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Manjushree Thapa: The Tutor of History

It is no exaggeration to say that Nepal has had a difficult time on the political front in the later years of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st century, as it tries to move from being an absolute monarchy to being a democracy. Thapa’s novel documents this difficult transition from the perspective of one area – Khaireni Tar, a real place but entirely fictionalised for the purposes of this novel, according to Thapa in her introduction. It takes place during the run-up to the 1991 elections. Thapa is at great pains to show both different strata of society and different political parties, though she tends to focus on the (fictitious) People’s Party, nicknamed the Teacup Party because that is its symbol. She is also keen to show the feminist perspective and bring to the fore the poor treatment of women in Nepal.

The People’s Party in Khaireni Tar has not had much success. Its chairman is Giridhar Adhikari. He knows the district well and, as he used to be a bank manager, has good contacts. He had lost his job as a result of a civil service reform and, since then, has had to rely for his income on his crops. He has also become a drunk. He is hoping to become the local candidate of the People’s Party but fears that Nayan Raj Dahal will be given the candidacy. Nayan Raj Dahal is a native of the area but has since become a famous film star, starring in many films, particularly one about a famous rebel leader, and will therefore be a more attractive candidate. Giridhar decides to go to Kathmandu to plead his cause but does not do it very well and ends up agreeing to give all his help to Nayan Raj Dahal. The result, inevitably, is that he turns even more to the bottle, locking himself up in his room and leaving his poor wife wondering what to do.

Giridhar has a good friend, Om Gurung, a former British Gurkha, who has set up, with his own money, a British-style school, which is not very successful. However, he has a heart of gold and is always seeking to help the downtrodden. He tries his best with Giridhar and gives some of his time to help the Party. Nayan Raj Dahal eventually leaves Kathmandu and come to Khaireni Tar, where he will stay with Binita Dahal. Binita had been a young peasant woman and had tried to better herself by getting some education. She had started an affair with her (much older) geography teacher and they had got married. Her husband was the younger brother of Nayan Raj Dahal but there was little contact between the two brothers. At the start of the story Binita is a widow, her husband having died suddenly, and she is left with a daughter to bring up. To the disgust of her late husband’s family, she has set up a teashop which she runs with little assistance, except for her young cousin, Sani (a nickname – she will later revert to her real name of Madhu). She lives a precarious existence and is a very shy, keeping herself to herself. Sani, who is sixteen, is an attractive young woman and very gregarious. She is admired by a young man, Khadka, who is far from an attractive proposition. He has been neglected by his father (a widower) who feels that he may not be the father of the boy. Sani is concerned about his attentions as it gives her a bad reputation. At Binita’s suggestion, she is also learning to read and write.

Finally there is Rishi, the eponymous tutor of history. He is a communist and has been in prison. He is also from the Khaireni Tar area but now lives in Kathmandu, giving history lessons to children studying for their exams. He wants to come back to Khaireni Tar and assist with the elections. He meets his former school-teacher, a leading light in the UML, the communist party, and he is signed up to be a spy in the People’s Party. He joins the People’s Party and soon becomes indispensable because of his diligence and Giridhar’s absence through drunkenness and is able to feed key information back to the UML.

Thapa takes us through all the ins and outs of the election. Corruption plays a major role, with votes being bought or cajoled. We hear the story of a family who did not vote the right way being denied access to the village water tap for five years. We hear of physical force being used. The People’s Party, which is nominally standing on an anti-corruption platform, is not immune to a bit of heavy-handedness and, indeed, is told that that is essential if they are to have any chance. The various ways people are persuaded to vote is a key theme of the book and it is clear that Nepali elections are not honest. But Thapa is not only concerned with the mechanics of the elections, important though these are. She is also concerned with the relationships between the key people. Foremost of her characters is Binita, a shy young woman, unsure of her place, worried about her relatives, worried about Nayan Raj Dahal but gradually pulled into the group of mothers who are aiming to improve the lot of women in the village. But we also follow Sani (Madhu) who seems to be going through a troubled period and not just because of the attentions of Khadka; Rishi, who wonders where his loyalties lie and what he is going to do with the rest of his life; Giridhar, who cannot escape his drunkenness, as well as a variety of secondary characters who are struggling both for what they see as their freedom and also struggling with their daily lives.

Thapa gives us an excellent overview of a village and some of its key characters as well as showing us how an election is fought in Nepal. She has no illusions about corruption in her country’s political process and no high ideals except for one, namely that the lot of women can and should be improved. No great changes take place as the elections go through their fairly predictable course but it is small changes, not necessarily brought about by elections, that are important in this book and these make interesting reading.

Publishing history

First published in 2001 by Penguin