|CURRENT ISSUE FEBRUARY 10, 2003|
Everyday textures of the kingdom
Ignorance is bliss" would be an apt description of most Indians' attitude towards Nepal. On the one hand, we see the country projected in bromide tourist bytes as a superbly antique Hindu kingdom, the land of the Buddha's birth and so forth, and on the other, Nepal's modern avatar in Indian newspapers is of a land fraught with the deadliest insurrections. Maoist rebellions flare in the western hills while an alternately glittering and gloom-encased royalty wields absolute power from the national capital. Yet, what is lost sight of in these dramatic portrayals is that Nepal, like all south Asian countries, not only possesses a sane and sizeable intellectual class but also a politically informed populace-and nowhere more so than in Kathmandu where Samrat Upadhyay's first novel is set.
The great merit of Upadhyay's unpretentious book is that it recounts the story of this "other Nepal"-lower middle-class and low key. Ramchandra teaches mathematics at a second-rate local school and dreams of sending his son to the upmarket St Xavier's. Meanwhile, he fantasises about a future where he will have a home of his own and augments his income by tutoring "weak" students. One of these students is a troubled and pretty young woman with an infant daughter born out of wedlock. Predictably, the lessons result in an affair and, equally predictably, when Ramchandra's wife Goma, whose parents belong to the upper echelons of Kathmandu society and resent their "poor" son-in-law, learns of her husband's infidelity, she marches off with their children to her parental home. Not so usual perhaps is the solution that the wise Goma ultimately finds to save the situation, but overall there's little, except for scene and setting, either distinctively Nepalese or new about Upadhyay's novel.
Ramchandra's small world has clones across India. We are all past masters at the "tuition" game and disillusioned with the manifold, manifest failures of "the system". Who among the subcontinent's bourgeoisie has not on occasion flirted with the diasporic American Dream? Upadhyay himself, of course, has done more than flirt with America-he has lived there since the age of 21. But it is in the nature of first novels that they come laden with the ore of autobiography; hence, the fact that Upadhyay's narrative flows Bagmati-like through the Kathmandu where he was "born and raised" is hardly surprising.
Readers panhandling in the charmingly limpid stream of his story are sure to get their money's worth of authentic detail-the festival of Dashain, goat-slaughtering rituals at Pashupatinath temple and rising slums on the Bishnumati. So this book is great as easy-to-digest sociology, but does it succeed as literature?
Despite its provocative orientalist title, I'd say that The Guru of Love is redeemed by its endearing sincerity. For Indian readers, it will not be the exoticism of this text that appeals but rather its everyday texture, revealing so much cultural commonality. Even more crucially, perhaps, it is the novel's throwaway lines-exposing the suspicion with which Big Brother India is regarded by ordinary Nepalese-that we might take to heart.