By Sudeshna Sarkar,Womens Feature Service
When Devendra Bhattarai, a Nepali journalist and non-fiction writer, went to visit the tea garden district of Ilam in eastern Nepal six months ago, his host introduced him to a young woman who had walked for nearly three hours from her village to meet him.
“She came from a peasant family in Atghare village,” Bhattarai recalls. “The eldest of three children, she helped her family farm the little land they had, milked the cows and took the milk to sell in the village shops. She had studied in a village school till Class VI.”
The smiling but nervous young woman had brought a bundle of papers with her. It was a manuscript that recounted the 20-year-old’s life story with moving simplicity. “I was intrigued by the writing and showed the manuscript to my publisher in Kathmandu,” says Bhattarai. Today, Tara Rai’s ‘Chhapamar Yuvati Ko Diary’ or ‘The Diary Of A Woman Guerrilla’, is a runaway bestseller in Nepal, having sold over 5,000 copies in just two months, with a fifth edition in progress.
In her “diary”, the writer chronicles how she joined the underground Maoist party of Nepal – that fought a 10-year civil war from 1996 – when she was only 15. The story goes like this: Rai is assigned to the cultural wing of the party and has spent just three months there when she is arrested. “The army had surrounded us… A soldier came and yanked me by my hair.” She hears the sound of digging and she thinks she will be killed and buried. Instead, she is sent to various prisons, where she spends almost a year in the midst of both horrific experiences and unexpected love. She also meets a senior Maoist leader, Dharmashila Chapagain, who has been arrested with her daughter. Chapagain becomes a mother to Rai, mentoring her and fighting with the jail officials to get medical treatment for Rai’s rheumatic fever.
The slender book ends with Rai’s release in 2007, a year after the Maoists sign a peace pact and lay down arms. However, disillusioned with the communist movement, she does not return to the party. Instead, she decides to go back to her family in her village.
“Probably some people read the book for its curiosity value,” says Bhattarai, who is also its editor. “But it has its own merit. Although Rai did not study beyond Class VI, she has a flair for writing. Also, unlike the books written by Maoist leaders after the civil war ended, her diary does not read like a slogan. It is balanced. She shows the good as well as the bad side of the Maoists and the army is not an all-out enemy. There are good soldiers as well as bad soldiers and she falls in love with one of her captors.”
If Rai’s life is unusual, then Jhamak Kumari Ghimire’s is extraordinary. Ghmire, 30, is often described as Nepal’s Helen Keller and her autobiography – ‘Jeevan Kaanda Ki Phul’ (‘Life Is A Flower Of Thorns’) – is acknowledged as truly inspirational by critics and readers alike.
“Jhamak was born with cerebral palsy,” says Gopal Guragain, Ghimire’s neighbour in Dhankuta district in eastern Nepal. “She can’t walk, can’t talk, can’t use her hands. Being the eldest of five children in a poor family – her father had a clerical job in the government office – her family could not afford to look after her properly.”
But the neglected child had an unquenchable thirst – for education. She could see her father teach her younger sister how to write and she tried to tell him that she wanted to be taught as well. In her autobiography, she writes how she was scorned and even beaten for that. “What will you do learning to read and write? It’s useless trying to teach you,” was the stock response to her pleas.
Without anyone to help her, the determined Ghimire taught herself to hold a pen with her toes and write – by watching her sister at her studies and trying to trace out the letters of the alphabet on the floor with her toes. Though she has to be still carried from one place to another and be helped with basic functions, she can eat with her feet, comb her hair and, most importantly, write – communicating with the people around her and eventually, with a wider audience outside her home and family.
“About 10 years ago, we became aware that she was specially gifted,” says Guragain. “Jhamak began to write poems, articles. Then she bagged a column with a leading daily. Slowly, people began to know her and appreciate her talent and grit.”
Four years ago, Guragain says his conscience drove him to establish the Jhamak Ghimire Literary Foundation in a bid to “facilitate” Ghimire’s writing. In July, the Foundation published her autobiography. Ghimire writes about her disability with the utmost candidness, including how she faced menstruation – regarded as a taboo subject in conservative Nepal – and being sexually molested by an odd job man when she was alone at home.
Besides physical challenges, Ghimire has faced other hardship as well. When Nepal was going through a period of political turmoil, she was branded a communist sympathiser and the meagre allowance paid to her by the government was stopped. But she refused to change her point of view. She also declined to accept a state honour conferred on her.
“Jhamak and Rai’s books were bestsellers at the Kathmandu book fair,” says Babita Basnet, president of Sancharika Samuha, a forum of women communicators. “In their own ways, both are inspirational and their growing readership shows the emergence of the women’s voice in Nepal. Once, people had the image of authors as men. But now, the perception is changing. There are more women authors.”
Until recently, Nepali writers remained confined to Nepal and the Nepali-speaking diaspora. Only two writers – Manjushree Thapa and Samrat Upadhyay – wrote in English and were known outside Nepal. But now a change is in the offing. Popular Nepali works have begun to be translated into English. In 2005, journalist Narayan Wagle’s novel on the Maoist insurgency and growing disappearances of people – ‘Palpasa Cafe’ – became an instant hit, leading to its English translation being published three years later.
This year, one of Nepal’s most celebrated and avant garde writers, Bishnu Kumari Waiba, has been resurrected in translation. Waiba, better known as Parijat, died in 1993 after a long illness that resulted in paralysis when she was only 26. This year, probably her best-known novel, ‘Siris ko phool’, published in 1965, is ready to reach a wider readership with its English translation, ‘The Blue Mimosa’.
Efforts are on to translate Rai and Ghimire’s books as well. “When Rai’s book was launched in Kathmandu and she flew here, also on the same flight was the Danish ambassador to Nepal (Finn Thilsted),” says Govinda Shrestha, whose Ratna Pustak Bhandar, one of Nepal’s oldest publishing houses, is the publisher of Rai’s Diary. “It was he who suggested that the book be translated into English so that it can be read by more people.”
Work has also begun to translate Ghimire’s autobiography and Guragain says it will be ready either by the end of this year or early next year.
“I am delighted by the trend,” says Sheeba Shah, a member of Nepal’s former royal family who is also a published author with her third novel, ‘Facing My Phantoms’, having been launched recently. “It is a great thing that women writers are coming up. Now for the first time, women’s perspectives are being heard and women’s stories are being told.”