14-20 April 2017 #854

"Kathmandu won’t let go of me"

Nepali Times caught up with Nepal’s most accomplished English language novelist this week to ask about his evolution as a writer

Babita Upadhyay

After his last novel, The City Son (2014), author Samrat Upadhyay is coming out with his next book Mad Country this month. Nepali Times caught up with Nepal’s most accomplished English language novelist this week to ask about his evolution as a writer.

Nepali Times: What can you tell us about Mad Country?

Samrat Upadhyay: Mad Country teeters on the edges of realism, and at times goes off the deep end. It’s my most psychotic and hallucinatory book. It’s unlike anything I’ve written. Actually, I say this about my every new book. The last story collection I wrote, The Royal Ghosts, was published in 2006, and now that book appears tame and a gyani nani by comparison. Mad Country is frothing at the mouth, ready with a torrent of abuses.

Is that why the title is Mad Country?

Mad Country is a state of mind more than anything else. The title story in the collection features a successful woman entrepreneur who is arrested in a petty altercation and turned into a 'political prisoner,’ thereby starting the process of her madness. She undergoes a complete transformation of her identity and, by the end, is questions the reality that she held so dear before her arrest. Many of the characters in the collection are dwelling in, transitioning through, celebrating, or suffering through various stages of madness. After I finished the book, I thought that Nepal’s tumultuous political history and sometimes deranged rulers might have been in the back of my mind when I worked on the book. Case in point: recently, I saw this news from 2016 summer -- I’d missed it when it was published -- wherein PM Dahal says that he’d like Barpak to be “one of the best tourism sites in the world.” But then Trump happened in America, so who is madder now?

Why do you keep coming back to Kathmandu in your books?

Kathmandu, too, is a state of mind. The Kathmandu I depicted in my first book, Arresting God in Kathmandu, is a distant past now, yet many of the characters and locations in that book still exist vividly in my mind today. I cannot let go of this city. Or, perhaps more accurately, Kathmandu won’t let go of me. You may call me a Kathmandu-based writer who doesn’t live in Kathmandu. But Mad Country is hardly about Kathmandu. It’s the most global of my books. It has a character caught up in the Ferguson uprising, and I even manage to reach Ghana. I’m no longer a Kathmanduko bhyaguta!

For the uninitiated, which Samrat Upadhyay book do you recommend they read first?

They say that asking authors to rank or choose from among their books is asking parents to choose favourites among their kids. But the first-born always remains a darling, so I’d say start with Arresting God in Kathmandu. If the sex in there is too much for you, then try The City Son.

How far do you think you have come as a writer since Arresting God?

Pretty far. This is my sixth book, yet I sometimes feel that I’m just getting started. And in many ways I am. Creating art is not a step ladder, where you keep climbing to higher and better sights. Each book is different, its demands are different, so with each book you turn into a toddler and have to learn to walk all over again. It’s difficult but also refreshing and liberating. I feel like I’m not even beholden to my own body of work when I’m in the process of creating a new one. The new book is a new teacher who’ll open me to worlds I’ve never experienced.

Over the years do you see any changes in how your unconventional characters are received?

I wouldn’t say that my characters and plots are unconventional. It depends entirely upon who is deciding what convention is. The history of literature is filled with writers defying convention, and conventionalists crying foul. By definition, literature is convention-defying. Convention asks us that we perceive and accept reality a certain way, often the established way, often put in place by those who benefit from such arrangements. Literature is an art form that rearranges this arrangement and shows us other, perhaps more beautiful and truthful, ways to experience reality. In terms of my fiction, I don’t see a big change in how my books are received. They seem to elicit a myriad of reactions, which is normal. So, I’m quite a conventional writer in that sense.

Nepali writers in English have not come up at the speed anticipated. What is missing?

There has been some progress. New writers have come out with interesting books. But my sense is that there is only a small number of devoted writers who are pursuing literature in English seriously. To be a writer you need to immerse yourself in the universe of books, and you need to spend long hours writing. Some young writers want quick success without first even knowing how to write a proper sentence. The South Asian publishing industry has seen tremendous growth in the last decade, and while it has also spawned many bad writers, opportunities for young writers have opened up in ways that weren’t there in the early 90s when I began writing in earnest. Now writers don’t necessarily need to go searching for publishers in the West. But just a few months ago a prominent Indian literary agent was quoted as saying that he’s hardly received any submission from Nepal in his career as an agent. So, Nepali writers need to grid up their langotis and get to work.

Read more:

Love and longing in Kathmandu, Kunda Dixit

For the love of a guru, Anagha Neelakantan

Epic yearnings, Rabi Thapa

"I rely on the muse of hard work", Manjushree Thapa