There’s a Carnival Today by Indra Bahadur Rai, Translated by Manjushree Thapa
Published by: Speaking Tiger
Literary Fiction, 236p
Rating: 4/5 stars
Darjeeling in the 1950s. Janak, a prominent businessman and local leader, stares at professional, political and moral ruin. His store is failing and he has been sued by Jayabilas—a Marwari trader, once his friend and business partner, to whom he owes money. Bhudev—Janak’s partner at the party which is working to organize workers—has triumphed over him in a bitter struggle for leadership. Janak’s son Ravi, of whom he expected better, has become a schoolteacher and is involved in party work in the tea estates—Janak is convinced that Bhudev is using Ravi to further undermine him. And, despite being in a blissful marriage with Sita, Janak is drawn to the charms of Yamuna, the wife of an ailing friend.
Then, tea-estate workers protesting the arrest of their comrades spontaneously march into town. They are joined by others along the way and the march quickly grows in size. But after the rally ends in a massacre by the police, Janak must find a way out of his morass to stand up and be counted once more.
Capacious and prescient, There’s a Carnival Today is as much a panoramic view of post-Independence Darjeeling as it is of the sharply observed, flesh-and-blood characters who people it. It is also a foreshadowing of the issues of identity which still shape politics and attitudes in the region. Brilliantly translated by Manjushree Thapa, this seminal work by one of the tallest figures in contemporary Nepali literature is a modern classic.
About the author:
Indra Bahadur Rai was an Indian Nepali writer and literary critic from Darjeeling. There’s a Carnival Today was published as Aaja Ramita Cha in 1964 and was his debut novel. He is a stalwart of Nepali literature and played a major role in having the Nepali language officially recognized by the Indian Constitution.
About the Translator:
Manjushree Thapa is a Canadian essayist, fiction writer, translator and editor of Nepali descent. Her translation of Indra Bahadur Rai’s There’s a Carnival Today won the 2017 PEN America Heim Translation Grant. Her best known book is Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy (2005) which was shortlisted for the Lettre Ulysses Award in 2006.
*Thank you Speaking Tiger for the review copy. All opinions are my own.
There’s a Carnival Today is a deeply layered historical background to the social and political shifts in the history of the Nepali community living in Darjeeling in West Bengal. Yes, you have protagonists who keep you invested in their lives and you have other characters who step in and out of the narrative, you have a plot that plays out in a way that wants you asking more but it is the historical setting to the emergence of the voices in the Nepali community in India that stood out for me.
The main protagonist of the story and the book is Janak, a garment trader who gets into the political sphere of a small town and who finds family ties and political eminence to be a ground that is slippery, given the slow rise of his brother in law in the party ranks and his son who despises everything he says and does. The family moorings, Janak’s infidelity and its shadow over his domestic life would have made for a fascinating story but that’s not what the author gives you in this book but it works well overall. The beauty of the writing is that all of this is there on the periphery while the focus is on the shifts over the question over identity, worker rights, the exploitation of Nepali workers in the tea estates of Darjeeling, the control of business by the few rich outsider population and the question of who takes charge of the destiny of a community that has a rich legacy of contribution to a country in which it is a minority group.
Reading this book in the current climate of protests in the country over who is a citizen is most ironic but then, great literature reflects life and vice versa. There’s a Carnival Today makes you look at who is entitled and to what, to what purposes does a community strive for. I would recommend this seminal work for the way it takes one to an overview of the Nepali community in parts of India and specifically, their lives and struggles in Darjeeling. The footnote by Manjushree Thapa gives a much-needed insight for those who are not familiar with the political and historical backdrop of the book.
This is a must read!