Saturday Features

The Mahakavi’s scribe

  • Meet Shyam Das Baishnav, the man who transcribed Laxmi Prasad Devkota’s most celebrated literary works 
- Bibhu Luitel

Jan 12, 2019-

What Lord Ganesh was to Maharshi Vyas, I was to Devkota ji,” says Shyam Das Baishnav, referring to his long-standing friendship with Mahakavi Laxmi Prasad Devkota. 

“When Maharshi Vyas thought of writing the Mahabharat, he realised he would not be able to pen everything down because of how slow he was at writing. He then requested Lord Ganesh to write it down for him while he dictated,” explains Baishnav.  

Like Ganesh, Shyam Das Baishnav, now 95, wrote most of Devkota’s famous poems down longhand. 

It was in 1941 when the Mahakavi met his ‘Ganesh’ for the first time. Devkota was 30 while Baishnav was just an adolescent. Devkota had written a scene for a play at the request of a Dillibazar-based drama club. The scene required Devkota’s penmanship to be fair enough so everyone could understand it. Devkota was notoriously sloppy and so, enlisted Baishnav to clean up his messy writing and reproduce it fresh. That was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between Devkota and Baishnav. 

Devkota’s most-acclaimed works—including Shakuntal, Sulochana, Maharana Pratap and Prithvi Raj Chauhan—were all transcribed by Baishnav before they were sent for publication. 

The first time Devkota saw Baishnav writing, he said, “I have poor handwriting. I need someone to fairly copy whatever I write before I send it for publication. And you seem to have fair, crisp handwriting,” Baishnav reports.  

“I also needed someone I could learn writing good poems from,” Baishnav remembers, “And there was no better guru than the Mahakavi himself.” 

Like most geniuses, Devkota too had eccentricities that would sometimes frustrate Baishnav. For instance, Devkota was really careless about the mucus dripping off his nose or the drool from his mouth, which would drip on his writing and erase the words. To make up for it, Baishnav would sometimes have to surmise appropriate words to fill in the gaps. 

In the late 40s, Devkota worked at the Nepali Bhashanubad Parishad, an organisation that translated books between Nepali and other languages. Devkota appointed Baishnav his junior, as a pandit. If Devkota earned Rs 70 a month, Baishnav made Rs 15. “But back then, that was a great amount and I was happy to take the job,” Baishnav says. 

They were paid on the last day of every month. But Devkota had little confidence carrying his salary back home. Paid in coins, his salary would weigh as heavy as 70 tolas and he did not trust anyone else with it but Baishnav. And so they would walk along, buying sweets and fruits with their salary to present it to their families.

Baishnav now, like Devkota then, is a heavy smoker. “He influenced me but I would never smoke when he was around,” he says. Baishnav knew Devkota would not mind seeing him smoke but his respect for the Mahakavi never let him hold a cigarette in front of him. Now in each puff he smokes, he remembers his favorite poet, Baishnav says. 

As we get to talking, Baishnav finishes one cigarette and his son lights up another one for him. Some ashes scatter on his bedsheet and his son rushes to extinguish the sparks. Baishnav looks concerned, yet quietly amused. The sheets have developed small holes and they take Baishnav back to another incident that occured in the winter of 1947. 

It was snowing in Kathmandu and Baishnav was with Devkota at the latter’s residence in Maitidevi. The two were having a good time, seating by the makal—a makeshift, portable fireplace—which was placed on Devkota’s bed. They were discussing poetry. A large burn had already spread through Devkota’s mattress and bedsheet, but they were blissfully unaware, deeply immersed in conversation. When they found out, Devkota, true to his stoic nature, showed no reaction. “The only thing that mattered to him was the poetry discussion,” Baishnav says. Later that day, the two had a feast of goat meat, Devkota’s favourite dish, along with more poetry. 

Devkota was very easy to offend and people would rile him up, leaving Baishnav to calm him down. In one instance, Gopal Prasad Rimal, the first Nepali poet to write free poetry, said to Devkota, “Your poems look outdated. You better consider writing better.” 

Devkota was reportedly speechless. Baishnav, who often defended Devkota, answered Rimal harshly, “I challenge you to write something better than Devkota ji.” Silence ensued. “I would have, Shyam,” Rimal smiled, “If I had a Ganesh like you, who would not just produce fair copies but also make necessary corrections.” 

Baishnav ended up defending Devkota like this often. Devkota was fond of gambling and would often lose everything he had. Once, he surrendered the fountain pen he used to write with and that saddened Baishnav more than anything. “I cried bitterly that day,” he says. Baishnav didn’t talk to Devkota for days after. 

But nothing could break the bond they shared. “He was my family as I was his,” says Baishnav. He was never rewarded with money or fame, just being close to the Mahakavi was enough for him. Besides that, he also had a job because of Devkota. 

“You have been of great help to me, Shyam,” Devkota told Baishnav once. “But I could never do anything for you. Now it’s my turn to return the favour. Devkota proposed translating Baishnav’s collection of poems, Upahaar, into English. Baishnav was, naturally, overjoyed. 

Devkota died young and Baishnav could not believe it for years. In 1987, 28 years later, Baishnav was awarded the Mahendra Pragya Puraskar, a venerable literary prize. “My father was going through anxiety and the award happened to be of some medicinal value,” says Indu Baishnav, the eldest of Baishnav’s seven children.

During his heyday, Baishnav could fill a page in less than 10 minutes. His identity was solely based on his ability to write, with his own unique handwriting. But with age, this energy has faded. His family never thought of preserving his handwriting, as it in that very script that the Mahakavi’s creations were written down. Baishnav has just a diary left, with a few pages torn out, which the family fondly preserves.

With the story done, Baishnav asked his daughter to bring him his diary and spectacles. He then recited a poem from his collection, as his children gathered around.

“Dukha nachini sukha ko mahatwa Jaanna sakdo rahenachha kasaile pani…”

(No one realises the importance of happiness/until they experience sadness.) 

The writer tweets @LuitelBibhu

Published: 12-01-2019 08:07

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