Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The King's Harvest by Chetan Raj Shreshta

Source: Goodreads
The King's Harvest
Chetan Raj Shreshta
Published 2013 by Aleph Book Company
151 pages, novella, crime, social commentary, women's rights, peasant issues, historical fiction
Found: signed first edition copy (!) at Rachna Books, Gangtok, Sikkim

This beautiful volume contains two novellas set in the author's home state of Sikkim, India.

"An Open-and-Shut Case"

When a police officer is brutally murdered by his wife, it seems like the case will be easy to settle. It falls upon the new head of the local police department, a tough female officer named Dechen, to clear up the case as quickly as possible. But when Dechen talks to the accused and her daughter, the lines between murder and self protection begin to blur. And then there is the little matter of the terrible rape and torture committed by her predecessor, which the locals are still angry about...

"The King's Harvest"

In June 2005, after spending 32 years farming in a remote mountain valley, a man named Tontem arrives in Gangtok in search of the king's palace. For the last three years, no one has come to collect the king's share of Tontem's crops. His whole valley is filled with the stench of unused, rotting crops, so he decides to set out on a journey with his two youngest children to find out what happened.

In more than thirty years, Sikkim has changed to be nearly unrecognizable. What will he find after he braves the journey to the capital in a taxi, or as he terms it, a "giant wheeled rat"?

The irony of this story comes from the history of Sikkim, of which Tontem is blissfully unaware. The Sikkimese monarchy was abolished in 1975, at which time it became a state of India. Tontem, isolated in a remote valley, has not been informed of this; he continues to profess his loyalty to the former king and does not realize that he has become the citizen of another country.

Moral ambiguities

On the surface, these two stories share no resemblance to each other. One is about a police investigation of a murder, and the other is about a peasant wanting to see the Sikkimese king 30 years after he was removed from power. So why did the author choose to publish them in the same volume? 

Answer: these novellas share the theme of ambiguous morality. In some ways, the actions of the characters seem morally acceptable. From other angles, the opposite is true.

In the first novella, the woman purposefully murders her husband. The author's description makes it clear that she fully understands what she is doing, and is not just reacting in anger. Then she cuts his body up into tiny pieces so that it no longer resembles anything remotely human. Afterward, she calmly takes her two small children and turns herself in to the police.

Obviously, this is a brutal, premeditated murder and the woman should be punished accordingly. But as the investigation continues, her husband's atrocious character and terrible treatment of her become clear. He frequently beat her, was never at home, and had several other women in other places. In fact, he was paying to live with another constable's sister in Gangtok, where he was normally stationed. In this situation, is it morally acceptable to punish the woman for killing this man? He made her life miserable, and, from accounts of the neighbors, the neighborhood is much better off without him. How should the police react in order to be fair and see that justice happens, but also to be compassionate towards all involved?

In the second novella, it becomes increasingly obvious to the reader that Tontem has been taken advantage of for decades. His "friend" who was the designated representative of the king in the area would buy Tontem's excess produce for ridiculously low prices. It is also unclear whether the messages "to Tontem from the king" were real, or simply a way to make Tontem grow cash crops that his "friend" could then grow rich from. And then, it turns out that Tontem's first wife had not actually disappeared; this same "friend" had taken her in and married her. They even had a child together! But our stalwart, loyal farmer does not realize that he has been taken advantage of, and instead continues to think of this man as a good friend, which no one contradicts.

Similarly, Tontem arrives in Gangtok to find it different than he had expected. But no one tells him exactly how different it is - that Sikkim is a part of India now, and no longer has a king. Instead, the people he meets are careful to not disabuse him of these notions. Is it right to let this man continue thinking things that are wrong? Is this attempt to preserve his innocence a favor, or evidence of further exploitation?

The author leaves these questions of morality for the reader to puzzle over.

All in all, this is a brilliant first novel that reveals both the beauty of Sikkim and its darker sides. I look forward to reading more of Chetan Raj Shreshta's work.

The King's Harvest is available from Amazon, flipkart, and wherever books are sold. 

Further Reading: 

"The Smash and Grab Story," review of Smash and Grab: The Annexation of Sikkim by Sunanda K. Datta-Ray (buy from Amazon here)
"How Sikkim was won" from the blog "My Likhoni"
"Sikkim- A Look Back View," a blog dedicated to the history of Sikkim
"‘Because Sikkim is small, and its realities are graspable, it can behave like a character’," interview with Chetan Raj Shresthta by Anuradha Sharma (Scroll)
My photos from Sikkim on Flickr

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