PEN America is thrilled to showcase the work of recipients of the 2017 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants. For the next few weeks, we’ll feature excerpts from the winning projects introduced by the translators themselves. The fund awards grants of $2,000–$4,000 to promote the publication and reception of translated world literature in English.

Today we feature an excerpt from Manjushree Thapa’s grant-winning translation from the Nepali of There’s a Carnival Today by Indra Bahadur Rai.

Thapa writes: I have loved Indra Bahadur (IB) Rai’s work since I first read it, around the turn of the millennium, as I was working on my first novel. The delicacy of his style, the heart and intelligence with which he writes, and his intimate knowledge of his subjects taught me that my goal as an English-language writer from Nepal ought to be to write with as much nuance and complexity as the finest Nepali-language writers. For me, IB Rai has been both a revelation and a personal inspiration.

There’s a Carnival Today is Rai’s most iconic work, a novel about “the old Darjeeling,” written in 1958 in an unstable post-Independence India. The protagonist Janakman Yonzon, or Janak, is an Everyman with lofty dreams and modest accomplishments. The center of India’s Nepali-speaking population, Darjeeling has had its fortunes shaped by two militant political movements: a labor union movement in the tea plantations and a movement to break away from the state of West Bengal and establish a separate state, Gorkhaland. There’s a Carnival Today presages both movements as Janak and his family respond to events beyond their control. In showing their small lives, the author shows the life of the entire town. IB Rai is able to make this larger story intensely vivid and personal.

In addition to wanting to translate this novel out of my own admiration for it, I also wanted IB Rai’s work to reach the audiences who should read it. Though IB Rai’s work has made him a legend in the world of Nepali literature, and though he has won the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award in India, most of his work is available only to Nepali-language readers. His work is celebrated in Nepal, but remains little known in his own country, India. IB Rai’s oeuvre is as rich as any of India’s most known writers. I want to introduce the English-reading world to one of India’s most accomplished writers by making his work available in translation. I sincerely believe that English-language literature will be enriched by this.


Gleaming black from the rains, the old cart road knocks against many a cliff, bluff, and curved hill, linking the patch of northern Lobang-Goltar to dusty, clangorous Siliguri bazaar. This artery that makes life flow through the mountain districts. Landslides tug at it for four months during the monsoon; the mud roof tumbles and it’s covered; ancient sal trees lay their bodies down in the middle of the road in peaceful protest. The mountain dwellers then set out to do their duty, securing the supports, clearing the dirt, hacking off the male pride of the trees. Countless oxcarts, train trolleys, Jeeps, buses, cars, and trucks are this road’s daily passengers. In the forested overgrowth of Sukuna, the train vanishes with each turn, playing hide-and-seek, like an unsightly lover, with the Jeep. The Jeep keeps speeding on and leaving it behind, as though the truth were entirely mundane. When, trailing behind and pausing at a feeble pace, the train climbs up the Batase hill and doesn’t see ‘him,’ she emits a deep, smoky exhalation, shrieks, soaks the ground with hot tears. It must be male pity that makes the Jeep—which, like a bumblebee, can go anywhere—love the train, a woman compelled to follow a fixed route. When the two are able to meet at some point, like the aligning of two planets, the truck transporting loads of coal, potatoes, tin sheets, and cigarettes looks at them with a split temperament, one of its eyes blazing red with desire, the other soulless with fear.

With a honk of warning, the truck descends from the road carved into the heart of Giddhe Pahar. Seen from above, the truck looks like an emotive life force burgeoning on as it speeds single-mindedly through the endless, lonely turns below Kharsang. During the monsoon months of Asar and Saun, the fogs obliterate the divide between night and day in the stretch from Panchan to Ghoom, evoking the earth’s ancient past. The driver must wipe off the trickles of moisture that form on the window and ascend each slope with supreme patience. The truck is the labourer of society; it is half of its driver’s soul. For its owner, it is a small factory that earns him a living. The truck has no home, nor has it a place to pause and close its eyes. It spends the night on the roadside, occasionally sheltering in someone’s courtyard. A single tent guards its life on dark, terrifying nights of slanting rain. The following day, it must once again sustain society and civilization by transporting a one-ton load one hundred kilometers away. One paisa multiplies tenfold over every time each of the truck’s four wheels rotates, touching the earth. The truck is a slave purchased for ten thousand.

The red truck approaching Kagjhoda, No. 3761, is Janak’s.

“If you don’t sell it, it’ll provide for you,” Janak’s father had told him. That year, the old man had first bought a car, an Austen of an old model that could seat four people. The car used to ply between Darjeeling bazaar and Ghoom.

The old man had a teashop near the train station. Janak’s mother would sit in the shop with potatoes, boiled soybeans, beaten rice, balls of sweet puffed rice, rough roti, and paan. Drivers would come there to drink at night. They would play cards. The old man would raise money for the lanterns. Massive brawls erupted from time to time; the drivers ended up in blows – and some went to the hospital with cracked heads or to the police station for doing the cracking. “My house isn’t a casino, no more cards from today!” the old man would fume. The card games would resume gradually, after four or five days. The old woman held on tightly to money. Other than the flattened gold on her ears, the old couple made no display of their wealth.

When Janak passed high school, many people offered to help enlist him in the Police Department to work as a constable, but the old man shook his head in refusal. The British Bank Manager had raised higher hopes on “this” side—he’d already told the old man, in broken Hindi, “We see, very good!” Dressed in a red sheep’s wool cap and a white shirt done all the way up with hooked buttons, the old man used to declare, proudly, “It’s because of what the Saheb has said that Janak is studying in Calcutta.”

Janak received news of his father’s death in Calcutta, in his second year of studying banking. The colleges were closed in celebration of CV Raman’s Nobel Prize victory the previous day. Janak put off a plan to visit Dandi, the site of Gandhi’s Salt March, and returned to Darjeeling to assist his grieving mother. Her composed bearing and serene countenance took him aback.

The Buddhist mourning rituals took place. After everyone, including the lamas, had left, Janak’s mother called him over and said, “How many more months of study do you have left? Even as he died, your father told me to educate you, he said, ‘Make him pass, do that for sure … ’ So go, go and pass soon, and then come back. There’s so much work to do after that … ”

Upon saying this much, when no one else was at home, his mother wept that night.

Janak couldn’t even recognize his mother when he returned home eight months later. Thin, sickly, elderly. What had happened to the girth she used to have? It alarmed him. But there was the same serenity on her face. She sat at her accustomed spot in the tea shop til Sita arrived.

After accounting for every last paisa at the Bank, Janak now came home exhausted at seven or eight in the evening, yet he still told her about all the external goings-on and troublemaking.

Draped in a chequered red Highlander shawl, his mother would say, “Why would the British quit a Raj so grand? That’s just people talking. Would they quit a Raj that they made their own through so much struggle, intelligence, and effort, just because people ask them to? The British built all these cities, roads, buildings; how could they simply stop caring for them and go away?”

Displaying great tenderness towards his mother, Janak would try to explain. “Our country is our home. You tell me, Aama: what would you do if a thief were to enter our home?”

“Me? What would I do? You’re the one who wouldn’t beat him up and chase him away: what could I do?”

“We mustn’t beat up anyone, Aama. Non-violence … ” Janak would tell his mother about Gandhi. “You must have faith in humanity and show love to everyone, even if he’s an enemy, do you understand, Aama? You must conduct compassionate peaceful protests to make him realize his mistake. Do you know, Aama, that demands grounded in the truth have the power to bring about a complete transformation in the heart of a guilty man? And even if by chance he becomes harsher or more oppressive and cruel, we must observe the vow of civil disobedience and not get enraged or seek revenge. Do you understand now, Aama?”

“I don’t understand. I don’t understand anything.”

Fifteen or sixteen summers later, India became independent one day, after much struggle. Its moments of liberation began to tick from midnight onward, when half the world was hushed and asleep. Millions of exuberant banners were going to flutter from every house all over India on the following day.

“Janak, is our country really free?”

“That’s what they say.” Janak had changed a lot.

“Thank the Lord! My life has served a purpose,” his mother said.

From the names and dates scrawled on the novels and other books that Janak was reading at the time, it can be discerned that he saw Sita on his final return to Darjeeling.

No one can be found to expound on the subject of the introduction, progress, and love between the two, and one mustn’t write an entire story based on the imagination. What this makes clear is how assiduously Janak and Sita—named after the “father and daughter” of the Ramayana—guarded the secret of their “sinful” love, the precious truth that only they knew about. Janak’s confidant, Sumshere, knew only this much: Sita had come here from Nepal to study. She was probably a Pradhan by caste. Because on Sundays, she came shopping with the family of Haridas Pradhan from below the Court.

One day, when their novelistic love drama had passed the halfway chapter, Janak read Sumshere a passage from a short letter that Sita had written to him: “Your soul is a thousand times more dear to me than my own.” To Janak, this single passage seemed to contain all of the world’s literature and devotion.

“One thing,” Sumshere told Janak excitably that day. “Have you noticed? The second toes on both of Sita’s feet are very long. That alone makes her seem to be of good birth!”

Pathetic Janak must have had nothing better to do than to blab about this to Sita. From the following day onward, whenever Sita met Sumshere, she glared at him with the expression of a black serpent.

Some people from Sita’s home came with porters and took her back for the winter holidays. Given the circumstance, Janak spent the whole night writing Sita an especially literary “letter of solace,” the way many others had. Without so much as changing out of his dirty shirt, he folded his oeuvre to hide most of it from sight and showed Sumshere a suitable passage:

isn’t either. To be locked in embrace

staring at each other’s face isn’t love, Sita.

To face in the same direction while standing apart

and keeping the same goal, that’s love. Today my

Janak mailed off the letter after placing it in a blue envelope with a picture of a flying bird that was carrying a letter in its beak.

Sita started living in Janak’s home from that winter onward.