ANN HUNKINS is a writer's dream-she translates works from Nepali with the crisp diction of contemporary America, cutting to the heart of the story which may be set a century ago in a culture quite different from the ones we know. Her narrative force takes the reader on a journey through twentieth century Nepal, through the streets of old Kathmandu, and through the troubled relationships between men and women from the Rana period to contemporary times. Herself a poet, Hunkins has worked more than a decade on her translations, often working with the writers themselves to clarify their intents, and has managed to capture the power of these stories through their moments, voices and ambiguities. This is a book to be treasured by both the traveller who wants to know Nepal better, as well as younger Nepalese who were educated in English medium schools and want a gateway to their classics.
ANN HUNKINS is a former Fulbright grantee with an M.A. in poetry from UCDavis; her poems and translations have appeared in Manoa, the North American Review and various publications in Nepal. In 2008 she received a National Endowment for the Arts Translation Grant for the novel Aviral Bagdacha Indravati (On Flows the Indravati) by Ramesh Vikal. Published translations include contributions to W. W. Norton’s Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond, 2008, as well as Dhoopi (The Juniper, 2006), a long poem by Toya Gurung, and Karagar (The Prison, 2005), a novel by Banira Giri. She was one of the awardees of the Devkota Century Award in 2010, for contributions to Nepali literature. She worked for the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights in Nepal in 2006, interpreting for war crimes witnesses, torture victims and others. She currently lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
ON THE JOY OF NEPALI WOMEN A friend, a Nepali woman, laughs so loudly, so boisterously that her peals of delight ring across rooms, making people turn their heads to look at her. An aunt of mine radiates domestic bliss, never more so than when she is mock-hectoring her sons and daughters-in-law, her daughters and sons-in-law and her herd of grandchildren. My mother, in her sixties, giggles like a schoolgirl at the least gag: nothing is funnier to her than someone slipping on cow dung. Another friend, a human rights lawyer, stares down evil all day at work, and goes home to her husband and son in peace.
Reading the stories in this collection, it struck me how rare it is to find joyous women in Nepali literature. It is rare enough to find joyous women in Nepali life, but women such as those I mention above do exist. I have known many, I have sometimes been like them and I have daily admired them, these women of ebullient spirit. It is not that such women are untouched by sorrow, for our society is structured to make victims of women. Yet they are not defeated by their suffering; they eventually emerge sparkling, burnished, wise, their capacity to celebrate and revel intact, even aflame.
Literature often aims to illuminate that which is dark, that which in this collection shed light on the multiple tyrannies that Nepali women are made to suffer: the exploitation of a patriarchal order, the misogyny condoned by Hindu orthodoxy, the psychological colonization of women, the emotional collapse caused by the strains of hierarchical mores, to make no mention of the universal sorrows of the human condition....
Frustration, including but not limited to sexual frustration, is a common theme here. Many of the women in these stories desire a lot, but very few of them act; for, as we learn from the female narrator in the 'The Itch That Begs To Be Scratched: to pursue fulfilment is fraught with complication. In most cases, it is beyond imagining. The female narrator in 'Nandabir' therefore waits passively for a man who alternately intrigues her and irritates her: it is not within her power to summon him, or go to him. In 'The Peach Tree' a young woman learns, as she comes of age, how fraught is the ownership of her sexuality. Marital love and sexual union are chillingly negating, even life-threatening, in 'The Yellow Rose.' The married woman in 'Your Wife and I'-who sometimes seems liberated-in the end turns out to be a pawn for the narrator, who is acting out his wife's infidelity. In 'Makhmali,' the protagonist's thrill at getting married ends as a nightmare in the brothels of Bombay. And in 'The Scream' entire generations of Badi women and girls sacrifice their pleasures for those of their customers.
Denied agency, women pit themselves against other women: this too is a common theme in these stories. For women must out maneuver female rivals to ensure their own security in a patriarchal order. In 'The Son' it is the co-wives Subhadra and Laxmi who battle each other. In 'Pavitra' and 'Internal Conflict' the wives and maids compete for the favors of the man of the house. A girl jealously vies for her sister's husband in 'A Sweater for Bhinaju.' Shobha's love for her mother remains unreturned in 'What are you Doing, Shobha?' And 'The Wives' is peopled with scheming housewives who, shifting allegiances, wield their power vindictively over each others' lives.
The stories in this collection do not merely depict women's suffering: they also suggest solutions. A woman whose happiness is won at the cost of another woman's destruction cannot be free. We learn this from 'Two Deaths.' Told that her daughter from a previous marriage poses an obstacle to her security-the possibility of remarriage-the protagonist Hasina decides to drown her. She loses her own life as well. In Simone de Beauvoir's term, the quest for a compromised freedom is false consciousness. In a patriarchal order women can attain power only by appeasing their own oppressors. Their security is predicated on a basic falsehood: that they agree to be mastered by men. Hasina acts, therefore, in bad faith. The result is her annihilation, the death of her body symbolizing the loss of her spirit's freedom.
Many of the stories in this collection dwell on the problem of bad faith, exemplified by women victimizing other women while competing for male favor. Some stories offer instructive alternatives as well. Sarita, in 'Nausea,' tries so hard to liberate her friend Sarala; this story of a supportive friendship between two women will ring true to any woman reader who has bonded deeply with other women. 'Mother,' too, offers a tender portrayal of the love between a mother and daughter as the daughter, Gyanimaiju, is initiated into the ecstasy of love and the bitterness of betrayal. These stories teach us something of women's considerable capacity to love other women. Though our patriarchal order encourages us to war with each other, we do-often-defy expectation and break through to women's true freedom.
As a woman reader in an unerringly insubordinate era, I admit I am more attracted to stories of resilient women than to stories of fragile women. They fill me with rebel glee, and inspiration. Yet it would be irresponsible to ignore the fact of women's unhappiness. The subject of women's unhappiness has long occupied South Asian writers: the vast body of Bengali, Hindi, Urdu and Nepali writings on widows stands as a testament to this. The greatest minds of the subcontinent have fretted over ‘the woman problem,’ And indeed should continue to do so, for the objective conditions of our society are certainly not conducive to women's happiness. From literature, I want to learn not just how women suffer, but also how we overcome our suffering: how we repair the damages we have sustained, how we recover, grow, strengthen, overthrow oppressive orders and live in contentment, even joy.
Among all the female characters in these stories, the nameless wife in 'The Adulterer's Woman' is the one who most inspires me. Rejected by the protagonist, she marries another man. And when the protagonist wants possession of her again-and his love is expressed unequivocally as the desire to assert his ownership over her-she is not easily won over. The story ends inconclusively, yet we are offered reason to believe that no matter what this nameless woman chooses, she will look out for herself now as she had done at an earlier juncture in her life. This story grows in the mind after reading: is the woman happy? What will make her happy? What makes any woman happy: chasing after this man versus that man, or following a larger dream?
Similarly thought-provoking is 'The Son Who Wasn't Mine.' Though the narrator in the story is passive, her desires transgress ordinary boundaries. The object of her fantasies is an adolescent boy. She is over thirty. Her sexual yearnings for the boy are mixed in with cravings to mother and nurture him. The story highlights the complexity of women's desire. It is not for nothing that more than twenty years after her death, Parijat remains the Single most intellectually uninhibited writer that Nepal has produced. This story offers a tantalizing glimpse into her work, which is replete with female characters as multidimensional as was the author herself.
Here we see what happens when a writer is also a visionary. The women in Parijat's fiction offer us flesh-and-blood women permission to abandon false consciousness for freedom (and upon attaining freedom, to experience joy). As a reader, I am grateful to such visionaries: the parameters of my life are daily expanded by their thinking. As a writer, too, I am grateful. From them I have learned that one of literature's heaviest responsibilities is to suggest alternatives to present realities. For a writer is not merely a recorder of what is: she also proposes what ought to be.
Most women readers know too well that women are made to suffer in our society. My friends whom I have described above, along with my mother, my aunt, and myself know that what we want to learn from literature is how not to suffer. We want to know that it is all right to be free. We want reinforcements for the joy we do feel. In most South Asian literature, even today, women who try to be free are always punished: they are killed, or they kill themselves, or in other drastic ways they pay dearly for their freedom. It is time, I think, for South Asian writers, for Nepali writers, to allow their women characters to be free with impunity; to imagine Nepali women's liberation. For is it not also the task of the writer to expand the public imaginary, to create convincing fictional models that flesh-and-blood women may emulate?
These stories, translated with great skill and sensitivity by Ann Hunkins, allow us to contemplate what kinds of women we have written so far, and what kinds of women we might write from here on. Translating literature is an extremely difficult and mostly thankless job with no financial reward and little fame as compensation. This collection is purely a labor of love. It is an immense contribution on Ann Hunkins' part to hold up such a clear mirror to our public imagination. We should read these stories not just to mourn for broken lives, but also to resolve what we might do-via writing and other forms of activism-to offer Nepali women the possibility of joy.
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