A Nepali dimension

La.Lit | January 18, 2013

Gorkhas Imagined: Indra Bahadur Rai in translation

translated by Anmole Prasad, Dorjee Tshering Lepcha & Michael Hutt
Mukti Prakashan, 2010

Indra Bahadur Rai, the Darjeeling-based Nepali-language writer, has long written about Nepali speakers in and around the Himalayan region. His writings are a seminal part of contemporary Nepali literature, playing an instrumental role in shaping our understanding of the Nepali consciousness. Writing in Nepali, however, has meant that his writing – as that of his contemporaries – has only been accessible to Nepali readers. Gorkhas Imagined, consisting of translations of eight short stories and two essays by Rai, goes a long way towards addressing the dearth of Nepali literature in translations.

Born in Darjeeling before Indian independence, Rai is well versed in the teachings of Western philosophers such as Derrida, Lacan and Baudrillard. Indeed it was perhaps this interest 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 these philosophical leanings is the Tesro Aayam (Third Dimension) movement, one of the most prominent developments in modern Nepali literature. This was launched in the early 1960s by Rai, Ishwar Ballav and Bairagi Kaila, in an attempt to capture the three-dimensional nature of subjects. Rai’s last publication, Lekhanru Ra Jhya, continues to incorporate elements of this movement. A sample may be found in one of the short stories translated here, ‘Maina’s Mother Is Just like Us’.

 The Third Dimension movement stemmed from disillusionment with the ‘realist’ writing styles that had until then been a fixture of Nepali literature. In ‘Maina’s Mother’, Rai explores the internal conflict of the diaspora that combines tremendous hope with the sorrow of displacement. The story is interspersed with thoughts about migration, including attempted justifications, doubts, and the persistent question, “Why then did you come here?” Utilizing narrative fragmentation, which is a feature of third dimensional 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 they do succeed in delineating the dimensional prerogative of cubistic 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. Rai sees the subjective as something similar to a Kafka-type trap of semi-personal structures, which can only be effectively negated through the deconstruction of the subjective. He 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 Third Dimension movement and Leela Lekhan is debatable: few Nepali authors since then have embraced this form of fragmented writing. In retrospect the style appears, at best, a novel experiment. In compromising with the narrative and juxtaposing past and present, the stories lack a sense of flow, relying too heavily on a sympathetic deconstructionist analysis. However, the translations do a marvellous job of capturing the complex nature of the writing style. Even in translation, Rai’s gift for storytelling and his command over language comes through. 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 in doing so demonstrates why he is such an influential figure in contemporary Nepali literature. His short stories capture the daily nuances of the lives of midhill Nepalis from the second half of the 20th century onwards, as they grapple with the universal human problems of existence, meaning and truth within their particular social contexts. The three stories ‘Ghosh Babu,’ ‘The Ordinariness of a Day,’ and ‘The Storm Raged All Night Long’ excel at this. The plots are trivial, the characters predictable but they capture the ordinariness of life in the Himalayan midhills, and glimpses of a greater truth can occasionally be gleaned. The narrator in ‘The Ordinariness of a Day’, for instance, 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 frontiers of Nepal (he never lived within them) to capture something of a pan-Nepali identity, in which dislocation and a constant tussle with nature are evident. The experiences of Nepali migrants and their descendants, as they try to establish themselves in foreign settings, provide a context for the history of the Nepali peoples over the last two hundred years. More than 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’) – Rai’s people are always moving, looking for a home, and trying to survive.

Today’s ‘Nepal’ stretches beyond the Darjeeling hills to the hot deserts of the Middle East and the urbanscapes of New York, London and Tokyo. But Rai goes a step further: 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, he 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, though, Rai’s Nepal is a specific one – that of Nepali speakers with identities forged in the hills of Darjeeling, distinct from that of the plains. The stories in this collection are specific to certain ethnic and social groups, and rarely touch upon the more excluded groups, who comprise the silent voices of a vast majority of forgotten people in the central Himalayan midhills and the adjacent plains. This is not a criticism of his writing, however, 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.

The book’s introduction, it should be noted, goes into depth about the work of translation and Rai’s own philosophical inclinations, but does a poor job of introducing Rai to a global audience within the context of Nepali literature. Fortunately, this is a lacuna more than made up for by the quality of the stories themselves.


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