‘Maidaro’: Reconstructing Caste and ClassWhile the book reads like a calming river, the question is whether its themes are really done justice.
Smaran Gurung, a young man who has come to Nepal to spend some time in Pokhara, walks into an art gallery, sees paintings hanging upside down, and is jolted out of his comfort zone. But what he sees are not the works of Georg Baselitz, the famous German painter known for his upside-down art, but of struggling artist Nadin. Now, with his interest piqued, the visitor starts questioning the whereabouts of the artist—only to come up with one shocking revelation after another.
Set in a fictional village of Andheri Gaau, Bhupeen’s debut novel, Maidaro, is a story of an artist who’s been victimised by caste-based discrimination to such an extent that he is forced to choose the sweet embrace of death rather than the harsh realities of life. Told by the mouthpiece, Smaran, the novel deploys the technique of ‘frame narrative’ that is so commonplace in contemporary Nepali fiction. The introductory narrative of Smaran sets space for the more emphasised narrative of Nadin. The major reason for doing so is to inform readers about the aspects of the main story which would have been difficult to explain otherwise; however, being a sceptic I kept questioning myself—couldn’t the story stand on its own without its peripheral narrator? What if Nadin, the protagonist, just told his own story?
Nadin’s story unfolds in a non-linear way. By writing an aphoristic note that reads as—“O life, forgive me, for I’ve chosen the path of suicide!” (my translation)—he jumps off the Patebhir, but as fate would have it, he survives. Oscillating between life and death, he then mulls on his existence for the next several months (or a few years). As he keeps contemplating all things in heaven and earth, Amrit, Nadin’s younger brother, tells the tragic story to Smaran. In the succeeding chapters, we are thrust back and forth between multiple narratives. As readers, we get to know about the childhood of the protagonist, how he fell in love with an upper-class girl, and how marrying her made him a social outcast. Yet, all through this, he keeps following where his heart lies—painting. The narrative revolves around the ways in which the child protagonist grows up into a creative artist, thus making the novel a bildungsroman of sorts.
Born to a poor Sarki family, Nadin shows a deep interest in painting (as well as politics) from an early age. Even during his school life, he draws portraits, prominently that of Karl Marx. During the heyday of the Panchayat system and the on-going struggle against the feudal lords, like many of his classmates, he chooses to be a part of the students’ wing of the Communist party. His childhood sweetheart, Kala, also joins him. Together with a bunch of other students, they conduct secret meetings, and during the school assembly or annual programs, refuse to mumble the national anthem but rather they chant slogans against the government. Such activities land Nadin and his friends behind bars at one point. Despite that, the struggle against the government goes on.
Later, the protagonist travels to Kathmandu to pursue his higher education in painting and gets a BFA degree from Lalit Kala Campus. After graduation, he starts working for an art gallery where he nurtures his art of upside-down painting. His paintings show the dark underbelly of social stratification and mock the existing rift between the higher and lower classes. However, after he faces consistent death threats from some Hindu fanatics, he journeys to Pokhara and starts visiting Chhaya Art Gallery for almost a week. There, he meets Aakash, who specialises in landscape painting. Together with him, Nadin paints portraits, still life, and landscape pieces as well as keeps experimenting with his art at his rooming house.
Almost like a twin narrative, there’s another side to the story: falling in love with Kala, which for Nadin is the best thing that’s ever happened. However, the sweet story of love soon turns into a story of class struggle. Since he’s fallen in love with a girl from the so-called upper caste, marriage seems impossible. Unable and afraid to love openly in Andheri Gaau, they seek refuge in the Lake City, Pokhara. From their clandestine meetings in the village to their somewhat open rendezvous in Pokhara, their love keeps growing until one day when Nadin has to take a stand: to either run away or marry her. Like a rom-com flick, he drags Kala to the Tal Barahi Temple, hits his thumb with a rock, and smears the blood on the parting of her hair—so very reminiscent of the 90s in Bollywood.
This heroism leads to grave repercussions: Kala’s family disowns her. Also, the newlywed cannot live peacefully in the village. This disownment acts as an impetus—Kala is now deeply disappointed with her family, the society, and the deep-seated social injustice within. As a result, she joins the Maoist party and their (in)glorious People’s War. Nadin, being a soft-hearted artist at his heart, tries his best to stop her, but in vain. She is headstrong and has already decided her fate. Leaving her baby girl, she becomes a guerilla and wages war against the state. Based on the foreshadowing, any careful reader can rightly point out an unfortunate incident that could follow.
But then comes the suicide attempt of Nadin. No matter how much the writer has tried to justify the act, by either filling in fissures or giving lengthy philosophical explanations, there’s something amiss. Given the fact that Nadin seems to have a relatively happy life (for a poor Sarki boy growing up in the Panchayat era) and likes to take refuge with his canvases, why would he intentionally cause his own death? Sure, the grief that comes from losing a loved one is there; the depressing cases of social injustice triumph all the time; however, to see the things from the brighter side, Nadin has almost everything in life—good education, a deep interest in the arts, a desire to be the social change. So, why kill oneself? This question could haunt readers.
Another quibble lies in its treatment of the Janus-faced nature of Nepali society: the way the upper-class people treat the working class. For instance, one of the Bistas from the novel has an illicit affair with a married Sarki woman. As it happens, the village mostly blames the woman. But the writer didn’t really depict the woman’s fate. He broached the subject, but left it in limbo. A doubtful reader might as well question—has the writer really done caste-based discrimination justice? Or has he merely used it as a backdrop and setting to tell Nadin’s story, thereby reducing all the minor characters into cardboard cut-outs?
Written in Baglung lingo, the greatest strength of Maidaro, however, is its narrative flow. Rich in metaphors, imagery and folklore, the novel is quite gripping. The story flows like a calm river, only sometimes meandering. Even though the writer employs two narrative points of view, they are consistent and readers can easily follow. On the whole, Maidaro is a beautiful story of an artist that touches the heart at its core. The readers might as well shed a tear or two along the way—like I did—and feel glad for having picked up the book.
Publisher: Book-Hill Publications
Price: Rs. 456