Ishwor Ballav
  in conversation with Para Limbu, Chairperson, Spiny Babbler

Ishwor Ballav is a poet at heart. He is deeply rooted in the poetry through which he acknowledges life. He finds solace in this space where others cannot reach him. Within himself and his poems, he finds emotions evolving and expresses them fervently without direction. Ballav uses poetry not only as a craft but as a powerful medium through which he is able to create striking imagery that is, at times, strangely disturbing. There is hatred and hurt in his poetry and hope and joy as well as wisdom that comes with age. Because Ishwor Ballav embraces life with little or no expectations, he is able to philosophize honestly about life.

He is a poet of his own emotions, a master of his own poems, and his poetry the core of his existence. Ballav speaks softly at first, but as the conversation continues, he begins to enjoy reflecting on his past and betrays an ebullient side to his nature as he laughs, childlike, freely. He discovers new meanings in what he says about his life and is not afraid to question them openly. Because he is true to his feelings and knows them, through his honesty, his poetry has grown.

Ishwor Ballav is also a poet of a new dimension­–the third dimension–meaning Tesro Ayam in the history of Nepalese literature. He, along with his contemporaries, Bairagi Kaila and Indra Bahadur Rai, formed a trio in 1963 in Darjeeling to rethink and evaluate the development of Nepalese literature. It was, for them, a journey into their own psyches, about what they felt was lacking in the usage of the Nepali language. A third dimension where one wrote without inhibitions, spontaneously portraying one’s innermost feelings through a psychological, cultural, and socio-archetypal process. This movement changed the conventional way in which Nepalese literature was seen and gave readers new insights into the minds of poets and writers.

Tesro Ayam started as a small journal. It was published only three to four times, but the impact it made on the literary community in Darjeeling and, soon after, in Kathmandu, marked an evolution of the Nepali language. None of the three expected their efforts to arouse the interest of other Nepalese poets, writers, and scholars. They followed their creative instincts, contributed articles to Tesro Ayam, and distributed 200 to 250 copies. Today, the movement holds a permanent place in the annals of Nepalese literature.

Ishwor Ballav reminisces: “All three of us were driven by this inexplicable urge to explore the Nepali language. We wanted to look at Nepali literature without being bound by traditional norms. We let go of preconceived literary notions and challenged ourselves and experimented with our own writing. The experience, I would say, was mentally stimulating and emotionally fulfilling.

“I feel that in life, things happen and sometimes you may be a part of it. I was part of Tesro Ayam and, although I regard the movement as an important phase in my life, I wish to reserve my feelings for the present. I have lived my past fully, now I move ahead into my future; I think nothing less or more of my achievements at this time.” The sixty-three-year-old poet is in a reflective mood.

Ishwor Ballav’s childhood revolved around the usual activities of going to school, playing, and studying. He remembers himself as an ordinary child having no particular interests or ambitions.

“I grew up as any normal child grows up; I had my share of ups and downs. My father was a Brahmin priest and my mother a Newar; she came from the merchant class. (Before, in Nepal, vocations were allocated according to a person’s caste.) My father was arrested for political reasons and imprisoned for about seven years. Since the breadwinner of the family was in jail, my mother had a difficult time. I remember we lived opposite Rishikesh Shah’s father, Tadak Bahadur Shah, in Kalimati. They lived in a palatial house and were having another building constructed. My mother worked there breaking bricks to earn the little money in order to feed, clothe, and raise us. I felt pain to see her like that, this pain belongs to my childhood. My mother had to work hard and, because of her, we survived as a family. As I see myself today, I perceive my childhood differently; I evaluate my hardships rather than accept them at face value and look at the social elements that caused them. They just happened to another boy like they happen to a thousand others.

Ballav grew up during the Rana regime. His recollection of the period is dim and he feels that, if he had been older, he might have perceived the Rana rulership differently. “As long as I could play, I was happy. I especially enjoyed the Dasain and Tihar festivals because people would start playing juwa, pasa, or langur burja –gamblers’ games. I found it exciting to watch them play. During the festivals public announcements would be made and, for a few days gambling was legal. Gamblers would play on open grounds and the rich played at home. Sometimes, if I was lucky, someone would give me a little money from his winnings. This really made my day and, for a while, I felt less of my family problems.


Ishwor Ballav remembers the time when his mother asked Juddha Shumshere to pardon her husband. Someone advised her to put her problem forward on one of his outings. He usually rode out on an elephant to Kalimati. “My mother, my younger brother, and I were standing in a line as we waited for his sawari. On his arrival, my mother stepped forward, bowed apologetically, and said, ‘Sarkar, you have kept my husband in prison, now how will I live and eat?’ His carelessly flung answer was, ‘Elope.’ Of course, it was rude of him to give such an answer to my mother, but the ruling Rana’s word was law and nothing could be done about it. I was surprised and could not understand why he had responded like that. Afterwards, when we returned home, I saw tears in my mother’s eyes, she was very hurt. It sounds amusing when I talk about it now, but I took very seriously what had happened.

“I think a lot of people were ambiguous on how they felt about the Ranas. Some were totally naïve about the then ruling government. They would become elated at times saying, ‘Today, we were graced by the sarkar’s presence.’ The sarkar was either Babar Shumshere or Juddha Shumshere Rana. Anyhow, they would exclaim importantly, ‘The sarkar bestowed a smile on us, this calls for a celebration.’ They would then cut up a chicken and feast on it; an expense reserved for special occasions. The people lined up to serve the Ranas and, whenever the Ranas looked pleased, they became happy. I would say that the Ranas were treated with awe, they had created a kind of royal aura around themselves. At that time, the road from Bhadrakali to Singha Durbar was the only one well built; no roads as such existed in the whole of Kathmandu City. The capital was just a vast land filled with agricultural fields. The Ranas used this road while the public walked on the road below, where the Rastriya Banijya Bank Central Office stands today. Commoners accidentally walking on the main road would be physically removed.”

Looking back on that period, Ballav says, “I feel that there wasn’t a proper understanding of the word ‘struggle’ and what it entailed. I think the public was used to the Rana government, even though it limited their freedom in many ways. They may have accepted their fate passively and were biding their time. Because, unless the mind is disturbed and has a clear sense of what is right and wrong, it is impossible to oppose any form of dictatorship. Opposition or ‘struggle’ requires mature ideas. It also requires adept planning skills.”

Among his childhood memories one incident comes clearly to Ballav’s mind. “There was a traditional custom called bhaku lai rago dine, which I think is still practiced within the premises of Hanuman Dhoka. Bhaku is a god that enters human beings when they are intoxicated. Two dancers are involved in the festival and bhaku enters one of them. Bhaku teases and chases the rago, buffalo. After the rago is caught, bhaku drinks its blood and the god Bhairav enters the second dancer. The Ranas and their families loved to watch this event from a balcony while the public viewed it from below. Sometimes the rago would go charging at the crowd and scared people would run in panic. A commotion would be created, some persons would be injured, and the Ranas would find the whole thing highly amusing and entertaining.”

There is one experience in Ishwor Ballav’s childhood that devastated him. “It was about the time my father was released from jail. I was twelve years old, my father had come back to us, and I had idealized our family being together. These boyish illusions, however, were shattered because my mother committed suicide. I don’t know whether she had been planning it all along or whether she ended her life on the spur of the moment. What I do know is that she lost her will to live. “Today, when I ask myself why, I cannot come up with a clear answer. She hadn’t been suffering from a terminal disease like cancer and wasn’t under extreme pressure. My father returned in good health, but he came home with a second wife. I know that many wives in Nepal faced similar situations, it was happening everywhere, and my mother became just another example. She had, however, waited for a long time for my father’s release, struggled to keep the family going, and had looked forward to being with him. I think she felt rejected, and this experience, I feel, must have caused her utmost pain. I guess she could not bear the presence of another woman in my father’s life and ultimately ended hers. My poem, ‘Amale Atmahatya Gareko Desh’, is dedicated to my mother.”

After his mother’s death, Ishwor Ballav lost interest in staying in Nepal. He left for Banaras where many Nepalese students were receiving a college education. In Banaras, he completed his Bachelor of Arts degree with honors but was unable to study for his masters. In 1953, while Ballav was returning to Kathmandu, he met Ram Hari Joshi, who later became a minister of education. He suggested that Ballav teach at a school in Malangwa, Sarlahi District. Taking this suggestion Ballav taught for one and a half years. Then he felt like returning to Kathmandu. In those days, there were no roads that linked Sarlahi to Kathmandu, people had to travel around Katihar to reach the capital city. In a way, Ballav’s visit to Katihar on the way to Kathmandu marked a turning point in his life because it was here that he first heard about Darjeeling, the place where he was able to cultivate his passion for literature, produce creations of his own, and, most important of all, meet Bairagi Kaila and Indra Bahadur Rai.

He remembers: “I was told many good things about Darjeeling and was eager to visit the place. I asked the people in Katihar how far it was and how I could begin my journey. They said that it could be reached easily and explained that Sillagudi, which was near Katihar, could be the starting point of my journey. From there I could travel upwards and straight into Darjeeling.”

He who had initially intended to visit Kathmandu, now changed his mind and set out for Darjeeling. He first travelled to Sillagudi and, from there, made his way up to the hill station. The year was 1955 and Ballav was twenty-three years old. Ishwor Ballav remembers his arrival in Darjeeling well. “The rain was pouring down, it was the month of April, and since I had become used to the warm climate of Sarlahi, I found the weather cold. I was wearing clothes suited for summer and did not have warm clothes. “On my arrival, I found out that Dharanidhar Koirala and Parasmani Pradhan–established literary figures– were still residing in Darjeeling, and I decided to visit them first. I had heard about them when I was in school. After meeting them, I thought that it would be a good idea to reside nearby because I felt that the environment was congenial for writers.

“With my mind made up, I was walking in the rain, when I came across a man, who, seeing my condition, asked me if I had come from Kathmandu. When I told him that I had come from Sarlahi, he exclaimed: ‘This isn’t like the Terai plains, it is very cold in Darjeeling and, if you wear clothes like these, you’ll get sick.’ He then said that I should go with him to his house. I thought I was fortunate to meet such a kind stranger. I went to his house, coal was burning in a makal, and as I warmed myself and sipped hot tea, I felt glad. The rain and cold had dampened my spirits, and this stranger’s warmth comforted me greatly.

“The man asked me why I had come to Darjeeling. I told him that I wanted to see the area and wondered if I could get any work. He asked me if I knew Sanskrit and, when I said yes, I knew a little, he told me that he had heard about a vacancy for a Sanskrit teacher in Turnbull High School. He suggested that I should stay with him for a few days while he found out about the vacancy. It turned out that a teacher was required and I started to work at the school. I received my appointment letter from the school’s headmaster, Bal Bahadur Chhetri, who was also a local politician. Thus, this job made it financially possible for me to stay on in Darjeeling.”

Besides teaching Sanskrit, Ballav also taught Nepali and English at Turnbull High School. While settling down, he did not find problems with the local language because everyone spoke in Nepali. “For example, people who live near the sea enjoy sea food. In the same way, the Nepalese who live in the hills enjoy the food that is available there. That is why, since I came from Kathmandu, I never felt like a stranger coming to a foreign land and I found it quite easy to adjust to the social and cultural environment of Darjeeling.”

Ballav gradually became familiar with his new  hometown. He began writing and publishing in newspapers and literary publications like Gorkha and Bharati. (Parasmani Pradhan owned the latter publication.) At that time, he used to call himself Ishwor Ballav Bhattarai. As he continued writing poems and went on to create stories, Ballav’s reputation spread, and he slowly established himself as a good poet and writer in the literary community of Darjeeling.

By this time, Bairagi Kaila had also earned a name for himself as a good writer in Darjeeling. He was living with his elder brother Bhu Bikram Nembang in a rented flat. Bhu Bikram had brought out the first edition of Saugat and, while he was planning to bring out the second edition, he went to Ballav and asked him for a story. Ballav says: “This is how I met Bhu Bikram Nembang and it was through him that I was introduced to Bairagiji.

“Bairagiji’s other brothers also stayed and studied in the flat and sometimes their mit buba, their father’s friend Mantu Lal Chhetri, would come by. Later on I married his daughter. That is why, even though Bairagiji is younger to me, I still call him daju, elder brother. This marriage and our friendship connect me to him.”

As time passed, both of them wrote more and published their work. They also attended literary meetings and read out their poems or stories. Ishwor Ballav and Bairagi Kaila became involved in writing whereas Bhu Bikram Nembang concentrated on editing. Amidst this progress, a new development took place. Indra Bahadur Rai came to teach at Turnbull High School. He was a former teacher of the school.

“Together we would travel through villages and discuss issues of literature with the people. Life became a kind of a kothe gosthi, meeting room, where all of us enjoyed talking and debating. At that time, I started and edited a journal called Ful, Pat, Patkar in which, along with other writers, Bairagiji, Indra Bahadurji, and I published our work. Besides introducing us to readers, the journal also made us popular. We were invited home by people and asked to talk about literature. I would like to say that the public of Darjeeling was very receptive to our efforts.”

Seven years had passed since Ballav’s arrival in Darjeeling. By now, Bairagi, Indra Bahadur, and he had not only become good friends, but also shared each other’s love for literature. Then, around 1962, the three of them started to think about how they could bring new perspectives to their writing. They felt that they could do something for Nepali literature and thought about the approach to take. Bairagi had fallen sick so Indra Bahadur and Ballav used to visit him. They decided to start a journal. They all agreed that Bairagi should become its editor and named the journal Tesro Ayam, the third dimension. Bairagi decided to give it financial backing. Once the journal was published, an inaugural ceremony was held, in which Indra Bahadur spoke on an editorial comment he had written. He said that a person had different facets to his/her personality. He felt that if one looked at people carefully, one could see that the person was a mother/father and being a mother/father, s/he was also somebody’s daughter/son, lover, or friend, i.e., people have different entities. They could be thinkers, introverts, extroverts or other things which in totality, make them “complete” human beings. This is how, he explained, a person could be described or portrayed through poetry, prose, or any other form of literature.

Expanding upon this, Ishwor Ballav says, “In the first editorial of Tesro Ayam, Indra Bahadurji addressed the issue of describing ‘the complete person’ and as we started to discuss more about it, we saw that people could be looked at objectively. They could be regarded as subjects. It was here that we found the biggest challenge: revealing a facet of a person’s personality that was hidden but inherent. That is why the journal was called Tesro Ayam because a human being is tesro ayamic, s/he has a third dimension, and, if they have a fourth dimension, it is their–depth persona–dimension of depth.

“A human being has depth and understanding and expressing his/her depth is describing him/her fully. There are elements that become him/her and make him/her complete. For example, you are here with me right now but that does not mean that your existence is limited to being with me only. You still have your existence with or without me. You have your own thoughts and perceptions and can present them in any way you like. This is what we wanted to explain through Tesro Ayam. A subject need not necessarily have an object; it has other elements as well. Because an object is itself a subject, I myself am an object and a subject. Therefore, I feel that we should be able to write from the core. We should be able to think and write from every angle, from every facet of our personality. This is the kind of concept we wished to promote in Nepalese writing.”

Ishwor Ballav and Bairagi Kaila mostly wrote poetry, they published two, three poems in the first edition of Tesro Ayam, whereas Indra Bahadur Rai’s medium was prose. As the journal was distributed, people started to talk about the movement. Sometimes it was felt that they had to go commercial, but Ballav thought that the publication wouldn’t sell and that they should distribute it free. They tried to price the journal, but with little success.

Even though the publication was small in size, its literary content expanded the views of readers. It triggered a reaction in the literary community in Darjeeling and was carried by readers beyond the boundaries of the hill station. The journal eventually came to Kathmandu during a time when the city was experiencing new literary developments. It seemed as though many important events were happening at a single time. Mohan Koirala, Dwarika Shrestha, and Madan Regmi, who are considered among the great modern poets of Nepal, were in the limelight and although Ballav, Bairagi, and Indra Bahadur were not present in Kathmandu, their journal created much discussion and debate in the literary circles of the valley.

Meanwhile, the trio continued to publish Tesro Ayam and read and studied plays and stories to gain broader perspectives. They became more organized and were able to establish the movement firmly. People began to call their poetry and prose tesro ayamic and thus the Tesro Ayam movement became an integral part of Nepalese literature.

While talking about the movement, Ballav asks, “So what do we mean by an object’s objectiveness? It is your existence in which you have your asmita, your own identity. We may be bound by society’s beliefs but are free to think our own thoughts. This is what makes us human beings. For example, if you want to write a poem about a chair, how will you describe it? It is an inanimate object and has no depth. You can, however, display your own depth by describing the chair. Then there is a problem, the problem of the language. Although our language is rich, it can never be as rich as our thoughts, and this is what we experienced while writing. For example, if you saw a beautiful child, you would say in English, ‘very beautiful’ and in Nepali, we would say, ‘dharae ramro’. Now how would you describe ‘very beautiful’ if you wanted to use the medium of poetry or prose? That is when we started to explore our language in detail, to give a realistic portrayal of what we felt inside. We gave words a new life and existence because we wanted to express ourselves completely, fully and freely. When Bairagiji says, ‘Ma ganga nil bugchu’ [ I am river, flowing blue], what do you feel? What do you experience? You feel his feelings in a way that draws you within his world of literature, and that is the reason why Bairagiji expressed himself like that.

“In our effort to give objects new and fuller meanings, we found difficulty in choosing words. Consequently, a different kind of language started to develop in our writings. For this, we used a language that Nepali draws its roots from–Sanskrit. Because of this we were criticized. We exploited our language and grammar. But we had read and studied the literature of the Continents. Other languages, for example, English had also developed like this. Down the ages, writers and poets had continuously given it new form. Similarly, it is said that Sanskrit words have also been reformed time and again. In our writing process, we found ourselves giving different forms to Nepali words. I felt that it was natural for us to be criticized because I don’t think people should accept things at face value. Each person has the right to question other people’s deeds. So I didn’t feel bad and knew that if we hadn’t been discussed like this, our journal–Tesro Ayam–would never have been taken seriously.” Besides this exploration of literature, the trio read and studied the work of artists like Rembrandt, Matisse, Dali, Picasso and especially art based on European culture. They also appreciated the knowledge that art was an inherent part of European culture. “If we look at Picasso’s work, we find that he revolutionized art. He also took a risk when he founded the art movement– Cubism. Literature is also a form of art and instead of using colors like Picasso, we use words. In our writing process, we gave words new forms, symbols that made our literature difficult to understand; the tesro ayamic movement was not understood easily. Although we were sincerely trying to convey our feelings through literature, we realized that it was also important for us to be studied and criticized on a new level.” Commenting on his own work, Ishwor Ballav says, “A reader would appreciate the meaning of a rukh, tree, in my poetry by knowing why I have used it. A tree is a plant, and in our culture it is worshipped and carries our history and heritage. So if I used the word rukh in my poetry, the reader would first have to understand the kind of background I am writing from because the reader should not be concerned about what the word rukh denotes, but what it connotes in my poetry.”

Ballav respects the works of other Nepalese poets like Mohan Koirala, Dwarika Shrestha, and Madan Regmi. Although their works are not related to the Tesro Ayam movement, he feels that they have great importance in Nepalese literature. He also feels encouraged by the new generation of Nepalese poets and writers. Of the older generation, he especially admires the works of Laxmi Prasad Devkota, Bal Krishna Sama, and Rimal. He says, “If Devkota’s work was removed from the treasures of Nepali literature, then Nepal’s literary history would be incomplete. The way Devkota thought about life is what makes him Nepal’s great, beloved poet.”

Since his return to Nepal, Ballav has written and read extenstively. Although more than three decades have passed since the Tesro Ayam movement started, he feels that he will keep on writing tesro ayamic poetry and prose. The movement may have faded into history, but its significance remains. Recently, on a visit to Sikkim, he met a younger poet from Darjeeling. The poet was happy to see Ballav and said, “When you, Bairagi, and Indra Bahadur dai were in Darjeeling, the environment was different. At that time, literature had become the focal point of the community. It isn’t anymore.” Ballav feels that he doesn’t know what the present literary scene in Darjeeling is like, but likes to remember it as it was in the old days. He realizes that, at present, his life is connected to Kathmandu and feels a change in his writing style. He says, “Before I used to write shorter poems and often referred to mythologies, especially Greek. I like the story about Sisyphus who was always carrying a stone up a hill because the gods were angry with him and had cursed him. Whenever he reached the top of the hill, the stone rolled down and he had to carry it up again. His whole life was to be spent like this. Sometimes, I find the obstacles in my life similar to his. As soon as one obstacle is overcome, another comes up. Nowadays I write longer poems and whatever experiences I have had until now I relate to my poetry. If I don’t write, I feel that I cannot create new ideas. But, then, sometimes, even if I get ideas, I can’t write. I think a writer need not feel that s/he has to write. If s/he is well trained, then s/he will continue thinking about the idea and, eventually, the idea will be transformed into words. It is only a matter of time. I also think that the most important thing for a poet is honesty. Without honesty, I would say that the poem loses value. Nothing is comparable to a poem written with honesty. I have books ready for publishing, but I feel I need my poems to be edited. I know that although I am a poet, my specialty is not editing. Abroad, editing is a profession. Editors do not necessarily have to be writers. But, in Nepal, I feel that we need professional editors and I am in a dilemma. I don’t know whether I should get my poetry edited or leave it as it is.

“Sometimes I believe a great deal in my work and there are other times when I lose enthusiasm for it. I guess it is in our nature to feel like this–sometimes we are exalted to the point that we think we are the best and, sometimes, we become so small that we feel we are nobody.”

Talking about the future of Nepali writers and Nepalese literature, Ishwor Ballav is positive. “Today’s writers have a lot of perception. I don’t think it is necessary for me to give them ideas or suggestions. They are, in their own rights, capable writers. Of course, like me, they still need to struggle with their writing. They need to study and practice. But I think that they are in a better position because of the massive information flow in the country. I only see one thing necessary for them and Nepalese literature–a properly established and worked out system of administration through which we can make our language richer.”