Tilled Earth (Manjushree Thapa) [2007]

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For me, this anthology was a revelation. Whilst traveling Nepal (including a three-week trek with plenty of time for meditation and thought), I was struck by the insulation between tourists (a major national source of income in the major cities, parks and on the treks) and the local populace. Here were a people, who only two generations ago had a literacy rate of 2 (!) per cent, literally invaded by ‘truth-seekers’, ‘trekkers’, ‘NGO-do-gooders’ and all the others drawn to the magical paraphernalia of Katmandu – and what did they think about it? (Naturally, there is no ‘they’, just as there is no uniform ‘we’ – the generalization is merely a hint of my frustration.) From my awkward attempts to draw the answers, through a bridge of English at least as rackety as the wooden bridges in the Himalayas, I received only vague and polite gratefulness to ‘the tourists’. Even politics was a dead-end; I would only sense cynicism, naïve nostalgia for the great kings of the past, and annoyance with the never-ending general strikes of the Maoists.

Thus, I am ready to forgive many flaws in this book, for the fact that Thapa tries to give voice to the voiceless. I would also say, this is a quite unhappy book. Whether clerks, vendors, farmers, students, expats, tour-guides or retirees, the characters in the stories get tangled up in some sort of misery. Their predicaments shed light on the many difficulties of daily life in Nepal; material ones such as poverty, pollution, failing infrastructure, natural disasters (it pains me, writing this only two weeks after one of this century’s worst earthquakes struck the country) – as well as cultural ones (often associated with poverty) such as jealousy, greed, parasitism, bureaucratism, religion and tradition.

The ‘love stories’, miserable as they are, are quite good. Sounds That the Tongue Learns to Make depicts the impossibility and improperty of a relationship between a Nepali man and a foreign expat working in Nepal. On a trek to the Ghorepani area, they are constantly mistaken for a tourist with her guide (to his great embarassment). Yet even in their solitude out on the path, they have difficulties finding their rhythm; inevitably, Keshab will walk far ahead, wait for Sarah and as soon as she reaches him, reprimand her for being slow and set off again. Yet, she is one of very few tourists making an attempt to reach out – but culture and poverty renders a normal relationship between them impossible.

The inevitable frustration that must arise in a country where obviously well-fed and well-moneyed foreigners travel some of the poorest regions of the world, dammed-up because of the native dependency on the foreigners and the humble culture of many Nepalese, springs up in a few places, like hot geysirs.

‘The first main thing I don’t like of Nepal,’ tourists declare in broken English, ‘is the dirty air.’ Indeed, the exhaust from the city’s cars and buses is one of the largest cracks in this patchy, fogged mirror image of western dreams – a mirror quicksilvered with tall mountain stories, some fantastic tales of Kew and a Cat Stevens song about Kathmandu.

There is much more to be said here. I wish she had included stories on the guides and porters accompanying well-equipped tourists on the treks – carrying up to 80 kilograms of tourist paraphernalia on their backs, their ragged sandals slipping where the path is wet; the embodiment of neo-colonial mentality.

The jealousy of poverty is illustrated well in Friends. Kamal, a gifted computer engineer in Kathmandu, is trying to find a suitable husband for his sister, which would free him to pursue a career at a technical university abroad. He strikes an odd friendship with, Hrishikesh, a young Nepali-man brought up in the United States, who has decided to return to ‘his roots’ and work at a newspaper. Kamal initiallly finds the ex-expat pathetic and awkward in his touristy appearance; yet his frankness and freedom stir something in him.

Hrishikesh invited Kamal this time, after realizing that he shouldn’t have judged his friend’s desire to go to Bangkok… Kamal had also regretted his comments about Hrishikesh’s spirituality. Their friendship was too nice to treat so thoughtlessly. After all, he had no one else with whom he could talk like this. In all his other relationships, Kamal acted out the roles defined for him by society. Hrishikesh was free, like an American, and he lent Kamal some of his freedom.

Their mutual demise – Hrishikesh isolated and bullied at work, Kamal’s plans stifled by a narrowminded peon seeking a raise – resonate with the reader, as both are forced back into their place in society by forces stronger than them. There is a quite amusing ending, where the narrator suddenly reveals that the characters are made up – she, a vendor, made them up because she was bored!

Three Hundred Rupees, perhaps the best story in the collection, shows how country-side people transform in the cities, how money and greed seep into their minds and ruin even the best relationships. The European Fling  depicts a frustrated, futile US political activist and a Nepali womens’ rights advocate spending a week in European cities, their hopes of romance and intimacy breaking as it becomes obvious that she has matured far more than him – his bitter political awareness paralysing his body and poisoning his mind instead of impelling him to action (someday I might base a book on a character like this). A valuable story.

All in all, this was a very welcome anthology. A living testimony to the power of fiction, securing its indispensable place alongside books on geography, history and politics. Could well replace any guidebook on Nepal.

allay = dämpa, stilla

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