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Yogesh Raj’s Ranahar (Nepalaya, 2018, 151 pp) is a highly accomplished novel and an impressive achievement in the Nepali language. It is inaccurate and inadequate to bill it as historical fiction.

The title of the novel is either an unfortunate pun—an account of the losses suffered by a man named for victory in battles—or a considered allusion to the structure of the novel itself: a garland of words and impressionistic episodes from the life of Ranajit Malla, the last Malla king of Bhaktapur. Perhaps it is both. But we profit more by considering that it is the latter.  

Ranahar is not about Ranajit Malla’s last days as the king of Bhaktapur and his defeat at the hands of the Gorkhali army. The novel doesn’t, contrary to what its amazon.in page says, elaborate on “events leading to defeat and ultimate surrender by Mallas to the Gorkhali King.” It isn’t the account of a battle and its aftermaths; it is an array of the aspects of a man—the child, the son, the lover, the victor and the vanquished. It is not a historical novel in the vein of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell series. Rather, it is a ruminative study of persons and places, similar to Kazuo Ishiguro’s Buried Giant, where mood and setting do just as much as plot and characters.

It is a peculiarity of Nepali literature that the majority of better-known examples of historical fiction have come from members of the Rana and Shah clans: Diamond Shamsher’s Basanti and Seto Bagh in Nepali, and in English the novel Loyals of the Crown by Sheeba Shivangini Shah, and Hidden Women by Greta Rana. Predictably, for these writers historical fiction revolves around the lives and wives of the Shahs and Ranas. The novel Madhavi and the short stories that Madan Mani Dixit wrote for Ruprekha magazine in the 1980s were preoccupied with reinterpreting Vedic and Puranic stories, and therefore not quite Nepali historical fiction. Whereas there has been a recent rise in the literature of the margins—anchalik and seemanchalik—there hasn’t been a notable publication in this genre. Ranahar enlivens and muddles the interest in the genre: first, by elevating the novel above the expectations of the genre, and second, by confusing the casual reader as to what they hold in their hands.

We are most familiar with history as lists of actors, places, and dates. Events require these; temporality requires these. Events do not require mood. Events do not include the film that separates the external world from the internal. Historical accounts don’t include the internal world: memoir and fiction do. Perhaps a historian seeking greater verity does eventually stumble through the film between the one world (of maps, hagiographies, inscriptions) and the other (of fever and lust, fear and loss). By bobbing at the cusp between the two worlds, Ranahar achieves in narrative and in report a level of temporal verity rarely seen in works of Nepali fiction.

The writer of fiction requires the reader’s familiarity with rituals, objects, and places to create verisimilitude, but that act remains incomplete without the invention that recalls to the reader their familiarity with emotions and their effect on the physical body: the flit of the eye, the blush of the skin, the flared nostrils of rage or terror. Yogesh Raj’s skillful journey from a scene into an insight, from a physical space into the psychic and emotional illuminates the creative process itself. Consider these paragraphs, in my translation:

The enthusiasm of the revellers in the processions didn’t dampen. Instead, they became drenched in the rain, a childlike abandon intoxicated them. The weight of raindrops stretched strands of their hair. They’d close their eyes and swing their heads to the rhythm of the ghintaghisi; a mist of rainwater would scatter from their hair as seeds of light. People watching them were also soaked through. Women covered their heads with shawls. But they stood still, didn’t budge. Like a thick grove of trees rooted into the ground. They were spellbound. A few men hid under rain-shades. The rest continued to laugh. Joy engulfed the crowd.

People are a bundle of bodily pleasures, Ranajit thought. Everybody who had gathered at the Rajkul was awash in happiness. Did happiness abound on the outside, or had it been spread here by the assembled revelers? The nineteen-year old Ranajit plunged into that very superhuman contentment. He forgot his position, forgot his title and lineage. He forgot his temporality in relation to everybody else. He sank deeper into a communal joy and dissolved in it. His loneliness vanished into the panchatatva. He offered up the specifics of his identity to the expansive and abundant generalness.

One is a snapshot of a moment. But it is incomplete without its second and shadow—a mind that watches it move, locates the forces that animate it. This technique is abundant throughout the novel, like a latent fever, breathing into the story an uneasy warmth that can, with a sudden turn, take the shape of particular affections. It is there when a child is abducted, and there again when his bodyguard chooses to travel into the plains of India in what is barely disguised as a suicidal mission. It is there in a long chapter that describes the maze-like meander through the ninety-nine chowks of the Bhaktapur durbar. It is portentously present in the description of the shadow of a mother, cast by a flickering lamp.

Watercolor of Bhaktapur Durbar Square, the royal palace complex, in 1854, painted by Henry Ambrose Oldfield (1822-1871).

Another startling manner in which history can color the narrative owes to Yogesh Raj’s ability to pick single images that can then stand in for an entire world. Ranajit falls in love and enjoys the carnality of amorous twining. It inspires a song, necessarily a list of similes that describe the girl’s body, because it is “a pleasure of the body”. The besotted king describes his lover’s vagina as having the wetness and softness of a freshly fashioned clay lamp and the heel of her feet as being as shapely as the shell of a freshly peeled (hardboiled) egg (pp.125). If, between these two images, taken from a king’s poem, the history and culture of Bhaktapur don’t fully coalesce, if they don’t measure the distance between modern aesthetics and Bhaktapur’s deep history, I don’t know what else does.

Is there history? Yes, in soldiers drunk on conquest and their bills of loot, in the relationship between courtiers from different corners of the kingdom, etc. But I don’t think that is really the point of Ranahar at all: I think its purpose is hidden in the meditation that happens between an image and a sound as mulled over by a deeply engaged mind—be it of the kings Bhupatindra and Ranajit, or be it of the writer. 

The novel evokes a succession of interconnected worlds composed of such things as build the thread between then and now: ritual and moral gestures, festivals and our place in them, deities that stand guard between worlds. It is instructive to read the novel not as a story with a grand arc but as a stroll through the interconnected chowks of the Bhaktapur durbar where so much of the action takes place. It is also a stroll through the mortal realm into the realm of the gods, and back again, as must have been quotidian for a people who lived with and among gods and goddesses. That shapes the mind to seek portents:

Precisely at that moment, a few unprecedented events occurred: the sun and the moon faced each other; constellations of stars found their nightly nests on tips of blades of grass. Musk from a deer wafted through the Shleshmantak forest. The Bagmati overwhelmed her ghat to touch Pashupati’s feet. Guhyeshwori became deluged. Thunder struck the Dattatreya temple but the idols inside, busy mid-congress, forbid any damage. Kumari, sitting alone at her window, smiled. Thus, a coincidence was created.

Yogesh Raj flits from the point of view of one character to another: Ranajit, Bhupatindra, Bhairav Malla, the queen Viswalaxmi, the royal priest Joshi Bhaju, the Maithili courtier Jhagal Thakur at the Kantipur durbar, etc. Perhaps this makes it difficult to read Ranahar for a narrative. If anything, this polyphonic and prismatic approach echoes like the chorus that is history. It enriches and complements what on the surface seems fragmented. Above all, it heightens the purely aesthetic pleasure of reading in Nepali. 

Gods and kings need to be laughed at regularly, brought down a peg or two, so that we may elevate to their level for an honest chat. After all, we are oppressed under the burden of their whims and pronouncements, forced to fight to throw off the yokes they have imposed upon us. Historical fiction can afford us the opportunity to do so. I remember translating from the Divyopadesh and realizing that Prithivi Narayan Shah was, above all, a greedy man who resented the wealth of other princes. Who has not known such a petty man?

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Perhaps someday we will have historical fiction about a matriarch in the Limi valley traveling to Lhasa to complain to a Tulku, or of a Sah from the hinterlands of Mithila becoming a jahazi to find a new life on a Caribbean island. Perhaps someday the forgotten nation of Tanahun will rise up to end the unlawful, centuries-long occupation of its lands by the adharmi Gorkhalis. But, for now, historical fiction seems to belong to the royals and their courtiers. Still, Ranahar should be celebrated for gathering into its fold the salt of the earth of its era, even if only as minor casting. This novel is not the answer, but it certainly is a question with which to begin exploring possibilities for Nepal in the genre. 

I would suggest this about reading Ranahar: don’t look for the shape of a building; search instead between the details of the carvings and murals and statues that cover the temple-palace, and find in the mudras and motifs a fuller picture:

In that moment, Ranajit Malla’s attention wandered to the eastern corner of the base of the Pachpanna Jhyale durbar. A group of middle-aged women sat there in the torrential rain. They were watching the processions, laughing among themselves. Ranajit’s eyes began to search for somebody among them. A woman carried a child, perhaps of eighteen months, tied to her back with a shawl. Another carried a little girl on her waist, like she would a pot of water. Ranajit’s eyes scanned one face after another, and finally settled upon a youthful but sad face. It was a face haloed in a pale blue light. It was gaunt but bright. Ranajit forgot to breathe, became as if a lifeless rock, the hardest of hard. Like algae-covered stones seen in the depths of a creek.

Thereafter, a bowstring snapped. Somebody squeezed his naked heart. An arrow from an unknown direction struck home. Wonderment was born twinned with sorrow. What was this pain that asked to be suffered? These soothing flames? He became bewildered. Seeing the girl’s face let Ranajit know how utterly lonely he was. He learned of his incompleteness. He was a broken phrase searching for the remainder of a tune. He was a paubha tattered by circumstances, searching for complementing fragments. He was so helpless that it stupefied him. (Pp 107 – 08)

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Prawin Adhikari is a writer and translator. He is the author of ‘The Vanishing Act’, Folk Gods and Shared Sacred Landscapes, and has translated Chapters by Amod Bhattarai and Long Night of Storm by Indra Bahadur Rai. He is a Visiting Faculty at Kathmandu University Center for Arts and Design. He is an assistant editor at La.Lit, the literary magazine.