No place like home

Title: Nothing to Declare, Stories Author: Rabi Thapa   | Photo Credit: Scanned in Chennai_grrks

The 16 short stories in Rabi Thapa's debut collection “Nothing to Declare” is led by, quite aptly, “Initiation”. The story introduces the reader to the milieu of Nepalese society where adolescent Ashok is going through the thread ceremony to initiate him into adulthood, so to say. He rebels inwardly at the endless rituals but dare not protest as the relatives hover around while his cousins get their fill of pulling his legs at his scrawny and “freshly shaven body.” Ashok enjoys the sense of freedom only when he literally tries to follow his uncle Sano-mama's whispered words “Now you are man… you can leave home and go wander the whole world.”

Thapa's stories woven around a young protagonist from Nepal, whether at home or abroad, are a mixed bag. The initial promise shown in the first story is not carried through uniformly to the end.

However, the plots are interesting glimpses into the Nepalese society which is similar in many ways to neighbouring India's. In “Desire”, Subodh, the rich employer's son, falls for the charms of the maid servant but cannot reach out beyond the social hierarchy.

On the other hand, “A Nepali Maid” sensitively portrays an old faithful servant Gauri's life where the malik and the servant are mutually dependent.

Different scenario

In “The Trail” the scenario is different. It's located in Kathmandu's “international” circuit, the resto-bars, the pubs at the Thamel area — home to drifting travellers and local youths who look for a change. But it's also a failed love story of the Nepali protagonist falling for an Israeli girl. In a way the story also reflects the rootlessness that afflicts many youths, missing home while abroad but bored when back home. “I talked about how it was to be Nepali and yet not be here. What I wanted to do with myself, and how things turned out. A great listlessness buoyed along by a great passion.”

This feeling of “yet not be here” is more than present in the title story “Nothing to declare”. Bikram's mother packs Nepali fruit drops, caramel rocks, etc. when her son packs to go abroad to study because “You don't get these things in London… you can get those Indian sweets but not these.” (Does it sound familiar?) The introduction to the foreign land for Bikram is a sense of disorientation while he steps into the cavernous Heathrow. It's not helped by his friend's description of England in summer: “... This is England. If the sun shines it's like public holiday and people run around naked.” He can't help asking, pointing to poorer area, “Do we have Maoists here as well?” in a fleeting reference to Nepal's recent political turmoil and change.

But in a way Bikram feels left out too as he tries to imitate the lifestyle of his Nepali friends, pub crawling, ignored by girls whom they try to chat up. The caramels are not the only things he carries with him from Nepal, but also the baggage of distrust of the unknown or unfamiliar.

Faltering style

Though some of the plots are interesting, the style falters sometimes. Awkward construction of sentences jars at some places: “the endless streams of humanity sobbing through their towns and villages were testimony to the utter and complete dissolution of the old order.” (“Valley of Tears”) Or, “…her black, black hair swept clear of her face, smooth-complexioned and perfectly proportioned, her startling eyes reflecting his.” (“Desire”)

At a time when English writing in South Asia has garnered its own place in the literary world, a collection reflecting contemporary life and realities in the Himalayan kingdom is a welcome addition.

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Printable version | Apr 15, 2021 8:43:57 AM |

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