Chuden Kabimo’s debut novel in Nepali, Fatsung, translated into English by Ajit Baral as Song of the Soil, is an eye-opener. It deromanticises the Darjeeling hills, known chiefly as a tourist spot, by presenting it in all its realities as a place where people have led lives of severe deprivation for decades. While the dearth of basic facilities might have spurred the demand for a separate Gorkhaland, the agitation soon drifted far from the core issues, making the common people pawns in the game. Their everyday difficulties never lessened: worse, they were now asked to sacrifice their lives for a vague cause.
In Song of the Soil, a group of adolescents from Malbung village in West Bengal’s Kalimpong district join the rebellion with only a sketchy notion of what they are fighting for. As the disruption comes closer home, affecting their loved ones, they realise that in the “fight with an enemy... you will either win or lose” but in a war against your own people “you neither win nor lose”.
The novel has been translated into English, Bengali, and most recently, into Hindi (Fatsung: Kahaani Mitti Ki, translated by Namrata Chaturvedi, will be published by Vani Prakashan in Delhi in February 2023). Kabimo, who received the Yuva Sahitya Akademi Puraskar for his collection of short stories, 1986, is now working on his second novel: a story of the Nepali and Adivasi communities who toil in the tea estates of Darjeeling-Dooars. He spoke to Frontline in an email interview:
Your descriptions of the 1980s’ Gorkhaland agitation in Song of the Soil are graphic. Did you write from experience?
I wasn’t even born when the Gorkhaland movement started. I wove the stories from the accounts of those who had lived through the rebellion—some were injured, some lost family members, some were raped. I tried to depict their trial by fire by internalising their ordeals.
I was born when the movement ended in an agreement that led to the formation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council. It was a grim period to grow up in—when children should be listening to fairy tales, we heard stories of heads hung up on Main Road, houses destroyed, and libraries burnt down. Perhaps that is how a picture of the movement started forming in my mind. I began researching the movement and dared to tell the story.
Tell us something about Malbung, to which you dedicate the book and which is also the village at the novel’s centre. You talk of bad roads, landslides, water scarcity, a school with just one teacher. Are things any different now?
I have two Malbungs. One is physically visible. It has changed a little these days. An unpaved road has reached it, though vehicles cannot ply on it in summer. The villagers have brought electricity to the village by carrying the poles on their shoulders, but the condition of the primary school has remained the same. Now my guruma (the lone teacher in charge of the primary school who is described lovingly in the novel) has retired, to be replaced by a few new teachers, while the quality of teaching has gone down further. Children still have to walk for hours to reach the secondary school.
I have another Malbung, which is always in my heart, where the most beautiful part of life—childhood—was spent. If I weren’t born there, I wouldn’t have felt the landscape and its people the way I did. If I weren’t born there, I wouldn’t have encountered hundreds of problems peculiar to the place, such as having to walk for hours daily just to reach school, either. This second Malbung, which is in my heart and whose story you have read, will never change.
The novel never loses its sense of wit even when death and violence are described. How did you arrive at this style?
The society that I grew up in is a society of have-nots. This is the story of most villages in the Darjeeling hills and the tea estates in the foothills, where everyone struggles for their daily bread. But when they meet and share their life stories, they forget everything and joke. This is part of our culture. We can laugh even in sorrow and make a jest of any situation.
Your imagery is stunning—like when you compare the rain-battered fields to sodden Marie biscuits. How do you make these unusual but spot-on connections?
The geography of the place a writer lives in plays a vital role in shaping their imagination. I grew up close to nature. The Ghis river, the forest of Kimbu Gairi, the terraced fields that looked like Marie biscuits, where I played and grew up, taught me to think clearly, to let my imagination soar. This is perhaps the greatest gift that nature gives you.
Which authors have inspired you?
When I was growing up, I read a lot of Russian stories [in translation]. I have forgotten the names of most of the writers, but they have left their impression on me. I love Anton Chekov dearly. I read Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky later. And also O’Henry in translation.
In Hindi, I used to read stories by Premchand. I read [Bengali authors] Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay in translation. In Nepali, the writing styles of Raj Narayan Pradhan and Rup Narayan Sinha shaped me. Translated books influenced me a lot. I still find myself buying books in translation whenever I am in bookstores.
- Ajit Baral translated Chuden Kabimo’s debut novel from Nepali (Fatsung) to into English (Song of the Soil).
- The book follows a group of adolescents from Malbung village in West Bengal’s Kalimpong district who join the rebellion demanding a separate Gorkhaland with only a sketchy notion of what they are fighting for.
- The book deromanticises the Darjeeling hills, known chiefly as a tourist spot, by presenting it in all its realities as a place where people have led lives of severe deprivation for decades.
- The novel has also been translated into Bengali and Hindi (Fatsung: Kahaani Mitti Ki, translated by Namrata Chaturvedi, will be published by Vani Prakashan in Delhi in February 2023).
- Kabimo received the Yuva Sahitya Akademi Puraskar for his collection of short stories, 1986.
- He is now working on his second novel: a story of the Nepali and Adivasi communities who toil in the tea estates of Darjeeling-Dooars.