Sun, May 18, 2008 - Page 14 News List

[ BOOK REVIEW ] From Nepal, a Himalayan pastoral

'Mountains Painted With Turmeric' is the English version of a popular tale, in which a beautiful countryside is used as a plaintive backdrop for tragedy

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

MOUNTAINS PAINTED WITH TURMERIC
By Lil Bahadur Chettri
123 pages
Columbia University Press

You wouldn't imagine there were many novels written in Nepali, but there appear to be quite a few. This one, however, originally known as Basain (meaning something like "location"), is apparently known to every man, woman and child in Nepal. It was first published in 1958, and Michael J. Hutt has given his translation a colorful new title to launch the work in English on the international market.

It's a short novel, fleshed out with some black-and-white photos of Nepal's landscapes, including its steep and terraced foothills. The book tells a sad story of social displacement, a family forced to leave their ancestral village by the combined maneuverings of a greedy moneylender and an imperious local landlord. The story is set against the changing Himalayan seasons, thereby evoking many European narratives in which a beautiful countryside is used as a plaintive backdrop for tragic human lives. The rural novels of Thomas Hardy and Marcel Pagnol immediately come to mind, but there are many more examples.

Given Nepal's extraordinary history over the last 20 years, with running battles between Maoists and forces loyal to the crown, not to mention the scarcely believable events in the royal palace in 2001, it isn't surprising that Nepal's Marxists have been quick to demand an interpretation to Mountains Painted with Turmeric that conforms to their party line. The author, though, writes only that he had "heard of" Marx and Marxism at the time he wrote the book, and that this acquaintance may have contributed to his "impassioned" tone as the story draws to a close.

But, as the translator points out, and various critics in Nepal have commented, the villains of the piece don't in any way suffer for their cruelty. This, then, is a book that resembles classical tragedy in that the desirability of a change in a social order is remote from the author's real concerns. What Lil Bahadur Chettri appears to be concerned to demonstrate is that the events he depicts simply show life is it is, and that this can no more be changed than can the seasons that form the stupendous setting for the events.

Even an English 18th century Tory like Samuel Johnson criticized Shakespeare for not bothering to punish his villains and reward the virtuous sufficiently systematically. There are exceptions, of course, but artists seem to have a near-universal hostility to ideologies of every color, preferring to present the world in all its complexity and cruelty rather than supporting various schemes to change it.

Such concerns, though, are unlikely to bother the reader of what is essentially a simple tale, and something that can easily be read at a sitting. The characters are economically depicted, too - Dhane, the peasant, his wife Maina, his beautiful young sister Jhuma, and the unnamed soldier who seduces her, referred to throughout simply as Rikute (from the English word "recruit") when he isn't being disdainfully called "that corpse."

An interesting aspect of this book is that the author, though of Nepali descent, has lived almost his entire life in Assam, India. He learned about the social life in the hill villages of eastern Nepal from migrant workers he encountered in India, having only a vague memory of it himself. This distance from his or her subject matter is probably an advantage for an author as it allows the imagination to evoke something that has already been simplified by the mind, and all artistic visions are inevitably simplified versions of reality.

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