Bina Theeng Tamang: More than a maichyang
Do you know something?
These are the first lines of Bina Theeng Tamang’s poem, Dhunwa ra Ama (Smoke and Mother). The narrator speaks to a Sunmaya about their mother who is always dancing, moving endlessly her hands and each part of her body, like Shakira, from one corner of the house to another. I feel like my mother is taking part in some reality show, the narrator says, but the judges are not paying attention.
Bina’s poems do not intimidate. They speak directly to the reader, inviting them to the worlds inhabited by Pasangs, Shermos, Chesangs, Ramayas and Phulmayas. In these worlds, malls are built in once fertile fields, migrants who work abroad parceling goods are parcelled back home as cold corpses, Monsanto sucks dry the land and its people, and middle men come in form of husbands who sell their wives. To some who are used to reading mainstream Nepali literature, Bina’s characters may feel foreign in their Tamangness, but their problems, their laughter, their heartaches and the way they love are nothing but deeply and completely Nepali.
Born in 1980 in Hetauda, Bina Theeng Tamang writes in Nepali and Tamang. Her first collection of short stories, Chuki (Chuki), was published in 2012, and her collection of poems, Raato Ghar (Red House), that features 32 poems in Nepali and Tamang was published in 2015. I first heard of Bina through writer Maya Thakuri who called her a young new exciting poet with a loud voice.
But Bina is not only a poet, she is a full-time teacher at a government school, a mother, a daughter-in-law, a counselor, an important member of her Tamang community in Taulung, a social worker and an entrepreneur.
“I got together with three other women from the community to build two tunnels full of roses and marigolds. We sell to florists all over Kathmandu,” she says. Later, when she takes me on a walk to visit these tunnels, I see how labour-intensive and time-consuming this work is. I wonder: How is Bina able to do all of this? Does she have more than 24 hours in her day?
As we get ready for the interview, it is already early evening. Bina has come back from a full day of teaching. She has prepared bowls of pasta for us and has told her mother-in-law that she will be busy for the next couple of hours. We sit in her writing room which she tells me was hard to acquire.
“My mother in law said this room could be making good rent money. I told her I will pay her however much she wants for the room. She didn’t say anything after that,” she says, her left cheek caving into a dimple. “I guess there is something about janajati women. We are fearless.”
In this month’s Lightroom Conversation, Bina and I talk about the kinds of homes that language can build and break. We talk about loss that is both physical and emotional, translations, and the daily hustle that is required of modern married women of Kathmandu who wish to write. When asked why we need poets and writers at all, Bina says, “To choose to invest on a writer is to choose to build a good society.”
Toya Gurung: Nepali literature’s Thulnani, Muna Gurung
Bina Theeng Tamang: There was a beer factory in Hetauda’s industrial district. It was our playground. We played with marbles and chungi, crawled through thorny bushes to collect bottle caps. And since the factory roads were smooth and paved, we took our bicycles for high-speed spins.
Muna Gurung: Your family is from Hetauda?B: Nuwakot, but my parents moved to Hetauda. They ran a little shop outside a high school. We never had a lot of money, but as far as I can remember, I always got whatever I asked for. I was pampered. Ama was Ba’s second wife and I was their only child. I have an older brother from Ba’s first wife, but he didn’t stay with us in Hetauda. I got all the attention. When Ba went to Raxaul in India, he brought back fancy dresses and crates of sweet mangoes…
M: It sounds like a dream.B: All of it disappeared quickly in 9th grade, though. That year, my parents moved to Kathmandu but I stayed back to complete my schooling. Our shop was not doing well, so they had sold our house in Hetauda and bought a small sunless plot of land in Balaju. Then one day, Ama called to say that she wanted to see me. When I arrived in Kathmandu, I found out that they had arranged my marriage to a Tamang boy who was my age, but only studying in 7th grade. All I remember thinking was: He is so short!
M: This is your husband we are talking about?B: Yes. He is taller than me now. (Laughs). My parents agreed to the proposal because my husband’s family said they did not want any dowry and that they would let me continue my studies. Our swayambar was simple: my husband’s family brought a rooster, some sel roti, and alcohol, and then we exchanged rings. But I still went to school and did not live with his family. On the 5th day after SLC, I came to this house.
M: And you have been here ever since.B: Yes, I came here in 1995 when this entire place was a village. I still call Taulung a village. The people here may have fancy 3-storey houses now, but their way of living, being and thinking have not changed much. Back then, there were large rocks everywhere and the forest was much closer. So imagine, a freewheeling cycle-riding girl from Hetauda is suddenly dropped in a village in Kathmandu. There were only Tamang families here and they all spoke in Tamang. My parents spoke to each other in Tamang language, but I never learned it. In Hetauda, I mostly had Chettri and Bahun friends, and like them I did not eat buffalo meat and I operated in Nepali. After moving here, I woke up early in the morning and went to the forest with other women to collect firewood and fodder for the cows. I learned the language through them, the neighbourhood kids and my in-laws.
M: And now you are one of Nepal’s few women writing in Tamang. How did the language sit on your tongue?B: With a lot of discomfort. I am still told that I do not have the tone right, like I am speaking like an outsider. Writing in Tamang came a lot later, though. I joined Padma Kanya Campus after I got married, but when I gave birth to a son, I quit school. The baby was big and healthy, a full 4 kilos! When he was born, the doctors at Teaching Hospital paraded him around. They could not believe that a 17-year-old girl could give birth to a baby that big. When they saw the father, they laughed at how tiny he was. But, that baby died. He was only three months old.
M: I am so sorry.B: I was young, you know. I did not even know how to feed him. Both my breasts got infected and the milk would not come out. To make matters worse, the local shaman, an old man who lived near our house, was called to cure me. He pierced both my breasts with porcupine quills and squeezed my nipples to make the milk come out.
M: That sounds painful...and wrong.
B: It was the worst. And after all that, still no milk. So they took me to the hospital where they operated on my breasts. Meanwhile, the baby was drinking buffalo milk. But one day, he got weaker after each feeding. By night time, he was no longer alive. Later, we discovered that the pot used to heat the milk had a thin residue of insecticide, maybe to keep the flies off.
M: What was his name?B: (Pauses) You know, I don’t even remember what we called him.
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M: Do you remember what the loss felt like?B: Right after his death, I remember feeling sad. But then I got pregnant soon after. I stopped thinking about him almost instantly. I think about him sometimes, but then I remind myself that if he had lived, perhaps I would not have had the three kids I have today. I realise no matter how hard it is to raise kids, it is good to have many of them. Later in old age, even if each child were to visit one day a week, it would fill the week. I will not feel lonely.
M: I cannot imagine being 17, having just lost a child and living in a home and language that is very far from what you know.B: I knew that I could not just stay at home, so I looked for a job. A small private school nearby was looking for a teacher and an SLC graduate could qualify. But my in-laws did not want me to work– Who will milk the cows? Who will fetch firewood? Who will feed the animals? Who will cook? I asked my mother-in-law if they would be okay with me working if I finished all the work. So, I would wake up at 4 in the morning to do all the house chores and then head to work. I was being paid Rs1,200 a month, but every rupee was worth saving my sanity. Later, when I got pregnant again and gave birth to my second daughter, I had to quit the job. I remember I was at my parents’ place when I had her. When we told my in-laws, they did not even come to see the child or send for me. A few days later, Ama put me in a cab and I went home. My in-laws were not happy. They began to pressure me to have another child right away, a son, this time. It got to the point where my in-laws were asking my husband to marry another woman to bear them a grandson. They treated me like a faulty machine. My husband did not marry anyone else, but I also felt like he did not, and perhaps could not, stand up for me. He did not have a job, and I had just left mine. Being the only son in the family, he could not just leave his parents. My in-laws never let a day go by without reminding us that we were good for nothing, and that only if we could focus on having a son right away, that everything would be fine. The daily pressure rested on us like a rock. It was the darkest days of my life, but I never once thought of leaving or giving up. (Pauses) You know, I was pregnant for the fourth time, but when we found out it was a daughter, we did what we had to do.
M: Was your husband there with you?B: Yes, he was the one who suggested I stay with my parents as I recovered after the procedure. I know it is terrible, but we also knew that we could not have another daughter. We spent Rs10,000 that we did not have because we knew that my in-laws would not accept her, and our lives would become even more difficult. A few years later, when I finally had a boy child, my in-laws began to shower me with praise. Sometimes I even felt loved by them.
M: Did you write your way out of these dark times?B: No, I did not. I only wrote when I had an argument with my husband. I began to work at Jai Bhadrakali, it’s a government school here in Taulung and I still teach there. Being around others who had higher degrees made me want to go back to school again. So, I enrolled at a +2 college in Nepaltar, where I was teased for being a tourist, juggling housework, children, and teaching, I barely had time to attend classes, so I made brief appearances. But somehow, I passed and then I went to Budhanilkantha College. It was there that I started writing. The first time was for a writing competition. I did not know how to make a story, or what it means to have characters, or conflict, but I had just heard news about a bus crash and I wanted to write about it. Apparently, the bus was carrying a groom and his side of the family. They were on their way to pick up the bride. I wrote the story from the bride’s point of view.
M: And?B: I won the first prize, which was a notebook and a pen. It felt like a sign that I should write more. Then came social media, I saw people writing and sharing poems on Facebook. I began to write a few poems myself, and whatever I wrote, I got positive comments from my online friends. It was through one of these friends that I was referred to Majheri Dot Com. If you go there today, you will see some of my early stuff. Majheri created a productive cycle for me: the more I wrote, the more people read, and the more people read, the more feedback I received, which made me want to continue writing. I felt fueled by the attention. And just like that, I had written enough for a collection of short stories. With the encouragement of writers like Tibbet Darlami and Ramesh Kandel, Chuki came to life.
Maya Thakuri: Writing between the lines, Muna Gurung
M: On the cover of that book, your name appears as Sunagava.B: I don’t use that name anymore. I found out that orchids have to depend on something external, like a tree bark, or moss to grow. As a writer, I did not like that metaphor. But I was naïve at the time of acquiring this pseudonym. I thought it was cool. But I was just clueless. When I was writing the stories that appeared in Chuki, I had no idea about how a story should be written, what it should entail, or how characters should be developed. Nowadays, when people say they have read my first collection, I always cringe. Those are not the best stories. I wish I could rewrite the first story, because I did not do justice to the main character, Chuki.
M: How would you rewrite it?B: I would make Chuki marry that man. (Laughs) She deserves to be happy. But when I was writing that story, I thought that women needed to be able to sacrifice their happiness for others, especially her children. Such garbage.
M: I do remember feeling a little let down at Chuki’s decision to disappear. But you know, we all have to start somewhere. And in so many ways, Chuki is how many people got to know you.B: Sometimes people call me Chuki. But after Chuki, I wrote less and read more. As my circle of online writer and reader friends grew, I received a diverse reading list. I read everything I could get my hands on. I even read Russian novels in Hindi. It was Dostoevsky that taught me how to build characters in stories.
M: How?B: I learned that characters need to be realistic and memorable. Readers should be able to walk down a street and see a story’s characters in real life. I tried to build Shyangmhendo, the main character of my recent story, Biyad Bhaale, in that way. Anyone who has read the story should be able to see Shyangmhendo when they encounter a woman with protruded teeth, blue gums and a habit of holding her cigarette between the index finger and the thumb. I learned that characters need to enter the hearts of the readers and stay in there for a long time after the story is over.
M: You learned how to write by reading.B: Growing up so close to the Indian border, there were these Hindi comic books that we could rent for Rs1 or Rs3 depending on how new the book was, how thick and how popular, but we had to read it at the store. I could not afford to rent, but I would go with my cousin who also read them– as soon as he was done, I would get to read.
M: Which was your favourite comic?B: Naagraj. He was the king of snakes, a green handsome man with lots of muscles and he could change forms. If there was injustice happening, he would show up at the scene and set everything right. I guess reading these comics for me was like how children today watch cartoons on TV. These books, like TV serials, would even have a ‘To be continued…’ page at the end, and I would be so sad as I turned that last page, knowing that my wait for the next installment would feel endless.
M: It’s so great because it probably taught you patience, and that is a good skill for a writer to have. And I am sure Naagraj showed you a thing or two about character development. What is your process when it comes to poetry?B: I think the comics seeded the writer in me, I just did not know I had it until I wrote years later. While writing poems, I move with a theme. But most of the time, I am just jotting down my thoughts on my phone and before I know it, it has become a poem. With stories, I always know the ending first. I even know what the characters are going to say and how they will say it. Then, I work my way back to the beginning of the story.
Anita Tuladhar: The Gardener of Small Stories, Muna Gurung
M: Your collection of poems, Rato Ghar, is the first collection I have read that is written both in Nepali and Tamang. Even the poems in the Nepali section of the book feel, for lack of a better word, Tamang. I’ve always felt somehow uninvited by the Nepali language, because my parents spoke ‘impure Nepali’ and growing up, I was always ashamed of their ‘Gurung tone’, and my own, too.B: You know, Ba brought my older brother from Nuwakot to Hetauda with hopes of sending him to a better school. But jojo didn’t speak Nepali and he struggled a lot. After a year, he went back to the village. Being a teacher today, I finally understand that he was being bullied every day for speaking in his ‘Tamang tone’. Jojo spoke with an a-kaar, so all his a’s were emphasized. For instance, ghar became ghaar. At my school today, even teachers laugh at the Tamang students who speak a ‘funny Nepali’, or they look down upon them and say, ‘They don’t know how to speak Nepali.’
M: Which is why your work is so important. The way you do very little direct translating in the text; how you gently drop a word in Tamang, and you let it sit there without too much explanation or fuss. But it is not confusing to the reader. It is still kind, but not servile. What if instead of all the great ‘Nepali’ writers, we had read poems like yours in our schools? Maybe we would feel a little more ‘accepted’?B: The way I write is absolutely political. Take for instance, the word nana. Before, everyone thought it was a backward, village word, but now many Bahun Chettri men and women call me nana instead of didi. Perhaps we have been able to reclaim that word and give it the power and beauty it demands.
M: And the naming of your characters. To name is to create and assign power. I especially love the name Shyangmhendo. What a heroine.
B: It was completely intentional and political on my part. If we write about many Shyangmhendos, and many fathers who are called apas, and brothers who are jojos, maybe in 10 years’ time our society’s imagination will stretch and grow? How many stories of the same Ram, the same Sita can we read anyway? In an event at Dang, a man from the audience said that it was unjust of me to use Tamang words in my Nepali poems because how was he supposed to understand anything? I got a little annoyed and I said to him, It was never unjust when we had to read all the Sanskrit, all the difficult words in Nepali, flipping through pages of the dictionary to understand a single sentence. But now that some of us are using a Tamang word here, another there, you’re feeling agitated? (Laughs). The thing is, people in the room clapped, so we know this change is desired, is needed.
M: I love that you do not seek permission. How did you learn that it was more than okay to drop Tamang words as you write in Nepali?
B: I had seen another Tamang writer, Phulman Bal, do this in his work. His book was called Mahabharatki Maichyang (The Maichyang of Mahabharat). Those two words could not be more polar. Here is Mahabharat, a Sanskrit epic, and then here comes a fiery unmarried Tamang girl, our maichyang. Outside of the Tamang community, I had seen Kiranti writers such as my friends Swopnil Smriti and Chandrabir Tumbapo write fearlessly using their languages in Nepali. These people had created a setting, and it made it easier for me to enter.
M: Do you write fluently in both languages now?B: Nepali is my mother tongue. I think and write in Nepali, and then I translate it into Tamang. My Tamang is still shaky, and I will be the first to admit. When I look through the Tamang section of Rato Ghar, I cringe. My Tamang readers tell me that I could have done a better job, and I agree. While translating, I feel like I gave up too quickly, and opted to leave the Nepali words in the Tamang version because I could not find another way to write it in Tamang. If only I had asked more people, flipped through more Tamang dictionaries, or let the translations sit with me a little longer, I would have done a better job.
M: What have you found are the differences between translating your own work versus that of someone else?B: I feel like it’s easier to translate my own work. Also, I think I write in simple Nepali with a Tamang consciousness. I have currently taken up a project to translate one of Parijat’s works into Tamang and it is so difficult.
M: Parijat uses super difficult Nepali words.B: The difficult words are there, but even simple words like novel or essay, we do not have those words in Tamang. It’s not because the language is stupid, it is because we have never had the need to say those words to each other in Tamang. And let us not even get into other words like unuttarit.
M: I guess you will have to translate that word to something like – without an answer.B: Yes, I could. But we do not have the word answer in Tamang. (Laughs). I’ll have to say, unknown or something, which then may make the translation lose a lot––
M: It must be strange to travel from one mother tongue to another and find that they actually do not quite speak to each other.B: It is frustrating at times. When we slip Tamang words into Nepali literature, it makes the Nepali language richer. But when we try to bring Nepali literature into Tamang language, the limitations of the Tamang language is suddenly exposed, making it seem inadequate. Nepali can be harsh, colloquial, but it can also be literary, flowery. Tamang is just utilitarian. Maybe it is not meant for literature.
M: But is that not what you are trying to establish by putting out a collection of poems that both Tamang and Nepali readers can have equal access to? I think you are changing the idea that Tamang is not meant for literature. You have said many times in our conversation that Nepali is your mother tongue. If Nepali is home, what is Tamang to you?B: My tongue does not know Tamang but it is set in my bones. It is also the language that established me as a writer. I was writing in Nepali but my circle was small and I was not getting much notice. Once I started writing in Tamang and got published in a monthly journal called TamangDajhang, I was seen. Although my Tamang was not perfect, the Tamang community turned me into the writer I am today. The language lifted me.
Lightroom Conversation is a monthly page in Nepali Times on interesting figures in Nepal’s literary scene. Muna Gurung is a writer, educator and translator based in Kathmandu. For more of her work, visit munagurung.com.
Smoke and Ama
Translated by MunaGurung
Do you know something?
It is hard to light the stove in our house.
But when the flames come on,
I see smoke
and Ama, who like Shakira,
Sometimes over the thin cow’s full udders,
sometimes in the fields above our house,
sometimes at our own door,
Ama moves her hands–saryaksuruksaryaksuruk
like an artist
I feel like my mother is taking part in some reality show. But
the judges are rude.
They are shutting their eyes, closing their ears,
and making loud noises.
That is why
she is kicked out each time
from this reality show of life
But even then–
Ama still dances in the smoke
that rises from a stove
so hard to light.