Tuesday, November 20, 2007

History on Easter Sunday

By Seira Tamang
As noted by various scholars, Hinduism, the Nepali language, the monarchy and a rastriya itihas (a chronicle of progress in which the dark era of Rana rule is contrasted with the enlightened, progressive and modern period of Panchayat rule) formed the core of the Panchayat regime’s national culture. The formation and consolidation of this national culture have required the expunging of uncomfortable facts and stories that might raise ambiguities and questions.
While the selection of what and who is and is not acknowledged to exist (or at least exist in historically important ways) in official Nepali history is complex, social scientists have begun to provide more comprehensive historical accounts of the past through oral histories and re-readings of historical documents. Such accounts reveal how ordinary people lived in the past, and offer ways to think through how ‘history’ is crafted, shaped and managed in order to reflect ‘the reality’ best suited to the status quo, and to legitimating a certain social order.
Padari Ganga Prasad Pradhan ko Jiwan Bakhan (A biography of Reverend Ganga Prasad Pradhan, 1851-1932) by Solon Karthak is important when viewed through the lens of revisiting Nepali history. Based on oral history, and on the re-examination of written forms and additional research, this biography offers insight into the life of an ordinary man who, despite his extraordinary achievements in the field of Nepali language and literature, has been side-lined or portrayed in a negative light. In tracing the life of a man who was a pioneer in many senses, Karthak provides a different angle to dominant accounts, examining Pradhan’s use of language and his devout Christian faith-the two main focus points for Pradhan’s critics. Karthak also portrays Pradhan as undoubtedly patriotic. Two examples of his patriotism come from his work to standardize the Nepali language, and his willingness to uproot his family from Darjeeling and endure weeks of hardship travelling back to Nepal in order to contribute to his native country’s development-only to be denied permission to stay in Nepal by Chandra Shamsher Rana, on the grounds of Pradhan’s Christianity.
Thus Padari Ganga Prasad Pradhan raises questions as to why, as literary historian Kumar Pradhan has noted, Pradhan is ‘much ignored by the historians of Nepali literature.’ After reading this book, it is hard to think of any reason, other than his being a Christian. Clearly, as a staunch Christian, Pradhan’s presence would sit uneasily in hegemonic renditions of Nepal’s national culture-an uncomfortable reality that has needed to be ignored or down-played. Karthak’s work asserts the need to revisit Nepali history with a more complicated and fuller view onto the past.
The first part of his book traces Pradhan’s birth in Thamel, his father’s move to Darjeeling while he was still young, his late education, conversion to Christianity, and foiled attempt to return permanently to Nepal, as well as his pioneering work in the realm of language. These works include the publication of a monthly newspaper called Gorke Khabar Kagat (which preceded the publication of Gorkhapatra in Nepal) from his own Gorkha Press in Darjeeling. Pradhan also wrote Nepali textbooks, and translated the bible into Nepali. The importance of this translation is put into perspective by L.B. Rai in the appendix: ‘Bhanubhaka found fame after translating the Ramayan, but when Ganga Prasad translated the bible, he was labeled as preaching Christianity.’
The latter part of Padari Ganga Prasad Pradhan consists of examples of Pradhan’s writing. Given his contribution to Nepali language, and given the fact that his language is a key discussion point for critics, Karthak thought it important for readers to read his writing for themselves. This decision needs to be understood in light of the criticism made by critics such as Parasmani Pradhan, who have faulted Pradhan’s lack of consistent and coherent use of grammar. However, as Kumar Pradhan noted in his book, History of Nepali Literature, at the time that Pradhan wrote, there were no authoritative grammar books. Furthermore, as B.K. Pradhan’s piece in the appendix reiterates, Pradhan sought to write in the language spoken in daily life by the common people.
Parasmani Pradhan’s criticism of Gorke Khabar Kagat’s Christian agenda is well known within literary circles. Less recognized is the critic’s praise of Pradhan’s faith—in the face of outright discrimination and disowning by his own family—to cling so determinedly to his beliefs. Such tidbits, along with the section on Pradhan’s conversion and his epic journey (eventually to Goa) to be baptized, are some of the most interesting parts of the book. Karthak’s work makes it clear that Christian faith and patriotic work for the upliftment of that which is Nepali are not contradictory: one can be both Nepali and Christian in the fullest and most productive senses.
Providing much fodder for a rethinking of mainstream accounts of the lives and conversions of Nepali Christians, and a questioning of the manner in which certain people in the past may have been made obscure in ‘history’ because of the reality of their lived lives (in this case, Pradhan’s Christian faith), Karthak’s book is an important read. As we think about the future of democratic Nepal and how far the national consciousness can open up and provide space for janajati, dalit, feminist and other Nepali cultures, this Easter Sunday may prove an opportune time to start rethinking how Nepali Christians are to be situated within Nepal’s past and present.
(S. Tamang is a member of Martin Chautari)