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Darjeeling then and Darjeeling now: Spot the difference in Nepali writer Indra Bahadur Rai’s novel

By December 29, 2017No Comments

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Published in 1964, Rai’s most popular novel is finally available for English language readers, in a translation by well-known writer Manjushree Thapa.


Among the many things that Janak said, the one Ravi enjoyed most (for some reason) was, “Even after they graduate, can people really find good jobs in Darjeeling any more?” Janak said, “My father used to tell us that in the old days, there were so many jobs in our very own Darjeeling, you couldn’t find people to work for you – so dire was the shortage of educated people! They would drag students on their way to school over to the offices and put them to work.

Back then, even passing out of high school was a major achievement. The high school exams were held in the court; the magistrate would preside over them and police constables would stand guard; only three or four students would be taking the exam. A huge crowd would gather in the court’s front yard just to stare at or peek at those taking the “matric” test. If they passed, they’d put them on rickshaws and cover them with garlands: they’d parade each matriculating student with a five-piece musical band. He’d have to decide which job to accept. The advice not to work in the police – which you still hear sometimes – is an echo of that era, when you could choose from any job. The offices would send peons to the bazaar to look for anyone who had studied up to the fifth or sixth class…”

Ravi enjoyed this a lot, and kept laughing: “They’d parade each matriculating student with a five-piece musical band!”

“Someone really ought to have written a novel about the old Darjeeling,” Janak said.

A couple of days later, Krishnalal asked Ravi a question at school: “What do you think of Bhudev?”

Ravi got irritated. “What do you think?”

“Don’t get angry with me,” Krishnalal said hastily. “There are rumours all over the bazaar…Would I ask you something like this for no reason? People say you’re opposing your own father.”

“Who says I’m opposing him?”

“That’s what people are saying.”

Ravi fell silent. He wasn’t upset about this accusation, but nervous. “I think Bhudev is a gutsy, energetic, courageous man,” he said. “He’s dedicated to a single task, which makes us also want to take up the same task.”

“And what does Janak-babu think of him?”

“On this, well, we’re family, there’s no disagreement…the thoughts and ideals that we uphold outside bear no relation to our family life.”

“That’s really how you feel?”

Ravi fell silent again.

“Bhudev is going to pit you against your father, and then, after disgracing both the father and son, he’ll toss you aside like a fly in milk.”

“Why would he toss me aside?” Ravi asked. “What reason would Bhudev have to fear me? I stand on my own convictions. I didn’t get into this work out of anyone’s enmity or anyone’s enticement. Today I like Bhudev, I like his work – so I’ll praise him.Tomorrow, if necessary, I’ll criticise him, I’ll expose him…”

“Who’ll believe you anymore? Everyone will see a son switching over to his father’s side in the end. They’ll say you’re just obeying your father. Who’ll trust you?”

“So people trust me only when I speak out against my father?”

“What else?”

When Ravi finished up at school and went home that evening, he found Kanti waiting for him.

He waved at her with a chalk-stained hand and said, “Where are you coming from, Kanti?”

Kanti stood with her leaf-like hands joined in a namaskar, then dropped her hands and said, with deep embarrassment, “I failed…I have to go back to college. I came to ask for some books…”

“Which books?”

Kanti said nothing.

Ravi found her silence awkward. To end it, he said with forced laughter, “All my textbooks, my entire store of knowledge, are in this cupboard, Kanti! Take the ones you need – if I’ve got them, you can take them.”

Kanti glanced at the cupboard that Ravi had pointed at, but just kept standing there.

Seeing Kanti so ill at ease, Ravi took a hint and went inside.

When he came back out, Kanti was waiting around, having placed an economics book on the table and closed the cupboard door.

“You need only one book?”

“Only this one…” Kanti said softly. “Namaskar.”

“You’re leaving already?”

Trying very hard to smile a little, Kanti finally said, “I have to go.”

As Ravi looked on, Kanti, draped in a black shawl, climbed down the stairs and disappeared from view.

Ravi took the following day off to go to the court. This was the day the court was likely to settle the case launched by the Tukvar Tea Estate.

Ravi arrived at exactly ten o’clock, as though the verdict were going to come right on time, but neither the sun nor the babus had shown up at the court by ten.

Hari and Bhudev arrived at eleven, clutching files under their arms. After talking to Hari awhile, Bhudev went to the Bar Association’s library, then slipped away somewhere else.

Ravi had sat in the party office a few days earlier and read through the case carefully:

The previous year, quite a while earlier than this season, the tea bushes were being heavy-pruned. The manager noticed that those who could work fast and prune four lots of twelve square feet each from their allotted areas were going home by noon. A day or two later, a new order was issued: from now on, the measurement of the prunings would not be done until two o’clock, and in Block Number 4 and Block Number 7 (where the tea shrubs were planted sparsely), the daily quota for pruning would now be five lots of twelve square feet each. The allotted areas for those two blocks thus increased, and the workers couldn’t go home till two-thirty.

Protest and grumbling started up in the plantation. The people in the parties also encouraged this dissent.

On Friday, October 21, exactly fourteen days after the order was issued, the manager came by to inspect the plantation. When he went to inspect Block Number 9, about half the workers had already finished pruning and left, while the others were also getting ready to leave, even though it was only noon. Only eight or ten people were working in the allotted area.

“On whose orders are you going home at this hour?”

“No one’s – our own!” came the ready reply.

“What did you say?”

“Whose order was it not to measure the prunings till two-thirty? Why should we wait around after finishing our work, as though watching over a dead body?”

Someone else added, “And whose order was it to increase the quota for pruning to five lots?

“That was my order,” the manager said, grinding his jaws.

On hearing this, the workers swarmed the manager, surrounding him completely.

“Don’t let him go!”

“Don’t let him escape, don’t let him escape – don’t let go of him!”

For this offence, the estate had launched a case against seven of its workers in the session court, citing Section 307/34. As everyone waited around, the father and elder brother of one of the men who had been arrested, Naldhoj Mukhiya, arrived at the court with the wife of Sirilal Rai and Bhairav’s two wives.

“We’ll win, we’ll definitely win this case!” they kept repeating among themselves.

Tall old Bhaktiman Yakha, and equally tall but dark, skinny Rambahadur Chhetri, also arrived at the court in a show of support for their sons, who were both entangled in the case.

Hari drew Ravi over and introduced him to everyone.

Those coming from the plantation showed up at the court just before noon, filling up the front yard.

An additional hour after that, the police brought the seven accused men straight up from the jail and led them into the court. They didn’t so much as glance at the family members who were in the crowd to see them.

Another two or three hours passed as everyone waited – nothing happened. In boredom and hunger, those waiting around began to wander away and wander back. A Tibetan woman wasted on alcohol showed up, wailing – others took hold of her and led her home. A crowd placed garlands on a boy who was released on another case, and left.

Bhaktiman began to express some doubt: “Maybe ours…won’t happen today.”

After a while, Bhudev and a lawyer emerged from the court. The lawyer hurried away to the Bar Association’s library. Bhudev came up and announced, “Our date has moved back again. The judgment will come on the twenty-second.”

Having waited all day, Ravi suddenly felt very drained upon learning so little.

Thapa 1

Excerpted with permission from There’s A Carnival Today, Indra Bahadur Rai, translated by Manjushree Thapa, Speaking Tiger.

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