By Fazmina Imamudeen
The histories of Nepalese international migration and the formation of Nepalese Diaspora based on it clearly show the formation of two types of Nepalese Diaspora: the Old and the New. The first concentrates on India, Bhutan and Myanmar, whereas the second has been growing in Europe, the Americas and Oceania. These Diasporas have suffered from minority and marginal status in their respective host countries. Nepalese diasporans have been discriminated against and, consequently, put into silence there. These existential conditions have worked as the background for the creation of Nepalese Diasporic Literature, mainly poetry and fiction. It gives voice to their traumatic existence and inspires them to search for their identities.
Smriti Ravindra is a Nepali-Indian writer. She is a Fulbright scholar and holds an MFA in creative writing from North Carolina State University. Her fiction and journalism have been published globally, including in the US, India, and Nepal. She currently resides in Mumbai, India. The Woman Who Climbed Trees is her first novel and is the latest addition to internationally published Nepali diasporic literature through which she goes on a psychological journey in search of “the place”. The Woman Who Climbed Trees is a reflection of “loss of place” (Cultural, ecological, spiritual and human capital), an authentic internal battle within the author herself. Thus, the novel has a strong, uncompromising voice often depicted via Meena, who is fourteen years old when her parents marry her to Manmohan, a twenty-one-year-old Nepali boy she has never met. As is customary, she must leave her childhood home—along with everything and everyone she’s ever known—to relocate to Nepal and embrace the home and identity of her husband’s family.
Manmohan is in college and spends most of the year in Kathmandu, far away from the little village Meena is confined in, leaving her alone with her demanding mother-in-law as she gradually finds comfort and love in her sister-in-law.
Blending realism, ghost stories, myths and folktales, The Woman Who Climbed Trees accompanies the daring and courageous Meena—and eventually her daughter—as she navigates life in a strange place and struggles to manage her new family’s expectations in the uncertain tides of her diasporic life.
As Smriti’s The Woman Who Climbed Trees is out internationally, The Asian Review invited her for a short interview on her literary journey that has just begun.
The Woman Who Climbed Trees is a wholesome exploration of a “sense of place” —cultural, ecological, spiritual, and psychological. Can you elaborate on how your experience of “loss of place” is projected in your work? Is literature an escape from loss of place? Can you please elaborate?
One of the early working titles for the novel was The Geography of Loss… and I wanted an image of a bus on the cover. Another working title I had in mind was Slipping Geography. So, the idea of loss, and especially loss of place, is central to the book. The novel looks at the story of people who have moved from elsewhere to settle upon a particular piece of land, or within a country. It asks questions about the origins of individuals and communities and how these origins impact their day-to-day living. One of the oldest characters in the book is Sukumariya, nearly a century old. She is an artist and a storyteller, and she has ancient memories buried in her. When she paints, she sings. And one of her songs go thus:
Lé Ho! A home is made of husband and wife
A journey is made of strife.
A home is made of sons and daughters
Some are good and some are rotters.
Lé Ho! We leave a home, a home we take
We make a pan, a pot we break.
A room we build, and walls and doors
And if wood is left, we build some more. Lé Ho!
This is a song about displacement and journey and settlement. But the settlements that take place in the book are disturbed. They are disturbed by the politics of kings, by distrust between communities and countries, and between the social interactions between men and women. These disturbances result in a life that is dissatisfied, that is doomed to forever live in nostalgia for the lost home.
Sukumariya is, in many ways, an embodiment of people for whom literature is an escape from loss. She sings, she says, “to keep fear away”. She tells stories to keep memories alive. She paints to bring to the present the landscapes of the past. But I don’t think literature is enough to alleviate the loss of place. Literature is, after all, a part of a complex society, and it alone cannot combat all the thorns and troubles within it. There are characters in the book that cannot be consoled just by stories. Manmohan is one of those characters. He needs a stable political and social environment.
There are often characters that represent “the self” of the writer—how proximate is Meena to you?
I took my mother’s name for Meena, though the Meena of the book is an amalgamation of many women I know. The novel’s Meena, like my mother Meena, belongs to Darbhanga and moves to Sabaila, and eventually to Kathmandu post-marriage. In this, the two Meenas share their histories and their journeys, and the settings I describe—the homes, the gardens, the terraces—are from memory. These belong to my mother.
I tried many names before I settled on Meena. Somehow the other names felt inauthentic and false. I felt like I was telling a lie. And once I decided not to fight my desire to name her Meena, so many things fell in place and began to unravel and make sense. If I struggled with a scene, I thought of my mom. What would she do here? I asked myself. How would she say this sentence? How would she resolve this situation?
The host culture plays a key role when growing up as an outsider. How has The Woman Who Climbed Trees treated the host culture(s)? What is the message for those who represent(s) the “host culture”?
There are two host cultures here – Nepal’s socio-political culture and India’s socio-political culture. I quote from the Author’s Note at the start of the book when I say, “The story of Nepal and India is a story of familiarity and dissonance.” The novel looks at some of the causes for the dissonance despite the familiarity. There is violence, mistrust, and bitterness between the two main communities whose stories are told in the novel—the Pahadis and the Madhesis – and the novel questions the violence, both psychological and physical, that the communities inflict upon one another. For the sake of clarity, the Madhesis are those citizens of Nepal who might, at some point in time, or even currently, have Indian roots. The Pahadis, or mountain dwellers, consider themselves the true citizens of Nepal. The Shahs, or the last rulers of Nepal, would be described as Pahadis by almost everyone, but their ancestors are believed to have come to Nepal from Rajasthan, India, in the 1600s. So, as with all communities, there are complex histories that get simplified with time and simple relationships that get complicated. One of my favourite sections in the book illustrates the friendship between Sachi and Preeti, a Pahadi and a Madhesi girl, respectively. Their friendship is tender but made complicated by, among other factors, their communities.
Can you tell our readers how did the idea of writing The Woman Who Claimed Trees come to you?
Some days, when I was in the US, I would get this feeling that I could no longer remember the landscapes of my childhood with any vividness. My days were now spent in settings so unlike the ones I had grown up in, and my tongue was so easily accustomed to the taste of English that I feared I had alienated Maithili, Nepali, and Hindi from my life. Later, when I married a man from Tamil Nadu and moved to Mumbai with him, this sense of distance became stronger. My husband is a very urban fellow, having never lived in rural spaces, but my core is built very much upon the small towns of India and the villages of Nepal. I wrote this book mostly because I have lived chunks of my life away from home. I wrote to keep in touch with my grandmothers’ idiosyncrasies, uncles and aunts’ cacophonies, and my childhood friends’ distinct imprints upon my life. Whenever I felt like a foreigner in a new country or city, I wrote about Kathmandu’s streets and Darbhanga’s terraces. Every time I was homesick, I created characters who resembled, at least a little, my mother and father. I carried within me stories and legends I had heard as a child because sometimes the new stories I inherited as an adult did not feel satisfying enough.
Writing is transformative: Besides getting your debut novel published, what has this piece of writing changed in your life when you compare yourself before and after this writing journey?
I feel more settled now, more confident, not just as a writer but as a person as a whole. There were times earlier when my job, my role as a mother and wife, would frighten me. These episodes were rare, but when the fear came, it was claustrophobic. And my insecurities made me resentful. All of this vanished the day I sold the book. I enjoy my various roles so much more now. It’s so nice to feel this way.
Can you tell us what was the most challenging elements in the writing process of your debut novel? And how did you deal with them?
Time! It was so difficult to find the time. I have a full-time job and a young child. Most days, I couldn’t find the motivation or the energy to write. Writing is difficult even when circumstances are conducive, and circumstances were definitely not conducive most days. So, I wrote during vacations. On some-very rare- days, I woke up earlier than ever to finish a thought. It was painful while I was in the process…but getting a book out is like delivering a baby. You forget the details soon enough. I know it was not easy, but I don’t remember all of it with any surety now.
From where can our readers buy The Woman Who Climbed Trees? Any parting words?
It’s available on all online platforms where books are sold, and in all major bookstores. The Woman Who Climbed Trees is published globally by Harper Via and in South Asia by HarperCollins, so it’s literally available everywhere!
For my readers: I hope you enjoy The Woman Who Climbed Trees. You can drop me a line to share any thoughts on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/smritiravindra) or Instagram (smriti_ravindra), or better still, leave a review on your favourite online platform (like Goodreads).
The Asian Review wishes Smriti Ravindra success on her debut novel.
Thanks for the lovely interview, AR. This is a beautiful and at times heartrending book (well, and at other times it’s hilarious). You won’t regret picking it up!
— An American Reader