A minstrel's wanderings and experiences in the Himalayan republic of Nepal
Gainey: A Minstrel’s Songs of Love and Sorrow (Satis Shroff)
Once upon a time,
my grandpa said:
“In Nepal even a child
Can walk the countryside alone.”
It’s just not true,
Not for a Nepalese,
Born with a sarangi in his hand.
I’m a musician,
One of the lower caste
In the Hindu hierarchy.
I bring delight to my listeners,
Hope to touch the hearts
Of my spectators.
I sing about love,
Hate and evil,
Kings and Queens,
Princes and Princesses,
The poor and the rich,
And the fight for existence,
In the craggy foothills
And the towering heights
Of the Himalayas.
The Abode of the Snows,
Where Buddhist and Hindu
Gods and Goddesses reside,
And look over mankind
And his folly.
I was born in Tanhau,
A nondescript hamlet in Nepal,
Were it not for Bhanu Bhakta Acharya
Who was born here,
The poet who translated the Ramayana,
From high-flown Sanskrit into simple Nepali
For all to read.
I remember the first day
My father handed me a sarangi.
He taught me how to hold and swing the bow.
I was delighted with the first squeaks it made,
As I moved the bow on the taught horsetail strings.
It was as though my small sarangi
Was talking with me.
I was so happy,
I and my sarangi,
My sarangi and me.
Tears of joy ran down my cheeks.
I was so thankful.
I touched my Papa’s feet,
As is the custom in the Himalayas.
I could embrace the whole world.
My father taught me the tones,
And the songs to go with them,
For we gaineys are minstrels
Who wander from place to place,
Like butterflies in Spring.
We are a restless folk
To be seen everywhere,
Where people dwell,
For we live from their charity
And our trade.
The voice of the gainey,
The sad melody of the sarangi.
A boon to those who love the lyrics,
A nuisance to those who hate it.
Many a time, we’ve been kicked and beaten
By young people who prefer canned music,
From their ghetto-blasters.
Electronic beats you can’t catch up with.
Spinning on their heads,
Hip-hopping like robots,
It’s the techno, ecstasy generation
Where have all the old melodies gone?
The Nepalese folksongs of yore?
The song of the Gainey?
“This is globanisation,” they told me.
The grey-eyed visitors from abroad,
‘Quirays’ as we call them in Nepal.
Or ‘gora-sahibs’ in Hindustan.
The quirays took countless pictures of me,
With their cameras,
Gave handsome tips.
A grey-haired didi with spectacles,
And teeth in like a horse’s mouth,
Even gave me a polaroid-picture
With my sarangi,
My mountain violin.
Sometimes I look my fading picture
And wonder how fast time flows.
My smile is disappearing,
Grey hair at the sides,
The beginning of baldness.
I’ve lost a lot of my molars,
At the hands of the Barbier
From Muzzafapur in the Indian plains,
He gave me clove oil
To ease my pain,
As he pulled out my fouled teeth,
In an open-air salon
Right near the Tribhuvan Highway.
I still have my voice
And my sarangi,
And love to sing my repertoire,
Even though many people
Sneer and jeer at me,
And prefer Bollywood texts
From my larynx.
To please their whims,
I learned even Bollywood songs,
Aginst my will,
Eavesdropping behind cinema curtains,
To please the tourists
And my country’s modern youth,
I even learned some English songs.
Oh money, dear money.
I’ve become a cultural prostitute.
I’ve done my Zunft, my trade,
But I did it to survive.
I had to integrate myself
And to assimilate
In my changing society.
Time has not stood still
Under the shadow of the Himalayas.
One day when I was much younger,
I was resting under a Pipal tree
When I saw one beautiful tourist girl.
I looked and smiled at her.
She caressed her hair,
And smiled back.
For me it was love at first sight.
All the while gazing at her
I took out my small sarangi,
With bells on my fiddle bow
And played a sad Nepali melody
Composed by Ambar Gurung,
Which I’d learned in my wanderings
From Ilam to Darjeeling.
I am the Sky
You are the Soil,
Even though we yearn
A thousand times,
We cannot be together.
I was sentimental that moment.
Had tears in my eyes
When I finished my song.’
The blonde woman sauntered up to me,
And said in a smooth voice,
‘Thank you for the lovely song.
Can you tell me what it means?’
I felt a lump on my throat
And couldn’t speak
For a while.
Then, with a sigh, I said,
‘We have this caste system in Nepal.
When I first saw you,
I imagined you were a fair bahun girl.
We aren’t allowed to fall in love
It is a forbidden love,
A love that can never come true.
I love you
But I can’t have you.’
‘But you haven’t even tried,’
Said the blonde girl coyly.
‘I like your golden hair,
Your blue eyes.
It’s like watching the sky.’
‘Oh, thank you,
She asked: ‘But why do you say:
‘We cannot be together?’
‘We are together now,’ I replied,
‘But the society does not like
Us gaineys from the lower caste.
The bahuns, chettris castes are above us.
They look down upon us.’
‘Why do they do that?’
Asked the blonde girl.
I spat out:
‘Because they are high-born.
We, kamis, damais and sarkis,
We are the downtrodden,
The underdogs of this society
In the foothills of the Himalayas.’
‘Who made you what you are?’ she asked.
I told her: ‘The Hindu society is formed this way:
Once upon a time there was a bahun,
And from him came the Varnas.
The Vernas are a division of society
Into four parts.
Brahma created the bahuns
From his mouth.
The chettris who are warriers
Came from his shoulder,
The traders from his thigh
And the servants
From the sole of his feet.’
‘What about the poor dalits?’
Quipped the blonde foreigner.
‘The dalits fell deeper in the Hindu society,
And were not regarded as full members
Of the human race.
We had to do the errands and menial jobs
That were forbidden for the higher castes.’
‘Like what?’ she asked.
‘Like disposing dead animals,
Making leather by skinning hides
Of dead animals,
Cleaning toilets and latrines,
Clearing the sewage canals of the rich,
High born Hindus.
I am not allowed to touch a bahun,
Even with my shadow, you know.’
‘What a mean, ugly system,’ she commented,
And shook her head.
‘May I touch you?’ she asked impulsively.
She was daring and wanted to see how I’d react.
‘You may,’ I replied.
She touched my hand,
Then my cheeks with her two hands.
I found it pleasant and a great honour.
I joined my hands and said sincerely,
I, a dalit, a no-name, a no-human,
Had been touched by a young, beautiful woman,
A quiray tourist,
From across the Black Waters:
A wave of happiness and joy
Swept over me.
A miracle had happened.
Like a princess kissing a toad,
In fairy tales I’d heard.
Perhaps Gandhi was right:
I was a Child of God,
And this fair lady an apsara.
She, in her European mind,
Thought she’d brought human rights
At least to the gainey,
This wonderful wandering minstrel,
With his quaint fiddle
His jet black hair
And infectious smile.
She said in her melodious voice,
‘In my country all people are free and equal,
Have the same rights and dignity.
All humans have common sense,
And we ought to meet each other
As brothers and sisters.
I tucked my sarangi in my armpit,
Clapped my hands and said:
It works for you here, perhaps.
But it won’t work for me,’
Feeling a sense of remorse and nausea
Sweep over me.
* * *
THE GHOST WRITER (Satis Shroff)
When I close my eyes,
I see everything in its place
In the kingdom of Nepal.
I see the highest building in Kathmandu,
What looms higher than the Dharara,
Swayambhu, Taleju and Pashupati?
The former King’s Narayanhiti palace,
Built by an architect,
From across the Black Waters.
Therein lived Vishnu,
Whom many Hindus still call:
The unconquerable preserver.
The conqueror of Nepal?
No, that was his ancestor
Prithvi Narayan Shah,
A king of Gorkha.
Vishnu is the preserver of the world,
With qualities of mercy and goodness.
Vishnu is all-pervading and self-existent,
Visited Nepal’s remote districts
In a helicopter with his consort
He inaugurated buildings
Factories and events.
Vishnu dissolved the parliament too,
For the sake of his kingdom,
As I was told to write.
His subjects and worshippers were,
Alas, Ravana and his demons
Have besieged his land.
The king was obliged to go,
And with him I lost my life-job
As a ghost-writer.
I cannot remember
How many articles, speeches, decrees,
Proclamations I’ve penned
In His Majesty’s Service.
Who would have thought
That I’d have to look
For another job?
Towards the end,
My boss not only lost his shirt,
But also his land,
And blamed me,
His sincere ghost-writer,
For my bad verse and prose.
He barked in a tirade:
“You are to blame for the misery
In my country.”
I, who had praised him,
Written admirable speeches,
Full of love, pathos and empathy
For his poor subjects,
Was now a mere scapegoat.
I, who had written
Soothing lines for the unruly masses,
Who were in revolt,
After centuries of feudal hierarchy,
Corruption and nepotism.
I, who had sought a voice
To pacify the lynch mobs
In the streets of Catmandu,
That was the unkindest cut of all.
The royal newspapers and the paid-press
Were blooming with news
Of development in Nepal.
But the people knew better.
They were waiting.
The dam of development
Had been broken,
A word play on ‘development.’
When the royal dam collapsed in Pokhara,
The people had a big laugh.
The king’s dying father said:
‘When I die,
My country should live.’
On still moments,
I hear the refrain:
Ma marey pani,
Nepal is now a republic
With cantons instead of zones,
We even have a fish-tailed mountain
That looks like Zermatt.
We have tourism too,
But where are the bankers,
The executives and firms?
We have an Aid Industry,
Cashing in dollars
From foreign governments
Nepal exports carpets,
For the emirates,
Sherpas for the climbers
And Gurkhas for the Brits
And flesh for the Upper and Lower Grant Roads.
When I open my eyes,
I see Vishnu still slumbering
On his bed of Sesha,
In the pools of Budanilkantha
Where is the Creator?
When will he wake up from his eternal sleep?
Only Bhairab’s destruction
Of the Himalayan world is to be seen.
Much blood has been shed
Between the decades and the centuries.
The mound of noses and ears
Of the vanquished at Kirtipur,
The shot and mutilated
At the Kot massacre,
The revolution in front of the Narayanhiti Palace,
When Nepalese screamed
And died for democracy.
And now the corpses of the Maobadis,
Civilians and Nepalese security men.
Hush! Sleeping Gods should not be awakened.
I, who wracked my cerebrum for the King,
Am sickened by the royal demeanour,
For Mr. Shah is now a mortal,
A politician to boot.
I, a royal ghost-writer,
Who once smelt the air
Of the Narayanhiti Palace,
Have nowhere to go.
I’m a writer no more.
I’m a ghost
Under the shadow of the Himalayas.
· * *
On Her Majesty’s Lyrical Service:
Poet Laureate (Satis Shroff)
A person who writes in lyrical form,
Composes verses for occasions,
Good stanzas in favour of kings and queens,
Princes and Princesses,
For the price of 5000 Sterling pounds
And, of course, 650 bottles
To inspire the poet.
And the title of Poet Laureate.
A court poet is a smith of verses,
Not a bass-guitarist
Of the royal band
Based in Buckingham.
Beginners need not apply.
Candidates should be
A professor of English Literature.
The last Poet Laureate penned
Verses in praise of Edward
And his beautiful Sophie,
A hundred years of the Queen Mother
And the latter’s sad demise.
The Queen’s diamond wedding anniversary,
A rap-rhyme for rosy-cheeked Prince William,
When he turned twenty-one.
Yeah! ‘Better stand back
Here’s a age attack.’
He even congratulated Charles and Camilla
On their belated marriage.
The Prince was overwhelmed
When he heard Motion’s
But all verses weren’t,
As we say in Germany:
Friede, Freude, Eierkuchen.
Motion’s ‘Cost of Life’ on Paddington,
‘Causa belli’ emphasised
Elections, money, empire,
Oil and Dad.
Themes and lyrics that bother us,
Day in and day out.
The rulers and battles won are expected
To be praised to Heaven,
Like Master Henry,
Ben Jonson et al have done
In 1668 John Dryden was sacked
Not for his bad verses,
But for changing his confession.
Sir Walter Raleigh and William Morris
Didn’t relinquish their freedom
And said politely: No thank you, Ma’am.
And with it a keg of wine
From the Canary Isles,
That could have been theirs.
Free literary productivity and court-poetry
Are strange bedfellows indeed.
In these times of gender-studies,l
Women’s quotes and emancipation,
It wouldn’t be far-fetched
If Carol Ann Duffy,
A Scottish poetess,
Became the next Poetess Laureate.
What a lass!
She’s openly gay,
Didn’t you say?
Has fire anyway.
What a thankless job:
A royal lyrical whisperer,
Striving for public relations
In poetry prize panels,
In the name of poetry.
A thankless job:
Or leave it.
* * *
Poet Laureate Shortlist
Carol Ann Duffy
(Ed.: You are free to add some more of your own prospective poet laureate candidates).
The Chance to Change (Satis Shroff)
“Education is the best thing in the world for Nepal’s children, be they Gurkhas, Sherpas or Madeshis. And what Nepal needs most in this crucial transitional period is peace, co-operation between the different ethnic groups, a craving to mend ways, build bridges between its cultures, connect and find common goals.”Satis Shroff
Mr. Swaroop Chamling, who is a Rai and ex-Gurkha settled in UK, is gathering signatures for a Gurkha petition on www.Darjeeling Forum (google or yahoo search will do) and I find it interesting that the Gurkhas, civilians and military, are getting organised to fight for their rights at last, after years of discrimination, hiring and firing, and low-pay on the part of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in Britain. What I found interesting was the inference of a Gurkha reader on www.Gurkhas.com that it was Bahuns and Chettris all the way in Nepalese history and even today, whether in the opposition or in the ruling parties. The same sort of infighting that you see in Delhi between the Punjabis, Bengalis and other Indian ethnic groups is to be seen in Catmandu’s ministries. It’s always Newars versus Bahuns and Chettris, with the rest of the ethnic groups as onlookers. If you want to make a career in Catmandu you have to learn the local lingo, which is a language with monosyllables---Nepal Bhasa.
It is a fact that there are only bahuns and chettris on both sides: among the maoists and political parties in Nepal. The reason why bahuns and chettris dominate the political, economic and other landscapes in Nepal is that they have been privileged through Hinduism, its raja-praja set-up and caste-system, with its purity and pollution implications that have swept and divided the families in Nepal and the Nepalese diaspora for centuries (as in India even today), and I think that Dor Bahadur Bista has illustrated this amply in his writings, and was cursed wrongly by critics in Catmandu and elsewhere as a 'Nestbeschmutzer.'
One can combat this discrepancy by uniting to create a new, ethnic-friendly Nepal by decree of law, and by observing the new democratic developments in Nepal as a chance to change the old, federal structures and bringing in a secular state, like our big neighbour India. India did, what Nepal is in the process of doing, by introducing Privvy Purse for the Royals fifty years ago. The king has been sacked and the Narayanhiti Palace now a museum, just like the Hanuman Dhoka palace which can be viewed by Nepalese and tourists alike, and should act as an incentive for young Nepali school-kids to preserve the democratic rights of the country, lest it fall in the wrong hands, and not let history repeat itself.
The Nepalese society finds itself in a period of transition and has yet to decide which form of government is suitable and practicable for the society. Naming the former anchals or zones as cantons alone won’t make a Switzerland out of Nepal, but the will of the people to live under a governmental form based on public opinion and votes might bring this Himalayan country closer to the wishes of its people.
I remember the first page of The Rising Nepal bore the latin words: vox populi, vox dei. That was a time when a king and reincarnation of Vishnu ruled the land. The king had to sadly realise that the voice of the people was not the voice of God. And the voice of the king was certainly not the voice of the people. It was perhaps the voice of the ghost-writer. And thereby hangs a tale.
Education is the best thing in the world for Nepal’s children, be they Gurkha, Sherpa or Madeshi. And what Nepal needs most in this crucial transitional period is peace, co-operation between the different ethnic groups, to mend ways, build bridges between its cultures, connect and find common goals.
But there’s the beginning of democracy in Nepal now, and the tribes and castes that were neglected in the past should get their rights by creating a federal form of government, like in German or in Switzerland, whereby the country has to be formed administratively as federal, local government with the power to carry out trade and commerce with neighbouring countries or states. Only then will there be a freedom of trade and commerce in all geographical and ethnic sectors.
The way it has been in the past: Kathmandu was Nepal. It was too centralised, the King lived in Kathmandu, the parliament was, and still is, in Kathmandu. Even for small things one had to have Kathmandu’s blessings. I hope the new governments will see to this matter and think of Nepal holistically, and not like in the past. I say government, because the political situation hasn’t shown much stability in the past for observers abroad.
Nevertheless, there is hope, and this torch of hope will be carried by the children and youth of Nepal. Whether we are Gurungs, Tamangs, Chettris, Bahuns, Bhujels, Kirats or Madhesis we have to unite and make Nepal a land that we can be proud of through our own endeavours. To borrow a line from JFK ‘ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ After all, we are a republican democracy, aren’t we?
The comity of nations would only be too willing to see a politically and economically stable Nepal and render assistance as in the past, before the war between the government troops and the maoists began.
So let us unite above the communal feelings and ideologies, and think in terms of Nepal as a nation, and not in terms of the opposite of democracy, namely anarchy. Let the children of Nepal from the plains and the hills have the same educational opportunities and work under human conditions. Let us show the world that we have a word for negotiation in our language, and that we also have the ability of carrying out a dialogue in the parliamentary sense of the word.
Peace, trust, faith, character, integrity, tolerance, dignity are qualities that cannot be attained by nurturing communal feelings and ethnic hatred. It is only through peaceful means, trust, honesty, cooperation and coordination that the long arduous task called development can be attained and the people can attain mental, physical and social wellness in the tedious march towards progress. To this end, we have to decide to change. Revolution is change, and the young men and women who were fired by their imagination during the decade long krieg have to do so in a constructive way, or else Nepal will forever remain ‘a yam between two rocks’ and a perpetual member of the least developed countries, in every sense of the word.
Change or perish should be the battle-cry of democracy loving Nepalese.
Yes we can, if we want it strong enough.
About the Author:
Satis Shroff teaches Creative Writing at the University of Freiburg, and is the published author of three books on www.Lulu.com: Im Schatten des Himalaya (book of poems in German), Through Nepalese Eyes (travelgue), Katmandu, Katmandu (poetry and prose anthology by Nepalese authors, edited by Satis Shroff). His lyrical works have been published in literary poetry sites: Slow Trains, International Zeitschrift, World Poetry Society (WPS), New Writing North, Muses Review, The Megaphone, Pen Himalaya, Interpoetry. Satis Shroff is a member of “Writers of Peace,” poets, essayists, novelists (PEN), World Poetry Society (WPS) and The Asian Writer. He also writes on ecological, ethno-medical, culture-ethnological themes. He has studied Zoology and Botany in Nepal, Medicine and Social Sciences in Germany and Creative Writing in Freiburg and the United Kingdom. He describes himself as a mediator between western and eastern cultures and sees his future as a writer and poet. Since literature is one of the most important means of cross-cultural learning, he is dedicated to promoting and creating awareness for Creative Writing and transcultural togetherness in his writings, and in preserving an attitude of Miteinander in this world. He lectures in Basle (Switzerland) and in Germany at the Akademie für medizinische Berufe (University Klinikum Freiburg) and the Zentrum für Schlüsselqualifikationen (Lehrbeauftragter für Creative Writing, Albert Ludwigs Universität Freiburg). Satis Shroff was awarded the German Academic Exchange Prize.
What others have said about the author:
“I was extremely delighted with Satis Shroff’s work. Many people write poetry for years and never obtain the level of artistry that is present in his work. He is an elite poet with an undying passion for poetry.” Nigel Hillary, Publisher, Poetry Division - Noble House U.K.
Satis Shroff writes with intelligence, wit and grace. (Bruce Dobler, Associate Professor in Creative Writing MFA, University of Iowa).
‘Satis Shroff writes political poetry, about the war in Nepal, the sad fate of the Nepalese people, the emergence of neo-fascism in Germany. His bicultural perspective makes his poems rich, full of awe and at the same time heartbreakingly sad. I writing ‘home,’ he not only returns to his country of origin time and again, he also carries the fate of his people to readers in the West, and his task of writing thus is also a very important one in political terms. His true gift is to invent Nepalese metaphors and make them accessible to the West through his poetry.’ (
Sandra Sigel, Writer, Germany).
'Brilliant, I enjoyed your poems thoroughly. I can hear the underlying German and Nepali thoughts within your English language. The strictness of the German form mixed with the vividness of your Nepalese mother tongue. An interesting mix. Nepal is a jewel on the Earth’s surface, her majesty and charm should be protected, and yet exposed with dignity through words. You do your country justice and I find your bicultural understanding so unique and a marvel to read.' Reviewed by Heide Poudel in WritersDen.com 6/4/2007.
“Beautiful prosaic thought and astounding writing. Satis Shroff's writing is refined – pure undistilled.” (Susan Marie, www.Gather.com