This is a prescient novel about Darjeeling, even though it was written in 1964. Indra Bahadur Rai’s Aaja Ramita Chha tells the story of groups of people who live in the Darjeeling of the 1950s who find themselves surrounded by political forces that eddy around their lives. In the 1950s, the struggle was fought at two levels, trade unionism in the tea gardens and the early signs of a movement to establish the independent state of Gorkhaland, by breaking away from West Bengal.
At the heart of all this is Janakman Yonzon, a banker-turned-trader in the hope of making money. He is half Indian and his beautiful wife Sita is pure Nepali. Together they move into a house where many families congregate and Janak, being generous hearted, finds himself being open-handed to his neighbours and less fortunate friends. The result is that he sinks into debt and takes refuge of a sort in infidelity falling for Yamuna, the flighty young wife of his ailing friend.
Around him are characters like Ravi, his foster son who cannot bear his father’s infidelity, which deters him from pursuing his own love interest. Ravi turns to politics and becomes his father’s political rival in a quest for revenge. There is also a communist upsurge in progress and Ravi is shot in the cross-political manoeuvering.
Janak dreams of having his own house and two children, but is too proud to ask his influential in-laws for a loan. Instead he borrows from his partner but inevitably fails to repay the money, which lands him in court with his dreams shattered.
Despite their desperate situations and their varied vices, the characters manage to be likeable — mainly because we see them through Rai’s lens. There is the incident of the peacock, which crosses the border into India and is driven back to Nepal by Janak who feels that it does not deserve to be in the land of the Mughals. It is through the interaction between people and politics at an everyday level that the readers get an idea of why Darjeeling is the way that it is today.
As a narrator Rai is remarkably open and non-judgmental — the reader is allowed to form his or her own opinions. This is apparently part of Rai’s narrative style, something he refers to as leela lekhan. Rai allows each character his or her failings because that is how day-to-day life truly is. He also occasionally allows the characters to keep their cards up their sleeves.
Carnival is perhaps an odd translation of the word Ramita because it implies a certain flamboyance and enjoyment, unless Manjusree Thapa is perhaps being sarcastic — she used the word “commotion” in an earlier column of hers. Certainly there is a great deal of underlying irony in the way the lives of the people are shown. They think that their choice of politics will set them free only to find themselves at loggerheads with each other while their lives collapse.
On the whole, though, it is a story about lost hopes and the constant political haggling that still plague the hills today. It is by no means a happy story. Thapa’s translation adeptly conveys the nuances allowing for a twisting of tense as the story moves back and forth in time.
The reviewer is a freelance contributor.