At the beginning of Arranged Marriage, a story from Rabi Thapa's first collection Nothing to Declare, a grandmother tells her narrator grandson 'oranges are only good when they're ripe', alluding to the importance of young marriage. The narrator replies 'Do I look like an orange'. The joke works, like so much of Monty Python, on the disregard of the metaphorical for the literal, making what was said appear absurd. Thapa draws on dislocation to represent the cultural ground currently changing in Nepali society.
In many ways the protagonist is Kathmandu. A central story, From the Road, is a series of snapshots of Nepali life. The narrator, a Nepali travelling abroad, recollects 'the ceremonial run-up to Dashain' and, having described the events, ponders 'What does it mean that I have willingly joined in these rituals when I do not believe they are any more than just that?' The question resounds throughout the stories, seeking to gain perspective to form an answer.
Nothing to Declare
by Rabi Thapa
Thapa has written, " … in writing about my places of Kathmandu valley, I sustain them, bring them out from under the rubble, and string them together." The collection seems to document Kathmandu, not in an attempt to hold onto the past, but in an attempt to collect and understand it for future and present generations. Aryaghat, a story about a cousin who commits suicide in the USA and whose ashes are brought for dispersal in the Bagmati, examines the loss of Nepali individuality. The narrator neither knows nor understands his cousin or his own parents.
There are moments of beautiful writing (see the conflict inherent in 'The dust of decades inside made me wheeze' looking at an ancestral home; 'Time folded into itself, the cycles of rice and dal as night and day', with its Asian Proustian feel; 'frames of time-softened carvings'). Laudable too are the innovations of language and structure – often a compunding of new and old. The styles range from the mythical (Valley of Tears) to simple 3rd person linear (Tiger!) to emails lined up in a diary form (Arranged Marriage); locals sing not Resham Phiriri but a 'famously camp disco refrain'; taxi drivers 'vocalise their insistent tooting'; note the subtlety of the final image of Swayambhu, ' … the eyes of truth painted on the crown gazed impassively …'.
Some stories however feel predetermined, as though almost journalistic, and contradictory to a living fiction. A writer who breaks into an otherwise objective scene ('The place [a dance bar] is almost full, not bad for a Thursday night.') suggests a lack of respect for the reader. More irritating is the lazy phrasing that appears. Compare the simplicity of the mountains after the rain 'soft to the eyes' with 'It was funny how it alternatively pissed you off, bored you, amused you' or 'chasing down the usual suspects with more than usual fervour'. Third person works better than first. The 'I' of Arranged Marriage is not totally convincing. A Night Out in Kathmandu and After Party generate limited sympathy for the characters largely because they are sketches. In Desire the pace is initially strong but the ending feels forced and reliant on exposition.
But I feel Nothing to Declare is an important step for Nepali literature in English. It attempts to look at the conflicts and striations of this country and tries to find ways of seeing them afresh. And for this, the gripes are outweighed by the success. At the end of Aryaghat, the sad grotesqueness of 'Come on, take photos!' for bereaved but absent parents still in the US is counterpoised with a scavenging boy who gets shooed away only to return. The story ends with the image of this boy, with 'black, heavy-framed spectacles' he's taken from the river, 'peering at us from behind them'. The glasses of the dead are used and perpetuated by a carrion-like living. I wonder what he sees.