Aug 16, 2013-
The contemporary arts, including writing, have lately been on a visible quest to locate multiple centres worldwide. More and more writers are now interested in unearthing marginal issues, taking up the role of speakers for the subalterns, as advocated by renowned scholar Gayatri Spivak Chakravorty. Unlike the single-centred approach of yesteryear, this reaching out to numerous centres is designed to break more realistic and socially-penetrating ground, entering areas hitherto neglected. Several instances can be seen in fiction writing in Nepal itself, works that have widened the realm of our literature, as well as its readability. Nayan Raj Pandey’s Loo, for example, is a poignant portrayal of the pangs and pathos of the Nepali populace living in the regions bordering India; Seto Dharti, which received the Madan Puraskar, is another example, in the way it so acutely depicts the sufferings associated with child marriage and subsequent early widowhood. And emerging in something of a similar vein is Rajan Mukarang’s latest novel Damini Bhir, which is set against the backdrop of the Majh Kirat in eastern Nepal—part of the traditional homeland of the Kiratis—a region and people not often evoked or explored in literature.
Damini Bhir is woven around the construction of roads in the area, projects that have been offering short-term employment to the locals, who comprise a host of colourful characters including Deugan, Harihang, Rame Maila, Som Kumar, Jai Kumar, Chame Darjee, Kanchhimaya, Dhaule Kanchho, Deuman, and Lachchi, among others. But it is Hangdima and Namdeng who comprise the actual pivot of the novel. Namdeng is besotted with dreams of going into theatre in the Capital, a dream that leads him to leave his teaching job and become more or less oblivious of his family, which comprises of wife Rambha and son Ridum.
This invites the inevitable: Rambha eventually elopes with his friend, and Namdeng is soon drowning his sorrows in drink. He is also compelled to return to his home in the village, and take up teaching at a local school. Hangdima, on the other hand, is burdened with a rather horrifying past. Married to a lahure under the insistence of her sister and sister-in-law, she had discovered not long after that her husband was abusive, molesting her under the influence of alcohol. The collective histories and subsequent scars sustained by these two characters serve to bind them together over the course of the book.
Politics is expectedly brought into the fray soon enough. Another of the locals, Chetan, is found hobnobbing with comrades in Kathmandu, after having left the pregnant Lachchi in the lurch. The lahure too becomes increasingly active in forwarding the Janajati movement in the city, and both him and Chetan are treated by the author as poster-boys of a political system that is bereft of ethics and morality. Also touched on in the book through the bribe-seeking ploy on the part of a Bahun government officer in Kathmandu is the generally domineering attitude of Bahuns towards naïve Kiratis or indeed other minorities.
A big pull of the novel lies in its ability to depict everyday lives in a convincing manner, painting a very relatable picture of local society in the Majh Kirat—the camaraderie as well as the occasional disharmony that arises between the inhabitants of any given place, but coloured with regional flavour. And much to Mukarang’s credit, the narrative here doesn’t progress in a linear pattern; flashbacks are employed to gel the present with the past, to bring a little context into the current motivations and actions of characters, and a little diversity into the storytelling.
The dialogues here—very colloquial, very real—are yet another of Damini Bhir’s more appealing factors. Characters make use of local parlance, and Mukarang has ensured that the region’s specific accent comes through in the story, retaining the Kiratis’ practically musical alterations of the Nepali language for effect, as well as their very contextual swear words, which are heard at regular intervals. Although these efforts do contribute a certain sense of rural authenticity, narratives are sometimes punctured with sentences that are too short, and the placing of words so contrived that they don’t work at all.
Damini Bhir might be told in third-person, but it is, to use an anthropological term, an emic portrayal of the Majh Kirat, given that the novelist hails from Bhojpur himself, and is therefore personally familiar with the ways of the Kiratis. That familiarity makes itself evident in the detailed and delicately nuanced presentation of the kind of rituals, folklore, cultural practices and myths prevalent among these people, making Damini Bhir, beyond a work of fiction, also one of substantial ethnographic significance.
Mukarang had been the founder of the Srijansil Arajakta (creative anarchy) literary movement, teaming up with poets Hangyug Agyat and Upendra Subba to urge the inclusion of ethnic identities within mainstream Nepali literature. Here, however, unlike in his first novel Hetchhakuppa, Mukarang has markedly toned down his anti-Aryan polemics, although he hasn’t entirely compromised on asserting the concept of identity-based federalism either, which comes through at the end of this book. If, back in 1958, Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, via his maiden novel Things Fall Apart, had drawn the world’s attention to African history and society, and how both had been riven by European-engineered disharmony, using the very language of the colonisers, Mukarang has, with Damini Bhir, attempted something similar with the Kirati people, appealing to Nepali literature to expand its horizons, to go where it hasn’t gone before. So, rather than blindly labeling this book as an instance of ‘ethnic writing’ and shelving it away, let’s engage with the opportunity it offers for broader creative discourse on issues of culture, politics and development, among others.
Khaniya is an engineer by profession, and is currently pursuing his M Phil in Kathmandu
Published: 17-08-2013 09:50