Shankar Lamichhane Quoted

Shankar Lamichhane
Shankar Lamichhane

I had long heard Abstract Chintan: Pyaj (literal translation: Abstract Discourse: Onion) is one of the finest books ever written in Nepali. Shankar Lamichhane at his best, but somehow I had distanced myself from it for long time. That was possibly because I see life as beautiful and don’t want to get into reading something on absurdity and emptiness of life.

Last time when I went to the book exhibition, I could not help but ask one of the attendants to find me the book. It took more than 15 minutes, and costed Rs. 73 (there was a discount I don’t remember) but as soon as I read the first essay on it, I felt ‘wow, how could have I missed it’.

I have collected and translated some of the best lines I found in the essays so that you could feel what it’s like. I highly recommend reading the book that was first published in 1967 and had won the Madan Prize in Literature!

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Why I read Chetan Bhagat?

“Why are you wasting your time?”

A colleague asked me when he saw me reading Revolution 2020 – the latest novel by Chetan Bhagat. He probably said that because of my age (I am not as young as many of the fans of the Indian writer) or maybe because he thought I need to spent time reading more ‘serious books’.

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The joys of books

While reading books is a diminishing habit – largely because of development of computer technologies, the best thing you can gift anyone are still books

Little more than a decade ago, my father requested my school principal to come to inspect my study room and to scold me for reading too many novels. I had accumulated around two dozens of books in my shelf then. Most of them were non-fictions but as anything other than course-books was considered ‘upanyas’ (novel) in those days, reading them was thought of as a habit that students had to avoid.

One of the most treasured moments of my childhood was when my principal visited demanding to see all my books and after inspecting them for half-an-hour or so, picked out a novel by Yudhir Thapa and said: “Except this one, reading other books is good.” Thapa was considered to be a pulp fiction writer of the time.

The statement left such a strong impact on my young mind that within next few years, I was notorious for gifting people books on their birthdays. I knew many of them would have preferred something else, but I was determined to show to them the imagination, wisdom and experience that a few hundred pages of bound printed papers have with in its pages by getting people into reading books.

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Thoughts on Sotala

I didn’t knew noted anthropologist Dor Bahadur Bista had published a fiction in 1870s – even when Sotala, his novel, was released by Himal Books a couple of days ago, I thought it was an old manuscript published. But it turned out Sajha Publication had published Sotala in around 1876.

The 144-page novel is a fiction work where Bista, a radical thinker of his time, has intertwined his imagination with his ideas to frame a story that’s painted on the canvas of the social and historical aspects of Tibet-Nepal trade.

After finishing the novel in a few hours, here are my impressions that I wrote on the inside cover of the book:

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A feminist writing

[Review of Samrat Upadhyay’s Buddha’s Orphans]
Samrat Upadhyay’s new novel – Buddha’s Orphans – is atypical to his earlier books. This isn’t because his novel is as good as his earlier three books but rather because it’s a book that, thanks to criticism, doesn’t have excessive sex.

Upadhyay had announced that his forthcoming (this) book would be “something different,” and he has lived by his words. Buddha’s Orphans has a kind of aesthetics in it that satisfies literary hunger despite being a long book with its events stretching over a long period – four generations of characters, to be precise.

Raja, the protagonist, and Nilu, the girl he is fated to love and marry, not only provide two contrasting characterization, but the author has also tried to explore, through them, the meaning, boundary and values of various types of relationships, and their contrasting relationships with their families.

Despite being thrown away, Raja feels constantly connected to the unknown mother and tries to envision the ideals of motherly love within the love he finds from women – his foster mothers – one of whom is a poor street vendor, and the other an affluent childless woman with a mental illness, as well as his wife and his mistress.

Nilu, a daughter of privilege who has lost her father, creates a strong bond with Raja, the son of the serving woman, while detesting the relationship with her mother.

The story begins in a fascinating way: how a beggar discovers a newborn infant and how a street vendor, Kaki, becomes his foster mother. The descriptive beginning of the novel gives a perfect idea of what the city of Kathmandu looked like a few decades ago. In addition, the author, who directs the MFA program at Indiana University and teaches creative writing there, has done a masterful work to keep readers interested in what can be the most boring section of any novel – the setting.

Kaki’s love for the child forces her to work for an affluent family that promises her child a better education but runs away for she feels like the child is being snatched away from her. Her new job, in a rich family, lets the protagonist meet the woman of his destiny. Raja is then kidnapped, and Kaki is unable to get him back as the family bribes a hospital official to make papers to claim the child as their baby.

As destiny would have it, Raja and Nilu meet, fall in love and run away from their families to live in a rented room. Whereas Raja continues to search for the meaning of life and love, Nilu holds the family together with her job. The happiness brought by the birth of their son, and the grief brought by his demise, along with their mid-marriage crisis due to their inability to accept each other in the way they are, creates a void in their life; and they look for “alternative love” as Raja lives with a mistress, and Nilu tries a relationship with a young man.

Upadhyay ensures that they keep together, for their necessity and love, and that her second child, a girl, keeps them tied. The girl’s travel to the US and her return, impregnated by a man she had no serious relationship with, and her acceptance into the family, completes the novel in a happy note – just as what readers like.

The bare storyline doesn’t, however, indicate the beauty of the book’s woven words, together with the political, social and historical backgrounds of Nepal giving a tasteful reading that keeps readers stuck to it. No story is great; the greatness of literature lies in the mastery of words to weave the presentation of the story; and in Buddha’s Orphans, Upadhyay indicates he knows it better than any other Nepali writer.

The novel could pass off as a feministic writing, as Nilu has more protagonistic characteristics than the central character of Raja.

Upadhyay was criticized, mainly in Nepal, for his overly sexual and sometimes unrealistic portrayals of Nepali society in his stories in Arresting God in Kathmandu (2001), the novel The Guru of Love (2003), and the collection of short fiction in The Royal Ghosts (2006). But in Buddha’s Orphans, he has neither used excessive sex nor has portrayed the society unrealistically.

The novel justifies the San Francisco Chronicle’s praise for Upadhyay – “a Buddhist Chekhov…with a sense of cyclical nature of life and its passion and that makes Buddha’s Orphans an absolute must-read from an author who has strode forward to redefining Nepal to the world by the means of words.”

(As published in Republica)

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On Seasons of Flight

After finishing Manjushree Thapa’s new novel – Seasons of Flight – within eight hours of getting a copy of it, I could, at least, say that the book is a page-turner.

It has everything to be an interesting read: a little bit of political scenario set by the bloody Maoist conflict along with its social impact; the storyline based on ever increasing abroad-going phenomenon of contemporary Nepali society and, to spice up, love and a lot of sex (not explicitly explained but omnipresent) – something that the publishers – Penguin – explains as sexual awakening!

After finishing the novel, two phrases were in my head: absurdism and social alienation. I could call it absurdist because the main character, Prema, searches for the meaning of the life throughout the novel. As a woman who is on her own – both when in Nepal and America – she feels vacant within (and also searches for meaning of love by actions of lust). The feeling arises more due to her alienated life, from her family and country, than anything else. And, after spending a few years in America, she feels she does not belong to anywhere; America is not her while in Nepal, she finds herself as an escapist.

And, the novel ends with, what’s Albert Camus described as ‘acceptance without resignation’, Prema chooses to live with her condition trying to find meaning within the situation is in. This ends the novel happily with two people in love indicating that they would remain together.

With a fine-tuned language and narration, the novel reflects the ground realities of the present Nepali society especially in context of the abroad-going phenomenon. The decade long bloody war, the ever increasing political instability and the lack of opportunities in Nepal have brought along a feeling of hopelessness among people and they are looking at the developed countries as if they are the lands of fulfilling dreams. The author indicates that however a few years’ of struggle in the land of dreams makes one more alienated and frustrated with life.

The best part of the novel is the beauty of narration with which the author describes the reality of the people in Nepal and their lives after migrating to America.

However, I always find it hard to absorb the omnipresent sex in English literature by Nepali writers. In the name of sexual awakening – which for me is knowing the joy of sex – why do the writers toss in sex everywhere? Prema’s sexual awakening is more or less deals with her sexual relationship with her American lover – but then I cannot actually understand what the awakening has to do with her having relationship with a foreigner she meet for a few hours in Nepal or that in casual sex with half-a-dozen people (sex sells – even for celebrated authors)!

I have read author’s previous novel The Tutor of History. That took a long time for me to finish, however despite that lacking, it was a good novel for it reaches the roots of the events whereas Seasons of Flight just runs on the surface of the stories without getting much into the heart of the events.

Seasons of Flight is an engaging read – a must for leisure reading – but for me it doesn’t qualify to be worth remembering for a long time!

[DISCLAIMER: Neither am I a qualified critic nor I read the book with a view that I will be writing the review. I bought the book, an author-signed copy, and read is casually. I am not introduced to the writer.]

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Thoughts on Mayur Times

Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger took everyone by surprise – for its unique narration of a story that any novelist would not have thought a bestseller idea. His second book – Between the Assassinations – was not the page-turner compared to the first.

Narayan Wagle, our own novelist, received similar response with his Mayur Times. After bestselling Palpasa Café (and the winning of the Madan Puraskar – Nepal’s top literary prize), the editor of a national daily came up with a new novel. And, not surprisingly, people thronged to buy it and comment ‘not good’.

Palpasa Café gave a new writer and a new style, something that became predictable for Mayur Times. Also, the popularity and beauty of the first novel forced the people to expect ‘something extraordinary and great from the novelist’.

And, with the ‘growing pressure’ to publish a new novel, the novelist probably did not give enough time for the second novel – and the publisher did also probably failed to provide valuable peer review before publication.

For me, Mayur Times is a good novel. This is probably also because it tells the story of journalists and journalism. (As a colleague of mine always puts: if we are told to read a very good book on rise of insurance company, how much interested we will be?)

I loved reading Mayur Times – and I still believe it’s better than many other contemporary Nepali novels. I don’t exactly remember details of Palpasa Café, but I too believe the earlier book was a masterpiece while Mayur Times is not extraordinary!

So, what the novelist missed in the novel? I am not qualified to go into the literary values and concepts; but as an avid reader of fictions, here is what I think:

The novel tells a ‘happy story’ of some ‘sad tales’ – the mismatch of emotions. While the story supposedly is built on the problems journalists are facing – and people due to conflict and impunity in the country – it presents an ideal world where the pain, agony and suffering do make ‘guest appearance’ but fail to stimulate readers’ emotions. Within a few sentences of painful tale, we are presented with playful dialogues.

In an attempt to make the novel true to his style of playful conversations, the novelist spent more energy on those playful words than dwelling more on crucial situations and emotional dialogues.

While writing, sometimes the author wants to ensure that everything is put into a book and Narayan Wagle tried to put in everything he had experienced during his journalism career into the 200-something page novel. The journalists could understand those ‘newsroom tales’ but for non-journalists, it’s not possible to get fully into all those. If the novel was something like 500 pages, all those sub-stories could have made sense, but when you are about to cut in size, you also need to put something out of the box.

The novelist is at his best in playing the words, creating playful scenes and has creatively weaved the story of his profession and that’s good enough to recommend any book for a read!

[Disclaimer: Narayan Wagle, the novelist, is the editor of Nagarik, the sister publication of Republica, where I work. I share a healthy relationship with the novelist.]

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