Nepali Times
Every place, every novelist


At the Book Fair 2005 this week, Samrat Upadhyay was the centre of attraction. Even those who have neither read his books nor are likely to do so anytime soon queued up to get their autographed copies.

Despite the charge that they write either for a foreign audience or to impress each other, Nepalis writing fiction in English enjoy a measure of prestige and privilege unavailable to the authors of the vernacular (the word itself comes from the Latin for 'slave').

No wonder, Peter J Karthak, an award-winning writer in Nepali, a recognised name in newspapers and a regular of the social circuit in Kathmandu, wanted to be known as a novelist in English as well. In his anxiety to please his readers, the author has smothered his debut novel with concern, care and love.

It's difficult to capture the complexity of this book but in essence it is what its name says- a narrative of people and places. Universality of human emotions and the role of language in their expression are quite well-known but the place of a place in giving distinctiveness to the style of a writer is often ignored.

Without the props of a Valley of Gods, Samrat wouldn't have been able to do Arresting God in Kathmandu, Arundhati Roy's God of Small Things is difficult to imagine anywhere else except in God's own country and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children were feted to be born in Bombay, a magically real post-colonial metropolis. Stories of every place and every person need to be rooted in a particular place and played out in the lives of specific persons.

The stage for Peter's Himalayan tale is Darjeeling of the mid-60s, a 'hill station' in the process of decay and degradation. It's a story of longing and belonging in a town without a past or a future. Cut loose from their roots, its residents cling like vines to every tree and every hillock in often desperate attempts to draw their physical and moral sustenance. Some are ?migr?s from eastern Nepal, others trace their origins to the Ganga plains and a number of them are from surrounding mountainous regions. All are caught in the vortex of a place in the process of transformation from a tourism and teaching town to a postcolonial marketplace dependent upon the energy of distant metro poles.

Darjeeling of the mid-60s is a town mired in the pathos of losing its sense of purpose. The last of the colonials have already left, Sikkim is yet to be annexed, Subhas Ghising hasn't yet raised his Gorkhaland war cry. Shorn of claims to grandeur, the decaying town is trying to come to terms with its second-class status in independent India and being a third-rate priority for Calcutta. This is the time when everyone is either leaving the town or contemplating a departure.

In the stress of wilful inaction, the rape of a vibrant girl on a hillock by seven promising youngsters shakes all the tall trees in town to their roots. Vines begin to crumble. A few are blown away by the winds of change to faraway lands. Some survive with reduced stature by clinging to the earth. An existential tale with the complexity of simplicity unfolds through the days of a week- from Monday evening until the evening of another Monday. Life survives. It's not an uplifting book but it's not despondent either. Upon completion of the story, a reader is too drained out to have any compassion for its principle character- the town of Darjeeling.

It's an article of faith among literary critics that basically there are only two themes in all works of fiction: someone goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. The challenge of the novelist is to get a proper mix of these two plots. Karthak decides to linger in his factional Darjeeling town and be a witness to its travails with mixed results. The rape, around which the story revolves, is perhaps merely a metaphor for a small town losing its innocence but even then the details tend towards tiresome rather than shocking.

Peter's prose shines through the decadence but his choice of certain simile and metaphors can leave a reader squirming: Christ 'skewered like a mongrel' and people 'swarming up and down like worms' are unsettling descriptions even for a town with a terminal illness.

Samrat has recently admitted that up to 40 percent of his book owe its polish to dedicated editors. Nepali writers could certainly do with such services but the tribe of professional book editors is conspicuous by its absence in this country. Manjushree Thapa, a noted author in her own right, has edited this book but she is too sensitive a writer to tamper too much with anyone's manuscript. A close reading reveals that several rough edges have escaped her cutting edge editing but that's not such a shortcoming after all. Peter's prose retains the peculiarities of a particular place-Darjeeling. And that is enough to make this book a rewarding read.

Every Place: Every Person
Peter J Karthak
Vajra Publications, Kathmandu, 2005

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)