‘Burhan’: A Mirror of Tharu Reality

Amrik Prasad Chaudhary

Mahananda Dhakal’s debut novel Burhan brings to light many unexplored but grim realities of the Tharu tribes of western Nepal. It tells the stories of Tharu migrants, who were originally from Dang, but migrated to Burhan, their newfound land in the Tarai, hoping for easy food, better shelter and nice clothes. But most of their dreams shatter, as all of their efforts, including their political struggle for rights of the landlords get hijacked by the few powerful ones. The migrating Tharus continue to drag the plow of their uninterrupted pain and penury.

Apparently, the motif of the novel is to show the lifestyle of the Tharus, their role in the society, their sorrow, pain and struggle, their beliefs and their unchanging convictions. Burhan is a Tharu term, literally meaning the new land, which precisely indicates the region around Banke, Bardiya, Kailali and Kanchanpur districts where the Tharus, migrating from their traditional estates in and around Dang, live.  One of the major reasons for choosing Burhan as their new resort is their search for the security of food, shelter and cloth. Their traditional home in the past and present, their traditional equipment and their beliefs, brotherhood among the people of the mountains, hills and plains, and the harmony among the people also find a wonderful depiction in the novel.

Burhan is itself a dream world for the Tharu tribe. It is the magic ball for the tribe that comes to touch and own it. But their life style is under the dark sky as many of them are still sukumbasis and, kamaiyas — the landless ones, and the bonded labors respectively. They want to touch the golden roof of success in Burhan, but that seems a far cry. They want to glow as the sun does forever and ever, and stay evergreen. But their hope, their soul and their inner laughter face a dark cloud from within as they continue to live as landless people and bonded labors.  

The novel brings to the surface the lifestyle of the Tharus, their role in the society and the status-quo of their economic condition. They have not been able to pace up with the change and development occurring elsewhere. They have continued to be a working class, complacent with their traditional equipment and tools like khatiya, berry, lota etc. The novel, however, hinges on humanity and brotherhood, showing that the Tharu is an extremely amicable and friendly tribe, always ready to mix with others and share their joys and sorrows.

Much of the content of the novel is set in a part of Burhan, especially a countryside in Bardiya district. The characters come from the same backdrop, though a few of them are migrants from Dang and a few hill districts like Syangja. The major characters of this novel are protagonist Maila Tharu, Parbati Paudyal, who is a landlady, and Ningma, a government official deputed in Burhan to serve the people. The story that features the relationship between Maila Tharu and Parbati Paudyal makes the novel lively and gripping. Other minor characters are Somlal Tharu, Ramita, Sagar, Sarbaraj and Rudraraj.

In the exposition of the novel, the writer wants the readers to understand the life style of  the Tharu tribe, especially their birth and name-giving rituals, the process of naming a village like putting the suffix ‘pur’, as in Laxmanpur and Badripur, etc. Much of content of Burhan draws form the life of the Tharu tribe, their beliefs and cultures and philosophy, although an episode also takes the readers to the hills, to depict some hill tribes called the ‘Pahadiyas’ vis-à-vis their relationship with the Tharus. The soul of the novel is the story of Maila, a Tharu man and Parbati, a landlady from the hills, who later migrated to Burhan. Ningma, the visiting official, records the plot, and the novel is the published content of her diary entries.

As the novel depicts, the innocent and straightforward Tharu people had been living in Dang district for several generations. They lived in suppression under the feet of the rich land owners from the Pahadiya community. When they found continuing there almost impossible, the Tharus decided to migrate and move to Burhan. There as well, their fate was no better. They continued to till and work, caring little about their freedom, self-esteem and happiness. The writer wants the readers to understand that the life style of the Tharu on sandy bank of Babai River in Dang, their simple life in the face of terror from animals and insects, their condition of being landless and poverty-stricken, was full of sorrow and pain. They ran for their shelter and food though, in most of their runs, they had to return empty-hand. To solve their condition of penury for once and for all, they chose to migrate, but nothing dramatic happened in their lives.

By bringing together Maila Tharu, Parbati Paudyal from the hills and Ningma from the mountains, the novelist has tried to depict the triangular relationship between people of various regions in Nepal in a representative way. Parbati, a Brahmin migrant from the hills, inspires the Tharus, like Maila Tharu to rise from the mentality of servitude and work for independent existence and self-respect. Maila and his son Somlal have been suffering from pain and sorrow from generation to generation under the clutches of their land owners. Each and every effort they put at the capacity of landless labors push their lives into worse peril.

With the political changes taking place in the country, especially after the uprising of the sukumbasis, a Sukumbasi Aayog, a powerful commission to rehabilitate the landless people, was formed. The commission appeared as morning light for the Tharus in Burhan. But as time passed, it appeared that only those with political connections reaped benefits while the poor folks continued to reel under poverty. Gullible and innocent people like Maila Tharu, Somlal Tharu and Pahadi Tharu continue to live as landless, and seek work in the estates of others.

Pessimism is a permanent marker of most of the characters in the novel. It is a matter of sadness to say that even after continuous efforts and struggle, the expected results are not obtained.  A question therefore makes an obvious appearance: What is the achievements for the Tharus after all these years of struggle and demonstration? Practically nothing.

The language used in the novel is authentic, natural, character-relevant and easy to understand. One who knows Nepali language can simply understand the novel. Some Dangali Tharu words and a few Desauri Tharu words have also been used to give the novel a hue of authenticity and the meanings of such words can be easily construed from the neighboring words in the sentences. This is a strength on the part of the writer.

Burhan, in my view is a mirror of the Tharu tribe. Burhan, the setting of the novel, is the center of hope for shelter, cloth and food. Besides painting a vivid picture of the Tharu way of living, the novel also knits several tribes, the Tharus of the plains, the Brahmins of the hills and the Sherpas of the mountains into a web of brotherhood and harmony. The novel also makes a political statement, questioning the banality and irony that mar political changes. Many political movements and struggles that are meant for benefitting the poor end up being hijacked by the few rich and powerful ones. By doing so, the novel has also become a political narrative, besides being a wonderful social and cultural narrative.

Burhan (a novel, 2079)
Author: Mahananda Dhakal
Publisher: Sangri-La Books