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Social realism enhanced by the pastoral

by Donald Richie

MOUNTAINS PAINTED WITH TURMERIC by Lil Bahadur Chettri, translated from Nepali by Michael J. Hutt. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007, $22.50 (cloth)

Originally published in the late 1950s, this novel — says the blurb — “is one of the few books almost every Nepali knows well.” The reason is that it “struck a chord in the hearts of hundreds of thousands of Nepali readers.” And the reason for this occurrence is that the novel is regarded by Nepali literary scholars as a work of social realism, a reflection of actual peasant life.

The Nepali title of the book is “Basain,” a word sometimes translated as “settlement” or “residence.” (The English title is taken from a passage in the novel itself: “The sun’s yellow rays fell on the peaks of the next range of mountains, and they looked as if some artist had painted them with turmeric.”) The Nepali title does indeed stress the social-realist aspect of the book, as does the author’s expressed intentions. “No sniff of a literary pen will be found in this novel; instead, it provides the readers with the smell of the ferns and bitter-leaves that grow on the hillsides and in the ravines.”

Maybe so, but there is more to it than this. Some examples: A character lies down “but sleep was too afraid to approach . . .”; it gets colder and “the autumn could not bear to see the moon smiling like this, unveiled.” Later, “winter strode slowly up like a blemished incarnation, determined to ruin the whole lovely garden that autumn had prepared.”

Here is something other than mere social realism. It is, rather, a rendering of values, attitudes, assumptions within a known tradition. The novel expresses and celebrates a familiar folklore-like kind of narration. In fact, the translator advises that readers “approach the story in the manner in which they might approach a chronicle or a parable.”

The “story” is generic. A peasant struggles to provide for his family, but one calamity after another ensues. Impoverishment and banishment result. The characters are stereotypes — the humble farmer, the rapacious moneylender, the innocent girl, the wily soldier. All of this might limit the book’s appeal if it were truly a social-realist picture of rural Nepal, one that is about specific times, places and reasons. But it is not. It is something else, something much more interesting.

The soldier sees the girl by the village spring. “He had seen many young beauties . . . and thought them real nymphs. But could he had imagined such a flower in an ordinary hill village?” No, he could not and now he knew why. “Those flower buds in the towns watered their roots themselves, while nature watered this one. In the town, they wore rouge and fake roses, but the goddess of nature had endowed this one with every adornment. In the town, the whole environment had been artificial, but here everything was just as it should be.”

Recognize the tone? Literary critic William Empson would have. This is an Asian version of the pastoral, that urban literary form that romanticizes the simple countryside and has produced works such as “The Shepherd’s Calendar,” “As You Like It,” “Robinson Crusoe” and, yes, “Alice in Wonderland.” The “literary pen” is gloriously evident everywhere in this charming Nepali pastoral, its leaves and ferns sweetly scented with rustic reminiscence.

But did the author know this? Perhaps. After later viewing Satyajit Ray’s film “Pather Panchali” (a very sophisticated pastoral by a very cultured Calcuttan), the author of “Basain” said his book would have been improved if he could have digested its probable influence.

On the other hand, he seems to support a social-realist, even Marxist, interpretation of his novel.

My argument is that the novel is more than this. It is a living pastoral in an age when most of them are only to be found stuffed in libraries. But then it is the librarian in me that complains since I think the work has been miscataloged.

In any event, if you read it as an ordinary realistic novel you may be puzzled and then bored. If, however, you read it as a real craft product, using patterns and skills honed by history, celebrating our common vision — the garden landscape of the pastoral — you will find it engrossing, instructive, moving.