected government (1960) and restored political power to the palace. It is one example where Sherchan describes the national character traits and flaws that Hutt interprets him thinking ‘have prevented Nepal from achieving the social and economic development that has been the declared objective of every Nepali government established since 1951,’ the year the Ranas were overthrown and the Monarchy was restored to power. Near the end of ‘Hami’, the poet characterizes what he calls a ‘void’ and the ‘hollowness’ of the Nepalese, then laments –
We are absolutely nothing,
So perhaps we are something, no?
We are nowhere and nothing at all,
So perhaps we are something somewhere, no?
We are not living,
So perhaps we have survived.
Ch. 5 also deals with Bhupi’s feelings about patriotism as he writes about Gurkha soldiers (lahures) and martyrs (shahid). Although ‘the Nepali people are courageous,’ Hutt says, interpreting the poet’s feelings, they suffer ‘from a crippling sense of inferiority. They seldom act unless they are commanded to do so by someone they believe to be greater than them. They are like drops of water which are “borne aloft by the sun to be clouds” and develop an inflated sense of their superiority, but eventually fall as rain “into some well, pool or ditch”,’ he concludes, quoting Sherchan.
It is as much a denouncement of the critical judgment of the fearful masses as it is of the elite and powerful. ‘In Bhupi’s Nepal,’ Hutt writes, ‘the elite know nothing about the lives of the poor and lower middle-classes.’ In that context, the poet speaks passionately of his disdain for Nepalese youth going off to enlist as lahures in foreign armies, castigating them as “brave but foolish” for fighting other men’s wars. In the poem ‘To the children of quails, partridges and sacrificial buffaloes’ (‘Titara, battai ra bhakkuko rangoka santanharuprati’), Bhupi puns the term ‘Gorkhali’ (meaning Gurkha soldiers) as ‘gora khali’ (mere oxen) and laments the widows, orphans and bereaved parents they leave behind.
Similarly, in ‘Asar’ (The month of Asar), Sherchan paints ‘an evocative and romantic portrait of the month which brings the annual life-giving rains, returning to the hills of Nepal like a lahure returning home from service,’ says Hutt. And in ‘Shahid’ (Martyrs), Bhupi writes poignantly of those who died in the 1940s during the anti-Rana revolution.
Other poems in Ch. 5 reflect on such subjects as women, love and sex, life, religion, and sometimes the poet himself, as here in ‘Bhupi Sherchan’ –
He writes a little,
Then inspects it thus:
It will not do,
He scratches it out.
He writes again,
And looks again,
And heaves a long sigh.
Alas, poor ‘Bhupi’ Sherchan!
One of Sherchan’s most often quoted poems is ‘Yo hallai hallako desh ho’ (This is a land of hearsay and rumor), is also discussed in this chapter. The last four of its 70 lines are the most well-known:
So this is a land of hearsay and rumour
A country standing on hearsay and rumour
A country that has risen up on hearsay and rumour
This is a land of hearsay and rumour.
In Ch. 6 – ‘On Your Lips I See a Proposal’ – the biographer talks of Bhupi’s breakup with his first wife and his life with a much younger woman he fell in love with and the ways his social life, his poetry, and his political leanings were affected. And in Ch. 7 – ‘Long Live Birendra!’ – Hutt discusses Bhupi’s fraught relationship with Nepalese royalty, his controversial decision to accept membership in the Royal Nepal Academy, his attraction to communism, and impacts on him by politically inspired friends and critics. It begins with a perceptive quote from Voltaire: ‘A writer is not always clean. He is a lotus and as such he is bound to have some mud flung at him.’ The chapter ends with some of Bhupi’s last poems, at a time when his health was slipping and death was drawing near. ‘Jab rat parcha’ (When night falls), for example, starts off with dramatic imagery:
When night falls,
Like lines of kites and vultures
Hurrying to pounce on corpses after a war,
Coming down from all around,
Spreading their frightening black wings. ...
Ch. 8 – ‘Living’s Much Harder’, the last chapter – begins with a short, brooding poem, ‘Mera sathiharu’ (My friends) –
Oh, friends who are angry when I drink,
Drink and you’ll see: drinking’s much harder.
Oh, you who will die and be martyrs,
Live on and you’ll see: living’s much harder.
For Michael Hutt and other admirers, ‘Bhupi’s poetry lives on and even finds resonance and meaning in the political instability and violence that has plagued Nepal since the mid-1990s.’
‘For as long as Nepali society remains distinctive and recognizable, with its grace and humour intact but its human potential unrealized,’ says Hutt, ‘Bhupi Sherchan will speak both of it and to it with a potent immediacy that remains his and his alone.’
Through his poems, Bhupi Sherchan sought to communicate with a broad Nepalese readership and ‘In this,’ the biographer concludes, ‘he was more successful than any other Nepali poet before him.’
The bard himself has the last say in ‘Kavi hunu’ (To be a poet) –
To be a poet
Is to live a meaningless life
And be meaningful after your death.