In July 2021, Nepali author Buddhisagar talked about his fascination with the bestseller Brazilian author Paulo Coelho in an interview with the Kathmandu-based The Annapurna Express. It was in 2003 that he had read The Alchemist in Hindi, and then again in English some years later. He developed a taste for Coelho’s works – the philosophical stories of its protagonists.
But there appears to be little influence of Coelho in his novel Karnali Blues, which was published in Nepali in 2010. In fact, Buddhisagar told The Annapurna Express that he only enjoys fiction that is nothing like his own. In his debut novel, Karnali Blues, he patiently paints the portrait of a father as seen by his young son.
The novel opens with the birth of the narrator, Brisha Bahadur. The 20-something-year-old man returns home in Nepal’s Karnali province to tend to his father, who has suffered a brain haemorrhage. Over 11 days, Brisha reminisces on his past, a large part of which was defined by the warmth exuded by the bond with his father.
The core theme, the bond between a father and a son, is explored through memories. Each one of these plays out in straightforward language but with wholesome details, giving the narration the quality of a yellowed photo that can trigger a wave of emotion.
Brisha Bahadur recollects the unbridled joy of receiving small gifts from his father or of riding with him to a local fair. He also discloses his great pride at his father, a small-time doctor, knowing how to take care of his son’s health – the narrator says his health is so good compared to those of the frail children in his village that he felt like a celebrity.
A young Brisha Bahadur is so deeply impressed by his father’s mix of compassion and practicality that he even draws a moustache on an image of the Hindu goddess Santoshi Maa and calls her, Santoshi Baa.
The novel is set in Matera, a sleepy village by the Amauri Khola tributary of the Himalayan Karnali river. The beauty of the setting, captured in the narrative, makes it easier for readers to visualise and remember the scenes. As the seasons change in Matera, nature becomes a participant in Karnani Blues.
The leaves of the corn, the cluster fig, the guava and the sleeping hibiscus had become even greener. The day was as bright and clean as a man who has shaved off his beard and bathed. From my bed, I caught the smell of mud drying in the sun.
When the narrator’s father suffers from a brain haemorrhage, he has to be shifted to an unclean hospital in a town at some distance from Matera, because the village has no facilities to treat complicated ailments. At the hospital, he is kept in the general ward with patients of contagious diseases coughing away.
Buddhisagar weaves in a matter of fact depiction of death and disease in a rural setting, but makes generous use of imagery to describe the fear and unpleasantness. The narrator says his father’s “invalid face was like a yellowing leaf, his breath was like a monsoon river.” He also mentions struggles like taking a patient to an unsanitary washroom and making him urinate, or coaxing him to eat.
Karnali Blues strikes a chord with how real it is. As an experiential tale of families in general and the father-son relationship in particular, it offers neither high drama nor deep analysis, but simply serves up a story close to the heart. Michael Hutt’s translation scrupulously protects the simplicity of the narrative without sacrificing the cultural and social nuances.
Karnali Blues, Buddhisagar, translated from the Nepali by Michael Hutt, Penguin Books India.