From Darjeeling to Aracataca
9 July 2018
A novelist on literary homelessness.
Their imaginations were fed by exile, a nourishment drawn not through roots but through rootlessness. My imagination, however, requires that I stay in the same city, on the same street, in the same house, gazing at the same view.
– Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul: Memories and the city
On the morning of 6 March 2018, I was boarding a plane out of Toronto when I learned from unconfirmed tweets, then verified reports, that the author Indra Bahadur Rai had died in his hometown of Darjeeling, in India, at age 91.
The news was not unexpected. I B Rai had been frail when I went to Darjeeling 11 months before to discuss my translation of his Nepali-language novel Aaja Ramita Chha. I had wanted to finish the translation in time for him to see it in print, as he did when it was published as There’s a Carnival Today in the autumn of 2017. He had since grown frailer.
An airplane ride can be very lonely, moving you away from your earthly attachments. On the flight, my thoughts kept rushing back to Darjeeling – the real-life town, and also the fictional one that Rai had created in his novel. Not only had I visited with him there, I had also walked the spaces that his characters had walked, inhabiting their external geography in order to feel out their inner worlds. My visit had been as much of a pilgrimage as I had ever taken.
The day of my flight, 6 March, happened to be Gabriel García Márquez’s birthday. It would have been the Colombian novelist’s 91st had he not died in 2014. By coincidence, he was born in the same year as Rai. Also by coincidence, I was setting out on a pilgrimage to his haunts on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. This literary pilgrimage was purely for fun. My partner and I were fleeing a mean Toronto spring, and raring for a diversion.
Landing in Cartagena to a shock of sea breeze and sunshine, I thought about how peculiar a literary pilgrimage could be. It entailed visiting a place in order to engage with fiction set there, rather than with the place itself. Literature permits us to do this; it allows us to frame the real world, if speculatively. It also permits us to escape the world awhile so that we might return to it reinvigourated. I knew I wanted to do both on this journey. But I was also trying to resolve a private quandary: how, as a writer, to continue to root myself creatively in my homeland, Nepal, even though I had moved to Toronto several years back, and even though, two years back, I had given up my citizenship to become Canadian. (Nepal does not allow dual citizenship.)
I B Rai spent his entire life in Darjeeling, chronicling the town. García Márquez left Colombia but never stopped writing its stories. They were two wholly different writers emerging out of wholly different literary milieus, of course; and I was turning to them to find my own way. All I had ever written previously pertained to Nepal: its society, its politics, the inner life of those affected by it. And Nepal was still all I wanted to write about in Toronto. But writing from afar had proven unexpectedly difficult. Could I learn how to do so from García Márquez, when what I knew better was how to write about the place I lived in, as Rai had done?
I still remember the exhilaration of crossing from Nepal into India on the narrow mountain road to Darjeeling, a road that Janak, the protagonist of There’s a Carnival Today, has never taken, to his regret. Beyond the window of the rental car, tall pine trees rose up to the sky, vanishing in a silvery mist. When I saw a sign for the Hill Cart Road, my heart skipped. Rai’s novel opens with a panoramic view of this road, and a description of the vehicles on it, including the steam train, rickety and clangourous, grinding uphill into Darjeeling town.
I was traveling with my mother, who also adored Rai, having met him when he came to Kathmandu to launch my first novel sixteen years back. It had been my great good luck and privilege as an English writer that he, a legend of the Nepali-language literary world, had agreed to do the honours. (Such is the power imbalance between the Nepali and English languages.) In his mid-70s at the time, he had been erudite and warm and kind. His wife Mayadevi had accompanied him to Kathmandu, as she did everywhere. She died less than a year before our visit to Darjeeling.
When we got into town, I did not rush to meet Rai. I wanted, first, to pick through the asphalt-and-concrete of the modern-day Darjeeling to find all the landmarks in his novel. Rai wrote it in 1958, when Darjeeling had fewer than 40,000 inhabitants. The town was now home to 132,000.
Still, I was able to find everything. The Mahakal temple, where Janak’s son has a crisis of conscience, loomed above the town, prayer flags fluttering. Below was the loop of Mall Road and the public square of Chowrasta, where Janak’s wife takes a walk every day. I looked into the art shop where, in the novel, Janak’s portrait hangs in the front window: Das Photo Studio. The municipal building, further down the hill, had been rebuilt after a fire, but the police station and jailhouse were as they used to be when Rai wrote the novel, as were Lloyd’s Botanical Garden and the expansive tea estates surrounding the town, whose workers, in the novel, start a movement inspired by the Naxalite communists who were sweeping through West Bengal.
Standing by the jailhouse looking at the outlying hills, I thought of the novel’s ultranationalist politician, who longs for the unity of the Nepali-speaking people. Through him, There’s a Carnival Today shows the rise of what went on to become a movement for independence from West Bengal in favour of a new state of Nepali-speaking people, Gorkhaland. The Gorkhaland movement was still going on: its tensions were palpable during my visit. I kept hearing, in casual conversations around town, that the West Bengal government was going to make the study of Bengali mandatory in school. People still discussed it – angrily – as yet another example of Bengali domination over the Gorkhas of Darjeeling.
In Colombia, our first sighting of García Márquez came early, as my partner and I walked through the old slave quarters of Getsemani to the walled city of Cartagena de Indias. We passed a wall with a mural of a startlingly ugly man, recognisable by the accordion he was playing, and by the yellow butterflies in the background – butterfly that feature in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Below, the artist had helpfully scrawled: “GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ (GABO)”.
“It doesn’t really look like him,” the tour guide Marelvy Pena-Hall remarked drily a few days later. An acquaintance, Ricardo Corredor Cure of the Fundación Gabriel García Márquez, had shown us an app – García Márquez’s Cartagena, downloadable in Spanish or English – but we had opted for Pena-Hall’s personalised tour. She started us off at what used to be the Convent of Santa Clara, which features in Of Love and Other Demons and was now a pricey hotel. Then she led us for three hours to other sites of interest, including García Márquez’s favourite spot for drinking the local anise-based alcohol, aguardiente, his holiday home from later in life, the office of the newspaper El Universal, where he worked for a penniless spell, and the old jailhouse where – upon fleeing violence in the capital Bogota and arriving in Cartagena in violation of a curfew – he spent his first night in town. The latter was also now a pricey hotel, as, indeed, was much of Cartagena. What wasn’t a hotel was a restaurant or memorabilia shop. We spotted ‘Gabo’ merchandise for sale – rum, his books, and on the higher end, emeralds, for Colombia produces most of the world’s emeralds, and emeralds do feature in some of his novels. I was impressed by how much the town had made of the author, even though we learned, from Pena-Hall, that he was not universally revered. The rightwing government of his day had posed enough of a risk to convince him to leave Colombia. Many Colombians today still have little time for an outspoken leftist who had counted Fidel Castro among his friends.
The public image of an author can be unstable till death, after which it can be literally set in stone. Our tour took us by a bust memorialising García Márquez at the La Merced monastery of the University of Cartagena, where his ashes were also interred.
Local politics occasionally destabilised I B Rai’s public image. As did all of his stories, essays, criticism and plays. There’s a Carnival Today established the Nepali language as an equal to Bengali or the other languages of India for richness of expression. His oeuvre, as well as his activism, helped the Nepali language eventually gain recognition as one of India’s 22 official languages. The author went on to receive India’s highest literary award, the Sahitya Akademi. Yet Darjeeling was not always kind to him.
This, because There’s a Carnival Today critiqued the violence in the Naxalite and Gorkhaland movements. The Naxalites openly threatened him, and the leaders of the Gorkhaland movement demanded more of him, perhaps, than he could give. As these movements engulfed Darjeeling, Rai shifted away from realism towards a high, abstract style that he, and poets Bairagi Kainla and Ishwar Ballav, held up as ‘dimensional’ writing. In the end, he went further, inventing a stream-of-consciousness postmodernism that he called leela lekhan, or play writing. His creative arc approximated James Joyce’s: while his early work was mainly conventional, his later work became defiantly, artfully abstruse.
We visited Rai on our second day in Darjeeling. We had been told that his family home was near the Barrick Motor Stand – a traffic snarl mentioned in There’s a Carnival Today – but had to ask around to find it in the clutter. He was confined to the top floor, and no longer attended public events, which, from what I had gathered, offered him some relief. As one bookshop owner put it, “Everyone was always trying to use him for their own end.”
Sixteen years on, the author was much as I remembered him: slight of build, older, naturally, and warm and personable. Formalities mattered to him. He asked after my family, mentioned how much I had written since my first novel, and offered us tea and biscuits. “I’m so happy that I’m getting to tell you in person how grateful I am for your translation,” he said.
It moved me to silence.
When I gave him a printout of the first draft of my translation, he asked, with childish delight, “Is it for me to keep?” Then I asked him a series of questions about his novel, starting with the most urgent ones, should his energy lag. I had been warned that he might last half an hour at most, but he became animated as he talked. “There were many Nepalis like Janak in Darjeeling when I wrote the novel,” he said of his protagonist. “But there was one specific man I based him on.” After a long pause that made me worry that this was too taxing for him, he took the name of Ramchandra Tamang. “He lived in Siliguri. He was a friend. I’ve written about this in an essay.”
We spent about an hour together. Then we took leave. He walked us to the top of the stairs, and as I offered a final namaste, placed both of his hands on my head in the gesture of an elder blessing a younger person. I felt his soft touch on my head and realised that this was the last time I would see him.
In Colombia, wanting to invoke García Márquez’s spirit, I reread his memoir, Living to Tell the Tale, which covers only half of his life. (He never got around to writing the second half.) It starts with a steamboat journey that he and his mother took on the Magdalena River to his birthplace, Aracataca. Unlike Rai, who lived in one place – working as a writer, and also a teacher and a municipal councillor – García Márquez moved around all his life. From Aracataca, his family relocated to Sucre, and then sent him to study in the town of Barranquilla, and then in cold, rain-sodden Bogota. He landed back in the Caribbean coast, in Cartagena, but couldn’t get by as a journalist. He returned to Barranquilla to work for El Heraldo newspaper, becoming part of the ‘Barranquilla Group’ of hard-drinking writers and intellectuals, before returning to Bogota to work for El Espectador. He was in his early 30s when he left Colombia for good, eventually settling in Mexico, where he felt freer.
I wanted to see the Magdalena, so we left Cartagena and went to Mompox, where the river was wide and muddy, with all the silt of the Andes flowing leisurely through it. Then we moved on to Santa Marta, where The General in His Labyrinth closes, with Bolivar in his last embittered days in 1830 decrying the breakup of a unified, independent South America into small, fractious nations. Our plan was to cap our tour with a visit to García Márquez’s birthplace.
As I kept reading and travelling deeper into García Márquez’s Colombia, I marvelled at how distance had not diminished his art. How did he keep writing so evocatively about a place he no longer inhabited day to day? This was the puzzle that followed me on my journey. Had his early, formative experiences etched themselves so inerasably into his mind? Was he just exceptionally gifted? Ricardo Corredor Cure attributed García Márquez’s talent as a novelist to his early training as a journalist: “His novels were researched as meticulously as his journalism.”
Perhaps that was true. Yet I also knew, from experience, how living and breathing a place could spark a writer’s imagination. When the story was in the air, all a writer had to do was to give it form. Everything from daily life – a fleeting sight, a stray conversation, a political revolution – fed the imagination. That was how it had been for me in Nepal.
But proximity, too, had its drawbacks, I knew. Whereas Rai’s early work portrayed Darjeeling head-on, his later work dwelled more philosophically on human nature. Perhaps there was a measure of claustrophobia in writing about one place for an entire lifetime. Perhaps remaining in Darjeeling made Rai retreat into more exalted subjects. Perhaps that was his escape from his immediate surroundings.
Perhaps. And perhaps leaving Colombia had allowed García Márquez to keep writing directly, and politically, about it, I thought. Then I caught myself. I was displacing onto these writers, with their life trajectories and oeuvres, my own creative anxieties.
The driver of our rental car was not impressed by our plan to waste our time in Aracataca, a hot inland town of no significance to him. Upon pulling into a settlement of low concrete-block houses, he laughed. “Here! This is all there is! This is what you wanted to see?”
We had to ask around to locate García Márquez’s childhood home, which had been renovated as a museum after his 1982 Nobel award. The museum was small but well tended, with each detail explained at length for the fetishist to swoon over. Here was Gabo’s grandfather’s Spanish dictionary. Here was the workshop where his father carved golden fish with emerald eyes. Here was the corridor where the women of the house spent their time. Here was the dining room where, in good times, the family hosted up to three sittings a night as visitors poured in on the trains. Here was the crib on which baby Gabo slept till the age of four. Here was the kitchen, with its wide, open hearth. Here was Gabo’s beloved copy of One Thousand and One Nights and his accordion, which he learned to play on a steamship on the Magdalena. And outside the back door – there was the banyan tree that the family sheltered beneath on hot afternoons. The museum staff had pinned yellow paper butterflies on the tree.
We were the only visitors that day. We wrote our names on a poster pinned up for that purpose, as well as in a guestbook at the front door. The gift shop was closed, so we bought a yellow plastic butterfly from a lone hawker on the street.
The heat shimmered in waves as we walked to the nearby Iglesia San Jose, where García Márquez had been baptised. From there we went to the telegraph office where his father used to work. It had recently been renovated as a tourist trap with a conspicuous donation box. Finally, we went to the railway station and, to the driver’s great amusement, sat around waiting for a train to pass by.
Next to the station stood a statue of Remedios La Bella, a character in One Hundred Years of Solitude who was said to be so beautiful that she ascended straight to heaven. A naked woman made of concrete reached up to the sky – ascending, presumably – as yellow concrete butterflies fluttered over her lithe body.
After we left, I could not really say what I gained from visiting Aracataca. The actual town would not have held my interest had García Márquez not brought it to life in my imagination. I am not sure that Darjeeling would have held my interest much either, had I B Rai not done the same for it. It was the fiction, and not the reality, that inspired me. I was interested, of course, in the places themselves. But I loved their fictional iterations more.
My pilgrimage had come to an end. We spent a few more days in Colombia reading other younger, contemporary writers: Laura Restrepo, Tomás González, Juan Gabriel Vásquez. During this time I learned, from Twitter, that there had been a large public funeral for Rai. At a lodge overlooking the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, I looked at photographs of the dense cortege that had accompanied his coffin through Darjeeling’s narrow, winding roads.
I wondered whether the town would memorialise Rai, as Aracataca had García Márquez. I thought back to the statue of Bhanubhakta Acharya – considered the first poet of the Nepali language – that stood in the public square overlooking Darjeeling. Acharya had never so much as set foot in Darjeeling, whereas Rai had done everything for the town’s language and literature. Through his protagonist Janak, he had brought into articulation the unique hybrid-yet-rooted identity of his people: “We, the Nepalis of Darjeeling, are trusted by both India and Nepal, and so both India and Nepal try to win our love and affection; but Darjeeling is ours and we are Darjeeling’s.”
Would Rai’s statue go up, one day, on a street corner? I wondered. Would a museum be made out of his family home? Would there be I B Rai merchandise available in the shops of Darjeeling?
It seemed unlikely when I thought of the difficulty I’d had tracking down a copy of Rai’s novel during my visit. I had wanted signed copies of the original for my mother and me, and extra copies as mementos. I would have bought as many copies as I could find, but after visiting four bookshops, could find only two.
Perhaps it would be memorial enough, I thought, if Rai’s writing were to be read more widely, both in the original and in translation. A statue or a museum could come later – or not – as his hometown saw fit. But it was in his writing that the living author lived most fully. It was in his writing that the dead author would find immortality.
As for the insecurities around my own writing, if I had been looking to learn how to write more easily about Nepal from Canada, I had not learned that from García Márquez. Perhaps no writer could teach that to me. Perhaps that, I would have to learn by myself.
And I was trying. Even though it had caused me no end to grief, I had completed one novel about Nepal after moving to Canada. And now, back in Toronto, on my laptop, lay the shambles of the first draft of a second one. It was just a novel by me – a Canadian author, apparently – about her distant homeland. It was all I wanted to write.
~Manjushree Thapa is a novelist and essayist, and has published ten books of fiction, non-fiction and literary translation. Her writings have appeared in the New York Times, London Review of Books, and Himal Southasian, among others. Her latest novel is All of Us in Our Own Lives.