19-25 December 2014 #737


Nepali Times

A selection of books to curl up with this winter holiday recommended by the staff of Nepali Times

The Prospector by JMG Le Clézio

French writer JMG Le Clézio, laureate of the Nobel Prize in literature in 2008, keeps in close touch with his second home, Mauritius. The Indian Ocean island halfway between Africa and India, has influenced many of his novels. The Prospector (Le Chercheur d’Or) is one of these.

The novel is about Alexis, a white Mauritian whose earliest memory from the 1900s is the sound of the ocean. His passion for the big blue grows when he embarks on his first sea voyage at the age of eight with Denis, a descendant of slave.

After the death of his ruined father, Alexis finds documents about the existence of a treasure on Rodrigues Islands – 560km east of Mauritius. He waits to come of age before going on a frantic treasure hunt. After four years searching he finds nothing, but falls in love with a local girl, Ouma.

Mauritius being a British colony at that time, Alexis joins the Royal Army to fight in World War I. Back from the trenches he returns to Rodrigues to search for his treasure, once again in vain, and goes back to Mauritius where he dreams of Ouma.

The theme of the sea is omnipresent in The Prospector. And during his voyages, Alexis experiments with a few shipwrecks: the bankruptcy of his father and the demolition of the family house during a cyclone. There is also the emotional wreckage after the protagonist abandons his sister, Laure, and loses Ouma, the love of his life.

The beginning of the novel may seem monotonous because of its overloaded lyricism and slow rhythm. But Le Clézio writes vivid descriptions of the islands, the brutality among the communities, that allows the book to pick up pace and eventually make the story thrilling – even for those who have never been near Mauritius.

Stéphane Huët

The City Son by Samrat Upadhyay

When Didi learns of her husband Masterji’s secret second family in Kathmandu with the attractive Apsara and their young son Tarun, she ups and leaves the village to join him in the city with her two sons.

True to her domineering personality, Didi takes over her husband’s household and hounds Apsara out. Although no beauty herself, Didi has a fierce libido which manifests itself in her affection for her good-looking step son, Tarun, which turns into possessive obsession and abuse.

In her grief, Apsara begins to lose her mind and Tarun turns to Didi for the mothering he longs for. Though Apsara and Tarun are taken in by Mahesh uncle, he cannot escape Didi’s grip on him. At 23, out of family obligation, Tarun gets married to the wholesome Rukma, but the young man is too scarred to make himself and his new wife happy.

Samrat Upadhyay is a master storyteller, and although his books are set in Kathmandu the plot of unconventional abuse in The City Son is universal. His writing is simple, stark, and sparse – as if the author doesn’t want to let language get in the way of storytelling. Most of what happens is deeply unpleasant and disturbing, making this a haunting read. A woman’s manipulation and sexual jealousy exposes the hypocrisy of urban values, and a young couple keeps up appearances although everything is not all right at home. Both exhibit distinct public and private facades.

Infidelity has been a constant theme in Upadhyay’s previous stories, as in the rocky marriage between Raja and Nilu in Buddha’s Orphans. Upadhayay’s couples don’t have fairytale love stories, relationships are never smooth, they are soulful, bold, daring, but beautiful. His books are populated by people who are imperfectly perfect. Like us.

Samrat Upadhayay lives and teaches in the United States, the Kathmandu of his youth is long gone. But his descriptions of Ratna Park, Thamel, the old houses, hippies and the pubs will make younger readers wish they were there in the 1980s to see it all.

Sonia Awale

A Song of Ice and Fire: Game of Thrones by George R.R.Martin

If there is a book series that inspires a cult following similar to that of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, it has to be A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin. Set in medieval times, the series encapsulates the entire genre of epic fantasy, bringing together adventure, drama, mystery, magic, romance and a disconcertingly large number of deaths.

Thanks to its massively successful HBO television series of the same name, many readers are understandably apprehensive that the book may not hold the same level of intrigue. A few chapters in, and it was clear that my apprehensions were misplaced. I was hooked.

The story is first told from eight perspectives and several storylines occur together and, at times, overlap. Although the beginning of the book sets the background of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and King’s Landing, the series gains pace after King Robert Baratheon gets killed. With the throne empty, the Lannisters, Starks and Baratheons wage wars to claim the Iron Throne in A Clash of Kings, the second book in the series.

With an extensive list of characters, be prepared to spend a fair bit of your time flipping back to the appendix and surfing Wikipedia to remember names and the relationships the characters share with each other. In spite of the complexity, Martin’s writing is simple and concisely captures the vastness of the imaginary world of Westeros without being too elaborate. Unlike other authors, Martin doesn’t shy away from killing off his main characters, usually putting readers on the edge of their seats thinking of the possible impending demise of their favorite characters.

There seems to be no end to the Game of Thrones mania with a television series, blogs and a couple thousand memes dedicated to the series.

Ayesha Shakya

Blue Mimosa by Parijat

Blue Mimosa is the English translation of Shirish Ko Phool, recipient of Nepal’s book of the year Madan Puraskar award in 1965. The author is Bishnu Kumari Waiba, who is better known by her nom de plume, Parijat and is regarded as the first modern Nepali novelist. Forty years after it was first published, the story is still as relevant as ever.

A middle-aged retired solider, Suyogji, is back from the Burma front and visits his drinking partner, Shiva Raj, who has three unmarried sisters. Later, Suyogji falls in love with the middle sister, Bari, but cannot bring himself to declare his love. Still, he cannot stop thinking about her. He recalls the other women he has met in the past, but this time the feeling is completely different.

The story is written under the first person of Suyogji, so we can sense his happiness and bitterness. Parijat takes considerable effort to get into the psyche of a Nepali man, and describe his yearnings, desires and fears.

Suyogji lives on in his meaningless life, so does his friend Shiva Raj. We do not know what the girl thinks, does she also have feelings for Suyogji, and like him is she unable to express them? Is it mutually unrequited love? We will never know.

The dialogue between Suyogji and Bari is not just simple daily stuff , there is depth and an existential angst that must come from Parijat’s own life of a physically handicapped person. Their discussion about god is one that spans time and space, each one of us seeks these deeper meanings from deep inside our souls. And the author’s message that although sometimes life may seem meaningless one has to move on seems almost autobiographical.

Besides these questions about the meaning of life, Parijat shows the nature of true love. Suyogji’s feeling for Bari is quite different from any he had before, it transcends sexuality as he is spiritually conquered by the young girl. Parijat takes us on a journey into Suyogji’s inner world so we see what he sees, feel how he feels and hear his private thoughts. We go on a journey of love to see a Kathmandu abloom with blue mimosa.

Claire Li Yingxue

Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga

Not knowing Aravind Adiga from Adam, and having never read The White Tiger I expected his latest book, Last Man in Tower, to be a lighthearted tale. But it soon became clear that Adiga specialises in the sins of businesses, and the injustices that economic growth throws in its wake.

Last Man in Tower is about how residents of an old community housing colony (the Vishram society) react when a powerful real estate developer, Dharmen Shah, offers a suspiciously large amount to buy out the entire apartment block and convert the site into a luxury apartment complex. As we are introduced to the characters and their daily encounters, we get a real-life glimpse of middle-class values at play.

The plot gains traction as opposition gathers momentum against the developer. Adiga brings in manipulations, threats and bribery which are all too familiar to land acquisition cases for us here in Nepal. Then one of the residents, a recently widowed retired teacher, Yogesh A Murthy (Masterji) remains the ‘last man’ standing on the tower.

Adiga keeps the plot line simple, but it is rife with collusion, machination, and intrigue to keep us guessing about the fate of Vishram society. The book delves into the nuances of human nature – desperation, ego, greed – as the residents turn against the once venerated Masterji.

Adiga endows his cast with depth, and leaves it to us to judge the character of the characters as they negotiate conflicting interests of personal attachment, convenience and money. The characters are dynamic and the readers’ perception of them changes frequently depending on the decisions they take and we toggle between sympathy, suspicion and disregard for them.

Elvin L Shrestha

A Home in Tibet by Tsering Wangmo Dhompa

It is easy to dismiss a book written on Tibet as being just another romanticised narrative of a country that holds much awe and mystery, given its forbidden and forbidding nature in the past and the present. And, when the author happens to be a Tibetan, that conclusion is perhaps even more logical. “Here is another nationalist pushing praise for her land,” we think.

Set these preconceived generalisations aside, and you will see A Home in Tibet is more than just a Tibetan writing about her love for her country. It is about a daughter’s longing for her mother, about an individual’s search for identity lost in refuge, and about a land on the road to change.

Like many young Tibetans born in exile, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa had only heard about the land of snows from her mother. Tsering’s mother, an employee with the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala, was a single parent and the two shared a close relationship. After her mother dies in a car accident in India, Tsering decides to embark on a journey (initially planned with her mother) to the country she calls own but has never seen. The book is a detailed account of that trip, a personal memoir told beautifully by a poet in prose.

Once at her mother’s village of Dhompa in Kham in eastern Tibet, surrounded by families and friends, Tsering feels both at home and like an outsider. If some of the nomadic traditions are beyond rational understanding for this America educated writer, she also doesn’t mind the discomfort of leading a primitive lifestyle.

Tsering Wangmo speaks for many Tibetans living in exile when she writes: “My attachment to the land makes me want for it to remain unchanged but I know this world is desirable because I can leave it any time I want.”

Filled with such poignant expressions, A Home in Tibet is a wonderfully written story that will resonate with all those, who have at one point in their lives, felt a loss of sense of belonging.

"At last, I am a Tibetan in Tibet, a Khampa in Kham, albeit as a tourist in my occupied and tethered country."

Tsering Dolker Gurung

Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

Every one of us has that one person who is not only older and wiser but also understands us like no one else. Whether that person is a friend or a family, they have helped you see the world as it is and held up the lamp while you were searching for a way.

For writer Mitch Albom it was his college professor Morrie Schwartz and this book, a memoir, is what they refer to as their last thesis together. Morrie was Albom’s college professor, a friend and a mentor, someone who he looked up to and promised to keep in touch with after graduation. As Albom takes on life he trades a lot of dreams for a bigger paycheck and although his old professor crosses his mind a few times, he is too busy being a successful journalist in Detroit. It isn’t until he finds out through a television show that his beloved professor is terminally ill, that he finally reconciles with him. Over the period of next few months, on most Tuesdays when Morrie isn’t too tired or ill, the two sit for their last class together and Morrie teaches him the meaning of life. The book gives a glimpse of Morrie’s attitude towards life, death, greed, fear as well as family and society. Through flashbacks of their time at Brandeis University and the time he spent visiting Morrie, the author lets us peep into the man that was Morrie and the extraordinary relationship they shared together.

Tuesdays with Morrie will make you introspect your life and people in it like few other books. It forces you to think about your life, all the moments and people who are important. Morrie has pearls of wisdom, like: “Death is as natural as life. It’s part of the deal we made.’’

The book will make you miss that one person who you shared a bond with, but with time decided to leave behind. And what better a time than the holidays for a little soul searching?

Sahina Shrestha

Video Night in Kathmandu by Pico Iyer

Want to do some time travel to transport you to a Kathmandu of 30 years ago? Join Pico Iyer, an Indian writer born and raised in Britain, as he travels around the world and arrives in hippie-era Nepal. During his trip across Asia he finds a continent in flux: cable tv is spreading its tentacles transforming cultures. Video Night in Kathmandu is a classic travelogue, combining personal experience and fascinating facts of Nepal, China, Japan, and Southeast-Asian countries.

‘There, inside an inner sanctum, sat fifty or so men on folding chairs, absolutely silent,’ Iyer writes about the inside of a video parlour showing a Hindi film. Today, video parlours are extinct, replaced by cybercafés. Most people buy Rs 40 pirated DVDs and watch movies at home or stream them through the Net.

Other things have changed: apple pies are no longer on the menus of restaurants, a VCR is no longer as expensive as a house, Nepal’s literacy rate has gone up from 60 to 80 per cent, and the number of doctors has increased ten fold. Ask a taxi driver to take you to Freak Street today and you get a blank stare. Back then, it was what Thamel is today.

Nevertheless, many remnants of old Kathmandu are still retained. The menus in touristy restaurants still have chopsuey, Indian paratha, but almost nothing Nepali. The streets are still dusty and populated with bulls and dogs. If you want to reach the centre of town, ‘following the paved road’ is still a sound advice. Music still spills out of bars as live Nepali bands belt it out on on Friday nights. The cheerful spirit and heartfelt smiles of the people, it seems, remain -- as everlasting as the mountains above.

The city has changed its face with time, and so has Pico Iyer. Thirty years after Video Night in Kathmandu, Iyer has travelled far in his quest for tranquility and harmony. He finds the real spirit of life in his new book, The Art of Stillness.

“It’s only by stopping movement that you can see where to go,” he says in a memorable TED talk quoting from his new book. “And it’s only by stepping out of your life and the world that you can see what you most deeply care about, and find a home.”

Elaine Wang Yiwei

The News: A User’s Manual by Alain de Botton

In most journalism schools students are taught that news has to be New, Near, or Negative. If it happened two hours ago it is already stale, if it happens in Novosibirsk it is not news, and if it is about midwives saving lives in Jumla it is not news.

News is whatever is out of the ordinary. Much as we like to poke fun at the criteria of what makes news, or try to shift the priority to positive news, it is the public’s voracious and voyeuristic craving for disaster and celebrity coverage that drives the news business.

Every day, we editors try to strike a balance between the public’s desire for certain types of ‘stories’ with our responsibility for public service journalism. Is our job to give the public what it wants, or what it needs? And who are we to decide what the public needs? When the lines between news and entertainment gets blurred, as it does on BuzzFeed or Aajtak, it is clear that news is also escapism. A salaried breadwinner at home doesn’t want to be reminded of his daily struggle in front of the Tube or YouTube.

The nature of news is mixed up with human curiosity and our desire to be tickled or titillated, which is why it takes a philosopher to ruminate on the production and consumption of news in the cyber age. Alain De Botton starts with Hegel’s analogy of news and religion. If news has replaced religion, how do we make moral judgements about right and wrong?

Botton writes in easy newsbites, and The News is full of witty insights that help us make sense of our own inexplicable addiction to visuals of disasters and celebrities. Is it because they ‘invite us to feel sane and blessed by comparison’, Botton asks. With a tinge of guilt we go back to our daily routines, thankful that it wasn’t the bus we were riding in that got bombed, or grateful that we got a glimpse of a film star’s nipple during a Oscar wardrobe malfunction.

Don’t look for answers here to the news bombardment now that it breaks on Twitter and not on the ticker. Allow yourself to laugh at yourself either as producer or consumer of news and think about: ‘We may be looking to expose ourselves to barbaric tales to help us retain a tighter hold on our own more civilized selves…’

Kunda Dixit

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Land of her mother, Kunda Dixit

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