A troubled homecoming

Prajwal Parajuly’s Indian Nepalis, at home and away.

Prajwal Parajuly's two books – published in Southasia and around the world in 2013 and 2014 – were accompanied by a large marketing fanfare. The Gurkha's Daughter – a collection of stories revolving around various characters of Nepali origins in India, Nepal, Bhutan and the USA – was swiftly followed by his novel, Land Where I Flee, largely set in Gangtok, Sikkim. Parajuly has been touted as "the next big thing in South Asian fiction", and whether the young author is able to maintain readers' and reviewers' interest beyond his first two books remains to be seen. However, Parajuly's work is certainly rather different from that of other contemporary Indians writing in English, especially in his focus on, and treatment of, his principle subject: the Nepali diaspora. Land Where I Flee covers many Indian literary bases, particularly those that get Indian literature recognised in the Western world – displacement and diaspora, family feuds, an 'exotic' locale. Yet Parajuly addresses such well-worn tropes in irreverent ways that make him and his work stand out from – if not necessarily above – that of his literary contemporaries and peers.

From short stories to novel
The marketing of The Gurkha's Daughter incorporated some curious genre trickery in the Southasian edition. The stories are seemingly packaged as a novel, with no mention made on the cover – which features a young girl, the eponymous Gurkha's daughter – that it is a collection of short stories. Parajuly has explained his publishers' decision as follows: he found a literary agent and a publisher who loved his work and signed a two-book deal, which, at 27, made him the youngest Indian to ever score an international book contract. He was told that one of the books had to be a novel, because of the general perception among publishers that readers are less interested in short story collections (the truth behind this assumption varies enormously across book markets, but appears to be baseless in the Southasian context). It is less common for a new author to debut with a short story collection, but this is what Parajuly had produced, so his publishers packaged the book in a way that made people believe they were picking up a novel. Such an action may make sense to marketers and publishers, but seems to have left some readers rather baffled about why they had been fooled, whether they should care about having been, but ultimately shrugging and reading the book anyway.

As competent as The Gurkha's Daughter is, I cannot not help but agree with the author, who has repeatedly expressed his boredom with the book. Promoting one's book with lukewarm feelings is a strange predicament for an author, and reflects an unusual relationship with readers and critics – lack of care about what they think? Preemptive self-criticism to deflect harsher criticisms? Utmost honesty? Or a means of creating anticipation for the next book, which, as the author claimed, was to be much better. Land Where I Flee is indeed more substantial than The Gurkha's Daughter. The stories contained within the earlier book are free-standing, but Parajuly "thought it would be fun" to pursue some of the characters and themes that first appeared in short story form through the novel format. If exodus was the overarching theme in The Gurkha's Daughter – reinforced by the little maps preceding each story informing the reader of the location of Gangtok, Kalimpong, or Phuntsholing, as well as Kathmandu and New York – return underpins Land Where I Flee.

Land Where I Flee
Grandmother Chitralekha Nepauney, a woman with overt caste chauvinism and a bad temper, is turning 84, a significant life milestone known as chaurasi in Nepali. She is like a mother to her four grandchildren, having brought them up after their parents died in an accident when they were small. The grown children return from their scattered locations to Gangtok for the chaurasi. Bhagwati has been estranged from her family for marrying a lower-caste Damaai from Bhutan; she is currently living in Colorado after being settled there as a Bhutanese refugee. Manasa travels from Kathmandu, where she lives with her family-approved husband in an unhappy marriage. Agastaya travels from New York and is attempting to hide his homosexuality from his family, a task complicated by his American boyfriend's unannounced arrival. As if these offspring weren't already black-marked enough by their grandmother (and each other), an even more estranged Ruthwa arrives uninvited, a writer who had been shunned after divulging sordid family secrets for the sake of his 'art' – an act that hadn't done him much good anyway, as his career had stalled by the time we meet him. Prasanti is the sixth prominent character, the long-loyal hijra maid (rather unusual in the Indian hills) who plays a tragicomic role. This large contingent of characters does generally work but would have appeared more natural and less clunky if the narrative perspective had remained constant. As it is, Parajuly begins with an omniscient narrator, and switches to narrating from Ruthwa's perspective at other points. This may have worked more effectively if Ruthwa's story had been privileged above the others in the plot. Parajuly states that the incongruity of this, the jarring effect, was deliberate; a way of preventing Ruthwa from appearing entirely as a villain. However, the device comes across as contrived, utilised because the best consistent focal point could not be decided on.

Most of the action takes place in Gangtok, capital of the small Indian state of Sikkim, an independent Himalayan kingdom until 1975. Nepal borders it to the west, and a large proportion of Sikkim's population are of Nepali origin, including Parajuly, who is of Indian and Nepali parentage. The state has several official languages, with Nepali as the lingua franca, as well as a number of other languages more commonly associated with Nepal than India – Newari, Tamang, Gurung.

The characters in Land Where I Flee have cultural connections to Nepal and Nepaliness, but in many ways they are Indian, not least through citizenship. Their cultural attachments are split, either through choice – as in the case of Agastaya, who chose to migrate to the US – or through force, as in the case of Bhagwati, who moved to Bhutan after eloping with a Bhutanese Nepali, then resettled as a refugee in the US when they were kicked out of Bhutan. Issues associated with home, culture and belonging are certainly not new to Indian writing in English, with so many Indian diasporic authors reflecting on what these things mean to people separated from their homeland. Parajuly's work, however, adds to this an extra layer, by bringing Nepal and Nepaliness into the mix.

Nepali diaspora
Nepalis moved eastwards into what is now Indian territory throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The Nepali language is widely spoken throughout the northeastern states of India – in a form slightly different from that spoken in Nepal – as are other languages originating in Nepal. Renowned scholar of Nepali literature Michael Hutt notes that “Indian Nepalis’ relationship with the land of their ancestors’ birth is an ambiguous, ambivalent one”, and that much of their nationalist politics asserts their identity as Indian Nepalis, but stresses their separateness from the Nepali state. Such sentiments have, of course, contributed to the Gorkhaland movement – the struggle for a separate state within India. A connected issue, and one that also arises in Land Where I Flee through the character of Bhagwati, is the expulsion of ethnic Nepalis from Bhutan, the neighbouring Himalayan kingdom. The background to these topics is complex and well-documented enough not to require lengthy rehearsal here, but they do illuminate the specific texture of the meditation on exile and return that Parajuly engages in.

Belonging to an ethnic minority – particularly one embroiled in political struggle with the centre – is challenge enough for the characters of Land Where I Flee when at ‘home’ in India, but takes on an added complexity for those living in the US. When Agastaya tells people he is from India, they think of elephants and deserts, the hustle of Bombay or the beaches of Goa. His long-term partner Nicky, too, has trouble understanding that he is of Nepali origins, speaks Nepali with his family, but is not from Nepal (although Nicky is generally portrayed as not particularly bright).

Telling stories
Parajuly has often had to field the barbed question of who he writes for – a common underlying assumption being that audiences are fixed and mutually exclusive, so that if one intends to write for the West then the Indian audience is being overlooked. Certainly, through his portrayal of the ‘exotic’ Himalaya, unknown first-hand to many readers in the West, Parajuly is adding another layer of India to outsiders’ understandings of the country. However, it is equally true, perhaps more importantly so, to say that he is broadening a domestic reader’s understanding. Sikkim is about as peripheral to ‘mainstream’ India as it is possible to be, both geographically and in the national imaginary.

In an interview Parajuly conducted with Mid-Day in 2014, he is described as “quite the poster boy of writing about lives of the Gurkhas in Sikkim”. He has also received grateful feedback from Bhutanese Nepali readers who feel that his fiction has brought attention to their “illegal ejection” from Bhutan. Yet he has repeatedly stated that in his fiction, he does not aim to be the mouthpiece for any type of political movement, and that he writes essays or opinion pieces to express political views, but that fiction isn’t the place for them. It may be fairer, and a truer reflection of the power of literature, to state that Parajuly is an unintentional ‘poster boy’ of Sikkim in general, rather than any of the region’s ethnic groups or political movements. But it is always worth peeking into that can of worms and questioning the role of literature in affecting societal change, or public consciousness at the very least.

Regardless of how an author feels about the interpretation of their work, once it is out in the world, can commentary or criticism of literature actually translate into serious awareness of secessionist movements or repression of minorities? Can the world be made aware of contentious political issues through fiction, or does fiction on these topics just generate brief interest before it is forgotten in favour of the next fashionable issue? Parajuly told me that his intention was simply to tell a story, but he recognises that this is a glib statement: “If that contributed to the discourse about the events that surround the story, I am not going to renounce it. Books have lives of their own after they are published. You never know what kind of conversations they will trigger.” He added:

I don’t do it to call attention to the plight, sufferings and struggles of my people. I don’t do it to let the world know how rich my culture is. Of course, I feel for my people. Of course, I am proud of where I come from. I want the world to know about the Bhutanese refugee situation. I think the demand for the state of Gorkhaland is legitimate. But do I employ fiction to throw light on these issues? No. I write fiction to tell stories.

It is productive to look at Land Where I Flee alongside another novel focusing on the Gorkhaland movement and migration and settlement in the US: Kiran Desai’s 2006 Booker Prize-winning The Inheritance of Loss, set partly in Kalimpong in West Bengal, just south of Sikkim. It has been noted that Desai targeted her discussion of Gorkhaland towards her Indian readers, and her critiques of the American dream and immigration at her Western, specifically American, readers. Parajuly, on the other hand, in Land Where I Flee, appears to make no such assumptions about who may be listening.

Literary critic Margaret Scanlan has pointed out that Desai’s Gorkhaland revolutionaries fight out of nostalgia, particularly for the era surrounding Indian independence in 1947. They fight, as Desai herself puts it, from “the angle of nostalgia” and “as if they were being featured in a documentary of war”. Although Desai is sympathetic in her portrayal of the poverty that leads the revolutionaries to such action, she warns that they are ultimately irrelevant to people of Nepali origins and a danger to the rest of India. “Desai suggests that India risks compulsively repeating that original trauma, cutting off more and more of itself… Shrug off the Empire, shrug off the nation, and who is to say that one will not feel oppressed in the homeland,” writes Scanlan. Yet this ‘India’ that is being addressed is essentially a version of the centre, the mainstream, that otherwise barely sees the Northeast. Prem Poddar points out that Desai cannot do other than portray the people of Kalimpong as “a marginal community in yet another marginal dispute”.

Conversely, Parajuly, by focusing on the people and not their politics, is perhaps more successful in creating a balanced portrait of a small pocket of the place, presenting the conflicting pulls and pushes upon such people and the subject that is ultimately most significant to most ordinary people: familial relationships. Perhaps that is why his books have been welcomed warmly, on the whole, by Nepalis in both India and Nepal, while Desai’s prompted protests and threats of book burnings in Kalimpong. Desai believes she was sympathetic to the cause of people of Nepali origin in India and attempted to portray them in a balanced manner, as did Parajuly. Nevertheless, many people in Sikkim felt they had been represented unfairly in her book and took offence. Perhaps it was also the perception of her as an ‘outsider’ (although Desai lived in Kalimpong as a child) writing about disputed politics that raised hackles, and the perceived differences in the audiences for the two books.

Further, in The Inheritance of Loss, the American dream fails for Gyan, the young man who goes to America to work illegally at menial jobs. Scanlan points out that “the only immigrants who succeed in America are the con men, the larcenous ones the nation embraces because it recognizes its own soul in them.” Parajuly is less blunt in his assessment of immigrant opportunity. Land Where I Flee has been called a novel that depicts “people striving for individual freedom in a society that compels them to hide their innermost selves”. This is an easy judgment to level at societies in Southasia – that they stifle individual will in preference for the dictates of all-powerful, often-tyrannical families. It often turns out to be true, in literature and in life, although there are plenty of contradictory tales to be told, too.

Making such a claim about Land Where I Flee, however, stifles its many nuances. It is not a perfect novel, but it is certainly one with many layers. The binaries of East and West, home and exile, happiness and unhappiness are never straightforward. Migrants would like to think that their lives will be better once they move to the West. Those who do not migrate may also hold a romanticised view of the West, or they may believe the opposite – that culture will be lost, morals degraded. Land Where I Flee shows that both and neither of these pictures are a reality. Agastaya, because of his distance from his family, is perhaps more free in the US to have a homosexual relationship, but his inability to shake off the shame and need for secrecy instilled through his upbringing means he is destined to destroy his romantic relationships from within. Bhagwati breaks taboos and elopes in a love marriage with a lower-caste man but ends up with a fairly good marriage yet unable to make ends meet in the US. Oxford-educated Manasa marries an important man from Kathmandu, being ‘true’ to her Nepali cultural heritage, but ends up as her father-in-law’s nursemaid, a role that she performs out of duty but feels utterly degraded by. Cultural expectations are hard on all of the characters, but Parajuly appears to be saying that the expectations of any particular culture are no harder or easier than those of another: making a living, maintaining relationships and finding dignity while doing so are at the heart of everyone’s struggle.

A world of movement
Despite all of this, and the fact that he is an Indian citizen not currently living in India, Parajuly rejects the suggestion that he is a diasporic author – or, rather, rejects the term. “Diasporic writing, South Asian writing, Indian Writing in English, etc., are all wonderful marketing tools” and a joy for academics, he states. Why then the explicit focus on identity and belonging, if not to tap into these diasporic concerns? He states that “being an immigrant makes you think a lot about where you belong. People who are constantly on the move are self-examining, reflective, contemplative, and they make for good characters.”

Parajuly believes that as the world becomes smaller and people move from one country to another, migration perhaps shouldn’t be as fascinating a topic to readers as it is. Yet it clearly is. The comparative ease with which people can move around the globe nowadays perhaps takes away the mystique of the act of migration, but the rough edges of ‘making it’ and feeling at home in an alien, sometimes hostile, environment remain. Increased movement often has the effect of solidifying identities, even as it fractures them. Those who do not move – who cannot, or who have no need or desire to – are also rethinking what it means to be Indian or Nepali or American in a world in which movement and dispersal is common, desirable, necessary. People want reassurance from somewhere, and what is appealing about Land Where I Flee is Parajuly’s deliberate rejection of neat allegiances. As he told me:

Of all the characters’ migratory experiences, I am fascinated by Bhagwati’s cultural and national attachments. She doesn’t care about America but lives there. Her assimilation – and her husband’s – is rudimentary, to say the least, but her children are already Americanised, and she’s worried about that. She has so many layers – she gave up her family for another country. She was forced to give up her husband’s country. She lived in a refugee camp in the country of her ancestors’ origin for a while. And she’s a Nepali-speaking Indian.

Ultimately, though, bonds of nationality and language are not as strong as those of family, and this is what brings the family back together to celebrate their grandmother’s 84th birthday, despite the squabbles, jealousies and betrayals that make Land Where I Flee an entertaining read.

~Elen Turner has a PhD from the Australian National University,

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