Sunday, February 2, 2014

This Land Is Our Land

This appeared in today's Sunday Guardian.

The members of a dysfunctional family come together to celebrate an event. Old bonds are renewed, old wounds re-opened, old secrets spilled. Upon their departure, they are driven to make changes in their circumstances. Some are sadder, some wiser, some both.

That’s a familiar scenario in many novels and films, and it is this that Prajwal Parajuly employs in his debut novel, Land Where I Flee. Many of the novel’s aspects will be recognisable to readers of his earlier short story collection, The Gurkha’s Daughter: among others, the fast-changing cities of the North-East; the psyche of Nepalese immigrants in the United States, feisty domestic workers; political manoeuvring for Gorkhaland; and divisions of caste and class.

The reason for the family re-union in Gangtok is the chaurasi – or 84th birthday – of the materfamilias, the formidable textile factory owning, beedi-smoking Chitralekha. Three of her grandchildren arrive from overseas: the disgraced Bhagwati, married into a lower caste and working as a dishwasher in a Colorado diner; the tentative Agastya, a New York oncologist who has to keep his gay side hidden; and the embittered Manasa, an erstwhile financial consultant in London who spends her time caring for a paraplegic father-in-law. Their parents died in a car crash when they were young and all of them have complicated, not to mention fractious, relationships with their grandmother.

Rounding up the cast of characters is the spirited eunuch Prasanti, Chitralekha’s long-time servant-cum-confidant, and another grandson, the cocksure writer Ruthwa. He’s carrying a double burden of ignominy: his first novel laid bare secrets the family would rather have withheld, and the second gained notoriety because of charges of plagiarism. (Ruthwa’s family would no doubt have agreed with Czesław Miłosz, who once said: “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”)

Most of the time, Parajuly does justice to this collection of disparate individuals as he cross-cuts between points of view, keeping the narrative moving through an artful release of information. He deftly makes them negotiate identities: those from the past, those in the present and those that are emerging. As one of them thinks, "How complicated adulthood was. It had so many dangerous curves, so many restricted areas that, if trespassed, the adults would find themselves squashed in. Had they been children, they'd have probably called each other names, fought and made up a dozen times throughout their journey to Gangtok. As adults, they could barely muster up enough courage to ask the questions that mattered.” As the novel proceeds, their interactions and arguments continue in the family house under the gaze of Mount Kanchendzonga.

The fleshing out of the character of Ruthwa, however, is disappointing given the central part he plays in bringing the narrative to a close. Some sections are his first person account, incorporating chapters and articles he’s written on the story of Prasanti as well as the Gorkhaland agitation, and these come across as inorganic, a departure from the quiet, convincing realism of the rest. His actions as a writer of repute are somewhat unpersuasive, and his departure is anti-climactic.Every once in a while, though, Parajuly has fun in sending up Ruthwa’s public image, such as the time when he thinks: “Of course you must stick to pigeonholes in your writing; otherwise, there's all that talk about inauthenticity”.

At one point in Land Where I Flee, Ruthwa thinks: “This reunion was strange, but I wasn't expecting anything different. There'd be big, uncomfortable silences, I had conjectured. There were. Awkwardness. There was. Reminiscences. There were. The revisiting of past follies and passions. There was. Vindictiveness. There was. Vindication. There was.” All of this is to be found in Parajuly’s novel as it depicts the shifting intersections between past and present,individual and collective, and freedom and responsibility.

No comments: