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Published on: 06/4/23 7:15 AM

Book review: The Woman Who Climbed Trees

The Woman Who Climbed Trees

In this sprawling multi-generational saga of a family based in Nepal, it is Meena the child-bride who is clearly the protagonist. Smriti Ravindra deftly combines the personal with the political in her debut novel; the main concern of this book, however, is women, and the love, loss and pain they endure.

The  prologue sets the tone for the book, its magical realism makes it clear where the heart of this book lies,  and  the epilogue brings things full circle. The takeaway? True love, companionship and freedom is best found in the company of other women.

The story revolves around Meena, the pretty, spirited, young girl married off at fourteen to Manmohan. She leaves the familiar environment of Darbhanga first to go to Sabaila where her in-laws stay,  and later to Kathmandu. Loneliness is her constant companion through these dislocations. In Sabaila, virtually abandoned by Manmohan, she has to fend for herself. This is a place of never- ending work from dawn to dusk, an  abusive mother-in-law and other indifferent family members. Her only solace in this arid landscape is the relationship she forges with her sister-in-law. When that friendship is not reciprocated in the manner Meena yearns for, there is a deep feeling of loss.

With deliberate irony, this pattern is later repeated in the life of Meena`s daughter, Preeti. She too tries to assuage her loneliness through her friendship with her schoolmate. In both the lives of mother and daughter,  these friendships take on the shape of first love. In trying to navigate the cliff-edge of same sex friendships, both falter and both are marked by these relationships.

Twin companions

Meena’s move later to Kathmandu and her life there plays out with twin companions of loneliness and grief. The latter makes its appearance with her first miscarriage,  and then never leaves due to the ones that follow. The madness that later afflicts Meena is portrayed interestingly as both imprisoning and liberating. Under the cloak of insanity, Meena is able to give free rein to all the repressed words and emotions that lie within her.

The author has done a wonderful job in delineating the various characters, especially the many women that people the book. Even characters who do not play a very big part, like the wife of an ADC, is drawn with minute strokes.

Actually, this detailing holds true for all the characters. Take the example of Manmohan. Roiling in meekness, cowardice and an ever- present fear of being humiliated for being a Madhesi, he is a man shaped by circumstances who,  despite his best efforts, is unable to alter the narrative of his life to suit him.

In the humiliation that Manmohan feels and perceives around him, the author throws a light on the tension that prevails in Nepal between the Madhesi and Pahadi populations. The Madhesi experience is that of being considered the eternal outsider. They are people of the plains, as compared to the Pahadis who are of the mountains. Even their features differ, with colour too, playing a part. They are much darker when compared to the fair-complexioned Pahadis. The Pahadis were rulers, the Madhesis served them. This humiliation engenders a long-held bitter resentment.

The story deals with many political developments that took place in Nepal at a certain time. Different forces come together to agitate against the monarchy. There is a sullen simmering resentment against India, and the perception that it wields unfair power over Nepal. The effects of the embargo imposed by India in the late Eighties is also described, as also the arson in a theatre showing a film starring a big Indian filmstar. All of these are braided neatly with the main story.

The book switches to a first- person narrative somewhere in the middle of the story. It is then told in the voice of Meena’s daughter Preeti. After which, it switches back and forth. The need for the author to have used this device seems quite hazy as it does not enhance the telling in any way.

There is realism, myth, magic and songs in this story, as well as a striking protagonist. The contours of Meena`s life resemble those of the lives of many women, marked by the milestones of loneliness, grief and loss. In their struggle to carve out a meaningful life, they are all survivors. This beautiful story is one such testament to that.

The Woman who Climbed Trees by Smriti Ravindra. Harper Collins. 421 pages. Rs 599.

This appeared in the Sunday Herald of 4 June 2023. 


a Nepal storybook reviewbooksHarperCollinsSmriti RavindraThe Woman Who Climbed Trees

Sheila Kumar • June 4, 2023

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