Friday, September 18, 2015

Organic tales (Upendra Subba's Lato Pahad) उपेन्द्र सुब्बाको "लाटो पहाड"

This review appeared in Republica on September 18, 2015.

Upendra Subba, having carved his niche in Nepali literature as a poet par excellence, has now demonstrated his storytelling skills in a delightful collection “Lato Pahad” (The Dumb Mountain). All 13 stories in the collection are centered on issues of marginalized Limbus.
Despite their political underpinnings, there is plenty of aesthetic pleasure in reading the text. Laced with humor, and native language and images, the real stories of people make the reader laugh and feel empathetic towards the locals’ plights.

The first story “Prabhu Maila” satirizes the unitary state that has forbidden the ethnic groups to receive education in their mother tongues. Hot-headed Keshman is asked by his lady teacher where Hira is found. When she keeps repeating the question to Keshman, he tells her that she has hidden it under her belly and runs away, leaving the teacher red faced. Now, “Hira” in Nepali means “diamond” but it means a woman’s private parts in Limbu language.

Through this hilarious episode, the writer advocates for intercultural dialogue and cultural sensitivity. Imposing a single language on a population with different languages has left many uneducated (The same theme is also explored in the title story “Lato Pahad”). Besides this, the story also describes the encroachment of Christianity upon native cultures and the resistance it meets. Rather than thanking his friends for the food they provide as fruit of their labor, Keshman, who has now become Prabhu Maila after being converted to Christianity, praises the lord for the food which riles Kokma Thule and he kicks Prabhu Maila out.

The stories “Khunkhar Bhale” and “Manmaya” show the condition of the poor in raw detail, tugging at the heartstrings of the reader. “Aithan” makes a case against abortion that kills potentiality altogether. Who knows whether the child could have significantly contributed to humanity had it been allowed to live? Written in surreal style with images of nightmare, the story fictionalizes the Limbu death ritual of taking the dead soul to the next world.

Sexual psychology has been beautifully presented in “Sasurali”, “Thote Sailo” and “Handaneko Bihe” (the last one is full of double entendres). “Mansinghko Chaite Dashain” is a brilliant work of dark humor that tackles polygamy.

Any culture has its own peculiar belief systems. Limbu folks believe that a person becomes sugut (ghost) after death and certain rituals to take sugut to the next world should be carried out, otherwise it keeps troubling the living relatives. In the story “Sugut”, Dalhang, a migrant worker, returns home after his wife’s death while the ‘sugut’ ritual has been suspended. After becoming aware of his sister-in-law’s marriageable age, he hatches a plot to wed her by having his dead wife’s ghost tell the family members about marrying the sister to Dalhang.

Bawdy humor, with liberal references of flatulence, in “Puchune Dhamiko Maran”, materialism and greed tearing apart a family in “Hariyo Dhunga” (great use of a symbol), politics of language troubling an individual in “Naspate Budho” prove Subba’s talent in storytelling.

While all the other stories symbolically raise the issue of a discriminatory state policy, the longest story in the collection “Lato Pahad” overtly criticizes the unitary state’s suppression of ethnic minorities. Written in the form of a film script (where scenes change too quickly to viewers’ comfort), this story pits the state against the native Limbus.

Kokma Thule is arrested for killing a cow whereas he had just used the skin of an already dead cow to make the native musical instrument, Chyabrung. He had been arrested earlier as well – charged with violating Consumer’s Forest Laws for felling a tree in his locality to make the ring of Chyabrung.

Through this episode, the writer advocates for rights of the ethnics to their natural property. Without explicitly saying so, the writer lobbies for ethnic federalism that establishes pride and respect of the ethnics in their ancestral land. The linguistic-cultural encroachment of the unitary state is shown in Kokma’s son Fangjang being humiliated in school just because he is a Limbu.

The Aryan principal and teachers, the local representatives of unitary state, punish him for not pronouncing Nepali words correctly and for retaliating against taunts of a “leopard” by his Aryan classmates. The sad part is that the elders identify with these events unfolding in the film while the young audience is bored.

Although it’s said that the position of women is better in ethnic groups as compared to Khas-Aryan groups, the stories don’t support this claim. None of the female characters are in a decision making position. Whenever they raise objections to their husbands’ wrong actions, they are scolded to silence.

The stories seem to have subtle meanings, but only if the reader has a good knowledge of the Limbu culture. Many native words have been used in the stories without explaining their meanings. Maybe a glossary at the end of the book would have helped.

But a lack of knowledge of Limbu words in no way hampers the reading pleasure. The reader will be in stitches while reading the stories and will also find out the political subtext in the narrative if s/he goes deeper. After a long time, a good book has appeared in the Nepali literature scene.  

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