Unlike many other awards, nominating someone posthumously for Nobel Prize was not a practice right from the beginning. Previously, if a person had already been nominated for the Prize before death, he/she could be awarded with it. Effective from 1974, however, the provision was made that it may be given to a deceased person only if it was already awarded but he/she had died before receiving the Prize. This tradition of honoring a person if he/she is still alive became more conspicuous as the Nobel Prize for Literature this year was given to the British writer Dorris Lessing. Apart from her contribution to literature, described by the Swedish Academy as “that epicist of the female experience, who with skepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny”, one more reason behind awarding her with the Prize was her age too: she was already 87, and it was almost a now-or-never thing, which Lessing also mentioned in a humorous note during one of her interviews. Hence, she has been the oldest person to receive the literature prize and the third oldest Nobel Laureate in any category. She also stands as the eleventh woman to be awarded in the literature category in the 106-year Nobel history.
A similar instance of recognition, though it may not be exactly comparable to the Nobel Prize, took place at Aarohan-Gurukul’s premises in Kathmandu on the day of Kojagrat Purnima, the full-moon day of Bijaya Dashami. Playwright and culture-expert Satyamohan Joshi unveiled a life-size statue of 83-year-old littérateur Govinda Bahadur Malla Gothale in the presence of Gothale himself, his family members, and a number of well known figures from different walks of art and life. The childlike smile that ran across Gothale’s face, a mixture of surprise and happiness, while he gazed upon his own white-cement facsimile, moved all those who were present at the occasion. Though no one knows what he really experienced at the moment, I felt he must have been glad, at least, to see his dedicated service being recognized in this form during his life time.
Sunil Pokharel, the man behind the idea, confessed that when he had shared this idea of erecting a statue of someone alive, a few people, as can be imagined, showed their reservations towards it. The reasons were obviously many and multifarious. The most prominent of them, however, was that in a country where the only privileged people whose statues were erected still while they were alive were either the Rana prime ministers or the Shah kings, the idea of immortalizing a ‘common’ man by erecting such a statue during his life time was something simply new and hence debatable. But once the statue was erected and unveiled, everyone appreciated the initiative. Aarohan-Gurukul has planned to erect statues of a few more outstanding national figures in the near future, and Satyamohan Joshi who, even at the age of eighty-eight, has been actively contributing to the field of culture and literature, is the next in the line.
We are living, I’m afraid, in ungrateful times. Singing never ending eulogies, outpouring epic-length elegies, naming roads, bridges and buildings, and establishing awards, trusts and colleges in the name of someone who is dead is a common-place practice of commemorating someone and appreciating his/her contribution. But if the state of extreme negligence and disregard in which most of them live their lives is considered, the posthumous pomp and show showered upon them appears to be completely meaningless. The condition evidently is even worse in a country like ours where writers and artists never come anywhere around the popularity and financial security enjoyed by successful writers and artists elsewhere, especially in the West, for example. Many a time living a life of disregard is almost inevitable, though a different fate may await them after their death. Neither Haribhakta Katuwal, Arun Thapa, or even Devkota himself, nor the living figures like Govinda Bahadur Malla Gothale and Hari Prasad Rimal are exceptions to this dire truth.
Let’s, of course, be cautious and discourage the tradition of hangers-on and sycophants eulogizing someone with their vested interests. But let’s not make it too late to impartially evaluate the talent and contribution of our writers, artists, and leaders with vigilant critical appreciation. Why not name the roads and bridges after such devoted and perseverant persons while they are still alive and show our appreciation while they can feel it themselves? Why not establish trusts, awards or universities in their names during their lifetimes so that they can see their contribution being recognized and die a death of contentment? Why not offer our sincere admiration and gratitude, be it to Lessing or Gothale, during their valued presence, though commemorating them for inspiration and recognition even after they pass away is always there?
That would be a fortunate society where another poet, out of isolation and neglect, will not have to pen lines like these by the late Bhupi Serchan:
You, who died and attained martyrdom,
Do live and see, how difficult is it to live!
(Published in The Kathmandu Post on 2008-01-19)