The charge labelled most often at Nepali fiction in English is that it is oriented too much towards the West. Samrat Upadhyay’s “Arresting God in Kathmandu” might have won rave reviews at home and abroad, but local readers were, and still are, conflicted about the book. At a reading in Kathmandu about a decade ago, an audience member went so far as to accuse Upadhyay, who has now lived in the US for a significant portion of his life, of being an ‘orientalist’.
The writing that was released this past year—short story collections from SSushma Joshi and Prawin Adhikari and a novel from Samrat Upadhyay—must also bear the cross of just who the audience is. In that vein, Adhikari and Joshi emerge slightly better off than Upadhyay, who once again, must contend with the fact that his novel bears uncomfortable overtones. But first, a disclaimer—writing purely for a Western audience is not a negative thing. That said, such authors must be prepared to undergo the scrutiny that local readers will put them under, especially when it comes to a nation as prickly about representation as Nepal.
First, Joshi’s collection, “The Prediction”, which I reviewed early in February, was slightly disappointing. Joshi’s first collection, “The End of the World”, contained more well-developed stories and was quite entertaining. Her new collection is ambitious but ultimately, fails to reach the heights that it aspires to. Her purported blending of fact and fiction is limited in depth and scope. However, a few stories, under-stated and nuanced, like “Hunger”, are absolute gems. It is in these stories that the reader can actually get ensconced within the narrative, so much so that it doesn’t quite matter when or where the story is taking place. Sure, for Nepali readers, there is a long patriarchal history behind the buhari in “Hunger”, but for others not familiar with the intricacies of Nepali family dynamics, the story works just as well, driven by a taut sense of timing and plot and prose that is rich in detail, focussed and evocative.
The audience, in Joshi’s stories, seems shifting and myriad, a strength more than a weakness. No one story feels like it is directed solidly at the West but at times, like in “A Boleria for Love”, the uneven narrative does all readers a disservice. Located neither here nor there, the stories, with their eclectic mix of characters from all parts of the world, survey equally diverse parts of the world with detached eyes. The gaze is neither local nor foreign, because it is simply not grounded enough. The stories that take place in Nepal do feel situated, but I am not certain if that has more to do with the fact that I am Nepali rather than the author’s skill at communicating histories.
Prawin Adhikari’s “The Vanishing Act”, his debut collection of stories, heads in the opposite direction from Joshi’s. While two stories are set in the US, the majority of the stories utilise Adhikari’s hometown of Khaireni and adopted home of Kathmandu as backdrops to delve into introspective stories of longing. In beautiful language, Adhikari weaves brittle tapestries of lives that are shorn of facades. And while the two stories set in Khaireni— “The Boy from Banauti” and “Mayapuri”—are evocative, illuminating works that bring to life the author’s situational awareness, the ones set in Kathmandu—“The Messiah” and “Stamp and Signature”—are strange pieces, seemingly propelled not by agency but by a kind of fatalistic predestination amid the wreckage of a city in revolution and a broken marriage.
But Adhikari gets weaker the farther he strays from his home. The stories in Khaireni resonate the most, grounded as they are in their time and place. The Kathmandu stories are too, but instead of spreading outwards and into the world, these ones revert inwards, turning Adhikari’s gaze into the self. This is not a negative per se, but it does Adhikari’s skills a disservice as he is more adept at scrutinising the outside and using that to tell stories of the inside. “The Messiah” reads like a very personal story but it doesn’t seem to resound as much. This is because the internal feels disconnected from the external, even though it is the external that is provoking the internal. There is a causality but little complementarity. The ones set in the US are weaker still, especially “The Case of Carolynn Flint”. Still, Adhikari’s saving grace, his prose, tides over the inconsistencies and serves the reader well.
Samrat Upadhyay’s “The City Son” is somewhat problematic. As is often the case with Upadhyay’s writing, his stories seem rootless and timeless. This can be welcoming to someone unfamiliar with Nepal, where most of his stories are set. Upadhyay’s stories provide an idyllic picture of Nepal, as divorced from time and space, unchanged and unrelenting. Even when he directly attempts to tackle history, as in “The Royal Ghosts”, a sense of unfamiliarity comes across. The same goes for The “City Son”, a novel about an illicit ‘relationship’ between a stepmother and her stepson. The relationship is more sexual abuse than anything and Upadhyay goes to great lengths to impress upon the reader the nature of the emotional and sexual manipulation that Didi, the stepmother, utilises. But here too, as a Nepali reader, I do not get a sense of when the story is taking place. The Kathmandu of “The City Son” is timeless and romantic. There is a rich uncle who drives around in a fancy car but others still store water in gagris and drink out of karuwas. That too in the heart of Asan. It is a confusing timelessness for a local, but for a Western audience, this lack of specificity places the story in on an imagined plane, where Nepal is still one of the poorest countries in the world and even in Kathmandu, the capital, people are still quaint and rustic.
The subject matter in Upadhyay’s story is not the problem, despite how uncomfortable many local readers might feel with his frank depiction of sex, especially the taboo kind. That has actually been one of Upadhyay’s strength, the openness with which he approaches the ‘immoral’ aspect of sex, like relations between in-laws, between teachers and students, and between parents and children. In “The City Son”, Upadhyay does this with aplomb. There is a pervasive sense of dread throughout the book. Didi is a looming presence, off page but never off frame. On the stepson, Tarun, the damage is immeasurable. Didi’s relationship with Tarun is disturbing, morphing quickly from a seemingly innocuous but calculative bit designed to torment the other wife into a dark, upsetting bond that dooms Tarun. The
reader cannot help but pity Tarun’s situation, and also that of his young wife. This is where Upadhyay does his best work, bringing out the nuances of character in ways simple but illustrative.
“The City Son” is no mean addition to Upadhyay’s oeuvre; his best work still remains his first, “Arresting God in Kathmandu”. The same can be said for Joshi too. Stories in her debut, “The End of the World”, were finely wrought. Adhikari has set a high bar for himself with his debut collection also. So this past year, thus, has been a middling year for Nepali fiction in English. Even Prajwal Parajuly, a Nepali-Indian, didn’t make much of a splash with “Land Where I Flee”, especially after the critical adulation of “The Gurkha’s Daughter”. The spotlight this year seemingly remained on non-fiction when it came to Nepali writing in English. Prashant Jha’s “Battles of the New Republic” was hailed for its clear-eyed look at the recent history of Nepali politics and Thomas Bell’s part-memoir, part-political history, part-travelogue “Kathmandu” made a stir with its revelations of British complicity in ‘torture’ during the Maoist insurgency. In these books, the problem of audience arises less often, it seems. Perhaps this is because fiction is tasked with a slightly different purpose than non-fiction, which strives for a kind of ‘truth’, however elusive that may be. Fiction, on the other
hand, provides a mirror of sorts, distorted though the picture may be, there is much that is recognisable. Hence, the question becomes, whose reflection is it?