Neelam Gurung still remembers her first poem which she wrote as a 6th grader that she feels shy to share it now. She used to feel scared to write poems then, mainly thinking whether others liked it or not. Even if she quietly wrote it, she was hesitant to recite it, but she always preserved what she wrote, ultimately, it paid her. She mustered enough courage and participated in The Poet Idol winning the title.
‘Could I have won it if I had stopped writing, reciting poems? It must be the perseverance that led me to succeed,’ she says. Neelam – along with Pallawit, Nathan Ryan, and Milson Rai – competed for the title in the grand finale. The reality show—Poet idol—produced and directed by Aman Pratap Adhikary was a kind of homage to his late father and an eminent poet—Kshetra Pratap Adhikary—had ‘nationalism’ as a theme of one of the episodes. Neelam’s own predicament and that theme of the show had a meeting point.
Viplob Pratik, Upendra Subba, Anup Baral, and Surakshya Pant, being in the jury made its verdict far more credible and acceptable. Neelam received one million rupees in prize money along with offer of half a million rupees worth from Yatra Publishing House in case she was willing to publish it. “I would never step away from the literary realm”, Neelam announced after the jury declared her the winner.
The people of Sikkim were ecstatic as she helped erase the emotional distance between Nepal and Sikkim through poems. She thought the poems she recited in the Poet Idol platform elevated Sikkim’s name and helped Sikkim realize its literary strength beyond boundary.
Neelam used to wonder what a poem is. She took poem as the medium of expressions but she confined herself to nature and envy as the subject. She treated poems as a platform to rest, or to disburden herself when she was overwhelmed with feelings, envy etc.
But as she stepped out from the Poet Idol’s platform as a winner, she felt total transformation inwardly. ‘In poems, I have started seeing leaves as black … water as green. Sky feels like it is beneath and the seas above. I have sensed the liberation with which I can create the poems. My views of writing poems and poems themselves have changed now,’ she shared.
In her 30s, Neelam is a teacher by profession, but her passion is poems and songs. She was returning home one day from school while in grade 9. Suddenly, a hungry little girl standing in the street corner asked for money. She claimed she had no relatives to support her and Neelam gave her Rs. 10. The little girl went her way, but the encounter conceived a poem, “Sano Umerko Byatha.”
Dawn has arrived
Little birds are singing
Sun has contently smiled
And, blazing the pleasant air
She does not like all the poems she writes. She wrote poems like this which she did not truly like in her early days. Regardless, her continuity of sharing poems with her friends gained her an identity as a poet in Gangtok. Her teachers would ask her to write and recite poems during occasions like Bhanu Jayanti, school’s anniversary, and other programs. Her ability to immerse in her poems and her recital prowess invited applause. She recalls, “if the teachers had not given me the opportunities, I would not have been able to refine my skill.” She did not have enough presentation skill then, but she had a bold voice and body language to build a solid foundation on.
Born and raised in the fertile musical lands of Darjeeling and Sikkim, Neelam has been involved in the musical sector too. Neelam had once started Jhyampa Production to work in the music field. She is a good singer too, and although not formally trained, she did not let her skills die out. She used to write songs alongside her poems. She would hum writing poems, and later started singing. Then she joined a band as a vocalist. Her music videos were paused during her time as a participant in the Poet Idol. Now she wants to use the prize money to market the music videos.
She was also involved with the band Arogya. The band has been around for a decade. Even though the band has gained more exposure, her friends are still looking for a future with it. Poets and lyricists fall even further in the shadow. This is why she felt the need to switch career and started teaching. She says, ‘I am a teacher, my students not only like songs but also take an interest in writing and
reciting poems. Both me and my students have gained confidence.’
She has also been involved in other creative fields. She has acted in a play focused on showcasing Sikkim state and a small role in film Babari. She has written plays herself as well. But she recalls, ‘I wanted to be a singer, but time has turned me into a poet and sent me to The Poet Idol. Despite all the different fields I have been involved in, poems have established me.’
Although she has never seen her grandfather Kedar Gurung write, she recalls that he used to take an interest in literature. This influence must have rubbed off on her, alongside the famous and daring Agamsing Giri, who she recalls somebody influenced her during her early days.
She names some of the established poets of the current days – Manbahadur Subba, Raja Puniayni, ravin Khaling, Majoj Bogati, N. B. Bhandari, etc. Despite never being befriended by them, she feels their poems have helped guide her. Among her favourites here in Nepal are Bhupi Sherchan and Momila Joshi from the earlier and current generations respectively.
As a poet writing more often on feministic leaning subjects, she had doubts about joining the Poet Idol’s platform. She did not forget to mention Nilam Bikki Agrawal and Biswas Timilsina who, she said, bridged her journey to The Poet Idol. She thanks The Poet Idol platform in helping diversify her literary repertoire. ‘I was writing more on feministic subjects. I was entrenched in ‘ism’. As Idol forced
me to write on various themes, I realized that I do not need to constrict myself,” she recounts, ‘I feel liberated that I now know poems should be written utilizing liberty; as oneself.’
She recited twelve poems during her participation in 33 episodes of The Poet Idol. One of the topics she had to write was ‘City, Dream, and Struggle’. She dwelt through Basantapur and Bagmati banks in search of inspiration. Her eyes caught a board written in English –“municipality” – and adjoining board a female corn roaster by the street feeding bread to her daughter. This inspired her to write “Oh Kathmandu”, the last stanza of which is as follows:
How shall I lend you justice
As I myself am innocent yet a victim
How shall I write a poem on you
For I am a foreigner in my own country
‘Perhaps this poem is the one that got me famous,’ she says as she recited her poem. When asked how she got inspired for such immersive nationalistic sentiment, she said, ‘we are foreigner outside of Nepal. When in Delhi, people call us ‘Chinki Chinese’ instead of Sikkimese. They ask where Sikkim is. Yet we sing [Indian] national anthem, celebrate [Indian] Independence day, follow [Indian] law, and love India. They do not accept us. So much so, I had to get a permission to recite this poem.’
‘I felt sick to my stomach when the poem ‘Oh Kathmandu’, that now popularizes Sikkim, had to be approved by the censor board. People from Sikkim felt unpleasant too. We could neither be Indian nor Nepali. How long do we have to endure such predicament?’ Heavyhearted, she continued, ‘when the hurt is deep, it triggers such a poem. This poem is dedicated to Darjeeling and Sikkim’.
Bagmati river still is revered in Sikkim says Neelam. She finds Kathmandu still a historic city, but is unhappy about the locals not treating her with reverence. ‘It felt disrespectful when a man threw a cigarette butt into Bagmati. How long has it been since Bagmati last ‘bathed’?