This past spring, English language writer Sushma Joshi, a graduate of Brown University (a member of the Ivy Leagues in the US), burst upon the literary scene with two books: Art Matters and The End of the World. Art Matters is a collection of her art related articles published in Nation Weekly (now defunct) and Kantipur Online. But the book I am going to discuss is the short story collection The End of the World which was longlisted for this year's Frank O'Connor short story award.
The collection of eight stories reverberates with the contemporary Nepali society. She borrows the characters from everyday life and weaves them into stories in order to give them a structure of imagination. “Waiting for Rain”, for example, deals with a village near Kathmandu that has been affected by Maoist ‘people’s war’ and the buying and selling of votes in an upcoming election. Most of the stories have water like flow. There is an abundance of imagery.
The first story “Cheese” brings to mind a Nepali proverb: Umkeko Machho Thulo (A missed fish always seems big). Ten-year old Gopi is shepherded from village to work in a relative’s house in Kathmandu. Gopi doesn’t get his share of a slice of cheese brought by Prakash Babu, the son of his masters, all the way from Switzerland. When he is not even acknowledged as a member of the household, how would he be entitled for the precious cheese? The foreign food even comes in his dreams. Twenty years after this incident, Gopi fulfills his dream of having cheese. By now, he is not dependent on others but is self-reliant. Now a worker at a hotel, he leaves for Nepal Dairy in Lainchowr in order to fulfill the long unfulfilled yearning. He buys a piece of cheese for three hundred rupees but immediately starts vomiting. Did he sweeten his mouth for years for this? The untasted turns out to be a choicer wine.
“Betrayal” chronicles the story of a friendship that flourished between the central character Gautame, and Mahesh in Mumbai, India; their struggle in the foreign land and their experiences of being recruited in the Maoist army after returning to Nepal. But the denouement of the story is completely different. Gautame, who is returning from Hong Kong after he left the Maoists and went abroad, is arrested at the airport on Mahesh’s instruction. Confined inside a cell in a jail, he mulls over his past, intimate moments with Mahesh and the betrayal by a friend who he thought was very close to him.
“Law and Order” revolves around Bishnu, a new recruit at Police Headquarters. He steals vegetables from a neighbor’s courtyard, in what seemed like a huge effort. Then he is bewildered. Is that because of his hunger for the vegetables or for the young lass who lives there? The title story “The End of the World,” reflects a set of Nepali attitudes: words circulate and rumors fly fast in Nepal about the end of the world every now and then; the superstition; and Nepalis’ wish to eat good food before dying. “Matchmaking” depicts how women are examined like goods kept for sale before their marriage.
For me, the best story of the collection is “Blockade.” In it, the hunger for food is presented in two ways: Ram Bahadur Bomjom, who is meditatating without any food for several months, has drawn crowds. National and foreign media persons to god-fearing and inquisitive people to his place of spiritual repose in a forest of Bara. On the other hand, Hasta Bahadur Kathaya who hails from remote Kalikot district in Karnali region visits the meditating man in order to extract the secret of living without food, in the hope that it will solve his village’s perennial problem. How could he survive without food for so many months? Hasta Bahadur embarks on the journey to unravel the mystery so that the problem of hunger will be solved once and for all. He’s so dedicated in his mission that he leaves for the forest in Bara straight from his work in India. He doesn’t see the ‘Buddha Boy’ and seeks help from a monk who says: “The boy is sitting for world peace. He cannot be disturbed.”
Unable to meet the boy, let alone extract the secret of living without eating, he downs local raksi on a roadside stall. Then, he dozes off under a banyan tree only to be woken up by policemen who for a while mistake him for Bomjom. And then, he is suspected of being Maoist. Towards the end, when he is about to reach his home, Maoists force him to donate his money. He arrives home empty handed. Still, he cannot heave a sigh of relief. His wife has eloped, leaving their child dead. Hasta Bahadur, who sets about eliminating hunger, becomes its victim: his child dies of starvation.
These stories reveal a society in flux. After the restoration of democracy in 1990, the hitherto complacent Nepali society is increasingly moving towards one seeking justice and equality. The old hierarchies, ways of life and feudal systems are gradually crumbling. Deeply evocative, the stories present glimpses of small, private dramas that are shaped by larger political happenings.
Compared to neighboring India, the tradition of writing in English is a very recent phenomenon in Nepal. (Even in Pakistan, writers like Mohamed Hanif, Nadim Aslam, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Mohsin Hamid are recently making mark in English writing—I believe this is a renewed thurst mainly because Pakistan is back on the world radar). As a result, in Nepal there are very few writers who write in English. There are only two Nepali fiction writers whose books are published internationally: Samrat Upadhayay and Manjushree Thapa. But a strong possibility is evident in Sushma. The other good point she scores from her stories is that it tries to fill the void in literature about the ten-year long Maoist insurgency. However, it is not conflict-focused and it does not depict the incidents of violence and counter violence, and its direct impact on people who were caught in it.
Unlike other works by English writers in Nepal, Joshi’s stories are firmly rooted in Nepal’s soil. Published by FinePrint, The End of the World (price 250 Nepali rupees) has some grammatical errors here and there.
First published in Nepal Monitor.