Under my byline

Kathmandu calling

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 5 June 2010

The king is gone and the Maoists are in the capital, yet Nepal’s future remains unclear. Three new novels offer some clues

Journalism, even good journalism, tells us only so much about troubled places. The news about Nepal, for instance, is too headlines-driven and Kathmandu-centric for us to make sense of what’s happening in that country. The facts themselves are quite drab: a modest (by the standards of modern insurrection) number of deaths from Maoist and state violence in the past decade; the rise and fall of members of a rotating cast of political characters in the capital; and shakeups in the form of the June 1, 2001 palace massacre in which King Birendra and his family were shot dead, the “royal coup” of his successor Gyanendra, and the eventual import of Maoist leaders into the murk and muddle of democratic government.

Fiction helps bridge the chasm between reported news and experienced reality. For one has to understand not only the insurgency and capital politics but also how ordinary Nepalis have lived through civil war, how they have coped or changed. Now that the war has ended, three recently published novels by Nepali writers offer us outsiders a view of the Nepal behind the news reports.

Newspaper editor Narayan Wagle’s Palpasa Café was published in Nepali in 2005. It became a bestseller in Nepal, with 40,000 copies sold, and is now out in English in India. It is about an artist named Drishya who has a gallery in Kathmandu where he exhibits his own paintings. He and a Nepali-American named Palpasa, newly returned to her own country, meet and are drawn to each other. But there is no consummation.

After a dismayingly amateurish first 60 or so pages, the story picks up. Drishya, goaded by a friend who is now a Maoist, goes away to his native hill region for a month, where he sees firsthand what time, the Maoists and civil war have done to his land and people. In the meantime Palpasa travels away from Kathmandu to make a documentary on life outside the city, but is questioned by Maoists and sent back. There is connection without contact. The book isn’t so much a love story as a story of rediscovery — of roots, of truths.

One of the handful of translators who worked on the book is Manjushree Thapa, author of the acclaimed Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy (2005). For that book Thapa went travelling through Maoist-controlled areas of poor western Nepal; the result was a well-reported book-length essay on the monarchy, Nepal’s long struggle for democracy, and the political activation of the grassroots.

This year Thapa has published a novel about Nepal from the outside. In Seasons of Flight, Prema leaves her village in eastern Nepal to study and earn a livelihood. Her angry young sister joins the Maoists, while Prema becomes a forestry worker in rural western Nepal just as the Maoists are rising to strength. Eventually Prema becomes an immigrant in America, with a low-paying job in Los Angeles. Having closed herself off from Nepal and her family, she cannot open herself to America, not even when she falls into a relationship with the incredibly sympathetic, if uncomprehending, Luis Reyes. The conclusion, fortunately, is less bleak.

The third book is Sheeba Shah’s Facing My Phantoms. Shah married into the former royal family and lives in Kathmandu. She tells the stories of two fictional women from her own class. The lesser narrative runs from the 1930s to the present and is about Sanat, the wife of one of Nepal’s minor rajas. Shah traces the declining fortunes of this feudal family, from absolute authority in their village to relative decrepitude in Kathmandu once mismanagement and the Maoists — former feudal dependents — strip the family of their ancestral land and power.

The main narrative is about Sanjeevani, Sanat’s granddaughter, a self-willed young woman whose unconventional behaviour (including affairs with a married Marwari businessman and a Maoist commander) at once opens her eyes and turns her life into the site of a struggle between past and future. She is a marvellous and rudely vital character. If only Shah had been better served by her editors at Rupa, this could have been a very good book.

All three protagonists are outsiders and misfits. Two are female, of course, and non-conformist in their behaviour and goals. All three, including Wagle’s Drishya, have an occasionally ungovernable imagination as well as an earthy, almost peasant practicality and optimism. All three are at once of the city and of their rural origins. Fortunately the weight of all this symbolism doesn’t quite sink any of them.

All three authors write about the impact of Maoists and the war — depopulation, fear, lost opportunities, a fatal unravelling of traditional ties (even the useful ones), loss of connection with the land — though Wagle and Shah have more to say about life under the Maoists.

Land: the authors appear to see this as the fundamental break. Ultimately their lead characters all realise that they must heal themselves by returning to their roots. In two cases, this means literally their own village homes and people; while in Thapa’s book Prema returns to the “reality” of the natural world. What is this but a criticism of the city — LA, for one, but chiefly Kathmandu, which sucks Nepalis in and cuts them off from their past, from themselves. (Surely it’s no coincidence that the capital has doubled in population since 2000.) But this is the extent of the conservatism of these very political novels — two of the protagonists dream, after all, that ecotourism, not feudalism, will save their homelands. And all three just want the fighting to end.

Reading these three memorable books together, the reader can take in a heady whiff of Nepal’s “nationhood”. Something is evidently common in the imagination and experience, and it is more than a romantic ideal. One almost envies Nepal, such a little country compared to our own, for having that.

Palpasa Café
Narayan Wagle
Random House India
pp vi + 258

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Seasons of Flight
Manjushree Thapa
Penguin
pp viii + 232

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Facing My Phantoms
Sheeba Shah
Rupa
pp viii + 282

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