Early in Smriti Ravindra’s debut novel, there is a scene where one of the key characters gets off the train at a platform on the Indo-Nepal border to buy a snack of puffed rice and piyaji (onion fritters). It reminded me of train journeys with my family from Darbhanga to Bairgania in the 1980s, when we too would eagerly buy these treats, which we called mudhi-kachari, from different stations along the way. Once I got so lost in the snack that I almost missed my train!
The Woman Who Climbed Trees
The book took me back to my teenage years, making me want to read on. The world of the novel felt familiar because it is made up of places and people near the Nepal border where I grew up. It felt genuine, and special that way.
The tale revolves around Meena, a girl of 14 hailing from Darbhanga, Bihar. Her life takes an unforeseen turn when she learns of her imminent arranged marriage to Manmohan, a Nepali suitor. Her mother, seeking to ease her apprehensions, shares examples of intercultural marriages, invoking Rama’s journey to Nepal to wed Sita. She also draws upon her own experience, being from Nepal and married to Meena’s Indian father. As the wedding day draws near, Meena grapples with unsettling memories, including a startling secret about her elder sisters. These memories take Meena on an emotional and transformative ride.
After getting married, Meena moves to Manmohan’s village in Janakpur, Nepal. Her new life proves to be a challenge as she struggles to adapt. Meena faces the scrutiny of her strict mother-in-law, Sawari Devi, adding to her feelings of isolation and dissatisfaction. The constant absence of Meena’s husband, who is in the capital city of Kathmandu, striving for a better future, deepens the rift between Meena and Manmohan.
Meena’s journey mirrors the experiences of countless South Asian women encountering similar challenges in male-dominated societies. The burden of cultural expectations often leaves them feeling constrained, with a sense of limited control over their lives. Meena’s story reveal bigger societal issues, including women’s quest for independence and self-expression in patriarchal settings.
Meena is later attracted to Kumud, and this changes her life forever. Ravindra sensitively explores the complexities of forbidden love, laying out the intricacies of Meena’s desires against the norms imposed by society. Her unrequited love for Kumud gives her emotional depth: it allows readers to connect with her internal struggles more deeply.
But the novel is not just about Meena. It interweaves the connected narratives of three generations of women: Kaveri, Meena, and Preeti. Each character has her own journey, through which Ravindra explores themes like marriage, same-sex love, loss, and the complex relationship between mothers and daughters.
The book also delves into Nepal’s history and politics, touching sensitively upon issues like ethnicity, oppression, democracy, and the Madhesi-Pahadi conflict. In Nepal, there are two main ethnic groups: the Madhesis of the Terai region, and the Pahadis of the hilly areas. The Madhesi community is ethnically and culturally diverse, with various groups like Maithili, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Tharu, among others, who have maintained close cultural and economic ties with northern India due to their geographic proximity. The Madhesi people often allege unfair treatment by Pahadi-dominated governments, leading to tension and unrest.
The author remains impartial, advocating a fair and compassionate approach, proposing that Nepal should address these conflicts and strive for a society where everyone’s concerns are heard and respected.
The Woman Who Climbed Trees takes readers on a thought-provoking journey across time and borders. The story unfolds in India and Nepal, with a significant focus on the Mithila region, which finds mention in the Agni Puran as a kingdom ruled by the ascetic king Janak, the father of Sita. Its immersive style incorporating folklore and mythology make it an engaging and enriching read.
Abdullah Khan is a Mumbai-based novelist, screenwriter, literary critic, and banker. His most recent novel is A Man from Motihari (Penguin Random House.)