South Asia

Remembering Indra Bahadur Rai, the Writer Who Defined the Indian-Nepali Identity

The Nepali writer's fiction stood out for being the voice of a diasporic culture that sought to coalesce around a language that wasn’t necessarily their own.

I did not know Indra Bahadur Rai (February 1927-March 2018), who passed away on Tuesday, personally. And yet, reading two recent translations by Manjushree Thapa and Prawin Adhikari, I felt a sense of proximity towards a Nepali writer like I had never felt before. Maybe it was because Rai wrote about the Nepali diaspora with a sensitivity that appealed to my own sense of being a Nepali writer situated outside the Nepali state. Or maybe it was because it was through his writings that I discovered what it means to be a Nepali without being confined by the trappings of politics and identity.

Or it could simply be the mourning of a writer who deserved to be read beyond the confines of language.

The question of language is important to Nepalis at this moment. We’re slowly realising that Nepali – Khas bhasa, as it was known originally – is the language of the elite Bahun and Chhetris in Nepal, and has been used as a systemic tool to subjugate the many ethnicities that make up the nation.

As Thapa recently wrote, “Power in Nepal lies in the Nepali language: being able to use it either to express the truth or to lie and dodge and obscure.” The Shah kings used it to create a universal ‘Nepali’ identity that subsumed all other cultures, accompanied by the fierce nationalism as once represented by King Mahendra, and now by K.P. Oli. Nepal may recognise 123 languages, and you might know 100 of these languages, but none of it will matter inside a government office if you don’t know Nepali.

The Nepalis who settled in Darjeeling, Siliguri, Sikkim, Kalimpong, Assam and the rest of the Northeast came from multiple ethnicities: Kirat, Gurungs, Magars, Newars, Bahuns and Chhetris. Each brought their own culture and language to Muglan, as the land of the Mughals was once known. And yet, the irony was, all of them claimed Nepali as their lingua franca, allowing a universal sense of identity that traversed ethnicities and political boundaries in a strange land.

As Rai wrote in his 1994 essay, ‘Indian Nepali Nationalism and Nepali Poetry’:

“…While in Nepal literary writing was begun by elite brahmans (Aryans) who wrote in praise of their king, in India, the beginning of Indian Nepali literature was made by common soldiers and labourers who were mostly from Mongoloid ethnic groups and who wrote of their actual experiences of battles fought and lives lived in India. Indian Nepali literature can justly be proud of its popular and proletariat beginning.”

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In There’s a Carnival Today, Thapa’s translation of Rai’s only novel, Aaja Ramita Chha, Janak, the protagonist, chases a peacock as he and his wife Sita are leaving Nepali territory:

‘“Did you see that, what a wicked peacock!” Janak cried in a rage. “We are compelled to leave our homeland, but that peacock also wanted to go to the land of the Mughals, just like us! I chased him right around! I saw to it that he went back to Nepal. I left him with a stern warning: ‘We humans, we have to move abroad, but if the flora and fauna of the forest also start going abroad, how long can Nepal last?’”’

There’s a Carnival Today is the great Darjeeling novel, written at a time when the Gorkhaland movement hadn’t begun, yet encapsulating all its themes. The communists try to unionise tea plantation workers – mostly migrant Nepalis – while the protagonist is struggling in his business, and with the fallout of such troubles on his other relationships. It is a novel where mostly nothing happens, and yet, there’s always a sense of foreboding, of things to come that will irrevocably change lives.

But at its heart, it is a novel that centres around a theme that is prevalent in Rai’s other stories too: the diasporic Indian Nepali, and their place in this massive political entity called India.

The story of Nepali migration to Muglan begins after the 1816 Anglo-Gorkha War, when Nepal ceded all territory east of the Mechi River to the British. Nepali labourers were subsequently hired on the tea plantations, Gorkha soldiers settled in the hills of Darjeeling and Nepali traders moved to Kalimpong to trade with Tibet.

‘Indian Nepali literary writing had its beginnings in the sawais penned mainly by Gorkha soldiers stationed in Assam, and in the laharis composed…by Gorkha or Nepali labourers working in the tea gardens of Darjeeling,’ Rai wrote in his 1994 essay. The sawai or the lahari, as Darjeeling historian Kumar Pradhan wrote, was poetry based on ‘folk rhythm’ than on conventional metre, and ‘represented the literary aspirations of the common man’.

Rai’s writings were in continuity of this tradition. They spoke of the many cultures that had been uprooted and forced to settle in a new land, and to create a new syncretic culture that was centred around a particular language. Claiming Nepali as their language in a land as diverse as India would always be an uphill struggle – with the recent Gorkhaland protests over the imposition of Bengali as example – but Rai ventured on, not just through his writing, but also via the Akhil Bharatiya Nepali Bhasa Samiti, which eventually succeeded in getting Nepali recognised as a scheduled language under the Indian constitution in 1992.

Much earlier, in 1976, he was awarded the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award for his book of essays, Nepali Upanyaska Aadhaarharu (The Bases of Nepali Novels).

So it was with some displeasure that I noted no Indian mainstream media reported on his passing, while Nepal claimed him as its own, despite Rai telling an interviewer in 2017, “Nepali literature, it seems to me, is lost somewhere. Especially, when you look at how detached Kathmandu is from other parts of the Nepali-speaking world.”

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When a writer like Rai passes away, one doesn’t just mourn them or their lives, but also the many stories that are yet to be written. The tesro aayam (‘Third Dimension’) movement that he brought to Nepali writing, along with Bairagi Kainla and Ishwor Ballav, introduced a modernity that Nepali literature hadn’t seen till then. As Nepali writer Ujjwal Prasai wrote, the three believed ‘writing should be focused on the idea of ‘totality’ – expanding upon this by integrating art within their written works.’ But Rai wasn’t satisfied. In the 1970s, he introduced another movement called ‘Leela-Lekhan’, where a character was shaped by the many different ways in which others perceived an individual – a Rashomon-like rounded way in which to look at characterisation.

However, to understand Rai’s work only from the perspective of these literary movements would be doing him grave injustice. Despite the stylistic elements that he introduced, his fiction stands out for being the voice of a diasporic culture that sought to coalesce around a language that wasn’t necessarily their own, yet represented everything that they had left behind:

‘After Thuli left, thoughts teemed in his head. He was finding a new affection for life. His parents, the army, his childhood – he remembered everything…When the snows around Khiledhunga melted, the pheasants climbed uphill. Pairs of doves flitted about. Garlic greens that had been ravaged by hailstones would repair their wounds and grow again in verdant waves. I will perhaps never again see any of that, Rudraman thought.’ (From ‘Jaar: A Real Story’, translated by Prawin Adhikari.)

Rai passed away on March 6, the day Gabriel Garcia Marquez was born, coincidentally a month after Rai himself was born underneath a bridge in Siliguri: “I was born on the banks of the [Balason] river. My birth year is inscribed on that very bridge my parents worked to construct,” he said. In many ways, the recent translations liberated my own sense of being Nepali – I have an uncomfortable relationship with the language that I am slowly attempting to overcome – without the burden of having to read in the language. Like Marquez, whose universal fame came on the back of translations, these two translations enforced upon me what it means to be a Nepali outside the state’s borders. In discovering Rai’s writings, you can say I discovered a bit of myself.

Amish Raj Mulmi is a Nepali writer and a publishing professional. 

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