Greta Rana’s telling of the country’s powerful Rana family, from the perspective of its women, is poetic and earnest. Yet, the book stumbles on its narrative voice and editorial skills, says Rabi Thapa
Greta Rana married into the Rana family and settled in Nepal in 1971.
Even by the standards of a country like Nepal, Greta Rana has had an unusual time of it. Born in a former coal-mining town in Yorkshire, UK, she fell in love with a Nepali student from an aristocratic family at university. In 1971, she settled in Nepal, then known chiefly for its mountains, marijuana and monarchy, and contributed considerably to the fledgling English-language literary scene.
Greta developed a profound interest in the history of her husband's family, the Ranas – who ruled Nepal as hereditary, absolute prime ministers between 1846 and 1951, more powerful even than the Shah kings. As a writer, it struck her that people knew little about the Ranas beyond their two-dimensional, historical representations. In 1984, she translated Diamond Shumshere Rana's Seto Bagh, a novel about the demise of Jung Bahadur Rana, the first and most powerful of the Rana rulers. In her novel Hidden Women, published by Roli Books this spring, Greta delves into the lives of the "ruling women" behind the charismatic Jung Bahadur.
Women played a major role in Nepali politics between 1777 and 1846, thanks to the instability occasioned by a succession of underage and/or deranged monarchs. Regent queens, royal wives and concubines schemed for kingly favours with the help of several bitterly opposed noble families, including the Ranas. Greta reminds us of the role of the "ruling women", supplementing her theme with the characters of Kadam, Jung Bahadur's clairvoyant wet nurse, and his mother, Ganesh Kumari. She adopts a feminist tone early on in this "her story" when Kadam's mother-in-law sums up the relations between men and women: "That's all they do, plough ... They plough the land and they plough us and we have to look after everything that grows".
Greta clearly relishes her role as a novelist breathing life into the dusty facts of yesteryear. Even those familiar with Nepal's turbulent past will appreciate the vivid reconstructions of key events such as the Kot Massacre (when Jung Bahadur orchestrated the elimination of his political rivals in a denouement that had the streets of Kathmandu running red), interspersed with tender moments between Jung and his women. Greta's poetic sensibility serves her well in both instances. She does not shy away from frank depictions of sex and violence, and offers us intimate psychological portraits of the primary players. Indeed, her portrayal of the web of self-defeating intrigue that bogged down the 19th Century Kathmandu court will resonate with students of modern-day Nepali politics.
The author makes a valiant effort to untangle the web of alliances and rivalries that animated the Kathmandu court. But in this she is only partly successful; a simple genealogical chart prefacing the text would have done wonders. Perhaps an editor could have streamlined this clutter as well as the repetitive explications of Jung Bahadur's birth and Bhimsen Thapa's death; the incongruously polyglot speech employed by King Rajendra Shah, replete with such phrases as "Come now chuck", "Nerbous bhayo" (they're nervous) and "Reculer pour mieux sauter"; and the questionable coda to the novel.
More serious is a certain dislocation in narrative voice. Beginning with the young Kadam, Greta shifts to the viewpoints of Ganesh Kumari and Jung Bahadur, and eventually to that of his wives and concubines. This is all very well. But in choosing to insert the voices of Mathbar Singh Thapa (Jung Bahadur's uncle and prime minister between 1843 and 1845) and the British Resident Hodgson, the author dilutes her focus. In the chapters featuring Mathbar, the narrator does little but reinforce the picture other characters have of him as a vainglorious power monger. Here, one wonders if Greta is interested only in maligning Mathbar (and the rest of the Kathmandu aristocracy) so as to justify his (and their) elimination by Jung Bahadur. Of all those jockeying for power at the time, Jung Bahadur was the most successful because he was the most ruthless. Yet the implication is that he was forced to do what he did, and that he was essentially honourable, if hot-headed. Censure is limited to the weak protestations of his mother. This is a disingenuous gesture on the part of the author that undermines her claims to historical truth.
The narrative device of Kadam's clairvoyance, 'the Sight', is as intriguing as it is problematic. How does the author retain control of a historical narrative when she complements it with a demi-omniscient, most likely fictional character? Nevertheless, the novel's greatest success is in Kadam, linking as she does the affairs of a feudal state with the mundane realities of the peasants it exploited. Kadam is a worthy heroine, even if it is not clear to what extent the hidden women of the Rana dynasty were its ruling women, especially after 1846.The reader will empathise with this sensitive, intelligent woman, torn from her home to serve her husband's family and then Jung Bahadur's. And by the end, one is interested rather more in Kadam's fate than that of her masters, long featured, after all, in Nepal's history books.
Hidden Women: The Ruling Women of The Rana Dynasty
Pages: 374 Rs. 395