The Gurkha's Daughter by Prajwal Parajuly
|The Gurkha's Daughter by Prajwal Parajuly|
|Category: Short Stories|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: A sharply observed collection of short stories about the Nepalese people at home and abroad, that might just challenge a preconception or two. And they're a pleasure to read too.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 280||Date: January 2013|
Parajuly is the son of an Indian father and Nepalese mother hailing from Gangtok in the Indian Himalayas, but spending most of his time somewhere between New York and Oxford. His insight is therefore something we should probably trust.
It's an interesting word to use in the introduction to a review of a collection of short stories, but I think it matters. It matters because of one story in particular.
There are eight tales in all, centred on the Nepalese diaspora. All of the central characters are Nepali, but only three of the stories are set in the country itself. One of the others is in New York and the remainder in that swathe of northern India that provides an unexpected buffer zone between Nepal and Bhutan.
It would be an injustice to the writing to tell you too much of each tale, so I'll restrict myself to snippets only.
The Cleft sees a disfigured servant girl plotting her escape from Nepal with dreams of Bollywood while her mistress heads across country for her mother-in-law's funeral.
Let Sleeping Dogs Lie has a Muslim shopkeeper in Kalimpong pondering what do to about a petty thief, whilst also unsure about his burqa-wearing wife's new found liberalism.
A Father's Journey is a bittersweet tale of a father-daughter relationship through the rites of passage of the daughter's growing up.
Missed Blessing tells of the poor relations being expected to host their relatives for a local festival, while the dutiful son considers his Hindu obligations in the face of a no-conversion-intended-guarantee invitation to read the New Testament.
The title piece The Gurkha's Daughter is again something of a father-daughter story, but this time from the eyes of a child, who struggles to understand the adult world from the snatches of overheard conversation. Of course the injustice of our treatment of our Gurkha regiments lurks behind this one, and the anger is allowed free rein.
All of them are tales of domesticity, rife with class and caste conflict. Ethnicity comes into play in one or two, but mostly it’s the artificial barriers we create within our own circles that provide the dramas. Pride and conspicuous wealth (always a relative thing) underpin many of the problems, and all of the dreams are of escape: to Bollywood, to England, to America. Far-flung places where life will be so much better. Passing Fancy alludes to the potential hollowness of the dream and its reality is brought into much sharper focus in the final The Immigrants . This last takes us to Manhattan where a young IT professional finds himself giving English lessons to a maid. It is a sharply observed snapshot of life in the Big Apple with unexpected bigotry, laced as ever with the pernicious impact of financial wealth. There's a delicious up-ending of the social norms in terms of citizenship and the sense of entitlement. Naturally it's a love-story-in-the-making and it deals the book a suitably ambiguous closing.
That is the other thread that meanders through all of the other stories. Familial love, for the most part, but also occasionally the settled spousal love that lingers in long-term partnerships after the passion and romance has evaporated. Duty rears its ugly head occasionally, but is generally beaten down with humour or with that love that makes it bearable.
I enjoyed all of these stories. Each was a pleasure to read. All of them finely judged in length to require time to be set aside for them, not to be rushed on the bus to work, but to be savoured at the end of the day. But short enough to make you think, ah, I'll just squeeze in one more.
Collections aren't made to be read at a sitting, but if they hold together this well, more than one instalment feels more like a two-course meal than an ill-judged all-you-eat. They're light, but not frothy. There's a wry humour and dry wit, that doesn't overwhelm. Characters evoke affection and exasperation in equal measure.
And then, there is the story at the core of the book.
No Land Is Her Land is almost certainly titled in rebuke to the Woodie Guthrie hymn which has America as the home of the free. Nepal and Bhutan still live in the western consciousness as Shangri-La. I have been to both and whilst the poverty is inescapable, and in parts of Nepal you are advised to ask the Maoist bandits for a receipt, nothing that I saw in either place dissuaded the hippy vision that it is still possible to hold to traditional values, to put peaceful existence above politics, yes, to consider Gross National Happiness as a worthy aim. Of course, I hadn't stopped long enough to ponder the fact that Gross National Happiness might be the result of an equation that has some fairly horrible entries in the debit column.
I bought in to the image. Traditions valued and respected.
This is where I now have to trust the author. That some of those respected and loved traditions are being imposed. That Bhutan ejected unwelcome Nepali people from within its borders. That there are refugee camps housing people who, though they speak Nepali, consider themselves Bhutanese.
When did this happen? And why don't we know about it?
Anamiki Chettri's story of survival in the camp, her unfortunate marriages and endeavours to protect her children by deserting each husband in turn, her dreams of passing the US interview, was intriguing, but told as just another everyday tale of life in the hardship zones where survival and moral values conflict on a daily basis. Yet it is its setting: that the camp exists at all, that shocked me to the core.
In that Parajuly has met the duty of the great story-teller. He snook into a simple tale, a hidden truth.
I long to go back to both Nepal and Bhutan… but maybe I need to do a bit more research before I do so.
In the meantime, thanks to Prajwal Parajuly for shedding a little light, and a lot of pleasure through these tales.
Definitely worth picking up.
(A note on spelling: Gurkha isn't the usual English spelling of the word, nor my preferred rendition, but it's the one the author and publisher have chosen so I've gone with it for this review.)
You can read more book reviews or buy The Gurkha's Daughter by Prajwal Parajuly at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy The Gurkha's Daughter by Prajwal Parajuly at Amazon.com.
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