Writer Prajwal Parajuly talks about his “love letter” to the Nepali language and food
It is election day in Delhi and Prajwal Parajuly and I are in Yeti — The Himalayan Kitchen, Hauz Khas Village, made dimly aware of its import by the dry day notices.
It is a place Prajwal visits regularly, and knows quite intimately. “I don’t even need to look at the menu. I don’t visit any other Delhi establishment as much as I do this one. The food is authentic, the Nepali food is excellent and they serve Tibetan and Bhutanese food as well. It’s all great,” says the writer, a Nepali Indian, who divides his time between New York and Oxford, but “disappears to Gangtok at every opportunity”. Yeti loves him in equal measure; they even sold copies of his Dylan Thomas Prize nominated debut collection of short stories “The Gurkha’s Daughter” here.
Like “The Gurkha’s Daughter”, his recently launched novel “Land Where I Flee” focuses on the Nepalese diaspora. Set against the 84th birthday celebrations – the chaurasi, an important custom for Nepalis – of Chitralekha Neupaney in Gangtok, the novel details the visit home of her grandchildren from different parts of the world. They all come bearing their own private shame; while Agastaya, a successful oncologist in New York, is insecure about his sexual identity, the Oxford educated Manasa is uncomfortable about being tethered to a domestic existence, and Bhagwati lives with the twin ignominy of having married beneath her caste, and being ungainfully employed. Chitralekha’s irreverent transgender domestic help Prasanti, and an uninvited fourth guest complete the cast of the not entirely happy reunion.
Although writing about this large cast of characters posed certain logistical and narratorial challenges, Prajwal was at ease with it. “I grew up in a joint family, a family of nine people, and family dynamics have always been very important to me…I think I was more interested in what went on in people’s families than a normal kid was, so writing about it seemed like a normal thing to do. It’s something I am good at, something I enjoy doing,” he says, adding that the experience of a joint family taught him to be a survivor.
Guiding us through the menu, Prajwal chooses an assortment of starters – aloo ko achar (Nepali style spicy potato salad) and chicken and potato momos – a plate of tingmo, and a watermelon juice to wash it down. The food arrives quickly and, as promised, it is excellent. Pointing to the potato salad, Prajwal remembers the time Yeti used to serve it as a complimentary appetiser, and his having made inordinate use of it. “I think it stopped being complimentary after that,” he smiles guiltily.
Getting back to the subject of writing, the former advertising executive relates that he found the short story collection much harder to write than the novel. “Maybe it’s because I was just learning how to write then,” he explains, but also notes that, “‘The Gurkha’s Daughter’ is a simple book, where everything has been sacrificed for storytelling. The language is so bare bones, it’s like it was written by a thirteen year old. ‘Land Where I Flee’ is a much more uncomfortable book.”
It is also, as evident in the glee with which he sprinkles Nepali words, “a love letter” to his language. “I am not very good at it…It is a pretty difficult language, similar to the Hindi in that it has the chhota ees and bada ees and the chhota oos and the bada oos. Everyone gets confused about when to use what. There is a movement going on about just using one…a lot of people of my generation find reading and writing Nepali a pain. I don’t want to be those people, so I am just doing my bit to talk about my language.”
For the next few months, Prajwal is resigned to a schizophrenic existence, with promotions of both books coming up in different parts of the world. But he hopes to be able to isolate himself soon from his travels, and get down to more writing.