Monday, August 29, 2016

Review essay: Wider Worlds - Manjushree Thapa’s illuminating view of a changing Nepal

All of Us in Our Own Lives 
by Manjushree Thapa


Reviewed by ROSS ADKIN

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... Read more: