More than ever, as most of us are bound indoors, we are rediscovering the magic that lies in books. Readers always knew that one could travel afar to all corners of the earth and beyond thanks to the gift of imagination and the portal to magical realms that books present. So, as we stay home and maintain physical distancing during this pandemic, we can still walk out of our bodies and into the powerful world of stories.
Today on World Book Day (April 23) we celebrate the power of books and the joy of reading.
Lately I have been distracted from my reading habits by the lusty draw of binge-as-you-watch streaming platforms. But this period in our collective history has drawn us to slow-er living and a lot of re-thinking. And today I’d like to share a few favourite books I’ve pulled out from my shelves, dusted, and revisited. These books, all fiction, are about our people, and hence envelope our hopes, our disillusionment, our joie-di-vivre, our history. They envelope you and me.
Here’s to a few for today:
No Path in Darjeeling is Straight
The book is a memoir of the time author Parimal Bhattacharya spent as he adjusted to and settled into his life in Darjeeling in the early 1990s. No Path in Darjeeling is Straight follows a trail of memories, poignant and evocative, with the author’s personal accounts woven into the complex narrative of Darjeeling – its history, its being, its present… of Darjeeling that is ‘an emotion’. The book unravels with its own rhythm, filling the ‘cracks… and fissures’ of a personal and collective memory.
The retelling follows no straight road, but wanders through many a warp and weft, much like the myriad ‘chor bato’ of the town – the familiar crisscross shortcuts that run closest to the deepest parts of the town.
The book is a requiem to the Darjeeling of yore as the town takes its furtive steps in the present day amidst growing impatience and disenchantment.
“Darjeeling, who do you belong to? To the people who smile, despite their lot.”
There’s a Carnival Today
“Someone really ought to have written a novel about the old Darjeeling,” Janak says at one point in There’s a Carnival Today, reminiscing about times past. Indra Bahadur Rai is that someone, and There’s a Carnival Today is the novel he wrote. Manjushree Thapa, In This Translation
Beautifully translated by Manjushree Thapa, literary stalwart Indra Bahadur Rai’s most popular novel captures Darjeeling in the 1950s, post the country’s Independence. There’s unrest in the tea gardens as workers protest difficult work conditions. And in Darjeeling bazaar, a political movement gains ground. There doesn’t seem to be much of a change in the conditions and aspirations of Darjeelingays in the ‘50s and Darjeelingays today. Yes, only the sacrifices and unrest dot the decades in between.
Long Night of Storm
Long Night of Storm Stories compiles 16 rich and diverse stories by Indra Bahadur Rai, very ably translated into English by Prawin Adhikari. The book opens with a ravaging and raw tale of the quite forgotten long march of the Gurkha community from Burma to India during the Second World War. This mass exodus was a massive displacement in the wake of the Japanese invasion of Burma. Thousands of refugees walked hundreds of miles, over mountains and rivers, with only a few hundred who survived the arduous journey.
In another story, a clerk son struggles to overcome the insult and pity that accompanies the chaprasi father’s humble red and black uniform. In another a delinquent student embarks on a wild goose chase to grasp at golden eggs. From Manipur, to Mandalay, to Calcutta, to Sylhet, and back to humble Darjeeling. In the eponymous short story, a long night of storm batters a farmstead and a husband and wife access the peril and calamity of living in the bustee, away from the town.
And here’s something I’d like to share from the story Mountains and Rivers. To me, it sums up our situation.
“… It stood well and handsomely, that Nepali house, on top of the hill.
It was a house bequeathed by the ancestors but, in spite of all the repairs and patches, in spite of fresh plaster and wash, even from afar it was recognizably the home of poor folks who managed only a hardscrabble life. Happiness arrived unannounced sometimes perhaps during the festivals; otherwise life was the constant negotiation with a string of worries and fears: a landslip might take the house with it, or a storm might blow it down. Everybody fretted over the same questions: how solid was the ground on which the house stood? How strong were its masonry and joinery?
A dream had bound them together: that they would someday earn prosperity through a common striving, that they would share it equally, that each would have his share of plenty…
Is it aeons of poverty and ignorance that burdens the people and leaves them straggling on these mountain slopes? …”
I wish I had had the opportunity to read more of Indra Bahadur Rai’s work early on– it was not a part of our school curriculum and unfortunately, I stumbled onto his work pretty late. As I discover more of his body of work, I seem to return to his writing more often to delve deeper.
The Inheritance of Loss
Kiran Desai’s Man Booker Prize winning novel (2006) is a complex tale of characters set in Kalimpong town during the tumultuous years of 1986-88. In the backdrop of the unfolding of events in those years, the characters in the book all deal with a deep sense of loss, of living in the chasm between the past and present, of shaking centuries of ‘belonging’ in the search for one’s true cultural identity.
I remember those years vividly, I was a young girl growing in an extraordinary situation, trying to put a finger to what ‘normal’ was. With all the years in between, one memory sticks out always, of those evenings spent hurriedly eating our dinner in our small but warm kitchen in the sepulchral light of the soot stained lamp; muma would tuck my sister & I to bed after dinner (no TV), both of us wondering why our long black hair was cut into the ‘boy’s cut’ and why our mother stirred around us through the night, listening into the sounds from the night. And in the darkness of those nights, a world of innocence was lost, of awe, and wonder, and delight.
The Gurkha’s Daughter
The Gurkha’s Daughter is a collection of 8 insightful stories helmed by author Prajwal Parajuly. These stories capture the dilemmas, the societal dogmas, the marginalisation, the seeming insouciance on the surface that hide the deep concerns and afflictions of a vibrant community. Stories from within India and without, all with the Gurkha diaspora at the core.
In one story a father watches his daughter grow up and choose her husband, education and an urban outlook giving way to a choice steeped in traditional norm. In another Dashain is here and a poor family share the blessings of the day with their neighbours, the days leading upto the festival being a blurry mix of a sense of destitution, hurt, a piquant reminder of the squalor and poverty they live in, interwoven with a silent prayer for a rescue.
In another story a Bhutanese-Nepali family lives in a state of poverty and statelessness in a refugee camp in Nepal after being forcefully evicted from the home they knew in Bhutan. The seemingly ‘perfect’ family face a screening interview that may grant them a ‘perfect’ resettlement and access to a better future in America. This story highlights the plight of more than a 100, 000 ethnic Nepali-origin people, the Lhotshampa (“people from the South” in Bhutanese as they mostly lived in South Bhutan), who were expelled from Bhutan in the 1990s. The Lhotshampa made up one-sixth of Bhutan’s population. This mass expulsion created one of the largest refugee populations in South Asia, an oft-neglected dark tale in history.
As a young Gurkhali author writing about his people, Parajuly successfully writes about their state of restlessness and mobility, and of their struggles to be seen as “belonging”.
We are a people of mixed ethnic identities and shared histories, a people on the move, always moving, whether foraging to conquer new territory, or evicted from erstwhile homes, moving across physical lands, borders of the land, and borders of politics and economics. We move always, for we do not know how to be still, we move with the pages of history, with the hands of oppressors, and in the khukris we sway in the face of those less strong. We have moved onwards and sometimes backwards. As conquerors, as refugees, as rebels, as inheritors, as survivors, as seekers of the joy of arriving, as a people that cannot be still.
Would you like to share your experience with any of these books? Do share your thoughts here. What are your favourite books on Darjeeling, and is there any one you’d like to recommend? And for the reader who is new to Darjeeling or the Gurkha diaspora, I hope these books will give you an insight into the land and her people.
Ps. These books have been all bought at Oxford, except for No Path in Darjeeling is Straight which was pre-booked on Amazon months before its release. Oxford, the iconic treasure trove of books and memories in Darjeeling town. This is the only bookstore I still walk into, foregoing those assured online discounts to take in the air of yesteryears, and enjoy the slow-browsing, my fingers tracing the form of books on the quaint shelves, soaking in so much history resting in one place.