Thursday, May 04, 2006

Samrat Upadhyay and the Nepali Present Tense

[Cross-posted at Sepia Mutiny]

Readers interested in what has been happening in Nepal recently might find Samrat Upadhyay's The Royal Ghosts a worthwhile read.

Upadhyay is a Nepali who teaches at a university in the U.S. He is, I think, the only Nepali publishing his fiction in the U.S. at present. Though his stories as a rule tend to focus more on personal issues and relationships than on poitics, in this latest book of stories he has for the first time tackled the effect the "Maobadis"(Maoists) have had on Nepali life. Even here the treatment of the ongoing civil war is a little bit oblique: these are middle-class, urban, Kathmandu stories, and the violence that ravages countryside is as far away from the metropolitan consciousnes as Delhi is from the tribal regions of Bihar.

For example. Pitamber, the protagonist of "A Refugee" reminds me a little of the father-figure in Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey: a good father=figure who has, in his do-gooding, perhaps bitten off more than he can chew. He volunteers his house as a refuge for a poor woman from the country and her daughter, who had lost most of their family to Maoist violence. They are traumatized, and are somewhat of an awkward fit in Pitamber's middle class household. Pitamber has to manage his unruly teenage son and also fend off gossip that perhaps he's taken a "second wife." (As someone says in another story, "This is Nepal. It doesn't take anything for people to start talking here.")

The climate is one of constant fear and anxiety. The Maobadis are casually cursed by nearly all the city-dwellers, but still people look around cautiously before they say anything -- in case the wrong people might be listening. Pitamber himself is barely keeping it together, and soon it's his own unexpected violence that is troubling him:

Someone murmured in agreement, but a voice from behind Pitamber sid, 'What are you saying? Our revolution has arrived! These [Maobadis] are our heroes!.'

'Heroes?' Pitamber swiveled around. 'Who said that?'

Someone pointed to a boy of about nineteen,and Pitamber lurched toward him and grabbed his shirt collar. 'What did you say?' He could feel the pulse in his own throat as he slapped the boy hard on the right cheek. Encouraged by the slap, other men now crowed around the boy, shoving him, punching him, shaking him. 'I wasn't being serious,' the boy screamed. 'I didn't mean it!' He began pleading for mercy.

His throad still pulsing, Pitamber walked away. He couldn't believe how fast his hand had flown, how thoughtlessly he'd struck the boy.

The move from big, ominous political questions to issues close to home is a common turn in many of these stories. Ultimately, Pitamber has to deal with the consequences of his own actions (which get worse as the story goes forward), since he can do nothing about the conflict between Maoists and the Army that is tearing apart his country.

Though "A Refugee" is the story where the engagement with the Maoist insurgency is most directly referenced, the best story in the collection might be "The Royal Ghosts," which is set immediately following the shocking murder-suicide of the Nepali royal family in June 2001. (Interestingly, it's not the first time in Nepali history that a royal family has massacred itself. As is discussed in the story, the Ranas came into power on the heels of the Kot Parba massacre in 1846.)

In terms of writing style, I would compare Upadhyay to Rohinton Mistry: simple, straightforward storytelling.


Anonymous said...

This is one frustrating book. Who wants to read mundane stories about mundane people written in a mundane style? The morality is strictly 1950s, nobody gets it on, nothing really happens-- these are stories about the meekly dissatisfied-- and no story has a satisfying conclusion, they're all left hanging.

I'm not sure I want to finish this.

I didn't like Mistry for the same reason.

1:42 AM  

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