Houghton Mifflin, 2001; 191 pages
#1 In recent years, writers from the Indian subcontinent have been credited with producing the best literary fiction. Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, V.S. Naipaul – these writers are the latest heirs of the richness of Victorian literature and the inventiveness of postmodern storytelling. And, as Indians, they use English not just as a beloved tongue. For them, the language is also a metaphor for a world beset by cultural fragmentation that runs East to West and South to North and back again.
Now along comes Samrat Upadhyay. Upadhyay was born and raised in Kathmandu. He came to the United States at 21. His first story collection, “Arresting God in Kathmandu,” is the first work in English by a Nepali author. It is startlingly good. Upadhyay has mastered the short fictional genre with such humanity and apparent ease that he reminds one of Chekhov – though a Buddhist Chekhov who writes about love not with dark Russian fatalism but with a sense of the cyclical nature of life and its passions.
Upadhyay’s stories usually begin with a compelling conceit. “The trouble began for Deepak Misra when he kissed his unattractive secretary in the office. “ This is the opening of a tale about a businessman doubly flummoxed by a failed marriage to a beautiful “Nepal-crazed foreigner” and his utterly efficient, utterly ugly Nepali secretary. The lines “ ‘Get him married,’ Rudra said. ‘Once he has a wife, he’ll come to his senses’ “ launch a bruising love triangle between a limping bride, her alcoholic husband and his doting, lust- ridden father. “I stayed because I could not bear the thought of abandoning a great man like my master” sets the tone for a story of an elderly spiritual leader whose love for a haughty young seductress leads to his fall from grace.
Though set in one of the more remote parts of the world and filled with characters who pray to the god Ganesh, Upadhyay’s stories seem familiar. In “The Good Shopkeeper” he may describe an affair between Pramod, a henpecked husband who recently lost his middle-class job, and a plump servant girl from a village, but his subject is the escapism of love. In “This World,” Upadhyay’s theme is arranged marriages, but his heroine is Kanti, a native of Kathmandu who after studying economics in New York comes home to her tradition- minded mother to discover, like so many moderns, that she is a creature of “two worlds … perched halfway between them.”
Physical desire, the search for order, societal fear that leads to transgression and brutality and joy are what make Upadhyay’s stories transcend their cultural details. Like Chekhov, he constructs an ordinary incident and sends his characters on a kaleidoscopic journey of emotions through it, with the result that their inner and outer worlds are exposed.
In the story “The Room Next Door,” for example, a mother obsessed with social appearances is forced to confront herself by the simple act of moving back into her husband’s room. At the beginning of the tale, Aunt Shakuntala has “gained tremendous respect from neighbors and relatives for the way she handles the household and the way she raised her children,” even though she is married to an “idiot.” Over the years she has maintained her upright self by “sleeping in another room.” However, by the tale’s end, her daughter has reoccupied the extra room with her bastard child and has been happily married to a poor simpleton, forcing Aunt Shakuntala back into her husband’s bed and thus into the very space in which she must face her crippled heart.
Upadhyay’s stories are morality tales, tales of the way social norms and family pressures shape lives. But they are not allegories in the traditional Judeo-Christian sense, for Upadhyay’s spiritual message is elliptical rather than instructive. Like the Buddhist doctrine of life’s endless cycles and rebirths, Upadhyay’s stories often end where they started. Deepak Misra remains haunted by both his secretary and his former wife. Kanti remains a creature of two worlds. Aunt Shakuntala remains a woman without compassion. Yet their enlightenment comes from having traversed the very cycle that marks their character as unique and individual.
Plus, Upadhyay is funny and ironic. His characters say things such as, “So many things are happening in the world. Governments falling. People dying of cholera and other diseases. Wild animals roaming the cities. And all you can come up with is tea.” He has created a story collection that reconfirms the strength of literature from the subcontinent and indicates that Buddhist philosophy and short fiction make for an interesting 21st century English marriage.
Tamara Straus is a senior editor of AlterNet.org.
This article appeared on page RV – 79 of the San Francisco Chronicle.