Maya Thakuri: Writing between the lines
Born on July 2, 1946 in Lucknow, Maya Thakuri’s first poems were hate letters to people who mistreated her. “They used to call me all sorts of names,” she says referring to the real-life characters who shaped her childhood. Her philandering father left her mother who raised her and her two siblings in what she calls the “slums of Shillong”. In 1974 she moved to permanently to Kathmandu and settled with her husband, Damodar Sharma.
Maya taught herself how to read and write, and is today a member of Nepal Academy and has published eight anthologies of short stories such as Priyambada (Sweet Spoken, 2013) and Aama! Jaanuhosh (Mother! Please Leave, 2008). Her stories have been translated into English, Bengali, Hindi, Tamil and Japanese, and are taught in universities in India and Nepal.
“The same people who spat at me and told that I should not be seen around their kids now have grandchildren reading my stories at their universities,” Maya says. “Today, they say Maya is ours. But no one wanted to claim me when I was growing up.”
Her life is a story of brokenness and triumphs, it is filled with characters from her fiction. One cannot help but fall in love with the main protagonist, Maya, who is completely flawed, wholly woman, and wild. We sat to talk in a hallway of the Nepal Academy in Kathmandu long before office hours. Our meandering conversation is about anger, fear, mischief, hunger, women holding women, and of finding, creating and occupying spaces that were always built to exclude us.
Maya Thakuri: They say I am 70, some say I am 75, maybe I am 80. Who knows? When they write about me, they say all sorts of things. I never object, I let them believe what they believe.
Read also: Factory of Questions: Sarita Tiwari, Muna Gurung
Muna Gurung: What else do they say about you?
MT: That I am a sophisticated literary woman who is now at the prestigious Nepal Academy. It is not untrue, but that’s just a small part of me. Inside me, there is a hurricane.
MG: And where is the eye of this hurricane?
MT: I had a lot of anger and disgust towards my father. He was a tall, handsome Rana man who worked as a compounder in the Indian Army Medical Corps. He knew a thing or two about medicine and people used to call him Doctor but most called him Bausaab. He came home to Palpa from India with a rifle and a dancing woman. The woman was clearly just something for him to use on his journey. He would go hunting during the day with some of his men, and come back with wild pheasants. In the evenings, the woman would wash her face, put makeup on, and they would eat, drink, dance all night. People say he was the best madal player and a charismatic entertainer. When someone suggested he get married, he asked for a line of maiyas for him to pick from. He was your stereotypical ‘Rana ji’, you know. My Muwa, just 9-years-old, was lined up with five other young Thakuri women from Rukumkot. She was tiny like a sparrow, and was not the prettiest. He could hardly see her face because she had her head covered, but he pointed the muzzle of his rifle at her. He was 35.
MG: He picked a child.
MT: Exactly. Muwa used to tell me that she spent the first years of her marriage with my father in complete fear of him, and in a bloodbath. I did not understand why she mentioned the blood until much later –– she had had so many miscarriages before me. If you think about it in today’s terms, he was raping her.
So they walked back to Lucknow where my father was posted and Muwa was carried in a palanquin all the way to Nepalganj. The dancing woman walked beside her the entire way only to be told at the end that Bausaab did not want her anymore. Muwa said that the woman cried and hugged her. They had bonded over the trip, she was like a mother to her. The woman told Muwa that she was leaving, but that she was also taking Bausaab’s memento with her.
MG: A child?
MT: The thing is, I am sure I have run into so many of my father’s children without knowing that they were actually my half brothers and sisters. Even after he married Muwa, he would bring many women home and introduce them to us as his sister-in-law, niece, cousin, friend’s sister… it was endless. Eventually when he was posted in Shillong where I spent most of my childhood, he left Muwa. She raised me, my younger sister and brother.
Maya Thakuri and Parijat met at a literary event in Palpa in 1984
MG: When did you realise that you held deep disgust for your father?
MT: The fact that I am here today is an accident. I was born seven months premature in a hospital in Lucknow. They say I came still, wrapped in a thin net-like sac. The doctor was sure I was dead. I was to be thrown away and the cleaner lady who took me in her arms to dispose of me, took a tiny bristle off her broom and poked through the skin of the sac, and my arm was flailing! (Laughs). She ran back screaming, This baby is alive! This baby is alive! They stuck me in an incubator.
When my father was told it was a daughter, he said he did not want to see my face. Muwa says he did not even look my way for the first year of my life, let alone touch or love me. When we were in Shillong and living in squalour and he would sometimes show up and eat all our food, I would get very angry. Here I was hungry and looking after neighbours’ children just so I could eat a bowlful of leftover food and he gets all that Muwa cooks? I would ask him to get out and if he screamed at me, I would scream back. I was never afraid of him. Or of anyone, for that matter.
Fatherless and poor and I was often called a bigreko keti, a rotten girl, and people could do anything to me. Push me around, spit at me, call me names, touch me wherever they wanted. But I also had a dirty mouth. If they called me a bad word, I would repeat it back to them. (Laughs). And I had to work to eat. People would give me clothes to wash and I would take them down to the river and sometimes I would let the river wash away large sheets. I thought no one would find out.
MG: But why would they trust a child to wash such large things in the first place?
MT: Exactly. I have done a lot of naughty things, though. I stole clothes from his rich memsahib’s house for my sister. I would look after her kids and in the evenings, I would roll her belly with what looked like a rolling pin. It was her way of getting slimmer.
MG: Did it work?
MT: She would say roll harder, roll harder, but all my strength was never enough. Anyway, that memsahib’s daughters had a closetful of frocks. I had never seen that many beautiful dresses in one place. So, I took two and ran home. I thought they would never notice, but rich people always notice.
I have too many of these stories…I remember being dragged out of a friend’s house by her uncle who called me all sorts of names and said I was a bad influence on his niece. I did not shut up either. I would say the same things he called me back to him. I guess I was no good.
Of course there were nice people who gave me clothes and food, too. But I remember always standing just slightly outside and away from the rest. You know, I also never went to school.
MT: I do not know what it feels like to change into a school uniform, carry books in a bag and be in a classroom with friends and teachers. My friends would tell me about how the teacher would hit them with a ruler if they misbehaved or how they would pat them on their backs in praise –– I longed to feel both. When I told Muwa I wanted to go to school, she hugged me tight and said she could not afford to send me. I would wait all day for my friends to come back from school and play with me, but when they came back, they would change from their school uniform, eat a snack and do this thing called homework.
MG: Homework still baffles me. So, how did you learn to read and write?
MT: My poor Muwa, who had learned to read and write when she was in Lucknow through the army’s social welfare program, had given me a slate to practice my alphabet. It was when my friends started going to school that I realised I needed to learn to read and write, too. So once my friends were done with their notebooks, I would take them and write in the space between the lines. If they had written the word, ‘P-E-N’, I would also write ‘P-E-N’, below. With the help of Muwa, and these notebooks, I taught myself to read.
Shivani's Kathmandu, Duksangh Sherpa
Written locally, read globally, Sewa Bhattarai
MG: You literally learned to read and write in between the lines.
MT: Absolutely. I always feel that spaces open up for us, we just need to see them and take them, and fully occupy them. I was not given much, but I think I took all that I could take. When I was 14 or 15, and had begun to read Nepali and Hindi magazines, Satish Sir approached me. He knew that I was interested in reading and writing but had never gone to school. He told me to come to his house for tuitions just like the other girls in 10th grade did. He told me not to worry about money. When I got to his house the next morning, he was still in bed with his wife. He saw me and said, Ah, you are here. Do yesterday’s dishes, sweep the floor, make some tea. When I asked him when we were going to study, his wife said, Do that first and sir will teach you after. Thus began my schooling. I would do household chores for them and in return he would teach me all the subjects I had to take to pass what they called ‘Matric’, which is equivalent to Nepal’s SLC.
MG: You passed?
MT: Yes, 32 out of 100. In third division. I was so happy. But even then, people said that I probably passed because I did the examiner some favour. I was, after all, a bigreko keti who went from house to house doing peoples’ dirty dishes.
MG: I seem to have to repeat this in every interview: but, people are the worst. And then, what? How did you arrive at being a writer?
MT: Then I got offered a job to teach little kids in the cantonment school. I was being paid about 50 rupees per hour, but I was no teacher. I would climb trees with them, dance with them and the principal would get really frustrated with me. One day, I don’t remember why, but she slapped me. It made me so angry, I pushed her to the ground, placed my knees on her chest and poured ink all over her face. I was terrible. Muwa pleaded with them, told them I was wild but that I would apologise and behave. I told the school to kick the principal out, but of course they would not. So they kicked me out instead. (Laughs).
MG: What? Wow, stories like this cannot be made up.
MT: I was a wild horse, you know. Everything belonged to me and nothing belonged to me. But I think the writer in me was seeded by Muwa and my grandmother. Muwa had one book she read repeatedly her entire life: the Ramayan. She would read it to me in verse; I am sure I learned about cadence in language through her readings. And my grandmother would come from Rukumkot and tell these elaborate ghost stories.
MG: Do you have a favourite one?
MT: There is one about Sani Bheri, this ghost that always haunted people in the form of a baby (laughs). Jhul Neta is a grand uphill, so this man is about to climb up when he hears a baby cry by the river. He sees it and feels sorry for it, so he picks the baby up and begins to walk up. But the baby gets heavier and heavier, and it gets harder and harder for him to walk, until he can’t walk anymore. When he looks down at his legs, he realises that one of it is missing. It is back in the river where he picked up the baby.
The stories that my grandmother and Muwa told me appear in my fiction. For all my work, I take from life what I have seen, experienced, heard. I never have to make any of it up. My story ‘The Night Is Mine Too’ is based on a real-life event of a woman who was beaten for not wanting to have sex with her husband when she has just given birth six days earlier. In the story, I have her take sweet revenge.
MG: I love that story, and the ending made me feel like I had somehow won.
MT: I think she left him in real life. In Shillong, as we played house out in the common yard, the women who were knitting or working would tell each other about their husbands, their pasts, their troubles, I listened to so many stories. They were all around me. Then, once my friends started going to school, they would read out loud from their textbooks about Gaje Ghale. How he was so brave, all the amazing things he did, Our Gaje Ghale, they would say.
MG: This Gaje Ghale is a mythical character? Clearly, I have no clue about him.
MT: If Gaje Ghale is a made up character, then how come I have his autograph?
MG: I am intrigued.
MT: He was the brave soldier who won a Victoria Cross, a true hero of our time. When I was 15 or 16, Sangeet Kala Samiti performers were invited to Kathmandu for the king’s birthday celebration. A Sunuwar aunty in Shillong had hemmed her black velvet blouse to fit me and had lent me a black sari. I remember feeling beautiful. Before I left, someone had given me a small book and told me to get autographs of all the people who were going to be there because these were important people from around the world. I went looking for the king because I wanted his autograph. The king was seated in a grand chair but did not have a crown on his head. I walked towards him and his guards tried to stop me. Hearing the commotion, he asked what the matter was, I said I want to meet the king! And he told his guard to let me come through. I opened the little book and said, Can I have your autograph? I think he wasn’t expecting someone like me, he smirked the entire time as he signed my page.
MG: This was Mahendra?
MT: Yes, but his signature was nothing compared to something that happened later. So, I spent the rest of the afternoon getting all sorts of signatures from everyone. When we went back to the hotel that night and I showed my friends my little book, they pointed out that Gaje Ghale had also signed my book. Our own Gaje Ghale! I had met him and I didn’t even know it. His signature is my most beloved possession. I should frame it.
MG: I love how physical artifacts can trigger memories in the clearest ways.
MT: During Dasain, I always wore clothes that other people gave me. But we would go shopping for my little sister and I would look at all the colourful frocks hanging in the shops and I would run my hands along the pleats, Muwa would look at me and say, Next time, ok? This next time never came. But when my father passed away, Muwa got some money, it was probably the first time she got any money from him. She bought me a silk sari. I still have it. When I wear it, I feel my Muwa, like she is holding me. That woman suffered so much, you know. And I used to be so angry at her for loving my father. Once in a blue moon, he would come to our house in the early hours of the morning and fall asleep on the bed. Muwa would get up and shower and while he was still asleep, she would wash his feet and drink the water off of them. I hated that she treated him like a god. Then, when he would finally wake up, she would boil water for him to bathe. He would sit outside on a low wooden stool and she would wash him and use a luffa to gently scrub his back. Why do you even touch a monster like him? I would scream at her. But I never understood that my mother never got any love from a man. She died never knowing what it feels like for a man to lovingly touch her. Bathing my father was the closest she got to satiating any womanly desire she might have had.
MG: I can see that image so clearly and it breaks my heart. Do you think you have forgiven your father?
MT: I have spoken about him in so many interviews, written about him and no one has asked me this question before. At this stage of my life, I realise that my father was of another time. For him, women had no value, they were things to have and throw. He did what he did in his limited knowledge of how to be a man, a ‘Rana man’ at that. I am not perfect either, I must also have knowingly or unknowingly hurt many people, made many mistakes. If my father had not mistreated my mother, had not abandoned us and sent me to school, would I have been this version of Maya Thakuri that I am today? My hatred towards him, my mother’s pain, my broken childhood were the things that fueled me to stand up, to write. They made me strong. Funny thing is, it’s almost like he’s the hero and the villain of my life story. (Smiles). So yes, I have forgiven him.
Lightroom Conversation is a monthly page in Nepali Times on interesting figures in the Nepali literary scene. Last month’s guest was Sarita Tiwari.
Aama, please leave.
As soon as my eighty-six-year-old mother enters, a strong smell fills the room. My teenage son Manish, my daughter Sumi, and my wife, Manavi, scrunch up their noses and look at each other. A discomfort rises in me. Even if I don’t want to, I look towards my mother and say, “Aama, please leave. Go to your room and lie down.” Then, almost immediately Manavi adds, “Exactly! What’s the point of sitting around here with these little ones? It’s better to go to your own room and relax there in peace.”
Aama doesn’t say a word. She just stands there looking at me. In that look, I see layers of unanswered desires and questions, but I stay quiet. Defeated, she slowly walks towards her room.
I know that Aama wants to sit with us and listen to us, she wants to watch TV, she wants to feel the warmth of her family. But it’s been a while since Aama has got anything she wanted around here.
Excerpt from Maya Thakuri's short story. Translated by Muna Gurung.