Ralpha: An Overview (translation)

Who were Ralpha? Nepal’s original leftist cultural group, they began as a politically neutral artists’ collective interested in nihilism and existentialism (and surrealism, as Manjul points out in the 1988 memoir The Footsteps of Memory). As I begin writing a new book on political performance, love, and friendship among Nepal’s political left, Ralpha are the obvious place to begin. This article is my quick translation of Hari Shrestha’s July 28th op-ed in the Nepali newspaper Kantipur, remembering his involvement with Ralpha at a surprise meeting between three former Ralpha members, and one younger man interested in knowing more about them. (image: one of the original woodcut illustrations from The Footsteps of Memory, depicting Manjul and Ramesh’s musical journey)

A Brand Name

A memory

One day, a strange guitar melody was heard in a rented room in Bag Bazaar. What kind of tune is this, and does it have a name? Manjul, who was playing the melody, gove a joking answer in the moment—this melody’s name is Ralpha. A meaningless word—Ralpha.

As time went on, the need to find the meaning of life overflowed in Ralpha. Voices of hopelessness and existentialism gradually began to merge.  

Kantipur, Srawan 12, 2075 (July 28, 2018) | Dr. Hari Shrestha

Kathmandu – A different kind of social movement that made waves in Nepali literature and music up until its conclusion, it still lives in memory. It has been almost two decades since Ralpha’s dissolution. However, in the new generation, curiosity and interest about Ralpha have not been erased.

When those who are known as Ralpha’s leaders accidentally find themselves together in one place, it is a wonderful and curious happening for them. Their eyes appear eager to hear something about Ralpha. At such a recent meeting with Manjul, Niran, and myself, such curiosity shone that day in the eyes of a younger friend, Rajan. I’m extremely happy to see you all together, and you should keep meeting like this, Rajan was saying.

I said: it’s the time of our lives when we should be sharing our interesting and exciting experiences. But, we haven’t been able to do that much. Facebook has changed the definition of social relationships. It’s the era when we can like our friends’ statuses by touching our fingers to a smartphone’s screen, without having to go meet them in person. Emotional interactions are dying.

There are, of course, still so many things about Ralpha that have yet to be publicly understood, and today I am eager to hear these aspects. In such a meeting, what would the intimate conversations among you all be like—I would also like to hear that. Brimming with curiosity, Rajan’s voice fills the room. We look at each other with a slow smile. On Manjul’s face, I see his old glamourous smile, which I haven’t seen for a long time. What might be the paragraphs of Ralpha’s story that have yet to be told?

Listening to Rajan’s question, I experience something bubbling up to the surface of my age-affected mind. If we sort through its ups and downs, the divisions brought by politics, and the events of its dissolution and transformation, we can make an outline of Ralpha, born five decades ago. Many critical articles are published on Ralpha, but they don’t present an overall picture of Ralpha. Much discussed in the decades of the 30s and 40s, Ralpha and its many turns are now becoming difficult to describe. For how long will past events remain safely stored in individual’s memories? With uncertainty, I turn my gaze toward Niran and Manjul.

There is a witness to Ralpha’s beginning and its journey of development—Niran. Along with Manjul, he has been there since the beginning, watching Ralpha closely. He has a forthright, or straight-forward, nature. He begins to open the bundle of new things that have been stored in his memory. He says—at that time, one day Manjul was running his fingers over the guitar strings in his room in Bag Bazaar. He was coaxing a strange melody out of the guitar. Our friend Om Sitaula was with us there too. Hearing this strange guitar melody, Om asked Manjul—what kind of melody is this, and does it have a name? Manjul gave a joking answer in the moment: Yes, it has a name. This melody’s name is “Ralpha.” The first time we heard the word Ralpha, it certainly had a strange ring to it. Om was looking straight at Manjul with amazement, as was I. His eyes filled up with curiosity, and so did his face.

Laughing, Manjul says—Yes, Ralpha was a word that suddenly came into my mind, a word that doesn’t have any meaning. I had a penchant for creating new and strange words and using them in poetry. After my musical rapport with Ramesh, Rayan, and Arim grew, and circumstances of that time made it necessary to identify ourselves as a group, we all agreed that we would name the group Ralpha. This is how Ralpha was born. We had been close to Parijat for some time already. She was the one who inspired us to work together as a group. In time, Niran, Vimal, Ninu, and Norem also became members of Ralpha. Ganesh Rasik was also in Ralpha for some time. Later, he left Ralpha and joined the Lekali group. Parijat joined Ralpha a little later. When she wrote the introduction to the novel Chekudolma, she first added the word Ralpha after her name. Thus, Ralpha became an emotional thread that links us all. Later it became more like a “typical brand name.”

“Rewinding” through the stories of Ralpha’s birth, I too become lost in those enjoyable moments of my own past. Rajan is deeply concentrating and looks like he is totally absorbed in our conversation. Right then I arrive at the memory of when Rajan had told me about his wishes [to hear more from Ralpha members]. He had said, “Ralpha’s time is an important period for contemporary Nepali literature and music.” Overall research, analysis, and presentation about Ralpha is necessary. This hasn’t happened. I’m not interested in concentrating on individuals, but rather, in focusing on the group and highlighting their multidimensional personality. I’d like to preserve them in a digital archive. Remembering this desire of his, I felt that this chance interview with Ralpha would be even more exciting for him.

So was the word Ralpha really just created on a whim? Along with the unique names of the people associated with it? Unable to solve this in his mind, Rajan starts to look puzzled. In fact, it was not just a whim. The creation of the world Ralpha was also an expression of suppressed aspirations to make known their distaste for status-quo-ism and traditional conservatism. The names, without any whiff of caste, also expressed Ralpha’s anti-caste consciousness. Later, people began to interpret the meaning of Ralpha in their own ways, from various angles.

Niran remembers—when people he knew found out he was a Ralpha, they would behave like frightened deer when he came near. Some people acted like they would become polluted just by talking to Ralpha. People at that time were very surprised to hear the strange word that identified the group, and the unique sounds of the member’s names. Not a few sarcastically referred to Manjul, who came up with a word that wasn’t even in the Nepali dictionary, as a “poet even greater than Devkota.”

“Even though you won’t tell me, I know the meaning of Ralpha.” One time, a colleague called Biju had something strange to tell Niran. Biju whispered into Niran’s ear: “the meaning of the word Ralpha is ‘Royal Phaera’—in other words, they were a group that aimed to destroy the monarchy. At that time, Niran was really surprised to hear that strange definition of Ralpha. Thus, from the very beginning, Ralpha was perceived in Kathmandu as being against the government of the time. People had had time to develop a basis for such accusations in Ralpha’s protest songs and unique literary compositions. The eyes and ears of the Panchayati rulers were turned to Ralpha’s every activity with alarm. But, at that time, Ralpha was far from politically aware. They were involved in protests of their own accord, without any guiding ideology.

Looking back, it appears that Ralpha’s early period was influenced by the contemporary trends of nihilism and existentialism nurtured by Frederic Nietzsche. Ralpha was attracted in a way to Nietzsche’s proclamation that “God is Dead.” Ralpha was also being influenced by the writings of Albert Camus and John Paul Sartre. Nihilist philosophy’s main trends, in sum, included rejecting all traditionalist values and considering life as meaningless. Existentialism’s direct and indirect influence can be seen in the themes of Parijat’s novel Shirisko Phul (Mimosa Flower) and in Manjul’s novel Chekudolma. Manjul wrote Chekudolma in an exceedingly new type of structure. Like a nearly unbreakable walnut. A tough nut to crack. It made your head spin. It may have been the first novel of its kind. In our poetry too, the voices of existentialist attitudes toward life were becoming more and more evident.

Among Manjul’s songs with their abstract and unusual vocabulary, Ramesh set some to music to which listeners responded saying although they couldn’t understand the words, the melodies were sweet. But, for the most part, the main lyric voice of Ralpha’s original songs was meaningful and life-affirming from the beginning. At that time, Ralpha was increasingly sensitive in selecting words for the songs. The idea that songs should have a message of social transformation was becoming very strong in Ralpha. This is one reason that so many of the songs Ralpha created continue to resound in the hearts of the people even now.

With time, the consciousness of the need to find a meaningful definition of life overflowed in Ralpha. The voices of hopelessness and existentialism gradually decreased. This was the time of Parijat and our turn to the process of micro-transformation in literature. Raised in a culture of letters, Ralpha members continued to dive into the study of internationally recognized publications. For this reason they were soon affected by the wave of change sweeping the world. It seems that Ralpha’s deep attachment to studying books was very helpful in keeping up their dynamism.

I remember—we were engrossed in studying Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Regis Debray and others. Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China was also among our resources. Ralpha’s original transformation began to be evident after coming into contact with and studying these books. That was the time that the wave of revolution spreading in South America, and the miraculous and exciting stories of the guerilla wars led by Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, began to affect us deeply. In the Ralpha literary magazine Yantrana that I edited, we had a general discussion of Che Guevara and guerilla warfare. The Panchayati administration considered this an offense. But, at our ages and at that time, this did not scare us at all.

The influence of Che and Fidel’s exciting life stories was also one reason for Manjul’s sudden decision to abandon his attractive job at the National Bank to begin his storied musical journeys with Ramesh through the villages of eastern Nepal. To go and exchange with the people and lifeways of rural Nepal was a risky yet courageous decision of theirs. This event caused their lives to take an important new turn. From that time on Ralpha came to be seen as another cultural part of politics. At that same time, the group’s dissolution into something that was no longer Ralpha had begun.

As they were influenced by Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, if any stream of Nepal’s politics was going to influence Ralpha, it would have to be the politics of the left. Of course this is what happened, and following their original trend, with time Ralpha members embraced leftist ideals. They became associated with different strands of Nepal’s leftist groups according to their own desires and analysis. Some friends chose to be neutral and began to live their lives independently from politics.

It was not in Ralpha’s nature to remain inactive. Ralpha members became associated with two different leftist groups and their philosophies, and formed two very popular cultural fronts. In these progressive cultural fronts, Sankalpa and Indreni, Ralpha members played a significant role in creating the foundation of leftist politics. But, one strange thing was that between these two fronts, both led by Ralpha members, there was a divide as wide as an ocean. Ralpha’s past period of beautiful work was left behind in the trenches of history. This was the opposite of the now contentious relationship brought about by the political factions of the left.

Coming together and breaking up, breaking up and reuniting, making an important contribution  during a difficult time, Ralpha members continue on, still associated with the Ralpha “brand name.” The difficult days we spent together still seem to have held a different kind of happiness, and other friends appear to feel the same. But, this is a fact: the thirst for the dream of social transformation to which Ralpha dedicated their energetic youth and time has still not been erased in Ralpha.

That day of our chance meeting with Manjul and Niran, we were so lost in Ralpha’s past that we lost track of how fast time was passing. When we were about to leave Rajan raised another question while blocking our way: Brother, when will we meet like this again? Oh sure, we’ll get together. We said our goodbyes with an abstract and ambiguous answer. As I walked I was thinking, perhaps there is a great deal left to fulfill Rajan’s desire to fully understand Ralpha. I don’t know; perhaps he was thinking that such a meeting of aging Ralphas would be good for their mental health. In any case, taking part in this intergenerational dialog that day brought a unique freshness to my mind.