A preview of There’s a carnival today originally written by Indra Bahadur Rai in Nepali and translated into English by Manjushree Thapa (Published by Speaking Tiger, 2017)
The old couple could never forget their own wedding. They’d had an arranged marriage on the sixteenth day of the month of Falgun exactly thirty-one years ago today, with a nine-piece musical band in the wedding procession. Kaase Darzis had blown narsingh trumpets from a platform on the roof, sounding out the auspicious news of the wedding. Lamba Lama, Hukumdas Sardar and Doctor Yuddhabir Rai (the poor men had all since passed away) had danced all night to the sweet melody of the shehnai. Kaji Saheb had taken a photograph when Bagam Kanchha, who was home on holiday from the army, had dressed up as a maruni in women’s clothes and danced, spinning a plate in each hand. They’d had to set another pot of rice on the boil after eighty kilograms proved insufficient to feed the wedding procession. Nowhere in today’s Darjeeling would you see members of a wedding procession sitting in rows to eat in the courtyard while being attacked from all sides by chickens, which, when shooed away, raised clouds of dust with their wings.
As the wedding procession had neared the bride’s house, they had recalled that it was inauspicious to approach the bride’s house from uphill, and had turned around and come back from downhill. Seeing the women and children from the bride’s side waiting to greet them with stitched-leaf bowls of red rice and yogurt, the procession had lit up and started to shout Indra Bahadur Rai What’s our groom like? Like a sack of rice! He never falls in love, But when he does, he never stops. Once he catches you, he’ll never let go! The groom had urged them on: “Say it louder!” As they were about to return home with the bride in a palanquin, Bhalubabu’s youngest had placed two bottles of strained millet beer on a tray and made a ritual offering. Twenty-six-year-old Ratnabahadur had dismounted from the horse and accepted the offering with two of Queen Victoria’s silver coins, and then drunk the milky liquid. The other thing that happened was, Yamuna used to cry. Whenever she heard a mic blaring out from a wedding, Yamuna—a schoolteacher in the old days—used to start bawling in class, in front of the students.
Perhaps to give the impression that wedding music evoked a memory of some tragic abandonment, or reminded her of a chapter from an unfulfilled love story. Yamuna was a number-one exhibitionist! Another event that took place in this period: Ajoy Das moved away from here to someplace near the court. He said his housing allowance hadn’t been sufficient to cover his rent! Yamuna took over Ajoy Das’s room before it was even empty. The very next day, she brought a cupboard, a mirror, a table and some chairs, and crammed them all into the room. They moved Namgyal here after his TB diagnosis. Namgyal didn’t like either this neighbourhood or this room, but said nothing, since it was only for a few months, for the duration of his treatment. Janak would go over to chat with him. Namgyal would get up to all sorts of pranks, as though he were still in good health. The Hayward bottles to “sip just a little” from soon formed a row. When Yamuna tried to throw them away, Namgyal said, “No, don’t discard them. These are the ‘cups’ that I’ve won as trophies. We ought to display them properly.” Yamuna was also getting a telephone line installed (so fast) in their room. It’s not possible to say a telephone wasn’t necessary. Even Namgyal would say, “We may have to call the doctor in a hurry at night. We may have to order some medicine from the shop.” “Everybody’s asking my phone number,” Yamuna said in English. “And, you see, I feel small without one.” In Nepali, she added, “It’s getting embarrassing.”
The following day, after the workers who had spent a couple of hours setting up the telephone line had left, Janak said, “This telephone line must be inaugurated by Mrs. Namgyal.” The proposal delighted both the husband and wife. “Today! Today!” they cried. From that day on, the telephone became Yamuna’s plaything. She marked up the names of everyone she knew in the directory. She placed calls all day long. Even at night, she woke Janak up from sleep to joke around with him. And all day long: “Bhena-jyu, who was that person who came by your place today?” “Bhena-jyu, look down there, on the street, that dolled-up woman going by—whose wife is she?” “Bhena-jyu…” Babuni and Sita would talk among themselves: “That poor husband, he’s a god. She’s clearly the one who made him ill. She doesn’t look after him, she just roams around. She didn’t come home all day yesterday. Their servant boy’s exactly the Indra Bahadur Rai same. He asked to eat chowmein. How would I know how to cook chowmein—it’s not as if I’ve ever had any! That’s what I came to tell you about.” “And then, sometimes, she sits on her husband’s bed and weeps!” Babuni said. “What’s wrong with that woman!”
About two months after Pushpa left home, Babuni told MK something. MK’s entire face crumpled. MK lost his peace of mind for good from that day forward. Pushpa had got married and gone away; Amrita was already in Class 8. MK thought about his age, and he thought about Babuni’s age. Given the circumstances, the birth of a new baby in the house struck him, somehow, as an inauspicious, shameful and extremely uncalled for occurrence. Another crisis heaped atop their boundless suffering. The son they’d previously had had died as a toddler. How thrilled, how excited the husband and wife had been seventeen years ago, when Pushpa had been conceived a few months after their wedding. Babuni was still of a tender age.
Overcome with embarrassment, she said she wished she didn’t have to go out in public. All night long, MK would insist that it was a boy. He was too ashamed, later, to show his face in front of the mother. After that, when Amrita came, neither of them saw it as anything new. MK was deadened by the prospect of having another baby after all these years. Perhaps he shouldn’t have been, but he was. Not even the thought of a small life growing in the moisture and warmth of his wife’s belly ignited MK’s enthusiasm. He finally put forward this brave thought: “God is giving me this baby to test me, to force me to become a man and confront the world.” Inspired by this thought, he showed affection to his sleeping wife as he used to in the past, lovingly stroking her body when the lights were out.
Excerpted from There’s a carnival today written by Indra Bahadur Rai and translated by Manjushree Thapa. Published by Speaking Tiger, 2017.
About the Author
One of the most prominent and best known writers in the Nepali language, Indra Bahadur Rai is the author of thirteen books—apart from the novel Aaja Ramita Chha—spanning the genres of short fiction, memoir, literary criticism and drama. He is the recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award, the Jagadamba Shree Puraskar and the Agam Singh Giri Smriti Puraskar.
Manjushree Thapa (Translator) is the author of three novels, All of Us in Our Own Lives, Seasons of Flight and The Tutor of History; a collection of short stories, Tilled Earth; and three books of non-fiction, A Boy from Siklis: The Life and Times of Chandra Gurung, Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy and Mustang Bhot in Fragments. She has also edited and translated The Country Is Yours, a collection of stories and poems by forty-nine Nepali writers.