Reviews

Where beauty and morbidity mix

There is a certain sense of warmth to Chetan Raj Shrestha’s writing, even if one of the two novellas in his debut book ‘The King’s Harvest’ is quite morbid. His characters are sincere and both stories end the way you may not expect but would wish it to. Set in and around Sikkim, the stories not just provide a glimpse into the beautiful mountainous terrain but also talk so much about its people, culture and history.

The book’s cover itself is an interesting work of art. A purple lady with flowers all over her – dramatic and poignant, perhaps to denote the frailty and strength of the women in his stories, whether it is Kamala, who chops her abusive husband into 47 pieces with grave determination, in ‘An Open-and-shut Case’ or even Dechen OC, who is cynical, hardened by years of being in the police force but still good-hearted. Or maybe it looks at the many women who make and break Tontem in ‘The King’s Harvest’.

An Open-and-shut Case is an interesting title. Police Constable Puran is found murdered by his wife Kamala and the only witness to the crime is his eldest daughter. Dechen OC, the lady officer-in-charge is left with an easy enough case to deal with. And yet, as the details emerge, it is not that easy. She learns of the constable’s abusive nature and his rampant abuse of power and is conflicted. Chetan continuously refers to a popular song ‘Resham Firiri’ and weaves it into the plot. The story tapers down beautifully and the characters have a rustic charm to them. Dechan OC, Kamala and Thooli are sculpted well and evolve through the book. Towards the end, Dechen is convinced that Kamala was a victim of domestic abuse. How then, can she save her? She coins a simple term in the mind of Kamala’s father, who mentions that a neighbour’s son had studied law in Gangtok; ‘self-defence’. This forms an important part of the climax.

Chetan also weaves other stories, of a tourist, Straun, who visits Sikkim and introduces Resham Firiri to the story. ‘He wanted to hear the song in all the recesses of its founding environment. He wanted to hear it as its creators carried on their daily dealings… His obsession, which was like a calm fever, had nothing to do with the song’s lyrical content, for its meaning would always elude him…’ and Dechen OC’s own cold relationship with her husband and sister, which begin to thaw towards the end.

Tontem, a man with disfigured ears, grew up thinking he was a miracle child. Born to the cook of the village headman, he is sent away to a monastery after his mother’s death, he saves the life of Sikkim’s king by carrying him up to the monastery just in time. In return, the Chogyal (king) asks that Tontem be part of his guard. He later volunteers to be a farmer in the remote land of Lhaizalzed, which, according to legend, can only be farmed by a man with some deformity.

For 32 years Tontem and his family work in there and serve the king through their yearly harvest. And so, when the Kaila Sardar, the emissary, does not pick up the rations for three years straight, Tontem is worried for his king. He leaves his home and heads downhill, to seek the king. Sikkim, here, is shown as a state that has gone through much change in a short period of time. As Tontem and his children first enter Toring, they are surprised. “In the place of timber houses with leaky roofs were gigantic boxes of cement with harsh windows. The road was wider and topped with the same tasteless black cake, the shops no longer sold just rice and oil and had shiny bags in colours that hurt the eyes. The only landmarks that had survived were the hills around Toring.” How Tontem comes to terms with the present forms the rest of the story.

Chetan’s structuring of the story is interesting and how Tontem narrates his life as he and his family and heading towards Gangtok makes an interesting read. He also gives little details to the not-so-important characters and reintroduces them towards the end, like the lady who first forcefully makes love to Tontem ends up as his second wife. His childhood friend and stepbrother clothes them and gives shelter when they enter Toring once more. In a way, Chetan gives each character a closure.

The climax does hold a heartening twist. What is interesting is Tontem’s hold on certain things; his deformity, the harvest (of the crop and his constant need for a family and more children) and the Chogyal. Tontem looks for disfigurement in everything – he tries to disfigure his perfect first wife (who runs away), finds one deformity in every child and he cuts off a finger of his youngest, so that the scales are balanced. In a way, he seeks perfection in imperfection. But when out in the open, the imbalance of reality hits him harder than he imagines; so long, the Gangtok and the life he believed were all in his mind. But as he stood in front of the Kazi’s home that many years later, little did he realise that reality was stranger than fiction.

The King’s Harvest; Chetan Raj Shreshtha, Aleph Book Company, Rs.350.


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Printable version | Jul 27, 2021 3:26:10 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/where-beauty-and-morbidity-mix/article6299124.ece

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