Gainay: A Minstrel’s Songs of Love and Sorrow (Satis Shroff)
Once upon a time,
my grandpa said:
“In Nepal even a child
Can walk the countryside alone.”
It’s just not true,
Not for a Nepalese,
Born with a sarangi in his hand.
I’m a musician,
One of the lower caste
In the Hindu hierarchy.
I bring delight to my listeners,
Hope to touch the hearts
Of my spectators.
I sing about love,
Hate and evil,
Kings and Queens,
Princes and Princesses,
The poor and the rich,
And the fight for existence,
In the craggy foothills
And the towering heights
Of the Himalayas.
The Abode of the Snows,
Where Buddhist and Hindu
Gods and Goddesses reside,
And look over mankind
And his folly.
I was born in Tanhau,
A nondescript hamlet in Nepal,
Were it not for Bhanu Bhakta Acharya
Who was born here,
The poet who translated the Ramayana,
From high-flown Sanskrit into simple Nepali
For all to read.
I remember the first day
My father handed me a sarangi.
He taught me how to hold and swing the bow.
I was delighted with the first squeaks it made,
As I moved the bow on the taught horsetail strings.
It was as though my small sarangi
Was talking with me.
I was so happy,
I and my sarangi,
My sarangi and me.
Tears of joy ran down my cheeks.
I was so thankful.
I touched my Papa’s feet,
As is the custom in the Himalayas.
I could embrace the whole world.
My father taught me the tones,
And the songs to go with them,
For we gaineys are minstrels
Who wander from place to place,
Like butterflies in Spring.
We are a restless folk
To be seen everywhere,
Where people dwell,
For we live from their charity
And our trade.
The voice of the gainey,
The sad melody of the sarangi.
A boon to those who love the lyrics,
A nuisance to those who hate it.
Many a time, we’ve been kicked and beaten
By young people who prefer canned music,
From their ghetto-blasters.
Electronic beats you can’t catch up with.
Spinning on their heads,
Hip-hopping like robots,
It’s the techno, ecstasy generation
Where have all the old melodies gone?
The Nepalese folksongs of yore?
The song of the Gainey?
“This is globanisation,” they told me.
The grey-eyed visitors from abroad,
‘Quirays’ as we call them in Nepal.
Or ‘gora-sahibs’ in Hindustan.
The quirays took countless pictures of me,
With their cameras,
Gave handsome tips.
A grey-haired didi with spectacles,
And teeth in like a horse’s mouth,
Even gave me a polaroid-picture
With my sarangi,
My mountain violin.
Sometimes I look my fading picture
And wonder how fast time flows.
My smile is disappearing,
Grey hair at the sides,
The beginning of baldness.
I’ve lost a lot of my molars,
At the hands of the Barbier
From Muzzafapur in the Indian plains,
He gave me clove oil
To ease my pain,
As he pulled out my fouled teeth,
In an open-air salon
Right near the Tribhuvan Highway.
I still have my voice
And my sarangi,
And love to sing my repertoire,
Even though many people
Sneer and jeer at me,
And prefer Bollywood texts
From my larynx.
To please their whims,
I learned even Bollywood songs,
Aginst my will,
Eavesdropping behind cinema curtains,
To please the tourists
And my country’s modern youth,
I even learned some English songs.
Oh money, dear money.
I’ve become a cultural prostitute.
I’ve done my Zunft, my trade,
But I did it to survive.
I had to integrate myself
And to assimilate
In my changing society.
Time has not stood still
Under the shadow of the Himalayas.
One day when I was much younger,
I was resting under a Pipal tree
When I saw one beautiful tourist girl.
I looked and smiled at her.
She caressed her hair,
And smiled back.
For me it was love at first sight.
All the while gazing at her
I took out my small sarangi,
With bells on my fiddle bow
And played a sad Nepali melody
Composed by Ambar Gurung,
Which I’d learned in my wanderings
From Ilam to Darjeeling.
I am the Sky
You are the Soil,
Even though we yearn
A thousand times,
We cannot be together.
I was sentimental that moment.
Had tears in my eyes
When I finished my song.’
The blonde woman sauntered up to me,
And said in a smooth voice,
‘Thank you for the lovely song.
Can you tell me what it means?’
I felt a lump on my throat
And couldn’t speak
For a while.
Then, with a sigh, I said,
‘We have this caste system in Nepal.
When I first saw you,
I imagined you were a fair bahun girl.
We aren’t allowed to fall in love
It is a forbidden love,
A love that can never come true.
I love you
But I can’t have you.’
‘But you haven’t even tried,’
Said the blonde girl coyly.
‘I like your golden hair,
Your blue eyes.
It’s like watching the sky.’
‘Oh, thank you,
She asked: ‘But why do you say:
‘We cannot be together?’
‘We are together now,’ I replied,
‘But the society does not like
Us gaineys from the lower caste.
The bahuns, chettris castes are above us.
They look down upon us.’
‘Why do they do that?’
Asked the blonde girl.
I spat out:
‘Because they are high-born.
We, kamis, damais and sarkis,
We are the downtrodden,
The underdogs of this society
In the foothills of the Himalayas.’
‘Who made you what you are?’ she asked.
I told her: ‘The Hindu society is formed this way:
Once upon a time there was a bahun,
And from him came the Varnas.
The Vernas are a division of society
Into four parts.
Brahma created the bahuns
From his mouth.
The chettris who are warriers
Came from his shoulder,
The traders from his thigh
And the servants
From the sole of his feet.’
‘What about the poor dalits?’
Quipped the blonde foreigner.
‘The dalits fell deeper in the Hindu society,
And were not regarded as full members
Of the human race.
We had to do the errands and menial jobs
That were forbidden for the higher castes.’
‘Like what?’ she asked.
‘Like disposing dead animals,
Making leather by skinning hides
Of dead animals,
Cleaning toilets and latrines,
Clearing the sewage canals of the rich,
High born Hindus.
I am not allowed to touch a bahun,
Even with my shadow, you know.’
‘What a mean, ugly system,’ she commented,
And shook her head.
‘May I touch you?’ she asked impulsively.
She was daring and wanted to see how I’d react.
‘You may,’ I replied.
She touched my hand,
Then my cheeks with her two hands.
I found it pleasant and a great honour.
I joined my hands and said sincerely,
I, a dalit, a no-name, a no-human,
Had been touched by a young, beautiful woman,
A quiray tourist,
From across the Black Waters:
A wave of happiness and joy
Swept over me.
A miracle had happened.
Like a princess kissing a toad,
In fairy tales I’d heard.
Perhaps Gandhi was right:
I was a Child of God,
And this fair lady an apsara.
She, in her European mind,
Thought she’d brought human rights
At least to the gainey,
This wonderful wandering minstrel,
With his quaint fiddle
His jet black hair
And infectious smile.
She said in her melodious voice,
‘In my country all people are free and equal,
Have the same rights and dignity.
All humans have common sense,
And we ought to meet each other
As brothers and sisters.
I tucked my sarangi in my armpit,
Clapped my hands and said:
It works for you here, perhaps.
But it won’t work for me,’
Feeling a sense of remorse and nausea
Sweep over me.