Nepali Times
In Nepal, too, desire defies modern times


The Kathmandu of Samrat Upadhyay, a Nepali writer who lives in the United States, is very different from the locale of foreigners' imaginations, an exotically primitive place steeped in custom, dust and religiosity (and most recently in the murders of most of the royal family by a discontented prince). In Arresting God in Kathmandu, Upadhyay's first collection of stories, this city is an awkwardly modern place where temples, painted with the eyes of the gods, are on the periphery of ordinary life, peering into consciences but imposing no obedience.

Kathmandu seems almost local in Upadhyay's stories, full of middle-class people worried about what their neighbours will think, dreaming about sex, getting tired of their wives or husbands, struggling against illicit desire. This book reminds us that there is truly no place to hide from the temptations of cosmopolitanism, from globalised culture or from the universal human condition, not even in faraway Nepal.

At least that is my interpretation of the meaning of Upadhyay's title, Arresting God in Kathmandu. There is no story of that title in this collection, although the last one, "A Great Man's House," would seem to be the best candidate. In it a wealthy hotel owner and admired Hindu guru named Kailash-who preaches about the renunciation of desire to a circle of friends-takes on a much younger wife, Nani, whereupon his faith, his health and his authority crumble.

Told in the voice of Kailash's cook, who nurtures his own secret desire for Nani, this story could be read as metaphor: Kailash as God, whose commands regarding renunciation and a higher level of spiritual awareness are rudely challenged by his young wife.

"It's very easy for you to sit up there on that cushion and preach on the illusions that our desires create," Nani tells him during one of his sessions with his followers. "But the truth is this, that most ordinary people like me want to learn how to live and fulfil our desires, not treat them as if they were stepchildren." At the heart of this story, subtle and spiritually complex like Upadhyay's others, is the ambivalence the reader feels toward Nani. We tend to want to share the conviction of Kailash's friends that she is brazen and coarse, a bearer of trouble, like all uncontrolled women. Rumours begin to circulate-rumours being a big part of Upadhyay's Kathmandu-that she is bringing lovers to the house while Kailash lies in bed sick. Mohan Ram, the cook, sees her with older men, and he waxes nostalgic for the old days when Kailash, whom he calls "my master," was surrounded by adoring relatives, conducting his spiritual sessions. At the same time the cook senses in himself a perverse arousal for the vixenish, calculating Nani.

In Upadhyay's stories interior events occur like tumblers falling in a lock, so quietly and inconspicuously that we almost don't notice them. In "The Cooking Poet," a young political rebel with a great poetic talent becomes a student of Kathmandu's poet laureate, Acharya, putting Acharya into confrontation with the loss of his own powers. In "Deepak Misra's Secretary" a homely, devoted woman draws her boss, a successful financier, away from his obsession with his estranged American wife, only to be rejected by him in turn because he is embarrassed by her bony hips and a birthmark on her cheek.

In "The Limping Bride" a widowed father, Hiralal, strives to reform his son's rebellious heavy drinking by finding him a wife, concealing from him that the candidate he finds is imperfect, that she walks with a limp, a humiliating loss of face for the son. The son, Moti, marries the candidate, Rukmini, but he rejects her as soon as he discovers her limp. Yet while outwardly a picture of demure, melancholy passivity, Rukmini is possessed of a sly worldliness that puts her in command of father and husband, each of whom, in his own way, is seeking a kind of reincarnation of Hiralal's dead wife.

There is a deceptive simplicity to all of these stories, just as there is a deceptive simplicity to Kathmandu, whose appearance of traditional piety is, like Rukmini's, a mask behind which all manner of complications flourish.

The tradition exists most notably in the ceremonies of arranged marriages and the perfunctory visits some of Upadhyay's characters pay to the city's temples. Mostly, in Upadhyay's version of it, the city is filled with ordinary people who, in the words of Rani, are seeking ways to fulfil their desires, even furtive ones. There is, for example, the case of the modest teacher named Aditya in "The Man With Long Hair," whose homoerotic infatuation with an itinerant actor leads him to rekindle his faded passion for his wife. Or there is American-educated Kanti in the story "The World" who rejects a perfectly suitable arranged marriage with a Kathmandu doctor because of an unhealthy attraction to an aristocratic, womanising rake named Jaya, who is himself a sign of the disappearance of old ways and old values. "Kanti slid down and sat on the floor," after her final meeting with the rejected doctor, who has himself returned to Kathmandu from England, where he loved a woman just as unsuitable for him as Jaya is for Kanti. "She wondered where Jaya was right now-probably in bed with some awful woman in a hotel. But, then, Kanti herself had been such a woman for a while."
Subtle, tinged with the melancholy of modest, materially constricted lives, Upadhyay's stories bring us into contact with a world that is somehow both very far away and very familiar.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)