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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Mountains Painted with Turmeric

Lil Bahadur Chettri

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To purchase Mountains Painted with Turmeric

Title: Mountains Painted with Turmeric
Author: Lil Bahadur Chettri
Genre: Novel
Written: 1957 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 122 pages
Original in: Nepali
Availability: Mountains Painted with Turmeric - US
Mountains Painted with Turmeric - UK
Mountains Painted with Turmeric - Canada
  • Nepali title: बसाईं
  • Translated, and with a Foreword and Afterword: Nepali Critics and Basain, by Michael J. Hutt

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Our Assessment:

B+ : bleak but effective picture of life in rural Nepal

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Japan Times . 6/1/2008 Donald Richie
Nepali Times . 24/1/2008 Kunda Dixit
Time (Asia) . 31/1/2008 Tim Kindseth

  From the Reviews:
  • "My argument is that the novel is more than this. It is a living pastoral in an age when most of them are only to be found stuffed in libraries. But then it is the librarian in me that complains since I think the work has been miscataloged. In any event, if you read it as an ordinary realistic novel you may be puzzled and then bored. If, however, you read it as a real craft product, using patterns and skills honed by history, celebrating our common vision -- the garden landscape of the pastoral -- you will find it engrossing, instructive, moving." - Donald Richie, The Japan Times

  • "Michael J Hutt has brought out a flawless translation. As professor of Nepali at the School of African and Oriental Studies in London, Hutt has taken great pains to make sure nothing is lost in translation. The slim volume with a preface, glossary, afterword, bibliography and copious footnotes will open a window to Nepal to many for whom the book has so far been out of bounds. And through that window, we see the reality of rural Nepal that hasn’t changed much in the five decades since the book was written." - Kunda Dixit, Nepali Times

  • "It is not plot that propels the novella, but rather the intimate, unfolding portrait of village life in eastern Nepal that Chettri sketches in masterfully stark but occasionally lyrical prose — like a brisk, cold brook dappled with sun. Chettri vividly conjures the social and natural landscapes in which Dhané's miserable story takes place, from trade councils lorded by ruthless landowners, to placid livestock pastures and swollen rice paddies pleating the hills. (...) Mountains Painted with Turmeric is a well-captured docudrama, and Jhuma's acquiescence makes sense in a novella that chronicles life in an isolated 1950s Nepalese village. Dhané's misfortune, though heartbreaking, is also true to life. Readers may pity him as he and his family are run out of town, and yet, as rural tragedies go, theirs is distressingly mundane -- and timeless." - Tim Kindseth, Time (Asia)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Set in Nepal, Mountains Painted with Turmeric is, at first glance, a fairly conventional type of peasant-farmer tale, a universal hard-luck story of the farmer who, through a combination of bad luck and circumstances -- aggravated by the prevailing social order and the temptations and limitations of going into debt -- spirals ever further into misery and inevitably towards ruin. Stories with a similar arc and foundation were popular in the Europe of the 19th century and beyond, as well as -- for longer -- in Latin America, elsewhere on the Indian subcontinent, and Africa (though, in fact, variations on the basic theme can be found in almost every national literature at some point). Mountains Painted with Turmeric is -- like many of these fictions -- a work of social realism, its central ambitions to portray local conditions.
       The story covers a fairly short span in the life of Dhan Bahadur Basnet, called Dhané. He is twenty-five, and his only family is his wife, Maina, their three-year-old child, and his youngest sister, Jhumavati, "a girl of fourteen or fifteen". Dhané owns a bit of livestock and his small house, but he isn't able to provide much for his family, and the novel begins with him trying to expand his earning-potential. He can get a buffalo -- a pregnant one, no less -- but there's some risk, as the interest he'd owe is high and he'd have to pledge his own plowing oxen as security.
       He gets the buffalo, and "expected to profit from the buffalo in every way", but instead it brings only calamity. It destroys another farmer's crop, which Dhané has to compensate him for, and the buffalo also took some blows -- presumably from the angry farmer -- damaging its womb and leading to the calf to be stillborn. Dhané can't keep up with the interest payments, and he's soon in a position from which there's almost no way out. He can only sustain himself and hope to set things right by borrowing more, but the outcome is no better.
       Meanwhile, a passing soldier takes a fancy to Jhuma, and they bump into one another several times. The soldier tries to sweep her off her feet, and she is tempted, but these things must be done properly -- just to be seen talking with a man is enough to set local tongues wagging. The soldier doesn't see it quite that way, and when he runs into her again decides to have his fun while he can, defiling her (and leaving her pregnant) which makes her a complete outcast in this small community (and has ramifications for her brother and his family too).
       Eventually Dhané has lost everything, and the novel closes off with him and his wife and child heading away from their home, with no real destination in mind (but, presumably, headed for a bigger city or for India, in the hopes of finding work there). Chettri leaves the ending as open as he can, suggesting, for example, about their future life: "Perhaps it will be better than their past, or maybe it will be worse." What is not in doubt is that they will have cut off all ties and connexion to their home and homeland, and that a certain way of life is lost to them.
       Among the interesting things about Mountains Painted with Turmeric is how the author takes care not to be judgmental. There are evil and petty landowners and moneygrubbers (and their relatives) here, but they are not the sole cause of Dhané's misery. No one is really out to get him (though once they see he's weakened some do take advantage of his situation). Dhané's fate is also due to a combination of simple bad luck, as well as missteps he takes. If he had showed more restraint or more care on occasion he might have averted the worst (at least for a while ...). There is also only a limited sense of unfairness here: while some of the judgments of the locals are harsh they are, for the most part in some sense fair (because decisions are reached according to the local (and accepted) rules and norms).
       Remarkably, Chettri uses a fairly simple story to provide a very detailed picture of rural Nepalese life. Not all that much happens -- and the book is short -- and yet it is enough to present many facets of how the community functions, as well as how individuals of different classes (and sexes) deal with one another. Translator Hutt provides extensive notes regarding specific terminology and references, and, along with the Foreword (and brief Afterword), it makes for an instructive whole, a vivid portrayal of local life.
       Hutt quotes some of Chettri's own comments about his book in the Foreword:

     Basain might not entertain its readers, because that is not its aim. In it I have simply tried to give a picture of the villages in the hills of Nepal. Life in the hills -- the joys and sorrows of the villages and the events that happen there -- is the essence of Basain.
     From a literary point of view, the standard of this novel is not high, because I have based it on reality.
       But Chettri sells himself short here. The story is bleak, but its lack of embellishment and focus on realism is its strength: it's not a wallow in misery -- or an outraged railing against the powers that be, as so many such social realist novels tend to be. Conditons are not ideal, and Chettri points out some obvious problematic aspects of the status quo (most obviously when Nandé shouts down ("Hey, serf, be quiet ! Who told you to open your mouth in the presence of these gentlemen ?") the only voice to stand up for Dhané at the meeting to decide what he owes for the damage he is responible for), but there's no call for revolution here, not even a suggestion of alternatives. Chettri leaves this all up to the reader, merely providing what amount to the facts.
       The telling of the story is relatively straightforward and plain, but there is more literary craft to it than Chettri gives himself credit for as well. Jhuma's downfall is handled very delicately (though in its near-Romantic resolution her story is also the only part where Chettri really wavers and can't quite stay true to his realistic streak; it's a more or less plausible outcome, but stands in some contrast to the rest of the novel), and some of the descriptions of both daily life and the surroundings are very effective too (without ever becoming overly indulgent).
       This isn't as finely wrought and over-carefully written as, say, much contemporary American fiction is, and between the translation-notes and Chettri's own style isn't a particularly smooth read, but these aren't major hurdles. There's a lot to Mountains Painted with Turmeric, and it's well worth a look.

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Mountains Painted with Turmeric: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Lil Bahadur Chettri (Lila Bahadura Kshatri, लीलबहादुर छेत्री) is an Indian author who writes inNepali. He was born in 1933.

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