Into the heart of the Gorkhaland agitation | Review of ‘Fruits of the Barren Tree’ by Lekhnath Chhetri

This is a flavourful translation by Anurag Basnet of the award-winning Nepali novel ‘Phoolange’

August 04, 2023 09:40 am | Updated 09:40 am IST

Gorkhaland supporters at a demonstration in New Delhi, 2017.

Gorkhaland supporters at a demonstration in New Delhi, 2017. | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Journalist Lekhnath Chhetri’s new novel Fruits of the Barren Tree is set in Relling, a village near Darjeeling. In this village lives Basnet, a shaman, who has “spent half his life beating drums and clanging cymbals”. People are in awe of his powers. They believe he can cure any illness. Basnet marries a young widow, Basnetni, at the age of 40. The couple has a son, Jhuppay, a liar and petty thief, who is too fond of alcohol for his parents’ liking.

The first few chapters trace the trajectory of Basnet’s struggle to farm a piece of land. The hard labour he and Basnetni undertake, the petty rivalries they face, the tyranny of the landowning village headman, the vagaries of nature they must contend with — Chhetri paints a stark portrait of their lives.

Jhuppay, meanwhile, dreams of winning Nimma’s love. Everyone thinks of him as a troublemaker and warmonger. Only Nimma knows his beating heart. When she receives his love in ‘subtle ways and small measures’, she rejoices ‘in her own small and self-contained ways’.

The slice-of-life feel of the opening chapters, the languid descriptions of emerald fields and silvery rivulets, the laborious but steady rhythms of village life, the comfort of daily rituals and festivals, the intoxication of a fresh harvest, all of it serves as a counterfoil to the violent turn of events that follows as the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland spreads like wildfire across the land.

Political slogans set people’s lives ablaze. Neighbour turns against neighbour. Separatists and security forces both swear allegiance to brutal force with disastrous consequences.

When a mic set that Jhuppay owns and rents out for special occasions is hired by the Red Party, all hell breaks loose. Jhuppay is a political innocent, his only concern is survival. But like many others of his time, he and his parents are caught in the crossfire.

Hope, heartache and horror

Fruits of the Barren Tree sounds the warning loud and clear about violent political movements and their corrosive impact on societies. In crisp, clear prose, Chhetri captures the macabre march of murderers, looters, arsonists and terrorists across the land in the 1980s. Things spiral out of control and no one — not the ones leading the movement, not the police or security forces, or the hapless common man — knows which way the wind is blowing. Chhetri is able to convey the hope, heartache and horror of a failed political movement with precision and remarkable insight.

Rooted in a strong sense of place, the novel draws the reader into the heart of the troubled landscape as well as the individual lives that are in turmoil. If you have ever doubted whether the political is personal, Chhetri will lay that doubt to rest. Translator Anurag Basnet has done a brilliant job of capturing the earthy rhythm as well as the power and poignancy of Chhetri’s prose (the novel was originally published in Nepali as Phoolange and shortlisted for the prestigious Madan Puraskar 2021).

Retaining the flavour of the original work, Basnet offers English readers a chance to immerse themselves in the time and place that the novel inhabits.

Fruits of the Barren Tree
Lekhnath Chhetri; trs Anurag Basnet
Penguin
₹499

The reviewer is the author of ‘A Happy Place and Other Stories’.

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