Stories about Nepalis that are short on description but rich in undercurrents.
The prose is taut and sentences deploy a simple syntax. While it is tempting to describe The Gurkha’s Daughter as a collection of eight short stories so neat and precise that each story has a map to demarcate the geography of the narrative, it is also easy to be deceived by the simplicity.
Prajwal Parajuly’s vignettes of the lives of Nepali people — locals, refugees and those with an acquired citizenship — are meagre in description but opulent in undercurrents. He writes with severe honesty, dwelling on details only to heighten the emotional choppiness.
In ‘Missed Blessing’, a family settled in Darjeeling is instructed to prepare their cramped home for the arrival of cousins. The narrative reveals a state of dilapidation, by recounting the experience of a female cousin.
A touristy view of Himalayan locales is forfeited for the dull, the ugly and even the scatological. In ‘The Cleft’, a van ferrying a group of mourners from Kathmandu to Birtamod, stops en route to allow the travellers to stretch their limbs and relieve themselves behind the bushes.
Kaali, the dark, cleft-lipped maid, “squatted by the van, and the rivulet springing from between her legs irrigated, among other things, a colony of red ants, spurring them to zigzag their way to dryness.”
The postcard-perfect beauty of the region is taken for granted, except by the only foreigner in the group, a perspiring Australian, who dutifully, “stared at the mountains, sighed, shot pictures, said a prayer and got back in.”
The Nepali Diaspora across India, Nepal, Bhutan and Manhattan are handled with an unsentimental affection. In ‘Let Sleeping Dogs Lie’, the owner of a convenience store in Kalimpong must use every bit of his ingenuity to prevent an 18-year-old pilferer of cigarettes and chocolates from robbing him in broad daylight, without offending the girl’s rich and powerful parents. The narrative doesn’t condemn, even as it describes the poor paanwala’s predicament — a “big person’s daughter” cannot be accused of anything.
Even when the landscape of the stories broadens to make room for the politics of displacement, the characters are too busy collecting kindling for the evening meal at the refugee camp, or applying for an H-1B visa in Manhattan, to dissolve into didacticism.
In ‘No Land is Her Land’, a beautiful refugee in the Khudunabari camp silently rehearses suitable rejoinders to the lecherous comments of the men at the camp, as she balances a bundle of wood on her head.
“Yes, shake your condo back to Bhutan. We don’t need the likes of you to torture us with your looks here,” yells one of the men at the camp.
“Stop bothering me, you mangy dogs,” she shouts back with feigned bravado, as she returns to her ailing father and two daughters from two failed marriages.
In another story of supplanted lives, ‘The Immigrants’, a 25-year-old Indian Nepali who lives in Manhattan and owns an apartment there, hires a Nepali maid for the luxury of home-cooked food.
The cynical young executive, eager for the food but wary of reeking of turmeric at work, is stumped by her naiveté when he brings up the subject of paying her a salary: “It’s one Nepali helping another. I cook your food, and you teach me English. Problem solved. Let’s not be petty.”
Fragile characters, torn asunder by divisive laws and useless wars, are nonetheless lovable in their yearning to belong.
The Gurkha’s Daughter; Prajwal Parajuly, Penguin, Rs.499.