An established critic, it is often said, is so occupied with theories that he/she seldom casts away that academic ‘fad’ and venture into creative domain. But this is a wrong proposition. There are ample instances from literature—of the world and our own too—showing critics venturing into creative writing and faring very well. Ashok Thapa’s is the latest case in point. After more than a decade’s involvement in criticism, research and theatrical activities besides university teaching, he has ventured into a creative feat, and has come up with Santapko Dhoon, a collection of short stories. The work has been published by Page Turner, and incidentally, Dhoon is the publisher’s first publication too.
Thapa’s maiden work in the creative domain is a collection that contains thirteen short stories of various flavours. The eclecticism of their flavours come from their thematic variance connected by a unifying chord of hope and light the storywriter is searching for in a universe dotted with utter pessimism, repulsion and despair. Many of the stories borrow from the author’s lost past, and are thus underpinned by a sense of emptiness or nostalgia. This absurdity—defined by a gap between the past and the present, and between expectation and reality—is the biggest motivation behind Thapa’s stories. To further explicate this proposition, we might pick up a few stories of nostalgia. ‘Hattichhap Chappal’, the first story in the collection, uses a brand of slippers, named ‘Hattichhap’ as a metaphor for unpredictable present and unsure future. The slippers, which were a hard-won possession for the narrator during his childhood days, betrayed every time he needed them most, as their strap came off, or got snapped. Once when he and his crush Renu were supposed to attend a dictation competition somewhere, he misses the event just because the slipper straps get snapped, and he cannot walk to the spot. Later, Ranu steals cash from her father’s safe and leaves it at a familiar spot, underneath the broken slippers for the narrator to buy a new pair of slippers. This risk Renu takes in stealing money to stop her crush’s tears moves the readers to profound emotions, though the absurdity of the very act lingers. This is Thapa’s trademark invention. He is not after finding solutions; he is after dramatizing the absurd and inventing a silver lining around it. Another story, ‘Dadhuwai Aama’ also hinges on nostalgia. The mother of the narrator, who has a deformed face following a serious burn becomes a subject of shame and repulsion for the author. Later, when the author realises that his mother had risked the burn to endure a superstitious act of smouldering the cheeks with a heated spatula to believably ward off witches, who would otherwise harm the mother and kill the foetus—the narrator himself—while the latter was in his mother’s womb. The epiphany moves the narrator so much that he has a powerful urge to redeem his erstwhile hatred for his mother, and visits her on Mother’s Day with gifts and reverence never seen before. One of the best expressions of nostalgia, in fact in a tone of confession, appears in the story ‘Nirdosh Bhulharoo’ wherein the author revisits his past with his peers and reveals pranks, including those with sexual inflections, which, with time, remain as nothing but memories to cherish and live with.
‘Bhittaka Kaan’ is a social story that unearths incest, social defamation and frustration. The story dramatizes an event in which a mother, who catches her husband sleeping with her son’s wife, writes a letter to her son—a soldier in Kargil—revealing every detail. A teacher, whom she approaches to write this letter initially, reveals the fact to everyone in the society, making it difficult for the mother to keep living. She asks another young girl Mamta to write everything in a letter addressed to her son. After dispatching the letter, she jumps into the currents of flooded Seti and kills herself.
Two stories, ‘Santapko Dhoon’ and ‘Nara-Kankalko Geet’ borrow from social experiences, especially those built around hearsays. Thapa attempts a mythopoetic rendering of existing tales and lends them social meanings in a larger socio-cultural landscape. ‘Santapko Dhoon’ revisits a past murder, retold from the perspective of an old village woman who was witness to the incident that took place many years ago. The story features a blacksmith, Aaran Krishne by name, who catches leprosy and becomes a matter of social derision. He dies one day and was disposed of in the woods; he is denied a decent funeral because he was a leper, and so, ‘unworthy’ of cremation. Thus he faces double ostracisation: being a man of so-called untouchable caste, and being a man with leprosy. Like in the Eastern myth of Gol Simal or Western myth of Phoenix, he takes the form of a bird and sings the eternal cadence of pain—santapko dhoon—every night. Another story of a comparable make is ‘Nara-Kankalko Geet’, the song of human skeleton! The story features human skeletons, not one but many, in a desolate cliff called Giddhe Paharo. It is a place wherefrom the cry of kids emanates very often, besides the commotion of people in quarrel, which a forest guards notices every day. The cliff had been a place where lepers, rape victims, and rebels caught by the army were rolled down from and left to die and become the feed of the vultures. The cliff continuously echoes a cadence of human skeleton crooning the song of strayed souls and of people who had been denied justice.
A few stories in the collection are those that pertain to gender relations and feminine issues. Stories like ‘Vaginal Trauma’ and ‘Virya Daan’ delve into the silenced aspect of feminine existence that is often pushed to the invisible side of things. ‘Vaginal Trauma’, for example, retells a love story between a boy and a girl, in which the boy insists for pre-marital sex and the girl denies. Frustrated, the boy decided to leave the girl, to whom the girl reveals that after a vaginal cleavage following a terrible accident while she was young, the doctor had advised her to refrain from sex. The story drags into trial room that masculine obstinacy which tends to reduce every love relation to a sexual act. ‘Birya Daan’ deals with the issue of forced marriage between unmatched spouses. The girl always has her former lover in mind, and conceives clinically from his semen saved in a sperm bank, deceiving her actual husband who is abroad and comes home only occasionally. When the fact is revealed, the man ousts his wife from his home. The wife leaves meekly and probably gets united with her former lover. The story brings to light the consequences of unmatched relationship and the power of true love.
Author Ashok also takes interest in narrativising contemporary socio-economic issues. His story ‘Nuchheman’ features an old and poor tailor who was once the owner of a big estate, but has now become a pauper, as his family has sold it off, bit by bit, until he has nothing left in hand. Finally, he dies a poor man, and with him dies the earlier order of land ownership. The story also indicates how the original settlers are pushed to the periphery by circumstances, and newcomers are squatting the city of Kirtipur. ‘Udas Bihibar’ deals with the sentiments of a girl who is abandoned by her mother in a crowd for unknown reasons and is rescued by someone and put in an orphans’ home. One day, the warden of the orphanage, in a fit of anger for a minor mischief, chides the girl calling her a road-pick. This revelation breaks the girl’s heart and she jumps into Seti, killing herself. The story questions the way Nepali society looks at orphans and reveals how emotionally reactive children—especially teens—are when their sentiments are hurt. ‘Ritto Angan’ satirises Nepali society’s unnecessary fad for male children and abortion of their female siblings in their pre-natal conditions. The story features Mankali and her husband Durbasa, who get one after another girl child, hoping for a boy. Once Mankali conceives a twin—a male and a female child—and they go for selective abortion in India, eliminating the female child and retaining the male. The consequence is that Mankali almost loses her life. Yet she survives and rears the boy hoping that he would become their support when they become old. But to their dismay the boy goes abroad, marries a foreigner girl and refuses to come home. The parents are left in their own world. ‘Gajal Bechne Keti’ features a girl who always wears a veil around her face and sells cosmetics. Her customers always wonder what she looks like. When her secrets are revealed, she is found to be someone whose face has been burnt beyond repair, and beauty is nothing but an unattainable chimera for her life. Ironically, she sells beauty items for others.
A story that stands out in the list, and offsets away to human-nature relationship is “Becheka Kuldeuta”. Apparently based on rituals of worshipping family deity, the story actually resonates with the idea of organicism that claims that life on earth is sustained by a balanced relationship between the living beings, and if one is disturbed, the other feels the disturbance too. The story depicts a village couple, Ram Naresh and his wife, who sell their ancestral land and move to a different location. There, they are beset by one natural calamity after another, the latest being a terrible flood that forces them to release their cattle in the open and move to a make-shift shelter. An astrologer, whom they consult to find what is wrong with them, tells they had been punished for selling their land of birth. He says, “Family deities are not merely deities; they are another edition of nature. When man peels off a layer of earth’s attires, she tolerates; but if he continues to peel off her inner sinews, she reacts in furious form with no delay.”
This is the thematic expanse of Thapa’s stories. The themes identify him as a sensitive feeler, who is moved by the conditions of women, helpless village folks, crumbling social structure and unequal gender relations.
A cursory survey of the stories’ settings reveal a focused concentration of a limited geographical and temporal universe. Most of the stories are set in and around Pokhara where the storywriter spent his childhood and youth, and in Kathmandu, where he works. Other tangential settings including a few locations overseas have been ordained by the movement of the characters under the thrush of circumstances. This is a good way of doing things, for a writer becomes more reliable and authentic if the setting comes from a world both intimate and familiar to the narrator. To befit his setting, Mr. Thapa has picked rustic diction from around Pokhara, and this lends local colour to his writing.
Considering the finery and finish of the collection, it is hard to believe that Santapko Dhoon is Mr. Thapa’s ‘debut’ creation. The author has carefully resisted the intrusion of theoretical erudition, and has crafted his story in tune with the rustic and semi-urban characters he has picked for his stories. The stories are concise, well made and gripping, making them worthy of picking and prescribing as study materials for the students of literature at schools and colleges.
There are a couple issues in which storywriter Thapa needs to be careful. Stories like ‘Nirdosh Bhoolharoo’ sound more like diary entries and less like stories with unity of plot, time and theme. There may be occasions where readers fail to see the connection among the plots, conflicts and the resolutions, like in “Bechiyeka Kuldewata” or “Santapko Dhoon”. A few readers might also question why the central characters in stories like “Udas Bihibar” and “Bhittka Kaan” should jump into the currents of Seti and kill themselves instead of seeking moral or legal remedies for their problems. Though the stories are ‘contemporary’, a few in the collection call back a temporally remote setting like that of a heavily feudal Nepal in the past, and in that case, a reader of today may or may not get intimately connected with the seriousness of the issues the stories aspire to unearth.
(Paudyal is a critic and creative writer, and teaches at the Central Department of English, Tribhuvan University)