In the original foreword to the 1993 edition of Mauli, author Badrinarayan Pradhan mentioned how a visit to Ilam in Nepal inspired him to write the novel. As the English translation notes, enchanted by the beauty of the place, Pradhan had wondered out loud why his ancestors had abandoned such a “lovely place”. To this, his companion had promptly replied: “They were adventurous. They left for other shores, and by leaving they made space for others.”

“It was then that the nubbin of an idea for the present novel grew in me,” Pradhan wrote.

It is, hence, no wonder that border-crossing remains such an integral part of the novel, Mauli, originally written in Nepali by Pradhan, and recently published by Rachna Books in its English translation by Anmole Prasad.

Transgressing borders

Set between the period of the mid-1940s to the early 1960s, the novel narrates the story of Malati Ghimiray – Mauli – as she navigates the major and minor milestones of her life. The story could easily be read as a classic bildungsroman, save for the social and material context that Mauli inhabits. Putting this together with the timeline, a gestation period culminating in the birth of modern Nepal, the novel turns out to be much more than a routine coming-of-age story. As Mauli moves between Darjeeling, Jhapa, Naxalbari, Biratnagar, Ilam, Kathmandu, Siliguri, and back to Darjeeling, she carries with herself not just the baggage of her own life but also the burden of the nations-in-formation.

The borders she crosses, as do we along with her, are as much personal or contemplative as they are political or tangible. This is the beauty of the story. Its telling does not let the political identity of borders – almost a dual protagonist in the novel – overpower the personal. Despite the transborder angst that dominates the reading of Mauli, it therefore still remains the story of Mauli till the very end. Through this process of storytelling, Pradhan helps weave alternative imaginations of selfhood vis-à-vis nationhood that makes the markings on a map secondary to the subject’s multilayered understanding of borders and belongingness.

Mauli remains this subject till the very end, distinguishing between “Nepal” and “Bharat” as “two separate independent nations” only at the very end – literally on the last page of the novel – when she goes in search of her son Pritikumar who has enlisted with the Indian army. Up until then, her borders kept floating in and out of their spatial manifestations as her language kept seamlessly and unwittingly flowing in and out of Nepali and English.

The daughter of a doting father, Chandraman, a rich landlord from eastern Nepal, Mauli’s early life as a student of Loreto Convent, Darjeeling pays homage to her father’s desire to have a child who could “rattle away in English”. This was common among the elite families of the neighbouring areas who sent their wards to missionary schools in the hills. Mauli embraces this projected self dutifully, replete with her frocks and pony-riding skills. Yet later, when her father offers to fund her higher education, she declines – although she has far graver reasons than she lets on. Instead of education or marriage, Mauli wilfully chooses to relocate to Ilam, where begins her journey towards becoming a “real Nepali” under her Elder-Mother’s strict supervision.

In a disturbing episode, when Mauli is literally disrobed by her Elder-Mother and her second sister-in-law in order to force her to dress more culture-and-age-appropriately, she finds herself unable to respond to whether she wants her sari to be draped “the Indian way or the Nepali way” not knowing either. Is it then that she has her first experience of corporeal political borders? After she has been primped up by the women, she looks at herself in the mirror for a long time and then breaks into tears while the others stand smiling around her. It appears as if she has completed her first rite of passage being initiated back home.

What is home?

However, the “home” here is more in the sense of the family than the nation. Having grown up without a mother, Chandraman’s youngest and favourite wife, Mauli hankers for motherly affection. When she fails as a little memsahib to get that love from her father’s eldest wife, traditionally hardwired to hate her “sauta”, she tries a different route inching closer to becoming the self that the Elder-Mother would approve as a recipient of her love. What is significant here is not just the transition of Malty to Mauli, but also how thereafter she claims for herself the right to call “Elder-Mother” as just “Mother”.

She finds for herself a way to cross over the border that separates one of her father’s family from the other within an extended polygamous circuit. During her three-month stay in Ilam, she manages to become her father’s eldest wife’s “youngest daughter”, rather than the sauta’s daughter. For this, she leaves behind her former self to refashion a new self, one who can tie her own sari and is adept at all household-kitchen chores.

Sangita, the daughter of Chandraman’s “own middle-brother” Kul Bahadur Ghimiray or Biratey-Kaka from Biratnagar, emerges as the perfect foil to Mauli. Almost the same age as Mauli, but brought up completely differently, Sangita is introduced to us as the “real Nepali” girl that Mauli aspires to become. She is not educated and can barely write her own name. Her parents are more concerned about getting her married off than sending her to school. She is adept at housework. The cousins become fast friends and Mauli takes it upon herself to tutor Sangita. An eager learner and sincere student, Sangita amazes Mauli with her quick progress. Within two months she is not only able to read Bhanubhakta’s Nepali Ramayana without halting but can also recite the verses beautifully in her lovely high-pitched voice.

Mauli also becomes a matchmaker for her cousin, handpicking Tulsi Pandit – a Paharey they met during their Kathmandu trip – as her potential partner. The kind of companionship Sangita finds in Tulsi is the complete opposite of what Mauli finds with her husband Bishwambhar later in the novel. Although both the couples get married on the same day, Sangita-Tulsi’s joyful reunion becomes a constant reminder of the doomed nature of Mauli-Bishwambhar’s marriage, a marriage that Mauli could have possibly avoided.

Right from the time of a chance meeting with Bishwambhar at a school picnic with her friends by the Rangeet, Mauli is disgusted with his behaviour. Yet she preserves his picture in her album. She is unable to tear herself apart at another “chance” meeting with him during a family trip to Naxalbari, even though her companion Dhankumari provides her with an exit route. Later, when Bishwambhar chases Mauli to Jhapa and hoodwinks her family into considering him as a potential groom, Mauli chooses to believe in the niceties he peddles despite the glaring red flags. Her lurking suspicions come true when Bishwambhar’s real self emerges on their engagement night as he rapes her.

Mauli is once again provided with a chance to end the disastrous union by her father, but she refuses again. She chooses for herself a marriage full of deceit, and emotional and physical abuse, while her cousin finds in her husband a comrade with whom she can match mentally and travel the world. Their relationship is so complete that they do not even feel the need to have children. It is, hence, really ironic how the last fight between Mauli and Bishwambhar – after which they cease talking, Mauli moves to Siliguri and soon after Bishwambhar is killed by a peasant whose land he had misappropriated – is over him accusing her of “speaking like a Communist”, an identity that Sangita-Tulsi eventually don.

Juxtaposition of history

As we map these invisible subjective border crossings through Mauli, in the backdrop we also see glimpses of those crossings which went on to facilitate the etching of politically-driven cartographically-designed tangible border lines, events that made it to the history books. Be it the vestiges of the colonial era at Loreto, the Tunisian war where the English took the Gurkhas to chase out the Italians as recounted by Chandraman’s friend Tekbir Rai, or the growing fervour of the Indian freedom struggle leading up to the Partition of the country and its independence as presented through the eyes of the raconteur Jankilal, a merchant, and Sangita-Tulsi, Mauli does a commendable job of demonstrating how inner realities of individuals collide and circumvent outer realities of nation-making.

Each time these accounts from “far away” are presented, it is followed by questions about “news from our own Nepal please”, “[w]hat’s going to happen to Nepal..?”, offering a chance for juxtaposing one history with the other. Through these instances, we are given a peek into the alliance between the Rana regime and the British, the burgeoning of the Nepali Congress, the tug-of-war between the Teen Sarkar and the Paach Sarkar, the rise of the Reds, and Nepal’s neutral policy towards the Indo-China war of 1962. These are interspersed with episodes bemoaning the declining “state of Nepali art and culture” through the use of the Maruni performances, hinting at the revivalist strategies that cultural nationalism espouses. The Maruni episode which exposes how female dancers were regarded as prostitutes, along with Radhika’s letter outlining the tawaif culture under the Rana regime, as well as the servant girl Dhankumari’s sexual exploitation at the hand of Bishwambhar emerge as important comments on the gender situation too.

In her reading of belonging and borders in 20th-century Nepali novels, Mallika Shakya talks about the need, as a postcolonial subject, to “bring back the focus on individual concerns of belonging and freedom” in contesting mainstream Westphalian theorisations. She finds popular fiction and poetry to be the apt vehicle to explore these alternative views on nations and borders. Pradhan’s Mauli is one such text that provides ample scope for such explorations.

It allows us a literary taste of the “porous borders” that exist between Nepal and India by bringing back the focus on the individual. By doing so, the author demonstrates the power that lies with the individual in not just crossing over but also allowing the borders to cross them – to borrow an idea from Prem Poddar’s Introductory essay included in the book – leaving the “two anxious states” in question to deal with “the fault-lines of the politico-economic negotiations” themselves. This is how Mauli emerges as a border narrative but with a difference.

The translator, Prasad, does a great job at transferring the context into English while retaining much of the flavour of the original storytelling ripe with the typical idiosyncrasies of the language. This is perhaps also the reason why the tenses awkwardly toggle between the present and the past, which slightly mar the readability of the text in its English version. The other thing that impedes the process of smooth reading of the text is minor proofing errors (inconsistency in spellings like Chisopani/Chisapani, gun’yu/gun’’yu, Tulsi/Tulasi; a “to” that slipped in stealthily on page 23; etcetera), barring which the text emerges as a fantastic addition to the growing world of this new branch of South Asian studies, Nepali literature in translation.

Mauli, Badrinarayan Pradhan, translated from the Nepali by Anmole Prasad, Rachna Books.