A Nepali doctor living in Australia pens his debut novel
By Deepak Adhikari
Ravi Thapaliya, the writer of Echoes of Pain
In an age of increasing numbers of reading (also buying, I guess) communities, a good book doesn’t remain long in the shelves of bookstores. But, not so in Nepal. When I fished out a novel called Echoes of Pain from inside Sajha Prakashan’s book stall at Bhrikutimandap, Exhibition Road, Kathmandu, it had already gathered few layers of dust. Its author, I would discover later, is a handsome but slightly plump (I noticed his increasing lovehandles in the pics) doc with chubby cheeks, currently being trained in medical rehabilition in Down Under. Born in a farmer’s family in Chaturale, Nuwakot, Ravi Thapaliya,40, did his latter half of schooling from Shanti Vidhya Griha High School in Lainchour; and went to Amrit Science College (popularly known as Ascol) to study science. He completed his MBBS from Teaching Hospital, TU. And, in his early 40s, his literary talent surfaced with a brilliant piece of art.
In an email conversation, he told me he’s enjoying his Down Under odyssey but longs to return back home after the completion of his training. He says: “To be away from the country and family while the country is undergoing such a difficult time is not easy.” The full text of interview is here.
Deepak Adhikari: Where were you born and brought up? In what professions are/were parents involved? Did your upbringing have any reflection in your work?
Ravi Thapaliya: I am sure our upbringing will have an impact on the art that we create. I was born in Chaturale, a village in Nuwakot district. My parents did subsistence farming; they are pretty old now. We had some land and I remember how hard we worked in the field. I studied in a local school up to grade five and then was brought to Kathmandu by my brother. But we often went home to support our parents during school holidays.
I am the seventh child of my parents; three elder sisters and four elder brothers – but the youngest of my elder brothers died in his childhood, apparently of dysentery. My father didn’t have any formal education, but he used to write poems and he has always been an inspiration for us. My brother Shanker Thapaliya is also in literary field, and his several poetry books have been published. So I had an environment for literary creation.
I think the experiences in my life have been reflected in my work in one way or the other.
Deepak: You mentioned there that you worked in Janagal, Kavre. Can you tell us about your career as a medical doctor in Nepal? Where you worked etc.
Ravi: Those three years of working as a rehabilitation doctor in that children’s hospital (Hospital and Rehabilitation Centre for Disabled Children, HRDC) are one of the best times of my life. I worked there as a Medical In-Charge from 2001 to 2004. I did my MBBS from the Institute of Medicine, Tribhuvan University in 1991. I worked as a resident doctor in Nepal for about 4 years and then came to Australia for a postgraduate training in the University of Sydney in rehabilitation. I returned to Nepal in 2001, to work at HRDC. Now I am back in Australia for more training and experience. I hope to return to Nepal soon after I finish the training. I wish to establish some basic rehabilitation facility in Nepal, as rehabilitation is still largely an abstract concept.
Deepak: How do you manage your time between your career and writing? What is your preferred time for writing?
Ravi: It’s been really difficult at times to divide time between these two, which are equally important to me. But until now, the writing side gets the leftover time. Being a doctor involves another individual’s life in the equation, and that cannot be compromised. But writing isn’t any less responsible work; only that it can probably be organized in a more flexible way. I usually write in the weekends, and evenings. As a writer, I find medical profession as a privilege, as we get to see a lot of raw emotions and so many real stories that are real assets for writing. So for me, these two professions complement each other very well.
Deepak: You have mentioned in the novel that Carol Warlow and Aidan edited it. Why were they given that task and what changes did they make?
Ravi: Aidan Warlow and Caroline Warlow are wonderful couple with a lot of editing experience. Aidan used to be the principal of Kathmandu University High School and I knew him since my HRDC time. He has published several school textbooks back in England. Currently, he runs the Department of Art and Design of the Kathmandu University. They did language editing and they did an excellent job.
Deepak: In your Afterwords, you have mentioned that writing for you ‘proved to be a far too difficult work.’ Why? Can you elaborate on this? Presumably, the pain of writing…
Ravi: I’m afraid that’s true. Although the first write-up was long time ago, I had to re-write and edit the work relatively recently. It wouldn’t have been a difficult thing to do; it would have been an utterly enjoyable thing indeed, if we were in peace. We all know what Nepal is going through now. I wasn’t exaggerating that we heard sounds of explosion every now and then. People were being killed by their fellow countrymen, no matter which side, and it wouldn’t be easy to bear with that and to keep sitting in the name of writing a novel. But even then, I did it; I don’t know why and how. It occurs to me that the right thing to do for every Nepali at this time is to work to stop the violence, rather than anything else.
Deepak: Again on Afterwords. To me, it occurred as an apology. An apology for not being able to write ‘a better novel.’ Was it necessary? I’ve seen other writers writing the afterwords. Why did you do it yourself? What purpose does it serve?
Ravi: Well, it may indeed be an apology. I’m not entirely sure whether it was necessary as such; but then the point could be whether the novel itself was necessary! Afterwords came as a compulsion. There was a lot of pressure from my inside to tell something really true, really purposeful, something that really matters. And I just put that down honestly. It wasn’t meant to be something like a preface. It was something I had to say and I said. And again, it came as an ultimate hunger for a little peace.
With his daughter and the book
Deepak: Your novel is an echo of turbulent present. I mean the ongoing chaos and conflict. But, you’ve set it on Jesth 2046, when even democratic movement hadn’t started. Why this anachronism whereas the events of pro-democracy movements you have described evoke current seven party agitations?
Ravi: In fact, as I mentioned the skeleton of this novel was done long time ago, in fact not too long after 2046 democracy movement. But the novel was not in this shape; it needed a lot of re-writing that was done long after. So there was a long span of time in between where I did not work on the novel and it just remained on the shelf. When I did re-writing I didn’t feel I should fiddle around with the dates, and consequently this anachronism appeared to happen. The democracy movement going on now would have similarities with its predecessor. In reality I never wanted to make this novel political, in one sense. Of course, our life is affected by ongoing political events. But I tried to explore more into individual rather than making politics the theme.
Deepak: TS Eliot says, no writer can be separated from the tradition. So, among Nepali writers writing in English such as Samrat Upadhyay, Manjushree Thapa, where do you locate yourself?
Ravi: I agree that we can’t separate us from the context. However, it’s difficult for me to tell where exactly I am. I would listen to my readers’ and critics’ opinion for this. Well, I am a newcomer in this area whereas writers like Samrat and Manjushree have established their worth.
Deepak: How were you inspired to write? Apart from this novel and medical journals, have you written any articles, stories, travelogues etc?
Ravi: It’s probably not a single factor. As I said above, my father wrote poems despite having no formal education, and my brother is a poet. I am always encouraged by them and also other members of my family. I had written some dramas and stories in Nepali but they were never published. I have written poems and few of them have been published in some literary journals; but it was fairly long ago. I have a traveller’s health-guide book published in 1995.
Deepak: Who are the writers you admire (Both English and Nepali)?
Ravi: I have quite diverse taste in terms of reading. I like quite a few writers and it may not be possible for me even to remember names right now. Just to mention a few writers: Madhav Ghimire, Laxmi Prasad Devkota, Bhupi Sherchan and Shanker Lamichchane, Bhairav Aryal and Ramesh Bikal from our previous generation. And it will be a pretty long list of contemporary writers. Likewise, I read Nepali writers writing in English. In regard to foreign writers, again, I have a diverse taste. In fiction, I am very much touched by John Steinbeck, Mikhail Solokhob, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Jean Paul Sartre, and so on. I’m afraid that I may be called an old fashioned reader. But I do like contemporary writers as well.
I am a keen reader of non-fiction, especially things related to cosmology, relativity and quantum physics and about Eastern Mysticism which many modern scientist believe holds the answer to every modern science unsolved mysteries. The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra was my primer to this direction. Similarly, other books that I really admire are Chaos by James Gleick and of course, A brief history of time by Stephen Hawking.
Deepak: What does writing mean to you? How many years did it take to write this novel? Did you re-write it? Are you currently writing or planning another one?
Ravi: It is hard to answer this question, in a way. To put it simply, writing is my best and most honest expression. And I realize now, it’s going to be even more a part of me. I mentioned earlier, I wrote this novel pretty long time back. It took me about two years to write, and about the same time to re-write which I did much later. But then I was not only writing; I was busy with hospital works while writing or re-writing. Yes, I am currently writing another novel, but I guess it is going to take a good long time before I can finish.
Deepak: You’ve created a Kafka-like backdrop in Echoes of Pain analogous to The Trial. But you ended (rather abruptly) your novel in a happy note. Why the order and peace after the grotesque and chaos? What philosophy/principle guided you to end the novel that way?
Ravi: It was perhaps my optimism. It was to persuade myself that peace and reconciliation is possible even after such livid interactions between people. I don’t know yet how far I am from reality. I hope I am not too far.
Deepak: One of the protagonists (Agni) in the novel is a surgeon. How much is this character autobiographical?
Ravi: Yes, I guess, to some extent, I have given him my persona. But it’s limited to the medical detail of the procedures. And I imagine that the awareness of the ethical massacre that he was committing could be this live, because of me being a doctor.
Deepak: Why did you publish your book from Sajha which rarely publishes books in English? Did you try with other publishers? Even in Australia or US or in India, there are a number of distinguished publishers (who unlike Sajha know how to market their products) looking for new talents. Was that not, to borrow your phrase, your slice of cake?
Ravi: I had contacted a few publishers in the US and Australia immediately after I completed the first write-up. Admittedly, it was not in the best shape. But more than that, most publishers replied with the notion that the theme of torture was not a ‘contemporary’ one. However, I wonder what would be their reaction now, with the growing unrests in the world. Anyway, when I submitted it to Sajha, they accepted for publication. I am quite thankful to Sajha for this; I was an unknown writer and they took this ‘risk’. The academia response was unbelievably good; although as you mentioned marketing is an area Sajha has a lot of space to improve on. Look, as any writer, I am keen to be available to a wider readership, beyond any geographic boundary. But it’s always a matter of opportunity.
Deepak: How do you draw your materials? A character like Bonza is awesome. How do you weave a story, develop a plot? In fact, how do you write? (The writing process). Do you research on your topic?
Ravi: I do both; I take my characters from real world as well as create them in my heart. Many a times a character is a mix of many real life people. Same thing goes for the plots and events. I try to allow my characters to be rather free and spontaneous. I like to notice little details that we, I mean the characters, go through. Such a little pieces of events make a life. I feel a bit unsatisfied if I have to give a manipulative turn to the story; but I have done that too, in order to bring about a desired end. It’s being a bit unkind to the characters but writers do that. Bonza is one of my special characters. He represents the morbid soul within us which tends to distort the definition of pleasure – that is, to give pain to others to become at a relatively pain-free state. But I allowed him to resurrect, which I don’t know how fair it is. I know people of similar characters, although may not be as charismatic and in similar career. I may have certainly spiced up a bit, though.
I do some research for writing fiction, particularly if it is a part of real history or facts.
Deepak: How are the responses/reviews to the novel? I guess you had a book launch-cum-discussion program at Thamel. How did the Nepali academia react to your work?
Ravi: I was so pleasantly surprised to get excellent reviews from Nepali academia. Yes, the Literary Association of Nepal (LAN) kindly organized the launch at Hotel Baishali when eminent academics and literary critics spoke about the novel. I was really excited to hear the critical appreciation. I have been very much encouraged by those reviews.
Deepak: I noticed that you have created meek and feeble characters in males (i.e. Vivas and Agni) whose better-halves, on the contrary, are strong. How do you justify your characterization of this kind in a society that assumes the other way round?
Ravi: You are right; in this novel the women are much stronger characters than their male counterparts. It may not necessarily be the case every time and everywhere, but I know that female characters are generally indeed very strong and have strong roles in real life. Well, it may not surface out to the media or in public; but at home you will realize how strong female roles are. But having said this, I don’t want to compare the strengths of the characters between genders. While in harmony, a husband and a wife make a unit; their strengths and weaknesses are synergistic, not antagonistic. Nepali society is, of course, patriarchal but we cannot deny that female roles make a foundation of every family.
Deepak: Regarding the title and the possible theme of the book. Do you mean to say human beings are basically sadist/masochist? You say somewhere that there’s pleasure in pain and pain in pleasure. Do you mean to say human existence is essentially painful? Do we take pleasure in inflicting pain on others and being tortured by others? Why are you so much fascinated by pain? Does it have anything to do with your profession as a doc?
Ravi: Pain is an integral part of life. In fact, biologically, pain is the most pronounced aspect of life as it is the first defense against harm to our body. And our Eastern Philosophy says consciousness will be pain if it can’t be pleasure! So pain and pleasure are vital dualistic attributes of nature. The world is virtually dualistic in existence. One exists because the antithesis exists too. So, apparently, pleasure cannot exist if there is no pain somewhere. In Echoes of Pain, I talk of the mal-interpretation of pleasure, as I mentioned above. But what I mean to say is that an echo of pain is also a pain, not pleasure. This is what Bonza realizes eventually, so do other characters.
I cannot plead that the title has been the most appropriate one; but I liked it. Well, Buddha says human existence is painful unless we do something about it. I cannot disprove it. ‘Not being’ may be a way out, but that’s forbidden the moment we are now already ‘been’! Our Eastern Philosophy says that, as we are part of the whole, we get what we impart on others. However, we mortal folks have not internalized this fact. And in most of us, the distorted definition of relative pleasure still reigns to a varying degree. Bonza represents an extreme of this perversion, but it is manifested in one way or the other in our daily lives. To get rid of this perversion is one of the spiritual developments. And Yogis say there can be a state when there is no pain but pleasure only.
Pain is a fascinating topic in itself, for doctors, biologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and so on. It is one of the evolutionary shapers and yet it may be an elusive and abstract phenomenon. As a doctor, I have seen pain. We treat pain, but we look for pain as well, as pain is one of the vital indicators of life. I guess I may have seen pain from a different angle as a doctor at times.
Deepak: Did you want to be a doc or a writer first?
Ravi: Well, I always wished to be both, writer and doctor and I am happy that both of my wishes have been fulfilled.