Dev Kumari Thapa is one of the most established Nepali writers writing today. Born in 1927 in Kurseong, India, she has made Biratnagar her home. She is the author of several short story collections and children's books, and has headed the Biratnagar Sahitya Sansthan. The story translated below was originally published six years ago in Samakalin Sahitya #14, and it shows off the author's skill in painting an evocative social portrait in a short, concise style. The story captures the turbulence of the life of the simple, earnest, imperfect everyman in a society structured for injustice.
The course of life
His name may be Som Bahadur, but everyone just calls him Maila Dai. Even he doesn't know how old he is. He could be twenty or he could be sixty. There are countless lines on his face, but his hair is thick and black. His teeth are straight, strong and white, his complexion fair. Maila is slim, short, energetic and garrulous. All kinds of people come to his shop for mamacha. All kinds of chatter take place there. Without any forethought, he adds his own views to the opinions of his clients. He bears an intolerable acrimony towards the well-to-do. He says, 'The merchants of the hills gulp the fields of the poor; the merchants of the terai ruin their vigour by mixing inedibles into foodgrains. You can't find a single authentic red-hot Nepali these days.
How will this country ever last?' He sighs heavily. 'We're becoming the kanchhas and bahadurs of foreigners not just abroad, but inside our country as well.' Clients laugh when they hear his words, and some of them ask, 'You give great speeches, Maila Dai, why don't you join one of the parties?' He says, 'Who'll fill my stomach if I join the parties? After being sacked from four separate jobs, I've had my fill of jobs, too. That's why I've opened this mamacha shop. Now if I join a party, who'll run this shop?' One client shouts, 'Get married, then!' Maila laughs, 'I've married thrice already, how many more times should I marry? None of my wives last, they just make off with all my possessions.' At this, everyone breaks into guffaws. He too laughs. He looks jovial. That's how Maila is.
His first job was at our office. That's when I got to know him. Maila, or Som Bahadur, had impressed everyone with his work as a peon. Energetic and cheerful, he did as everyone bade. For the bosses, he willingly brought tea, biscuits and cigarettes, he dusted the chairs, and he carried files; he also satisfied all the others. I, the accountant at that office, became quite close to him. He used to come to my lodgings and do some shopping for my mother. Sometimes my mother would give him some simple snacks. One day he brought us tomatoes and collard greens. My mother scolded him for squandering his money. But I understood-he'd done that because of his own self-respect. My mother used to feed him every now and then; and feeling uneasy at this, he brought small gifts of vegetables on his visits.
One day something that had never happened took place in our office. The boss was heard shouting, 'Get out at once!' We were all surprised. He never shouted, even when upset. What had happened? After a while, Som Bahadur emerged from the boss's room, red and flustered. He came to my chair and said, 'Sir, write my resignation letter.' This was an order, not a plea. Everyone was startled, and we advised him not to leave his job so hastily. He didn't agree, and started to become insistent. So I composed his resignation letter and typed it for him. As soon as he signed the letter, he left the office without so much as a namaste, as though he were some kind of victor! There was a lot of talk about him at the office that day.
That evening, he came to our house. Even before I could ask, he began, 'Sir, that boss is a thief.' I smiled weakly, and said, 'Dhut, nonsense.' He said, 'It's true! Sir, for many days he's been forcing me to steal. I couldn't stand it any more, and so I revolted today.' He didn't say refused; he said revolted. My ears pricked to attention. He was using the words of a politician. I asked, 'What happened?' And he said, 'Last week I brought purchases worth five thousand to the office, along with a bill. The boss kept the bill, and gave me orders to take all the purchases to his house. I did that, but a revolt took place in my heart. After that, on four other occasions, I took purchases meant for the office to his house. But today I put all the purchases on a cart and took them straight to the Sir at the office's store room, along with the bill. The Sir from the store room later gave the bill to the boss, and the boss exploded at me. So naturally I answered back. He's a man who's digested all his shame!' To this, I said nothing. There wasn't anything to say.
After that, Som Bahadur started to run after another job. He lost a lot of weight in the process. Finally, he found work as a night guard at the warehouse of a merchant. He even got married. He didn't last long at his guard job, though. There were bound to be irregularities at that warehouse. So he 'revolted,' and he got thrown out. His wife went to visit her parents, and she never returned. After that, Maila once again began to wander about in search of work. I placed him as a labourer at a mill. He didn't last there either; so I placed him in another mill. He couldn't last there either, so I told him, 'Look, Maila, you don't possess the traits one needs to hold a job; why don't you do some trade instead? You won't have to stay under anyone's orders.' He smiled wanly and said, 'What trade can I do, Sir? The little money I had, my wife took when she went to her parents.' I said, 'I know. I can take out a thousand from my retirement funds..' Cutting me off, he said, 'No, Sir. You have to look after your mother. You haven't been able to settle a proper home. I won't use your money.' I assured him, 'It won't be charity, fool. I'll loan you that money. You can pay me later.' A few days later, he opened his mamacha shop. His shop did quite well, and he returned my thousand rupees before long. He even started to play with his extra cash, but he never managed to make a home. Maila wouldn't marry an ordinary girl, and smart girls wouldn't tolerate his abuse. Indeed, his temper was very bad. He let loose with his fists over the most trifling matters.
After leaving four jobs, Maila could finally play with a few paisa, thanks to his independent business; the course of his life had found a place to rest, at last. Sometimes he came to visit my mother, carrying fruits or sweets. My mother loved him as her own son.
There was a lot of unrest in the market. Demonstrations, strikes, chakka jams, peaceful processions-unheard-of debacles. I was standing at the window, surveying the spectacle. A huge crowd of demonstrators appeared in front of my house. Youths, middle-aged men and women, the elderly, and children were waving about their arms and chanting slogans as they marched past, carrying placards with slogans painted on red cloth. A fair, skinny, short man was shaking his fists, hollering and leaping about. His whole body was shiny with sweat, and he was entirely naked except for a short lungi tied below his waist. I called my mother, and indicated that man with my index finger. At first, my mother was surprised. Then she started to giggle, 'There, now, even Maila's started to join demonstrations. Look, he's jumping around like a monkey.' She laughed again.
And I thought-the course of Som Bahadur's life's journey has started yet once again.