Literary Review

Real, even endearing, people

All Of Us In Our Own Lives; Manjushree Thapa, Aleph, Rs. 499.  

Even though two years have passed since I first spotted him, I still remember distinctly the countenance of the Nepali man I met at the bus depot in Dubai. I was headed to Abu Dhabi and wasn’t sure where to find the sharing cabs, run by the Pathans, that ply the route. He was sitting pensively on a bench, his eyes weren’t vacant so much as lost in the abstract blankness of space, as though he was sure that if he stared into infinity long enough, he’d be transported back home.

My confusion must have been obvious enough to bring him back to the present. I asked him about the cabs. He told me it made better sense to take the bus instead; it would be cheaper and more efficient. I’d save on travel time. I was convinced. We chatted briefly as I anticipated the arrival of the promised bus. He was from Nepal; a cook at the Four Seasons hotel. It was his day off. This was what he usually did on his day off, came to the bus depot and watched the world go by. I could empathise. In Dubai, true leisure is a luxury. You have to be able to afford it. Most South Asian migrant labourers can’t. They’d rather save every hard-earned dirham so they can better the lives of their families back home.

Reading Manjushree Thapa’s All of Us in Our Own Lives, it struck me that the anonymous Nepali man I’d met two years ago could so easily have been Gyanu, one of the novel’s four protagonists. They shared the same world-weary countenance. We first encounter Gyanu, a cook at Five Spices in Dubai, in his “narrow” room in Sharjah, where he and Maleah, his Filipino girlfriend, lie entwined in the sheets, “wrapped in each other’s warmth and contentment”. Although glad to be basking in the nostalgic glow of her childhood stories, Gyanu can already feel the uncertainty of his future. He knows he has to go back to his village in Nepal on account of his ailing father, a man who adopted him and brought him up as if he were his own. His enterprising sister, Sapana, expects that he will arrive in time only to light the pyre.

Gyanu will, eventually, during the course of his visit, encounter Ava (pronounced Av-vah) Berriden, a lawyer who quits her job in Toronto and her marriage to Gavin, to move to Kathmandu as director of the Women’s Empowerment Programme at the International Development Assistance Forum (IDAF), thus wetting her feet in the complicated white-male-dominated world of international funding and the ensuing aidocracy. Like Gyanu, Ava knows next to nothing of her origins. Her do-gooder Canadian parents had adopted her from an orphanage in Kathmandu. She and her brother, Luke, had visited her “birth country” when they were both 14, and remember the trip as a disaster.

“The orphanage — ‘Oh, this is where we first met you, honey’— turned out to be a crumbling wreck out of a Charles Dickens novel.” Ava had learned that her mother passed away while delivering her. Her father was unknown. A dour employee there revealed the name she was given for official purposes: “Abha: it means early morning light,” he’d said. “Caste is unknown… skin is dark, but — only God can know.”

Ava’s complexion makes her presence at IDAF seem anomalous. Her predecessor was a white woman, Catherine Christy, who was forced to leave after receiving a poor review for under-budgeting. Indira Sharma, a leading gender expert and self-made woman, tries hard to replicate with Ava the mutually beneficial relationship she had with Catherine, but Vishwa Bista, one of the Nepali programme staff, sets himself up as an interlocutor, of sorts, a middle man who understands the nuances of the international aid game. Ava wonders if coming to Nepal was a mistake. She’s uncomfortable with the hierarchies in place at IDAF; she wants, desperately, to make a difference, but the lingo of the world of aid leaves her lost. She’s not sure why she came, perhaps to assuage what she feels as survivor guilt, perhaps to give something back to her native land. All she knows is that her decision to relocate stems from some kind of instinct.

At the crux of All of Us in Our Own Lives is the manner in which all these lives intersect to indelibly alter the other’s course, against the foreshadowed backdrop of the devastating earthquake that seems always impending, ever near at hand. “Nepal is completely doomed,” says Ava’s white friend, Tomás, with whom she shares an unusually platonic relationship (he’s taken a vow of celibacy). The subtext, though, besides the bold critique of the corrupt world of international aid, is the state of the Nepali woman who, if ambitious, must not only struggle at home but at work too. With her, it’s always one step forward, three steps behind. Sapana, for instance, is elected treasurer of the community-based organisation in her village but, once her father dies and Gyanu returns to Dubai, and her clandestine lover, Chandra, leaves the village to work in India, she has only one option before her: to either marry or move in with Thulo Ba, because as a single woman, it is taboo for her to live alone in her childhood home.

When, abandoned by her brother and Chandra, she is lured by Rudra, a married man and a father, she considers sleeping with him, knowing fully well that “married men kept girls like her off to one side, reserving the centre of their lives for their families.” Yet, she is tempted to succumb, to go to the hotel with him, “because if she were to ruin herself, then maybe no one would want to marry her, and she’d always be free.”

Indira, too, is trapped by the same patriarchal system that ties her to her discreetly misogynist husband and that makes her workplace resemble a gendered battlefield. She resents the “male glibness” she has heard all her life. “Men were always patronising her, talking down to her, telling her that, of course, she was superior, but also letting her know — through connotation, inference, signs and body language — that they were in charge. All these glib men were always letting her know: I have a penis. I have a penis, and you don’t.”

Despite the seeming world-weariness this self-aware novel often projects, what makes it riveting is the determination of Thapa’s protagonists, and their intriguingly rendered sense of consciousness that casts them as significantly real and even endearing people who choose to pursue their private callings, however selfish it may seem, and in doing so, earn for themselves the twin privileges of agency and relative freedom.

Rosalyn D’Mello is the author of A Handbook For My Lover.


Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jan 22, 2022 4:23:08 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/Real-even-endearing-people/article14429873.ece

Next Story