India of the 1980s was a time of intense political agitations across the country, including armed, disruptive movements with wide support from some constituencies, their demands ranging from statehood to secession. One such movement was the call for Gorkhaland, which many Gorkhas – Indian Nepalis living in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal – considered a separate state anyway.
It was politically charged, fraught with violence, and, perhaps, somewhat removed from the national consciousness then, as it is now. While the movement went off the rails gradually over the years, there is no denying that it threw lives into disarray, something that has only been captured in news dispatches by way of statistics on the number of people killed, the damage to property, and bandhs and shut-downs.
Chuden Kabimo’s debut novel Song of the Soil, translated from the Nepali by Ajit Baral (published by Rachna Books of Gangtok) vividly captures the flavours of that era: youthful dreams, and fear of more losses. In the process, it breathes an intimacy into fiction that is both political and personal.
By tapping into the untold history of the many young men and women who believed in revolution and blindly followed a leadership that was fractured over selfish political gains, the novel brings alive the Gorkhaland movement, the ferment of revolution, and what it does to passionate young people who dive headlong into its abyss as foot soldiers, discovering fear when it is too late.
Told through flashbacks, Song of the Soil explores what it means to be deeply in love with one’s homeland. It chronicles friendships that are sealed through shared experiences of deprivation in terms of education or healthcare, but are filled with the gay abandon of kinship and youthful adventures. It looks at the very nature of man as a political being who is pulled by forces that do not care about him.
And before getting to any of this, Kabimo maps out the terrain that the book is set in – its geography, and its people, who make do with the barest minimum, where dreams are buried under the harsh reality called life, in the most poetic manner:
“Perched on the hill above this river (Ghis) was the village of Malbung, where morning began with the sun rising from Mangzing on the hill opposite, and where twilight ended when the sun approached Barbot on the hill behind Malbung and then set. Where the winds from Budhabare blew in winter and the rains from the plain poured in summer.”
Tales of betrayal
The novel begins on a morbid note, with the news of a possible death: our unnamed narrator’s childhood friend Ripden is believed dead following a massive landslide after an earthquake. His body cannot be found, without which there can be no claim for compensation.
Our unnamed narrator is called to visit his village and write a news item, the only way to make the authorities take note. This takes the narrator back to the innocent days of his life with his friend, and the discovery of stories of the previous generation, a generation that had taken to the streets in protest and to the jungles in hiding. He learns of the making of an armed movement that was often beyond the comprehension of those who took part in it, but which led to living life on the run, under constant danger day in and day out – all for the supposed greater good – only to be betrayed at various levels.
The story that unfolds is one of a community that is denied its due, where administration and governance are conspicuous by their absence, where certain child education centres run by the RSS take in children to teach them slogans of Bharat Mata ki Jai. It is a story of a community fighting a battle for identity even as external majoritarian forces are at play, a community that remains fractured on caste and ethnic lines. The latter is seen, for instance, in an anecdote about a wedding feast, where guests are made to queue up separately for meals, depending on their ethnicity.
The writing is evocative in terms of imagery. Of the major landslides that dot the terrain, the author writes:
“Mudslides were tugging at the margins of the terraced fields, pulling them down. Fields were tearing apart and washing away; holes grew in them like winnowing sieves. The golden mustard fields had turned into sodden biscuits. Those fields looked just like Marie biscuits do when soaked in tea.”
A failed movement
The larger story around the Gorkhaland movement within the smaller story of the growing up years of Ripden, the narrator, and other friends leaves one with the basic question: If things have changed only in bits and pieces, largely remaining the same despite the sacrifices and the violence, what purpose did it serve anyone? And yet, that the events of that period comes to the fore in this novel is a timely reminder of how often political movements flounder because of the careful orchestration of external forces and personal infighting.
In looking at the turmoil from within and without, and by holding a mirror to the present – which is as fractured as ever – Song of the Soil reclaims the trauma of a community that has not got its due. The failure to retrieve Ripden’s body after a natural disaster is connected to the story of his father. His fate after being betrayed, the quiet pride of the narrator’s friends about his working in a town, the mention of another friend working as a dishwasher in a hotel in Delhi – these speak volumes about the fate of the common people even as the leaders of the movement moved on to emerging political pastures.
The poetic flair in the writing makes room for readers to reflect. Bringing alive the political history of a community is no mean feat, but Kabimo pulls it off with a flourish. Ajit Baral’s translation keeps native pronunciations and expressions in their original, bringing an intimacy to the characters and their lives. This novel springs from the soil and reads like a song.
Song of the Soil, Chuden Kabimo, translated from the Nepali by Ajit Baral.