DB Gurung belongs to the third generation of Nepal's English literary writers-the first slim generation consisting of Balakrishna Sama and Laxmi Prasad Devkota, and the second (slightly less slim) generation of Abhi Subedi, Padma P Devkota, Peter J Karthak, Mani Dixit, and a few others. While the literature written by the earlier generations remained confined to very narrow reading circles, Gurung's generation is poised to narrow the considerable gap between Nepal's English literature and the larger world: he is the first Nepali to have a novel published by a reputable publishing house outside Nepal. The son of a Gurkha veteran of World War II, Gurung made first his mark in poetry, publishing a collection Whisper in 1992. As with much English literature published in Nepal, little fanfare accompanied that publication. Eight years later, however, Echoes of the Himalayas received a good amount of attention: by having his novel published outside Nepal, Gurung got Nepal's literati to take note of him.
Echoes of the Himalayas is fresh and worldly in outlook. Protagonist Gagan Ghondey's father is a retired Gurkha serviceman in the British Indian forces who returns to Nepal after his retirement, only to suffer discrimination and exclusion: and so he migrates to Bhutan. Gagan grows up between Bhutan and Sikkim as an emotional, poetically inclined youth who harbours a deep nostalgia for his imaginary homeland Nepal. The novel begins as he sets off from Sikkim to make a place for himself in Nepal.
Reaching Biratnagar, Gagan finds that Nepal meets none of his expectations: Biratnagar is 'a confused, shapeless town, sprawled in typical Indian fashion over an endless plain that [have] no hills or rivers, and.littered with filthy stagnant ponds, swamps and puddles that [breed] mosquitoes and germs.' However, Gagan slowly adjusts to this alien Nepal; but he has a hard time finding work because he lacks citizenship papers. At the end of a few difficult months, he has overcome his poetic bent and is making a living shoveling sand, carrying loads, teaching privately and smuggling Indian goods across the border.
Gagan returns to Sikkim after his father's death. By this time he is skeptical about his prospects in Nepal but he still, deep down, wants to return and find a home there. He finally summons strength from a Langston Hughes verse-'What happens to a dream deferred?'-and returns to Nepal, this time heading straight to Kathmandu.
He is both disappointed and rewarded by the city. In depicting Kathmandu, Gurung has captured the city's fluid, shifting character. Gagan's initial thrill at the cosmopolitan veneer of some parts of the city quickly gives way to disillusionment at the deep-seated chauvinism which marks Nepali society. Lacking local contacts, family support, or citizenship papers, he finds himself again and again knocking up against native xenophobia and parochialism. His attempts to find work are wrought by a migrant's insecurity. Yet Kathmandu is not all heartache: he is also embraced by kindly strangers, including Bahuns. Over time, as Nepal enters a democratic era, Gagan befriends more and more members of ethnic groups who are slowly organising against the cultural hegemony of Chettris and Bahuns. The novel ends, somewhat abruptly, on a political note, with Gagan entering active politics as a member of the All Nepal Native People's Organisation, a forum of 'native' Nepalis of 'Mongoloid' origin. Fighting for his rights as a 'native' Nepali, he belongs.
Previous reviews of Echoes of the Himalayas have tended to criticise it, in my view unfairly, for exaggerating Nepal's ethnic tensions. To be sure, the author's portrayal of the janajati movement is simplistic; for current janajati rights discourses are more complex and wide-ranging than the 'natives' vs 'Brahminism' polemic that dominates Echoes of the Himalayas. In places Gurung tries to acknowledge the complex nature of Nepal's ethnic relations: he is careful, for instance, to be very fair in portraying individual Bahun characters. Still, the novel keeps slipping into the kind of racialist jargon which tends to trivialise other more legitimate grievances that janajati populations suffer: for example, issues such as discrimination in Nepal's constitution, official language policies, census counts and distribution of social and economic justice receive far less mention than the facial features of 'natives' and Chettri/Bahuns.
Despite this reductive quality, Echoes of the Himalayas is a fun, refreshing book to read. The author's sensibility definitely stands apart as new and invigorating-perhaps because most of Nepal's literature is a bastion of Bahun writers, and the issues raised in this book are hard to find in Nepal's Nepali-language literature. Indeed, Nepal's English-language literature stands apart in that it is authored equally by Bahuns, Chettris, Newars, Gurungs, Tibetans, migrants from Sikkim and Darjeeling, and long-time expatriates from all over the world.
There are, sadly, a few shortcomings in Echoes of the Himalayas that could keep it from being widely read. Though many passages, particularly descriptions, read very lyrically, the novel is mostly written in a simple, functional prose which can read flatly at times. Foreign colloquialisms pop up oddly in characters' dialogues. The plot and pacing are erratic in places; and the rushed end betrays signs of novelists' fatigue. Yet those who sympathise with Gagan's muddled outsider-insider relationship to Nepal will enjoy the book for its content. And those who seek a greater diversity of voices in Nepal's literature will enjoy the novel. Viewed in the larger context of Nepal's literature, Echoes of the Himalayas must be lauded for the cosmopolitan sensibility it contributes to our literature.
Echoes of the Himalayas
USB Publishers' Distributors Ltd., New Delhi, 2000