MARK TURIN Lovesick, homesick or simply sick of Tibet



© Mark Turin, 2002

Kesar Lall, Nepal’s ever-prolific storyteller and narrator (and now the holder of a distinction from the prestigious Nepal Bhasa Parishad), turns his hand again to translation in this delightful new book. In the same vein as his recent Newar Merchants in Lhasa (“Banjas along the Barkhor”, #34), Lall unearths an intriguing tale written in Newar, and through translation and annotation makes it accessible to a wider audience. Readers who remember the charming Newar Merchants in Lhasa may recall that an excerpt of Chittadhar’s Letter from a Lhasa Merchant is one of the chapters. Lall delivers the complete translation with Mimmanahpau.

In his Translator’s Note, Kesar Lall stresses the numerical and economic prominence of Newar traders in Lhasa. Before the Chinese occupation of 1959, around 1,000 Newars lived and traded in Lhasa and towns such as Shigatse, Gyantse, Kyirong and Kuti. Given the circumstances of this book, Lall is careful to point out that few Newar businessmen based in Tibet were accompanied by their spouses and children, and that many married a Tibetan woman as a second wife. Interestingly, sons born to Newar men with Tibetan wives were accorded Nepali citizenship, while daughters born of such unions were perceived as strictly Tibetan.

Chittadhar was born in 1906 into a Kathmandu-based Tuladhar family with a long tradition of trade in Tibet. As a young man, he managed to not follow his father’s footsteps. That he should later choose the life of a Newar trader in Tibet as a literary subject is thus all the more revealing. The asymmetry between author and protagonist is further accentuated when we learn that Chittadhar was ‘very faithful and devoted to his wife’ (page 7), in marked contrast to the character of his novella. Mimmanahpau may be a hypothetical autobiography, Chittadhar’s life as it might have been had he not broken away.

Chittadhar’s inspiration for this work came from an unlikely corner. At a formative stage, he read Stefan Zweig’s well-known Brief einer Unbekannten (recently immortalised in a French TV movie) and took this novella as the model for this book. Chittadhar went on to have a long and impressive literary career, receiving the title Kavi Keshari from the King of Nepal, and publishing over a hundred works before his death in 1982. He called two of his major works his children: the 350-page poem Sugata Saurava was his ‘son’, while the 107-page Mimmanahpau, which he dedicated to his mother-in-law, whom he barely knew, was his ‘daughter’.

The central conceit of Mimmanahpau, a novel-length letter, is that it is meant to be read by one reader only, the scribe’s wife. The narrator’s account interweaves emotional entreaties to his distant spouse with cultural, historical and social observations on the traditions of both Newars and Tibetans living in Lhasa. Perhaps because of the oscillation between romantic confessional and amateur ethnography, or perhaps because we are all now much more exposed to stories and images from Tibet, the descriptions often come across as a little patchy. While certain sections are riveting to read, others are somewhat bland, and the overall effect is strangely uneven with the reader left hoping for more detailed observations in some places, while wishing for a fast-forward button during the page-long reports of feasts.

Nevertheless, the text has plenty of high points, which make the book as a whole worth the effort. Early on in his epistle, the scribe challenges the conventions of traditional Nepali letter writing, which dictate that hearts are not bared and formal terms of address are maintained:

‘It seems to me that the use of the polite form of ‘you’ for one’s husband, possibly the closest person, is necessarily to put him at a distance. I do not quite appreciate it.’ (page 13)

The physical distance between the letter-writer in Tibet and his wife in Nepal stands in contrast to the familiarity and intimacy of his letter, as if the trader is compensating for physical distance with newly-found emotional intimacy. On more than one occasion, the scribe imagines his spouse’s reaction to the content of his letter and urges her not to blush.

Mimmanahpau is all about change and transformation. While the writer takes great pains to articulate his undying devotion to his wife in the first fifteen pages of the letter, by page 25 the reader begins to doubt his sincerity. His description of meeting the locals of Lhasa is particularly revealing: ‘There were many women among the visitors, some of them quite young. A slight tremor went all over me when they sat close to me’. This aside is prescient, and a small but perceptible change in tone marks the narrative from this point on.

The scribe goes on to note, with impressive candour, that Newars were ‘proverbially entangled in so many social and religious affairs in Nepal related to our guthi that we never had time to do well in other activities’ (page 32). His depiction of Newar life in Lhasa would support this judgement, a life of endless rituals, feasts and gatherings. The nuggets of social observation secreted in these descriptions are interesting and insightful. The scribe is, for example, impressed with the standard of housekeeping in a typical Lhasa home: ‘The kitchen was clean, unlike ours in Nepal. The maidservant fetched water and saw that there was no accumulation of dust or dirt’ (page 32).

Likewise, he is envious of the more relaxed social interactions he witnesses in Lhasa: ‘among the Tibetans, the couples are inseparable, even when they go trading. As these melancholic thoughts occupied me, a sigh escaped involuntarily’ (page 55). As the letter progresses, the scribe’s allegiance moves subtly away from Nepal in general, and Newar social life in particular, towards more noticeably Tibetan sensibilities. He writes of the ‘frail women of Nepal’ (page 91), of the Theravada monks of Kathmandu who ‘lure lay people to abandon their home and family’ (page 97) and concludes with the self-deprecating, if rhetorical, statement: ‘I don’t have to tell you that we Newar are a very strange people’ (page 97). Without divulging the dramatic conclusions of his letter, in the course of writing, the trader develops from an earnest and lovesick husband into a bitter, confused and uprooted man, deeply suspicious of organised religion.

The internal changes which the scribe undergoes are profound, and bear testament to Chittadhar’s skill as a portrayer of complex characters. On re-reading Mimmanahpau I noted prophetic pointers to the dénouement: ‘After all men are men. Even the common folk seemed to know that we need diversion from our sorrow’ (page 19). In a moment of self-doubt the scribe proclaims:

‘But what sort of a person am I? I asked myself. To abandon you and come so far away to earn a paltry sum of money! The profession of the trader is indeed to be condemned!!’ (page 41)

When read in the context of what is known about the author’s life, Mimmanahpau may be seen as a gentle sermon on the dangers and entanglements of the pursuit of business. Perhaps college professors in Nepal should encourage eager students embarking on their studies of Commerce to read this letter of penance.

In his careful translation, Lall brings an important work from the substantial corpus of Newar literature to an international audience. His translation is a fitting illustration of the unexpected spin-offs of globalisation: a Newar writer is inspired by a German novel to write a novella in his mother tongue, which is rendered into English half a century later by another Newar writer, folklorist and translator. The multilingual puzzle is not complete yet, as the eminent French anthropologist of Nepal, Professor Corneille Jest, is presently working on a French translation of Mimmanahpau: Letter from a Lhasa Merchant to his Wife.

Mimmanahpau: Letter from a Lhasa Merchant to his Wife. By Chittadhar ‘Hridaya’, translated by Kesar Lall. 2002. Travel Series. Robin Books: New Delhi. 139 pages, including notes, glossary and calendars. ISBN 81-87138-55-6. Rs 200.