reviews and essays

Wider Worlds

Manjushree Thapa’s illuminating view of a changing Nepal

By Ross Adkin | 1 July 2016

IT WAS NOT UNTIL the second decade of the twentieth century that Tri Chandra College, in Kathmandu, became the first institution in Nepal to offer degrees in English. This was arranged through an affiliation with the University of Patna, but Nepal’s rulers—the Ranas, hereditary prime ministers who exercised power in the name of an ostensibly sovereign Hindu monarch—made sure that students took their exams in Kathmandu, and did not allow them to travel to Patna. The arrangement was in keeping with a long-standing policy of restrictions on higher education, partly aimed to insulate young Nepalis from the nationalist and political ferment then sweeping Indian campuses.

The Ranas were overthrown in 1951, inaugurating a brief experiment with democracy that ended with Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah, the king of Nepal, imposing royal rule in 1960. Mahendra took on a nation-building project to unite his diverse state under a prescribed set of symbols that reflected the history and culture of the upper castes. The Nepali language, enshrined as the national tongue in 1958, became one of the main pillars of this project. Nepali-language literature from the preceding century or so congealed into a canon, comprising works such as Laxmi Prasad Devkota’s epic poem Muna Madan and BP Koirala’s realist fiction, which still accounts for a large chunk of the country’s literary curriculum.

Nepal’s first English-language newspaper, the state-run Rising Nepal, appeared in 1965. KP Malla, the early doyen of English writing in Nepal, wrote a few years later that the paper was launched into a “resenting world” for a “virtually microscopic” English-speaking audience. By then, after Nepal ended its earlier isolationism and officially allowed foreigners to visit the country in the 1950s, the hippies had arrived. The writers among them set about creating the image of an idyllic spiritual kingdom—such as in Han Suyin’s novel The Mountain Is Young and Peter Matthiessen’s non-fiction account The Snow Leopard—that defined English-language writing on Nepal, and so much of the Western view of the place.

It took a while for literary writers from Nepal to start wielding the imported tongue themselves—though in the Nepali language, of course, literary production kept growing steadily throughout. Arresting God in Kathmandu, a short-story collection from the US-based author Samrat Upadhyay, released in 2001, was the first English-language book by a Nepali to receive widespread attention abroad—and prompted gripes in Nepal about émigrés ingratiating themselves with Western audiences by exoticising their home country. Since then, there has been a steady trickle of both fiction and non-fiction books in English from Nepali writers, which, with the publication of a range of fresh titles in the last few years, has swelled to a stream.

One of those new works is All of Us in Our Own Lives, the latest novel by Manjushree Thapa, who has done more than any other writer to raise the prominence of English-language writing from Nepal. She is, without doubt, the best-known Nepali writer in the language today. All of Us, released by Aleph Book Company in May, is her third novel, and part of a body of work that also includes four books of non-fiction, a collection of short stories and a collection of translations of contemporary Nepali poetry and prose.

Thapa’s fiction is firmly grounded in social issues—caste and class, patriarchy, access to and the abuse of power—which she approaches with a journalistic eye for societal structures, and great empathy for the weak and the poor. This shines through in All of Us too, as Thapa’s four main characters negotiate alliances, dependencies and jealousies that propel them to a point where they all meet. It is a varied foursome. Ava, born in Nepal but adopted and raised in Canada, moves to Nepal in the throes of an early mid-life crisis. Indira, an ambitious development worker in Kathmandu, feels stifled by tradition and an unhappy marriage. In the Gulf, Gyanu, a migrant worker, dreams of a future somewhere with his lover, who is from the Philippines. Back in Nepal, Sapana, Gyanu’s sister, joins a women’s group from her village on a tour to the other end of the country, where she yearns to step across the border into India, “Just so we can tell everyone at home that weíve been abroad.”

But in one thing all four are united: they are Nepalis negotiating much wider worlds—geographically, ideologically, socially, and in many other ways—than those they would have faced had they been born just a generation earlier. The same could be said of Thapa, who was born in Kathmandu, raised between Nepal and North America, and in her adult life continues to split her time between the two. In this, the writer and her characters are emblematic of Nepal itself, as the long isolated country confronts the modern world. Since Thapa’s first book appeared, in the early 1990s, Nepal has witnessed immense tumult: another experiment with democracy snuffed out, a civil war, the fall of the monarchy and a return to democracy again, a new constitution, and through it all a flood of young people emigrating to escape chronic poverty, joblessness and misgovernment. Thapaís writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, has tried to make sense of all of this. It is a vital window onto the dreams and struggles of Nepalís new generations.

THAPA’S EARLY UPBRINGING in Kathmandu was one of “convent school propriety, birthday parties, music and art lessons,” she wrote in Mustang Bhot in Fragments, her first book. Her father is a former diplomat and royalist politician, and Thapa moved with her family to the United States, where she attended high school and then college, studying photography at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. She returned to Nepal at the end of the 1980s, in the final years of the royal regime.

“I tend to have reading projects,” Thapa told me when we met in May outside a Kathmandu café, where a discussion on women’s citizenship rights under the new constitution had just concluded. “A few years ago I was reading Chinese lit in translation. This year I’m reading indigenous authors from North America.” After living for so long in the United States, Thapa said she “had to learn about Lu Xun and Chinese social-realist influences on Nepali literature, and also about the similarly engaged South Asian influences from Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and other languages. I wanted to write as if I was writing in Nepali, and capture the complexities that it carries, to speak to a Nepali readership through English.”

Mustang Bhot in Fragments, published in 1992, was a series of reports from Mustang—a remote region on the border with Tibet that was beginning to be integrated with the rest of Nepal after democracy was restored in 1990. The opportunities and conflicts accompanying the modernising project—the distribution of newly arrived hydroelectric power causing rifts in villages, the fading authority of Mustang’s own royal family—provided rich material, and the book showed she had a talent for literary reporting.

Thapa continued to work as a journalist and editor, and occasionally also on the fringes of the aid industry, before writing her first novel, The Tutor of History. Published in 2001, this is a sprawling, enchanting picture of an election campaign, centred on the town of Khaireni Tar, and provides a fantastical, deeply layered ecology of provincial Nepal. The campaign begins grandly, but crashes down on election day. Meanwhile, young Maoist radicals take their (sometimes comic) first steps towards insurgency. Amid the grabbing and greed inspired by the political ferment, the widowed Binita and sometime revolutionary Rishi timidly feel the possibility of a new start together. The Tutor of History announced Thapaís arrival on the literary scene, and some of the novelís themes would become central in her later writing.

Her next fiction work was Tilled Earth, a collection of short stories, released in 2007, that displayed a commitment to womenís narratives and a keen eye for power structures in rural Nepal. In the story ‘Ta’ Angzoum among the Cows,’ the eponymous character is a woman in a remote village awaiting a decision regarding the ownership of a calf, following a dispute with her straying husband. The calf represents a chance for Ta’ Angzoum to make her life a little easier—she thinks of the butter she could use to soothe her cracked hands—but the narrative then shifts to the privileged sanctity of the government office, where the cow’s fate, and Ta’Angzoum’s, will be decided—by men.

Thapa returned to non-fiction in 2005, for what is arguably her most successful book to date: Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy, which was nominated for the Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage. Thapa lays out the backdrop to the post-1990 failures of parliamentary politics by way of history and anecdote, while also describing the worries of liberal Kathmandu as the Maoists gained ground in rural areas and the monarchy seized power once again. On her travels in rural Nepal, she found young Maoist women proud of the party’s progressive views on gender, but with no answer for why the Maoists’ political negotiating teams consisted only of men. More importantly, these journeys brought home a picture of villages empty of young people, with those remaining living out an exposed and tenuous existence in between the demands of state security forces and the rebels.

In 2009, Thapa published A Boy from Siklis, a biography of the pioneering Nepali environmentalist Chandra Gurung, who was killed in a helicopter crash in 2006. In the same year, her first translation project, The Country is Yours, appeared.The Maoist rebellion loomed larger in her second novel, Seasons of Flight, which came out the following year, and featured Prema, a young forestry official working in a remote western district, whom the conflict pushes into leaving Nepal for a new life in the United States. Nepal here consists of what is left behind, and the novel presents Prema’s long, winding discovery of largely unexplored opportunities for individual expression, such as living alone, sex, friends and food. Her inevitable feelings of dissatisfaction and uprootedness are never fully resolved. While Seasons of Flight does not break any new thematic ground, it stands out for being the first novel to add a Nepali voice to the genre of the US migrant story.

The Lives We Have Lost, published in 2011, is a collection of Thapa’s journalistic writings from 2002 to 2010, covering the later stages of the civil war and the democratic movement against the palace that brought the Maoists and political parties together. Optimism for the future is diluted as political deadlock returns once again, and the task of assessing the damage begins. ‘In Our House’ shows the tawdry reality behind myths surrounding the royal family, as Thapa narrates a tour around the former royal palace, which was turned into a public museum after the abolishment of the monarchy in 2008. Thapa details dusty piles of bric-a-brac, including portraits of previous monarchs made of human hair—the last effects of a “ticky-tacky monarchy.” She describes herself walking through the room in which her father took his oaths of service under the last three kings, conveying a reminder of her family’s closeness to the elites whom much of her writing attacks.

In 2008—as a pro-democracy movement gathered force, the monarchy toppled and the civil war ended—Thapa wrote in an essay, while at a writer’s retreat in the United States where she was working on Seasons of Flight, of the conflict of being a fiction writer engaged in “the contradictions that the activist abhors.” She has, however, been able to move adeptly between fiction and other genres. Thapa’s work is consistently provocative, angry and imaginative, and stretches across a corpus that is unrivalled in English writing from Nepal. She is driven to write in order to depict the lives of those who are vulnerable to the excesses of the state, patriarchy and war. Thapa also has the rare ability to direct this mission towards compelling storytelling, both in fiction and non-fiction.

Thapa’s challenges to the state’s historical and political narrative, her satire deployed against those in power, and her occasional bouts of cynicism, all sit alongside a deep sympathy, which finds its fullest expression in her fictional characters. Shades of the magical occasionally appear, but she never exoticises. Her representations of Nepali history, politics and society (along with an education and exposure to the world outside Nepal) cemented Thapa’s reputation as one of the go-to writers for publications such as the London Review of Books and the New York Times during and after the Maoist conflict, over which period she also wrote for Indian publications including Tehelka and the Hindustan Times. Her opposition to the state—most recently over its passing of the constitution—has prompted criticism from some in Nepal who find her attacks on privilege and the old elites at odds with her own background. Early in June, she announced that she was in the process of applying for Canadian citizenship, drawing scorn from conservatives in the press and on social media.

For the past few years, Thapa has been living between Canada and Nepal. “It’s so thick socially here,” she said of Kathmandu. During our meeting, people were almost constantly stopping by to chat, or ask about her new novel. “People are meeting constantly. … In terms of this, moving to Canada was good. I got the space and the time to write. But then the distance from Nepal is difficult too. I’m still fine-tuning this balance.”

ALL OF US is her first book written while based in Canada. “I started this novel wanting to explore the Buddhist concept of interdependence—to have characters who don’t know each other meet and change each other’s lives,” Thapa told me over email. “Perhaps because of this, too, I was less drawn to recreating Nepal in the novel, and more focussed on moving the characters through space and time, towards each other.”

Thapa quotes Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway at the beginning of All of Us. The development of characters in her novel follows a form similar to that in Woolf’s, building to a climax where their stories converge. There are also faint echoes of Woolf’s ageing protagonist in Indira: in her relationship with her useless but infuriatingly assured husband; her kindness to Durga, the servant girl; and the reappearance of an old flame prompting speculations on what might have been. Indiraís high caste and respectable background bring strictures that jar with her high-flying professional persona. She is forbidden from drinking alcohol at home, and on the night of a dinner party that she organises, she hides from her husband the fact that “her monthlies had started”—because, in keeping with social taboos, “how could she possibly supervise a dinner party if she were barred from the kitchen?”

When describing her focus on interweaving the characters’ narratives, Thapa said, “I wonder if that’s about getting more confident as a writer. In my early work, I think, I spent a lot of time establishing the landscape, or the world, of my fiction because I needed to do so to fully believe it myself. Now I feel I can plunge right in and expect the reader to follow.” And the book does plunge right in—at 208 pages, it has to.

After she leaves her husband, Ava moves to Kathmandu to work for an international non-governmental organisation. She quickly becomes disillusioned with the politics of the aid world, and struggles with questions over why she came back, as also with guilt at the privileged life she was given in Canada. Gyanu’s storyline treads less travelled territory. The desert where he works is more than the place of toil, danger and death portrayed in most writing about migrant lives in the Gulf. He is a chef in an upmarket hotel, in love with Maleah, a fellow migrant worker, and west Asia provides the shelter and privacy in which their love can blossom, away from the strictures and customs of home. Cutting old ties allows him to dream of new possibilities, much like with Prema in Seasons of Flight (and Thapa herself), although Gyanu as a character is much more subtle. His sister Sapana’s journey is more fraught. As a young woman without the protection of her parents, her own attempts to make her life “bigger” must negotiate the demands imposed on a village woman: her uncle’s desire to marry her off and gain control of her land, and the solicitous attentions of a married bank manager. She volunteers to be the treasurer of a women’s group, and later, with Ava and Gyanu’s help, moves to a nearby town to study.

With its high salaries and opportunities for travel, the aid industry is “the saviour of upper-class Kathmandu,” Thapa said. Parts of the aid world are brought into sharp relief in the novel—and here Thapa’s skills of observation and her accumulated experience shine through most. Woolly jargon peppers the speech of the foreign consultants—“we’re cooperating on a joint strategy on non-compliance”; the budget is a perpetual source of near panic, in that it cannot be spent quickly enough. One of Ava’s coworkers becomes comically obsessed with social inclusion, while their boss jets off to Luang Prabang for some “family time.” Later, a bribe is paid. The conferences and the functions in the village are revealed to be little more than exercises in paperwork and words; the aid officers are essentially glorified international bureaucrats with very little idea of what is actually going on in the country. Ava is plagued by doubts about these dynamics, but local players of the game are on hand to interpret and to reassure her: there is always “so much left to do.”

The narrative is focussed, brisk, and remains far from the earthy, detailed descriptions and “recreating” of Nepal that characterise The Tutor of History and her short stories. In All of Us, Thapa is sacrificing what has worked well for her before to show readers the interconnectedness of things. The tying together of events does feel a little too tidy, and the novel’s compactness will probably prevent it from being considered her masterpiece. However, the intimacy, squabbles and responsibilities that are evoked across the different settings do come together to create an infectiously optimistic—if still uncertain—ending.

IN ITS SHORT LIFE so far, writing in English from Nepal has had to make sense of much political and social upheaval. Just in recent years, since the civil war ended, the country has been beset by political infighting, conflicts between old elites and newly assertive minorities, and disagreements over the country’s new constitution. It has also seen the earthquakes of 2015, and a crippling blockade of its southern border in which India played a major part. Meanwhile, Kathmandu continues to fill up with young Nepalis looking for opportunities in the city and abroad.

Even as the old guard holds firm, there is a sense of flux, particularly among the generations who have grown up since 1990. All of Us succeeds in capturing some of this. But the reach of Thapa’s work, as of all English writing in Nepal, is constrained. The large majority of those writing and reading in English live in Kathmandu. Much of this writing continues to be set there, and is much less infused with class consciousness and rebellion than writing in Nepali.

The past two years have seen a flurry of English-language books published on and from Nepal. Three excellent non-fiction titles were released in 2014: The Bullet and the Ballot Box, an examination of the Maoist rebellion by the journalist Aditya Adhikari; Battles of the New Republic, a detailed look at Nepal’s post-conflict struggles by the journalist Prashant Jha; and Kathmandu, a historical and personal portrait of the capital by Thomas Bell, a British journalist and long-time resident of the city.

There have been works of fiction in English too, but these are mostly uninspiring—especially compared to the recent crop of non-fiction. Bikash Sangraula’s Unlikely Storytellers and Shiwani Neupane’s Crossing Shadows, both novels, came out last year. Unlikely Storytellers doesn’t do much beyond presenting a view of the civil war from within the confines of the Kathmandu middle class, and Crossing Shadows ultimately reads like a less competent Danielle Steel novel, shot through with a conservative morality and with the odd reference to the Bhagavad Gita thrown in. Pranaya SJB Rana’s City of Dreams is by far the best of the three, and is a fine homage to the magic and unease of Kathmandu. One does wonder where a fresh set of themes might come from, though, to replace the conventional representations of rural poverty and insurgency, and of ghosts disturbing the middle-class humdrum of Kathmandu.

Through the interwoven narratives in All of Us, which show the worlds and possibilities open to Nepalis today, Thapa does try to break free of these. After the process of writing the novel, which she told me was “glacial,” she is already working on another project: a translation of the Darjeeling writer Indra Bahadur Rai’s 1975 novel Aaja Ramita Chha (The Spectacle of Today). She also told me she hopes to write something related to the raft of issues currently up for debate in Nepal, as the agitation against the new constitution rumbles on below the surface: citizenship, federalism, inclusion in state bodies, and unresolved cases of wartime disappearances and atrocities. “I’m dying to write some non-fiction,” she said. “It’s so much less stressful. You just go out and meet people and write—there’s no self-doubt.”

Ross Adkin is a freelance writer based in Delhi.

READER'S COMMENTS

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *