‘The Woman Who Climbed Trees’ book review: Nepal from the eyes of an Indian daughter-in-law
Smriti Ravindra’s debut novel ‘The Woman Who Climbed Trees’ caught my attention due to its publication from HarperCollins and also due to a brief review from Prajwal Parajuli that mentioned “The Great Nepali Novel is here!” The narration of the novel is straight and the language is eloquent, and makes it a good read for even readers with limited English competency. The reason for that may be the writer’s conscious decision to take the stories to a wider audience-base in the Indian subcontinent. The eight-chapter novel chronicles an Indian woman’s coming-of-age.
‘The Woman Who Climbed Trees’ is a familial, societal and cultural saga of three generations. The setting of the novel is Nepal’s eastern Tarai and a town in India’s Bihar state. Meena who hails from Darbhanga gets married to a Nepali boy, Manmohan, during her early teens. Through the vivid descriptions of marriage ceremony between Meena and Manmohan, the novel showcases the tradition of nuptial ties between Nepali and Indian citizens, mostly living in border sides, as well as presents the social and cultural intricacies poignantly and subtly.
The characters in the novel describe the common qualities and differences between Nepal and India. There is an expression which is moving - you never realize when you get married in your country and within a few minutes of travel towards your new groom’s house, cross a river or pool and reach the other country. The novel depicts the difficulties, hardships, struggles and blues of the native Madhesi people. The Nepali state bodies tag them as ‘Indian’ in a latent way and the so-called high class people discriminate against them merely on the basis of their skin and voice tones. There are many anecdotes that demonstrate biases and discrimination towards them.
The novel starts with the marriage between Indian girl Meena and Nepali boy Manmohan. The marriage process is captured in depth as it is a linkage between cultures of individuals and countries. Pre-wedding happenings like selecting the groom, showing and exchanging photographs, making marriage a serious talk within the family for weeks, women planning and preparing weeks before the marriage ceremony, girls teasing their newly marrying friend, bride and bride’s family getting prepared emotionally and physically for the successful marriage have been illustrated with great precision and detail.
Meena and Kumud are sisters-in-law. Despite their relationship, their love and affection between them is so intimate and strong that they question the established notion of sexuality. Meena likes to be intimate with Kumud, more than her husband. She likes to touch and sleep with her. Kumud does not bother with the actions of Meena and she too, becomes happy to remain near Meena. Both of them, turn by turn, write each other’s name in their arms using piercing needles. In an instance, Meena tries to get physically close to Kumud and reaches her hands on her breasts, kisses her and smells the perfume consciously. All these incidents reveal the manifold dimensions of sexual orientations. Unwillingness to stay with husband and physical proximity with sister-in-law are a few acts that question established notions of sexualities. Such kind of proximity also exists between Meena’s daughter and her girl friend Sachi. Both of them also tattoo each other’s name on their body. Thus, the idea of binaries of sexuality is hammered by the intense love, affection and proximity between the same sexes.
Language use in the novel is distinct as the words with roots of Hindi and Sanskrit are written with English transliteration. Transliterated words like ‘dera’, ‘mani’, ‘maika’, ‘sauji’, ‘daal’, ‘marsiya’ and nearly one hundred others are used without English translation. This might have been done deliberately by the author in order to present the seriousness of the subject matter and localize them. Similar to Arundhati Roy, many vernacular words in the novel have been used in English as a method of code-switching and code-mixing. The monologue of Meena while her husband is far away from her in Kathmandu is beautifully woven where she reflects upon her emotions. When one’s husband is distant for a long time, there comes the feelings of frustrations, boredom and loneliness. Meena is not an exception to this as there is a significant female population in Nepal whose husbands fly overseas after mere days of marriage. Most of such females leave their maternal home and town and shift to their husband’s home and help in his household chores. They do not get to stay with their husbands nor do they get love and affection from their own parents. On top of that, readers find the wrath, frustration, and disgust in the emotional monologue of Meena for she has left her family, society and country for the sake of her marriage and in a matter of few months, her husband lives separately in a distant land.
The narrator changes in the middle part of the novel. Meena’s 12-year-old daughter Preeti narrates the events of her family. Her recounting of experiences while staying in Nepal and the journey to and from her maternal uncle’s house in India are presented eloquently. Through her experiences, readers can learn about the world-view of the twelve-year-old girl about nation, outer world, family, society, kinship, friendship, culture etc. Preeti narrates everyday experiences of a typical Nepali family like Jay Nepal Cinema Hall, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, Bollywood films, Jay Santoshi Maa etc. The novel takes us through a number of subject matters revolving around fables of Ranipokhari, regimes of Shah Kings, their corrupt ADV, popular Bhai-Dhoj festival in the Terai region, Prithvi Narayan Shah, Lord Vishnu, King Birendra and his royal family, temples of the Kathmandu Valley, Royal Palace, New Road, Casino, Agricultural Development Bank etc. A common experience of traveling for the first time from east Terai to Kathmandu has been narrated in an amusing and hilarious manner.
The little girl expresses her experience of proximity with her bedridden grandfather in a compelling and powerful way. In his final days, Preeti sees her mother and aunt giving her stinking grandfather a bath. During that time, she says, “Ma rubbed the sparrow that looked like a bell, I felt like I had swallowed a blade and its thin metal sliced my throat.” The little girl elaborates the child marriage that happened in the generations before her and some festivals like Durga Puja that are observed in Terai. The instances of sexual advances are raised in multiple subplots, the first between Meena and Kumud, then between Preeti and Shankar, and Preeti and Sachi. Among those, only physical proximity between Preeti and Shankar are digestible to the society and the rest are nonconforming to heteronormativity.
The novel also mentions India imposing an embargo during the regime of King Birendra. There are different subplots of gossip in Nepali society which are briefly discussed. A Bollywood actor’s remarks to Nepali people creates a sensation throughout the country including riots and movements. The wife of Rajiv Gandhi was not allowed permission inside the Pashupatinath Temple because she was a Christian and in that revenge, Gandhi resorted to embargo. The limitations while living in a landlocked country like Nepal, logic that it should not be sanctioned in the humanitarian perspective as well as the need to teach a lesson to India are expressed through the monologues of the child girl. Likewise, the load shedding days of the past, sufferings of the common man, day to day blues of the students are presented in a number of subplots.
The novel is not free from exaggerations. For instance, a phone rings in the house of Meena and the caller is a random man with roots in Janakpur. He says that he is a neighbor of Meena and that his son has arrived recently from the US. He asks help from Meena to look after his son, providing the location of the house with excuses of delay of flights. Meena asks her son and daughter to check in the house. When the children reach the house, the house seems to have been looted recently and the random person’s son seems to have been assassinated. The children rush towards their home in fear. The entire incident seems to be far from reality.
In the last part of the novel, a fairy tale is presented where an old woman escorts the daughter of the barber at night to her daughter’s marriage for the sake of bridal make up. Initially, the daughter refuses to go with the strange old woman at midnight. But the woman cajoles them with a bag full of jewels. The barber insists his daughter go with the old woman out of greed. In the pitch darkness, the old woman asks the girl to climb a strange tree. The girl hesitates in the beginning but the old woman threatens that disobedience shall result in death. The barber’s daughter Laxmaniya climbs a tree out of fear and after she reaches the top, she sees lots of women enjoying their own worlds. Some are smoking and some are preparing for marriage. After makeup, she returns back home and as promised she receives a bag full of gold. When she shows the bag to her father after reaching her home, she finds that the gold has turned into an ordinary stone. Soon a quarrel ensues and she throws the bag over the lake. Full of myths and fairy tales, the novel has piqued the people to people relation between India and Nepal as well as taken the locations and nation items of Nepal to the international readers.
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