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A window into Nepalese life     

Indra Bahadur Rai’s There’s a Carnival Today reveals a lot about the hopes and political discourse that plague the naturalised Nepali residents in Darjeeling and West Bengal

Photo courtesy: social media
Photo courtesy: social media

George Thadathil

Indra Bahadur Rai revolutionised Nepali literary scene. He is the most respected among the modern Nepali literary figures because he is a masterly story teller besides being an intellectually acute observer and therefore a serious critic and essayist. His creative take on the transition of Nepali life from its original locations into the mountains that became world famous, as Darjeeling, forms the subtext of his creations.

The arrival or emergence of a populace and its circumstances, the labour and industriousness with its outcome are uncovered in varying intensity in Indian Nepali literature. The poetry and novellas, novels and essays, plays and films have captured the unique features of the life of Indian Nepalis in different parts of India and especially in Darjeeling. Culturally this has been possible as a result of the investment of migrant Nepalese who made their home in Darjeeling and the dividend they received over the decades by way of education and opportunities in tea industry, in tourism and in becoming providers of education itself.

The cultural advancement was made possible due to the cosmopolitanism that came to be the hallmark of Darjeeling as a township. The tourists and the settlers in small or big numbers came from different parts of the world. As a result, a unique lifestyle developed in the tea garden and in the small towns that grew along the hill cart road because they all had representative foreign (non-local) population interacting and engaging with the natural resources of the region.

This political identity and the aspiration built around the Indian Nepali existence in the country, especially in Darjeeling, and how this identity given its spread beyond the location of Darjeeling becomes the underlying subject matter of the novel

One of the manifestations of this uniqueness is in the interfaith mix of the society - Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Islamic and believers of other communities - Sikhs and Jains, Chinese and Tibetans. The other is the fact of diverse groups coming together from different locations in the mountainous Nepal to Darjeeling and creating close ties among themselves. As a result, the community loosened up its norms and customs. Secondly it gave rise to the formation of Nepali as a language of communication which in turn became an agent of confluence for the various dialects of these communities. It was this churning process of linguistic formation of cohesiveness that gave an identity to Indian Nepali as a language which eventually began to provide the people with the language-based identity. The broader future of the language-based identity lay at the roots of the political aspirations emerging among the people comparing themselves vis-avis the majority population of the larger state of Bengal.

This political identity and the aspiration built around the Indian Nepali existence in the country, especially in Darjeeling, and how this identity given its spread beyond the location of Darjeeling becomes the underlying subject matter of the novel. The family that is central to the story, in and through their relationships, friendships, engagements with others around them stand out against the background of the burgeoning of the political party life in Darjeeling; the party itself gaining publicity through local management of events.

What characterises and embellishes the novel from being an engaging narrative are the following factors: first, the stylistic short narrations of individuals and happenings being pieced together or quilted over as a bigger narrative that unfolds on a wider canvas even as each episode like in a TV serial is complete and whole and leaves room for speculations as to how it would unfold; Secondly, the wise comments of the characters and their ability to see through the here and now and address or appropriate its larger relevance is something that adds to the quality and lasting impression its able to leave on the reader. Some excerpts follow:

Setting the context of the migrations into the new land of opportunities comes the observation: “[w]e humans have to move abroad, but if the flora and fauna of the forest also start going abroad, how long can Nepal last?” (p.15) This piece of a narration about the scene of migration from Nepal to the land of the ‘Mughals’ (mughlan) making its way into the hands of the ‘British’ and the desire of the peacock too to accompany the migrants being thwarted by Janak who forces the peacock to get back to Nepal and not to accompany them any further makes the above comment a picturisation of an era of not only migrations and settlements but its lasting impact on nations whose boundaries remain porous to date.

Indra Bahadur Rai, the initiator of new style of writing (thesro ayam/ the third dimension and Leela Lekhan) itself, as regards Nepali language is concerned, reveals the nuances of characterisation through light strokes such as - “the difference between these two women wasn’t merely about one having a pierced nose and the other an unpierced one, but, at a psychological level, akin to the difference between light and dark.” The attempt to capture the whole truth of the person, the event, the happening, the moment seeps through and overflows in its intentionality, making the reader, aspire for something ‘more’ than what is described as inherent in the description itself.

Wisdom spills through many a descriptive comment as when he talks on the subject of legacy and says: “May the name ‘Janak’ suffice on my memorial, may there be no need to write anything else” because when it comes to ‘name and fame’ one accrues in life bringing ‘prestige’ he adds: “Prestige is like your son or grandson, it looks after your mind and body in old age”. There are some attempts at analysis of the social situation as when the dialogue occurs on the nature of education: “schools are factories where we earn iron-jewels of dissatisfaction. Knowing this why don’t you demolish all of these schools?” and goes on to say “the blame lies not with schools, but with the goal of turning schools into places that offer a poor education.” There are moments of desperation as well: “Life had become like a broken watch which, having lost its short needle, could only indicate the hour-less minutes with its emphatic ticking.” So much so, after being reminded about the project of novel writing and collecting materials for the same, he says: “I’m close to reaching a conclusion, which is - one lifetime is far too little for one person.” In other words, the assessment of a person’s achievements and credibility come to be gauged better, or more accurately, after a century or half. Reflecting on life, Janak, the lead character, ruminates: “life is merely a green leaf afloat on the water of a river.”

We get to know some very local customs and beliefs, taking us in visualisation to the hinterlands of Nepal as in the case of marriage entourage: “it was inauspicious to approach the bride’s house from uphill, and had turned around and come back from downhill.” There is similarly, the sheer energy in the description of the wife’s happiness at the news of her husband getting a job after a long wait - “their lives were completely transformed by the light of an unexpected new sun” - is unmatched with that of the daughter’s reaction to the same: “Amrita was the happiest of all. She was so happy that she had to go out, as though her happiness couldn’t fit into one small room. Not knowing what to do with so much happiness she picked up a bucket and ran over to fill it at the water tap.”(p.151) Describing the Losar Fetival’s Singi Dance in the neighbourhood of the lead characters who were woken up to the sounds of kettle drum, flutes and pipes and the visual effect of the peacock dance comes the reflective piece: “The relentless winds of the bare plateaus of Tibet called out in that flute, and the sigh of man sounded out; the heartbeat of the love for life called out, and the snow on the mountain peaks tumbled.” (p.141)

The most poignant paragraph of the book, for a socio-politically conscious reader, is the discourse of Janak: “We, the Nepalies of Darjeeling are trusted by both India and Nepal, and so both India and Nepal try to win our love and affection; but Darjeeling is ours and we are Darjeeling’s. All the houses and shops in the four-square miles of the town, the tea plantations beyond that, and all these lands and trees they may have once belonged to Bardhaman or Cooch Behar, and now they belong to the government, or maybe the Bengalis and Marwaris will buy them and make it theirs; and yet Darjeeling is ours. Since primaeval times, Darjeeling has belonged to those who can plough its grey and red soil and produce food. it can’t be anyone else’s. Whoever this soil gives to, that place is theirs; the rest can only live here in hope.” (p170). The ‘living in hope’ today has added significance, given the climatic changes and the ever threatening possibility of an earthquake, reminding one and all, that what is being built and owned is only in humble trusteeship.

This story of a man, Janak, his family, neighbours and friends, around whom the description of Darjeeling of the 1950s gets characterised and depicted is deftly handled by a master story teller. Anyone with some love for the region and the people would relish reading it and those who dare will get to love the people and the place in turn. Manjushree Thapa and the publisher deserves many thanks and much appreciation. Theirs is truly love’s labour and an acknowledgement of the greatness of the author who departed for his eternal reward the same year that the translation saw the light of day.

The author is presently the principal of Salesian College, Sonada, Darjeeling, his latest works are a translation of the Life of Brahmarshi Narayana Guru (2016) from Malayalam (his mother tongue) to Nepali and co-edited work, Khrist (2017), a translation of the writings of Rabindranath Tagore on Christ from Bengali to Nepali (the language of Darjeeling Hills) where he is engaged in Teaching, Research and Administration

This story was updated to reflect a change in name

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Published: 24 Jun 2018, 2:09 PM