The Third International after Lenin

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Diary of a Woman Guerrilla - Bestseller in Nepal

Bold tales by brave women

SURVIVAL STORIES One was born with severe disability and the other was a guerrilla, but the two feisty women remain undaunted by their circumstances. Sudeshna Sarkar meets Tara Rai and Jhamak Ghimire, whose life stories are now best-sellers and serve as an inspiration to countless others

When Devendra Bhattarai, a journalist and non-fiction writer, went to visit the tea garden district of Ilam in eastern Nepal six months ago, his host introduced him to a young woman who had walked for nearly three hours from her village to meet him.

“She came from a peasant family in Atghare village,” Bhattarai recalls. “The eldest of three children, she helped her family farm the little land they had, milked the cows and took the milk to sell in the village shops. She had studied in a village school till Class 6.”
The smiling but nervous young woman had brought a bundle of papers with her. It was a manuscript that recounted the 20-year-old’s life story with moving simplicity. “I was intrigued by the writing and showed the manuscript to my publisher,” says Bhattarai.
Today, Tara Rai’s Chhapamar Yuvati Ko Diary or ‘The Diary of a Woman Guerrilla’, is a runaway best-seller, having sold over 5,000 copies in just two months, with a fifth edition in progress.

In her “diary”, the writer chronicles how she joined the underground Maoist party — that fought a 10-year civil war from 1996 onwards — when she was only 15.

Story unfolds
Tara Rai was assigned to the cultural wing of the party and had spent just three months there when she was arrested. “The army had surrounded us. A soldier came and yanked me by my hair,” she writes. She hears the sound of digging and she thinks she will be killed and buried. Instead, she is sent to various prisons, where she spends almost a year in the midst of horrific experiences and unexpected love. She also meets a senior Maoist leader, Dharmashila Chapagain, who has been arrested with her daughter. Chapagain becomes a mother to Tara, mentoring her and fighting with the jail officials to get medical treatment for Tara’s rheumatic fever.

The book ends with Tara’s release in 2007, a year after the Maoists signed a peace pact and laid down arms in Nepal. However, disillusioned with the movement, she does not return to the party. Instead, she decides to go back to her family in her village.

“Probably some people will read the book for its curiosity value,” says Bhattarai, who is also its editor. “But it has its own merit. Although Tara did not study beyond Class 6, she has a flair for writing. Also, unlike the books written by Maoist leaders after the civil war ended, her diary does not read like sloganeering. It is balanced. She shows the good as well as the bad side of the Maoists and the army is not an all-out enemy. There are good soldiers as well as bad soldiers, and she falls in love with one of her captors.”

If Tara Rai’s life is unusual, then Jhamak Kumari Ghimire’s is extraordinary. Jhamak (30) is often described as a Helen Keller of sorts. Her autobiography, Jeevan Kaanda Ki Phul (‘Life is a Flower of Thorns’), is acknowledged as truly inspirational by critics and readers alike.

“Jhamak was born with cerebral palsy,” says Gopal Guragain, Jhamak’s neighbour in Dhankuta district. “She can’t walk, talk or use her hands. Being the eldest of five children, her family could not afford to look after her properly.”

But the neglected child had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. She would watch her father teach her younger sister to write. She tried to tell him that she wanted to be taught as well. In her autobiography, she writes how she was scorned and even beaten up for that. “What will you do learning to read and write? It’s useless trying to teach you,” was her father’s response.

With no one to help her, the determined girl taught herself to hold a pen with her toes and write, by watching her sister and trying to trace out the letters of the alphabet on the floor with her toes.

Though she still has to be carried from one place to another and be helped with basic functions, she can eat with her feet, comb her hair and, most importantly, write —communicating with those around her and eventually, with a wider audience outside her home and family.

“About 10 years ago, we became aware that she was very gifted,” says Guragain. “Jhamak began to write poems and articles. Then she bagged a column with a leading daily. Slowly, people began to know her and appreciate her talent and grit.”
Four years ago, Guragain says his conscience drove him to establish the Jhamak Ghimire Literary Foundation in a bid to “facilitate” Jhamak’s writing.

In July 2010, the Foundation published her autobiography. In her autobiography, Jhamak writes about her disability with honesty, including how she was molested by an odd-jobs man when she was alone at home. Besides physical challenges, she has faced other hardships as well. She was branded a communist sympathiser and the meagre allowance paid to her by the government was stopped. But she refused to change her point of view. She also declined to accept a state honour conferred on her.

“Jhamak and Tara’s books were best-sellers at the recent Kathmandu book fair,” says Babita Basnet, president of Sancharika Samuha, a forum of women communicators. “Both are inspirations and their growing readership shows the emergence of the woman’s voice.”

Efforts are on to translate their books as well. “When Tara flew in to Kathmandu for her book launch, the Danish ambassador to Nepal was also on the same flight,” says Govinda Shrestha, whose Ratna Pustak Bhandar, one of Nepal’s oldest publishing houses, published Tara’s book. “It was he who suggested that the book be translated into English so that it can be read by more people.”

At long last, the ignored women’s stories are being told and heard.

Women’s Feature Service

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