The Man from Karnali

Author Buddhisagar. Photo: BUDDHISAGAR/FACEBOOK

Buddhisagar’s novel Karnali Blues starts with a father, who says after seeing his newborn son for the first time, “He has a mole on the sole of his foot, so he will have to walk a lot but he won’t go off anywhere and leave us.”

His mother then asks the baby, “Will you go off and leave us when you’re big?”

A statement from one parent, a question from the other.

In a Thamel restaurant on a sunny winter afternoon, Buddhisagar walks in wearing a brick-orange jumper and black pants, looking as if he just returned from a track meet-and-greet. He apologises for being late. “I walk everywhere,” he offers as an explanation.

He does not look like any of the pictures on the Internet, those that make him out to be larger-than-life celebrated Nepali author. Maybe it is because he is not expecting to be photographed.

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This is the real Buddhisagar, in his most natural state. Perhaps this is how he looks writing in his own company, while sipping tea from a local vendor and building stories out of childhood nostalgia.

Like Brisha Bahadur in Karnali Blues, Buddhisagar was also born in Matera, and brought up in Katasé and Kalikot. Like the main character of his novel, he was not academically gifted. But unlike his fictional counterpart, he was rather shy, Buddhisagar  confesses. So the prolific author most likely did not go around looking for mischief or drawing moustaches on pictures he found around the house.

Many call Karnali Blues an autobiographical fiction. “Some parts of the beginning of the novel are real,” the author admits.

The inspiration for the novel came in a hospital, a place of both birth and death. “My father was sick and like in the novel, he was in Kohalpur. He died later, from brain hemorrhage as well,” he says.

But Buddhisagar does not think he is our protagonist. He explains, “A writer is never one character. They are inside the minds of young and old, of men and women - they are everywhere in fragments. There are some parts of me in Brisha Bahadur. There are some parts of my mother and father in him as well. He is not all me.”

After a pause, he adds, “Just look at the poems he writes. If he was me, he perhaps could have written them better.”

There is also the juxtaposition in the book between the two Harsha Bahadurs — one is the breadwinner of the family and the other lies paralysed in a hospital bed.

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Then, there are the two Brisha Bahadur: the child who looks up to his father, and the youth who still does so even as the father lies on his deathbed.

Father and son oscillate between having to give and receive care to one another. There is also the pacing of the past and the present in the chapters of the novel. The present moves in a numbingly slow pace as the human mind goes through moments rejecting death, and yet accepting the hopelessness enveloping it whereas the past rushes up to the narrator like a deadly current in a moody river that catches up to those who do not want to be caught.

“What matters the most to me is authenticity,” Buddhisagar says,  sipping on a single-shot Americano. “Regardless of whether a story is autobiographical or not, the readers must think that the events happening in the story can actually happen in reality.”

Karnali Blues tells us about people and places that age through immaculately detailed visuals of the great river’s tributaries weaving themselves into the story.

Villages and towns also have characters and stories to tell. A tea shop by the river turns into a small market. The river becomes a dumping site to accommodate modernisation. The cattle get sick. A new bridge opens up a nearby town, and its population migrates, hoping for a better future.

The village dries up, but the rivers stay polluted. There is death and abandonment, but even if one life ends, the other has to move forward. The title is apt, there is no other place to feel blue and desolate than in the Karnali.

“The back-and-forth style of storytelling in Karnali Blues came from those hospital nights with my father,” Buddhisagar says, this time holding a freshly-lit cigarette between his fingers. “You start by reading about an unknown person, sick and on his deathbed,  and slowly, you walk along the story with him. Eventually, the readers get to know him and so when the end comes, it creates an emotional response.”

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Because we spend 400 pages with Harsha Bahadur, we know that he is a constantly caring patriarch whose love for blue waistcoats is immeasurable. We also know that Brisha Bahadur’s nameless mother is constantly forgiving. Despite being a troublemaker, we still adore Brisha Bahadur’s predilection for an expensive bicycle, or a leather jacket. His love for tea makes him the most relatable Nepali on earth. And thus we come to care for all of them.

“Since I spent many years writing the novel, it opened a whole new world for me,” Buddhisagar says, blowing out blue smoke through his nostrils.

It has been 12 years since he came out, and readers have come to love the world he created as well. It has now found new visitors with Michael Hutt’s English translation (see above).

Language bridges distance, and so when asked whether he wishes to change the way he had written Karnali Blues, especially now that he has become a father himself, he shakes his head.

“I don’t have any regrets about my past work. Whatever I had felt while writing the book has dissipated. If I read it now, I will do it as a reader,” says Buddisagar. “We are fathers of a different era. I don’t feel the need to change the way I have written about fatherhood in this novel.”

Perhaps it is not Buddhisagar we should be looking for in our narrator, rather it is us readers that find ourselves in his characters. The way we were as children, the kind of parents we want to become.

Maybe Buddhisagar has expertly hidden himself somewhere within lines like these in Hutt’s translation: “Once Father set out, he never looked back. He used to say, ‘If you turn to look back, your attachments will trap you and you won’t be able to go.’”

Buddhisagar is working on his third novel. The English translation of Karnali Blues translated Michael Hutt is available in Kathmandu bookshops. 

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