Saturday, September 27, 2014

Never a dull moment in Sikkim, in 1958

The author, Badri Narayan Pradhan, in a studio portrait with his daughter, Rita, who published his Chyakhung Diary, on his lap, his son, Balindra Narayan Pradhan, who is incidentally a headmaster himself in Sikkim now, by his side, and friend, RS Prasad, a Communist stalwart of the region, at around the time when he spent a year at Chakung in Sikkim.

Badri Narayan Pradhan was a keen chronicler and avid diarist. Sikkim is the richer in the publication of his diary from 1958, when he spent a year as a headmaster in Chakung

Chyakhung Diary 1958
Badri Narayan Pradhan
Published by Rita Prasad, 2012
230 pages; In Nepali

We flit through facebook and twitter recording details of our lives, confessing, indulging in all kinds of exhibitionism (millions of selfies). At an earlier time, people wrote diaries confessing to an audience imagined within the space of a notebook. When you are writing about your life, you tend to include and exclude certain things. In other words you are also creating your own persona or a fictional self. Authoring your life just as you imagine it to be. Badrinarayan Pradhan’s “Chyakhung Diary” written in 1958 is an interesting piece of work in Nepali. It is interesting precisely because of the way he tells you his story, as a hero in his own novel.
You are introduced to an idealistic young man deeply entrenched in the ideology of Marxism which he feels is the creation of a just and humane society. He reads Tolstoy, Gorky and even quotes them, imagining himself a hero just like in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Like any other hero he has enemies and the story is about his tussle with them. His enemy becomes the Indian government which targets him for his belief in Communism and fear that he must be spreading communism wherever he goes. Though not affiliated to any political party, he loses his teaching job in the town school in Kalimpong and is forced to enter Sikkim as a headmaster of the Chyakhung school. The year, 1958, he spends at Chyakhung in what is now West Sikkim, is recorded in entertaining detail in his meticulously maintained diary.
But even in Chyakhung, the Indian government will not let him rest in peace and influences the Sikkim authorities to strip him of this job. Rumours are spread about his Communist activities and he has to lose this job as well. He finds other enemies there who want him removed and as an audience, we root for our hero all the way. Throughout we follow the trials of this man as he suffers one political atrocity after another. Beneath all that idealism and strong belief in communism lies a simple family man like any other, worried about supporting his family, getting involved in petty domestic disputes with his relatives and so on. We see him in his moments of joy as he learns to ride a cycle or when he dances for the first time in his life at a riverside picnic.  A man who gets excited about having the radio repaired so he won’t have to satisfy his curiosity for information by reading the same old newspapers multiple times. We see him think about writing a romantic letter to his wife as the rainfall outside makes him think of her but all he ends up writing is a very unromantic one complaining about not receiving any letter from her.
Sometimes he even tells you that he can’t write another word in this diary.
All the while you are drawn into this world of the past as you experience it through the eyes of Badrinarayan.
He becomes a chronicler of our past society recording the histories of these regions. He comes across as a keen political observer even in those times when information was not easy to come by, on the state of communism in Russia to the establishment of the first communist government in Kerala to a military dictatorship in Pakistan, to even the absence of rains in Uttar Pradesh. We see him formulating his own idea of politics. A politics that does not come from affiliation with some political party nor from reading some theories on Marxism. His is the kind of politics that is born out of an active engagement with the lives of ordinary people. He is worried about the agricultural tax imposed by the Nehruvian government on the farmers and this goes on to inform his politics. We see him naturally affiliating with the rural folk of Chyakhung who sing harvest songs and who worry about sending their sons to study on a scholarship to Nainital. He is contributing to their lives through his efficient running of the school, his concern for the students. He may brand this politics as Communism but i would like to think that it is more a politics of humanity without the unnecessary baggage of repressive Communist regimes in Russia or China. A pure, undiluted form of Communism if you will.
Then he becomes a historian for us as he records our histories like the state of affairs in Sikkim when it was a kingdom. A country under monarchy which, he comments, had set up a puppet democracy with two parties- the Nationalist party for the Lepchas and Bhutias and the Congress party supported by the Nepalis. Even this government is basically run by the one in Delhi though formal transfers of power happened much later. So it is the Indian government that instructs the one in Sikkim to strip Badrinarayan of his job and without any investigation they follow the orders.
Besides all this political history, he narrates an incident which explains the importance of this whole diary to me. He sees a strange object like a satellite in the sky one day while in Sikkim. He thinks it is probably a Russian satellite and waits to hear about it in the news. Nothing comes. He wonders about it but still the radio says nothing. Then he forgets about it. This explains our lives here even in present times so cut off from the ‘mainstream’ that things that happen here would hardly be considered newsworthy at all. Our lives and our stories become insignificant and we are made to forget about them. Why is there this need for recording history? Because it is what gives societies their sense of identity. So when he gives a voice to those ordinary mundane lives of our societies, his role as a historian becomes all the more important. The historian who records our unheard histories. Our oral histories or grandmothers stories as we call them. It is a diary rich with multiple stories of the lives of our people. Almost like a piece of literature. The literature that hasn’t yet been written down, because we unfortunately don’t have too many of those. So we have him telling us about magicians who come to town melas with their tricks, farmers singing while reaping the maize crop, a woman under painful labour, another woman of a kothi who falls in love with her steward and is married off to him by her own husband, two servants who fight in the school and have a tearful reconciliation, a bunch of teachers who are addicted to playing cards in the school campus all day long. The various beliefs of our societies like “teen baas” being a bad omen for when they have a teen baas money gets stolen from Badrinarayan’s house. The buhari and her sister-in-law not getting along and the husband caught in between this domestic dispute. A man from Pudung busty who was victimized by the British government, stripped of his job in the court, and who later becomes a mad man roaming about town. Also we get to see a host of our own historical figures in this diary- from Ratanlal Brahmin, Parasmani Pradhan to L.D. Kazi. These are our histories that he has chronicled in this diary, recording in keen detail, aspects from vignettes of routine life to the drama of political intrigue to the pettiness of neighbourhood gossip.
So the diary is not just a factual account of the things that happened in 1958. It is a host of things. At your will you can read it as a novel, an autobiography and also a piece of history.

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