Samrat Upadhyay and the Nepali Present Tense

upadyay the royal ghosts.gif Readers interested in what has been happening in Nepal recently might find Samrat Upadhyay’s The Royal Ghosts a worthwhile read.

Upadhyay is a Nepali who teaches at a university in the U.S. He is, I think, the only Nepali publishing his fiction in the U.S. at present. Though his stories as a rule tend to focus more on personal issues and relationships than on poitics, in this latest book of stories he has for the first time tackled the effect the “Maobadis” (Maoists) have had on Nepali life. Even here the treatment of the ongoing civil war is a little bit oblique: these are middle-class, urban, Kathmandu stories, and the violence that ravages countryside is as far away from the metropolitan consciousnes as Delhi is from the tribal regions of Bihar (see English, August, which Siddhartha blogged about recently). For example. Pitamber, the protagonist of “A Refugee” reminds me a little of the father-figure in Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey: a good father-figure who has, in his do-gooding, perhaps bitten off more than he can chew. He volunteers his house as a refuge for a poor woman from the country and her daughter, who had lost most of their family to Maoist violence. They are traumatized, and are somewhat of an awkward fit in Pitamber’s middle class household. Pitamber has to manage his unruly teenage son and also fend off gossip that perhaps he’s taken a “second wife.” (As someone says in another story, “This is Nepal. It doesn’t take anything for people to start talking here.”)

The climate is one of constant fear and anxiety. The Maobadis are casually cursed by nearly all the city-dwellers, but still people look around cautiously before they say anything — in case the wrong people might be listening. Pitamber himself is barely keeping it together, and soon it’s his own unexpected violence that is troubling him:

Someone murmured in agreement, but a voice from behind Pitamber sid, ‘What are you saying? Our revolution has arrived! These [Maobadis] are our heroes!.’

‘Heroes?’ Pitamber swiveled around. ‘Who said that?’

Someone pointed to a boy of about nineteen,and Pitamber lurched toward him and grabbed his shirt collar. ‘What did you say?’ He could feel the pulse in his own throat as he slapped the boy hard on the right cheek. Encouraged by the slap, other men now crowed around the boy, shoving him, punching him, shaking him. ‘I wasn’t being serious,’ the boy screamed. ‘I didn’t mean it!’ He began pleading for mercy.

His throad still pulsing, Pitamber walked away. He couldn’t believe how fast his hand had flown, how thoughtlessly he’d struck the boy.

The move from big, ominous political questions to issues close to home is a common turn in many of these stories. Ultimately, Pitamber has to deal with the consequences of his own actions (which get worse as the story goes forward), since he can do nothing about the conflict between Maoists and the Army that is tearing apart his country.

Though “A Refugee” is the story where the engagement with the Maoist insurgency is most directly referenced, the best story in the collection might be “The Royal Ghosts,” which is set immediately following the shocking murder-suicide of the Nepali royal family in June 2001. (Interestingly, it’s not the first time in Nepali history that a royal family has massacred itself. As is discussed in the story, the Ranas came into power on the heels of the Kot Parba massacre in 1846.)

In terms of writing style, I would compare Upadhyay to Rohinton Mistry: simple, straightforward storytelling.

15 thoughts on “Samrat Upadhyay and the Nepali Present Tense

  1. In terms of writing style, I would compare Upadhyay to Rohinton Mistry: simple, straightforward storytelling.

    I Have read ‘The Guru of Love’ by Samrat Upadhyay and will definitely look this book up. He is excellent and ‘The Guru of Love’ was amazingly poignant. If ‘The Royal Ghosts’ is anything like that, then I try and get my hands on it asap!

  2. I have to admit I haven’t read The Guru of Love — it’s been sitting on my shelf for more than a year. (Still: isn’t it amazing how many desi/South Asian writers focus on polygamy?!)

    I can say that the stories here are in a similar vein to Arresting God in Kathmandu, which I also liked. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Though there is some politics in the background, every story has a personal touch.

  3. Thanks Amardeep…I had reviewed it here on my blog…I really loved the detailing of the emotions in the stories..he really got “under the skin” of his caracters…

  4. Comparison to Mistry is the highest of praise. A Fine Balance is as vivid in my memory as the cinematography of a Deepa Mehta movie.

    and poof its at the top of my list. thanks!

  5. Samrat is a great storyteller. Lucid, simple, style. Look forward to his next. I also recommend the book “End of the Line,” published by Penguin, on the Nepal royal family massacre. It is by AP journalist Neelesh Misra. I picked it up after watching some of his TV interviews during the recent protests. Nice read so far.

  6. Pankaj Mishra has written a book on the Maoist revolution there.

  7. Thanks Amardeep for the recommendation!

    Will def hunt that down, and his other book(s?)…anyone who gets their name in the same sentence as the Rohinton definitely gets my bow down

    does anyone have any good titles they can recommend by new desi writers? ive seen a lot of new ones, but nothin that looks v good

  8. Thanks for the recommendation…

    The best desi book I’ve read in a long, long time is Patna Roughcut. Pity it’s not available in the States…

  9. Thank you so much for this entry. I had to do a lot of research to come across Samrat Upadhyay and it’s refreshing to finally have a strong Nepali voice in Western fiction.

  10. Check out Chandrahas’ Upadhyay interview, via India Uncut:

    Momos, Nepali dumplings. Even thinking about momos makes my mouth water. Best momos will explode in your mouth, filling your palate with sharp, tangy juice thatÂ’s simply heavenly. The meat itself is yummily spicy, and before you even finish swallowing one momo, you must plop the next one into your mouth so that itÂ’s a continuous, seamless orgasm.

    I know of no Nepali who doesnÂ’t like momos, so IÂ’d venture to say that momos are probably more a symbol of Nepali unity that the institution of monarchy can ever be!
  11. After hearing about this book on Sepia Mutiny, I went to the library and got this book. It’s really good. Thanks for recommending it.