The common man’s comedian

At an interaction programme at the Nepal-Bharat Library, Haribansha Acharya was proud that his autobiography, Cheena Haraeko Manchhe, had sold a record 30,000 in just the first 20-25 days since being launched. “Ten thousand more will be coming to the market soon,” he said, incredulous at the demand. What surprised him more, though, was the realisation that his readers were uncommon as well: from cobblers to drivers to housemaids.

Acharya need not have been surprised. His fame as a common man’s comedian is what’s driving the record sales. Shows such as 15 Gatey and Lalpurja are so relatable and funny because he is able to understand a common Nepali’s life and use it for comedy. But here at this programme and in his book, he seems to have failed to understand this, and hence his readers and fans.

For instance, the book barely touches his life as one half of the MaHa Jodi and when it does so, it’s focused mostly on first encounters and places they travelled for live performances. The evolution of the Jodi and an honest account of Acharya’s complex or simple relationship with Madan Krishna Shrestha, the other half, is nowhere to be felt. This is surprising because the Acharya-Shrestha Jodi has been around for 34 years now, more than half of Acharya’s life. And they both admit they are nothing without each other. Even at the programme at the library, the audience was largely interested in the Jodi, their views on each other, their love for each other, the nature of their collaboration—and frictions if there had been any. Yet, the book is devoted primarily to Acharya’s other incoherent bits of memories, peppered with pain at his first wife’s death.

Granted Cheena Haraeko Manchhe is a solo project trying to encapsulate 54 years of Acharya’s life—too many memories, all dear and powerful, struggling to be contained within a mere 300 pages. And the seeds of the book sprout in grief over Meera Acharya’s death, although it wasn’t published until his second marriage. Unfortunately, these facts don’t just hover over the book; they cast a shadow large enough to colour other memories. Consequently, the book feels like an apology as well as a justification for his second marriage, right from the start.

Grief is personal, so is his decision to wed for the second time. Acharya needn’t have overshared the first and justified the latter, but he seems to have done so out of fear that his fans will never understand his need or desire to marry Ramila Pathak, that they might consider his love for Meera just a show.

Acharya’s other sin: underestimation of his readers, which leads him to preach, instead of throwing perspectives, on everything—from love to life to patriotism to politics to ethnic diversity—in almost every chapter. He does offer an explanation for doing so, although not directly. At one point in the book, he talks about comedy being akin to medicine treating social ills. Messages are wrapped in comedy and offered to the audience. Sadly, though, his book has comedy, and memories, lost behind the veil of sermons.

Sure, he himself admits he is no writer. Yet, when he lets go of the urge to be an apologist or a populist, Acharya shines. He writes in vernacular and lets memories speak for themselves. Chapters about his school-bunking days, his ‘battle’ with the school’s principal and his difficulty in passing the School Leaving Certificate exam, are honest and hilarious. His portrayal of Narayan Gopal vivid. And the chapter in which he speaks of learning the royal meaning of ‘thank you’ from former-king Gyanendra eerily superb.

Such honest accounts are, however, rare. But he is Haribansha, or as ‘common’ people call him, Haribanshe. His life outside this book is grand, his talent for comedy unquestionable, and that’s enough to turn the pages.

Published: 08-06-2013, The Kathmandu Post