Thursday, March 30, 2006
A Tale of Torture
(This is the unedited copy of my review published in ekantipur. But, I guess it didn't get much attention. So, here's the reproduction. Here's the link to that article)
Among handful of Nepali writers producing English-language fiction, Melbourne-based 40-year-old medical doctor Ravi Thapaliya has burst upon the scene with his debut novel Echoes of Pain. As its title suggests, it talks about man-made suffering; that inflicting pain on others doesn't result in pleasure, it instead gives you pain, thus echoes of pain.
Set in Kathmandu Valley of 2046, a time of turbulence and transition, Echoes of Pain opens with a Teaching Hospital doctor Agni, living with his loving wife Rita and a daughter Sarita and Bonza, a mysterious and crooked police interrogator. Bonza offers Agni a lucrative job that changes his life forever. Ruthless Bonza, over a delicious breakfast, convinces Agni, who, of late, is jaded with the stresses and strains of modern life and its growing demands, into torturing innocent people.
Agni's first victim turns out to be Vivas Thapa, a blissfully married music teacher working with Lalit Kala College. He is arrested for abusing policemen; taken to Godavari cell for interrogation. When Agni, rather reluctantly, countenances his first subject of torture, "There was question in his (Vivas's) eyes which Agni didn't know how to answer."
Most part of the book dwells upon clinical detail of trauma and pain Vivas undergoes; his entire body is treated as if it were a laboratory of torture. Back home, Agni's wife Rita is baffled by not only the sudden change in his behaviour, but also the quick bucks he appears to amass. Initially, Agni deceives Rita saying that he moonlights at police custody. But, the truth gradually surfaces. By sheer efforts of the protagonists' better haves, their husbands return to normal and happy conjugal life. Meanwhile, the author allows Bonza to resurrect as Bodhiram towards the end of the novel. In final pages, a remorseful Bodhiram is peacefully awaiting death.
The 338 page novel is followed by an "Afterwords" that in Thapaliya's words, justifies, why he "couldn't write a better novel." He claims that "Afterwords" is "more important the whole novel..." Some may deem it redundant, but it evokes the agony an author undergoes while writing novel. He writes: "Up in the hill of Janagal, Kavre, I used to stay awake till late night in the hospital quarters to work on the novel. Every night I heard explosions. Some said they were rebel's bombs; others said they were army guns. But, that was beside the point, at least in regard to trying to sit on a chair to write a novel. Most of me was occupied with what explosions might have resulted in."
Although, set in the early 90s, Echoes of Pain seems to be the best kind of post-February One novel. In the narrative full of ups and downs, Thapaliya describes events reminiscent of ongoing seven-party agitations. But, the novel is far from being political. It explores the facets of human relationship in a tradition-bound, God-fearing (and worshiping) society that is awkwardly slugging towards modernization and urbanization. People negotiate the thicket of choices, family values are still revered and caste and class restrict from intermixing. There is an example, though. The case in point is love marriage between Vivas, a struggling orphan singer from a lower middle class family outside Kathmandu and Preetishma, his admirer-turned-beloved who hailed from settled middle class Kathmanduites. It depicts that traditional norms and limitations are gradually crumbling.
It is said that a good novel deals with a number of themes. Echoes of Pain manages to explores just about every contemporary issues: arrest of sex workers, proliferation of NGOs in the name of human rights, supermarket and real estate boom, malpractice in medical institution, bank robbery etc. Thapaliya has also incorporated an abundance of Nepali words such as bhuttan, bhatti, sekuwa, kanchha, sahuji, dijju etc. But, without its English equivalence, its appropriation may be questionable.
The characterization of Bonza in the novel is simply superb. In Bonza, he has created an epitome of morbid soul. He is an example of what humans can be in its worst form. But, finally the good prevails over bad. However, in two protagonists (i.e. Vivas and Agni), Thapaliya brings out meek and feeble characters whereas their female counterparts are surprisingly strong. They come up with solutions, like a magic wand, in every crisis. Agni, even the author agrees, is a thinly veiled autobiographical portrait while Preetishma is portrayed like an angel. Gorimaya (Gauri), Rita's selfish buddy, is placed as the latter's foil. The novel is replete with some memorable statements and phrases such as "In love even poverty is fun," "evening heralded another lonely night," "Nothing had to be real, if words were chosen cunningly enough," "To keep body alive, they had to sell off the body itself,", "union in the verge of splitting," "vanish in the semantics," "your slice of cake" etc.
Published by government-owned Sajha Prakashan, the novel is edited by Aidan and Caroline Warlow of Kathmandu University. The cover design by artist Tekbir Mukhiya is not bad but a good picture could have been better. Thapaliya provides his theme somewhere in the book: "Nothing else soothes you more than others acknowledging your pain." But, he also points out that 'pain begets pain.' The root cause of misery is described to be money to acquire which people indulge in vilest crimes. Agni is such person who treads uncharted path of torture. In a nutshell, Thapaliya's brilliant book is a testament of darker side of humanity. But, the novel ends in an optimistic note. Thapaliya's arrival signals a promising talent in English writing from Nepal.