Indra Bahadur Rai, the Darjeeling-based Nepali-language writer, has written on the life of Nepali speakers in and around the Himalaya throughout his literary career. His writings are seminal to contemporary Nepali literature, and have played an instrumental role in shaping the popular understanding of the Nepali conscious. Writing in the Nepali language, however, has always meant that his writing has been accessible to Nepali readers only – like most literature of Nepal, it remains insulated from a global audience. This new work, which contains translations of eight short stories and two essays by Rai, thus goes a long way to fill an otherwise clear dearth of Nepali literature in translations. Though the book’s introduction, it should be noted, while going into considerable depth about the work of translation and Rai’s own philosophical inclinations, does a poor job of introducing Rai to a non-Nepali audience, offering little in the way understanding Nepali literature and the author’s position within that sphere. Fortunately, this is a lacuna that is made up for in the quality of the stories themselves.
Born in Darjeeling under the British Raj, Rai holds a graduate degree in English literature and is well versed in the teachings of Western philosophers such as Derrida, Lacan and Baudrillard. Indeed, it is perhaps the interests of his mentors in language and linguistics that drove him to establish the All India Nepali Language Recognition Committee, through which he successfully fought for the recognition of the Nepali language as a national language in India. Also stemming from his mentors’ philosophical leanings is the tesro aayam (Third Dimension) movement, launched by Rai in the early 1960s along with two other stalwarts of Nepali literature, Ishwar Ballav and Bairagi Kaila, in an attempt to capture the three-dimensional nature of the subjects in their stories. The three writers continue to produce works based on the movement’s thinking, with Rai’s last publication, Lekhanru ra jhya, also incorporating Tesro Aayam-influenced elements. The foundations for the movement were also established in a literary periodical, likewise entitled Tesro Aayam, by Rai and his contemporaries.
The short story ‘Maina’s Mother Is Just like Us’, one of the translations offered in this new collection, is an example of this style. The Tesro Aayam movement stems from disillusionment with the ‘realist’ writing styles that had until then been a fixture of Nepali literature – an attempt to express the true depth, the ‘reality’, of the subject at hand. In ‘Maina’s Mother is Just like Us,’ Rai explores the internal conflict of the diaspora that combines tremendous hope with the sorrow of displacement. The story is interspersed with thoughts of moving, doubts of having moved, attempted justifications and that persistent question, ‘Why then did you come here?’ Utilising the narrative fragmentation that is native to ‘third dimension’ writing, Rai attempts to delve into Maina’s inner being:
A rock swished down from overhead (man goes to the moon). Maina’s mother dodged it; it just missed her. Then came a stave (live as men). It caught her in the chest; she doubled up and fell. All her sorrows stand before her; they come continually to her home. Joys for her are unknown and haughty. She wanted to sink underground in case great ews came rolling down and crushed her. Her load of weighty hopes buried her deep, but she struggled to rise up and become a mountain.
The impact of the narrative breaks within the broader storyline is questionable. They seem imposed from the top rather than revelatory of a depth, but do succeed in the dimensional prerogative of a cubism-type presentation. Rai referred to this approach as leela lekhan, a phrase that stems from the Hindu understanding of leela as ‘all of reality’. Leela Lekhan is based on the view that subjectivity dominates the human landscape from rationality to morality. While this can inevitably lead to a deceptive life, it does not negate the existence of an objective reality. Rai sees the subjective as something similar to a Kafkaesque trap of semi-personal structures, which can only be effectively negated through the deconstruction of the subjective. He then takes a leap of faith in seeing this deconstruction as a means to a higher plane of dispassionate existence, taking its cue from ideas of satori and sunayata.
The success of the Tesro Aayam movement and Leela Lekhan is debatable, as few Nepali authors who have followed Rai and his colleagues have embraced this form of fragmented writing. However, the translations in Gorkhas Imagined do a marvellous job in capturing the complex nature of the writing style. At the same time the style appears at best a novel experiment. In compromising with its narrative and juxtaposition of past and present – here and there, in and out – it loses the sense of flow, relying too heavily on a sympathetic deconstructionist analysis. But even in translation, Rai’s gift for storytelling and his command over language are clear. The end result is a jittery read that is nonetheless frequently compelling and thought-provoking.
Beyond hills and streams
Gorkhas Imagined presents the full range of Rai’s works, and firmly displays why he is such an influential figure in contemporary Nepali literature. His short stories capture the daily nuances of the lives and livelihoods of midhill Nepalis since the second half of the 20th century, and present an enthralling view into Nepali lives. Here, they grapple with universal human problems of existence, meaning and truth, playing them out within the social context of the Nepali hills – perhaps best captured by three stories, ‘Ghosh Babu’, ‘The Ordinariness of a Day,’ and ‘The Storm Raged All Night Long’. The plots are largely trivial and the characters predictable, but both compliment the nonchalant and ordinary reality of the central Himalayan midhills, where glimpses of a greater truth can occasionally gleamed. The narrator in ‘The Ordinariness of a Day’ poignantly summarises many a life in the hills when he says, ‘He stays alive now only because of life’s compulsions.’
Rai’s Nepal extends well beyond the Nepal’s frontiers (within which he never lived) to capture something of a pan-Nepali identity, in which dislocation and a constant tussle with nature are evident. From the Darjeeling Hills, Rai captures the experiences of Nepali migrants and their descendants as they try to establish themselves in foreign settings, vignettes that provide the context for the Nepali people’s history from two centuries ago to the present. More than perhaps anything else, the semi-nomadic and transitory nature of Nepali midhill life shines through in these stories. Whether the narratives follow Nepalis moving to follow a family member’s military posting (‘Jaar’), a traveller’s experience at a rest spot (‘Kheer’), or the Nepali exodus from Burma (‘Jaimaya Alone Arrived at Likhapani’, the translation of which first appeared in Himal) – Rai’s people are always moving, always looking for a home, and always trying to survive. Today’s ‘Nepal’ stretches beyond the Darjeeling Hills to the hot plains of West Asia and the jungles of Malaysia, to the urbanscapes of New York, London and Tokyo. Rai goes a step further, too: his Nepaliness does not relate to a country, but is rather an identity that distinguishes him as part of a scattered Indian minority.
In one particularly well-crafted essay, ‘Indian Nepali Nationalism and Nepali Poetry’, the author displays a remarkable understanding of identity and language in the role of nation-building. In this, Rai shows an inherent Indian patriotism combined with a keen sense of his Nepali heritage. This level of understanding carries forward into the next essay, ‘Hills and Streams’, in which he attempts to express his feelings towards his heritage through a more poetic narrative that relies upon Leela Lekhan. Tackling the homecoming of one Nepali migrant who chooses to stay in a hotel rather than his own home, Rai writes:
He lives in a hotel, he does not have his own home. Now he finds it insipid and hollow compared with the house of his own race, which stands wide and tall before him.
‘It won’t fall down, this house!’ he says.
Ultimately, Rai’s Nepal is a specific identity forged in the hills of Darjeeling. As such, these stories talk of the people of the hills and valleys, while rarely relating to the plains. The selections of stories presented in this collection are specific to certain ethnic and social groups, and seldom touch upon the more excluded groups – those who nonetheless comprise the silent voices of a vast majority of people in the central Himalayan midhills and the adjacent plains. This is not a criticism of Rai’s writing, but rather an acknowledgement of the inherent problems in writing about Nepali-speakers, whether within Nepal or in the diaspora. As a Nepali writer from Darjeeling, Rai remains true to his ‘expatriate’ Nepali identity, but concurrently holds no obligation to be true to Nepal’s own Nepali identity.
~ Pranab Man Singh is a freelance writer and a co-proprietor of Quixote’s Cove, a bookshop in Kathmandu.