We used to be flowering treesIn contrast is Kathmandu with its “width not enough to last a run”, with its sudden gorges and hills
The past few weeks were spent with my face buried in your book. And something about lolling with a book in a bed lit by the sun, reminded me of your room in Ganeshbasti. You remember how the patterned, frosted glass on the window trapped sunlight, like we were inches away from being singed?
We spent hours on your bed chatting, reading and sometimes sleeping, limbs piled up in a bunch, while the Usha fan hummed above us, and then woke up to Rita’s very sweet, condensed tea.
Our homes were different. Even in how we drank teas. At mine, tea was less milky, with a faint hint of sugar.
At your place, the bed was the communion. If not yours, we would be sitting on M Auntie’s, chatting, drinking tea and listening to her “blasphemous” ideas about the gods-- Ram was a wife-beater and Bishnu was a good-for-nothing rheumatic.
At mine, beds were strictly meant for sleeping at night. It was an unspoken rule. And so it was never my room that we hung out in, but yours, re-reading your Sachi stories, the one about the imposter hermit and the one about a woman who liked to climb trees-- the one forsaken by her family and society. You wrote so many stories!
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Now, reading them in a new light in your novel, I finally understand that the journey had begun so long ago and you were arriving at this point the whole time. We were becoming over the years and perhaps shaped one another?
You fetched new things to my sight. One time you said, it is remarkable that in these times of discrimination, two of your closest friends are Tarians. Back then, I wondered what friendship had anything to do with discrimination.
Growing up in a tole of mostly guy friends, who eventually joined the British Army or went abroad to study or enlisted in the Chakre Milan gang, I hadn’t thought of the why. But many things set in perspective when you came into my life.
Janakpur, for instance, came into existence for me when you did. It is true. When you said your village was Sabaila, I experienced the longing for the name of a village I could also call mine. But there has only ever been Kathmandu for me. All these years, Sabaila was to me a name until your book gave it the colour; brown fields, brown everything.
Read also: Vignettes from war, Pratibha Tuladhar
In contrast is Kathmandu with its “width not enough to last a run”, with its sudden gorges and hills. Your descriptions are replete with gorgeousness and nostalgia, it makes me pause at phrases and wonder when you learned to write like music.
As a young, somewhat confused girl, your words were my reprieve. I had needed throughout my lonely schoolyears, to find friendships that filled the cracks in me as your poems and stories did.
And so when you left for the US, I found myself caught in a blankness, a bit like Preeti in your novel feels when Sachi leaves-- anger and brokenness that nothing mends. And year after year, you carry it like a secret stone in your pocket, until time passes you by and you can’t remember when or where you put it away. Once in a while, you slip a hand absentmindedly into your pocket.
Reading your book made that spot abundant.
Read also: We are fire-breathing dragons, Pratibha Tuladhar
You also brought the little monkey back to life. I wince when Adi and Preeti stand before the rowdy brick-sellers, trying to rescue the monkey, and Adi is called “Marsiya”.
In another section of the book, you describe the word as being a swear word. I immediately want to call you and explain that the word Marsya in Newa, means someone from abroad. Marse means abroad. In that sense, Marsya would mean an outsider, while the word might also be a derivative of Madhesiya, meaning a Tarian. The word is not a slur in itself but can be used as one, just as you could call me an Urani to identify my “caste” but you could also call me “Urani!” as a slur.
Words can take on different meanings within communities as they get woven into a complex tapestry of how each new user adds meaning and intent to it.
I want to call and explain, but how long since we talked about anything? Since you left?
It is probably the fate of all female friendships-- your characters, Kumud and Meena, Sachi and Preeti. Female friendships are to be mourned years after they were alive.
Your novel traces many uncomfortable ideas and conversations avoided. You use the word “Mongoloid”, a term now obsolete and offensive. You also describe Pahadis as people who “share features with Tibetan and their Chinese neighbours”.
These terms used as perceptions by your characters point at the fissures between the people in different parts of Nepal. There’s hostility and a lack of trust. It is as if being Nepali means instantly being aware of our ethnicity and differences. Nepali language isn’t good enough as a binder because once we step into the privacy of our own homes, it is a language we leave at the threshold.
The concept of Kathmandu then, is a temporary one.
Manmohan and his Indian friend Mr Katyal think of it as the backyard where money is to be made, it lacks belongingness. And home, is an imagination.
Yet you create a nest for the readers with the years spanning across political seasons. The Kathmandu of our childhood is tactile, even with its mangled timeline, that annoys the journalist in me.
Read also: Write fearlessly, she said, Pratibha Tuladhar
Nepal Police did not wear blue until after the 1990s democratic movement. The Hrithik Roshan riots did not occur close to the democratic movements. And the Rajiv Gandhi embargo had everything to do with a failed treaty and little with “Christian wrath”.
Your character, ADC Gurung tells his wife he will buy her land in Ganeshbasti. But the tole only got its name in the 90s after Gurung was jailed and his property was confiscated and was meant to be turned into a park with a Ganesh temple. But Gurung was able to secure his land after release and the temple was never built. Until this day, Ganeshbasti does not have a Ganesh temple.
While somewhat misplaced, the political narrative becomes the spine for a compelling story about a woman’s fight and anger against a world that inflicts trauma on her just because she is her. It points at the complexity of geopolitics in South Asia and how it barely changes.
I have come away sore from the reading.
There have been memories of madnesses. There has been tenderness. Then storms, bickering and banter. I learned that all great stories come from truth, but that truth can be a mangled version of reality.
Your book is brave.
I love the possibility of a female Utopia. Because isn’t it what every woman desires? To be free to be? To climb trees. To be needed with nothing.
All your anecdotes are hyperbole, Miti. In hyperbole, are possibilities.
Suburban Tales is a monthly column in Nepali Times based on real people (with some names changed) in Pratibha’s life.