Prajwal Parajuly and the Responsibilities of Fiction

“The Chaurasi is a curious event,” writes Prajwal Parajuly in the author’s note to his new novel, Land Where I Flee, “not many Nepali-speaking Hindus in India, especially people of my generation ...

“The Chaurasi is a curious event,” writes Prajwal Parajuly in the author’s note to his new novel, Land Where I Flee, “not many Nepali-speaking Hindus in India, especially people of my generation, know much about it.” In this teasing sentence, Parajuly, who has been hailed by the BBC as “The next big thing in South Asian fiction,” hints at the reason his first two books generated such a buzz in Britain and in the Subcontinent long before they came to America—they contain the explicit promise to show readers something they haven’t seen before. “Put the word Gurkha in the title of a book,” ran a line that was ultimately cut from the novel because the publisher found it too tongue-in-cheek, “and the West will go crazy.”

Parajuly’s first book, a collection of short stories concerned with the Nepali diaspora and appropriately titled The Gurkha’s Daughter, was published in the UK and in South Asia 2012 to much critical praise, and earned him a place on the short list for the Dylan Thomas prize. A year later his debut novel, Land Where I Flee, was published in Britain and Asia, and The Gurkha’s Daughter came out in America, where it was longlisted for The Story Prize. In June the first American edition of Land Where I Flee appeared on bookshelves.

The novel is structured around the celebration of a Chaurasi, the 84th birthday, an event of special significance to Nepali Hindus. The four grandchildren of Chitralekha, a Nepalese matriarch, return from various corners of the world to their childhood home in Sikkim to honour their grandmother’s landmark birthday. Each has become a disappointment to Chitralekha, who raised them all.

Agastaya, a doctor living in New York, remains unmarried, much to his grandmother’s consternation. The reason for his bachelorhood is that he is gay, something he cannot bring himself to reveal to anyone from his conservative homeland. Writing about Agastaya’s boyfriend, Parajuly observes that “in the face of the big problem, the insurmountable problem, the mother of all problems, Nicky’s race, nationality, and questionable family background were hardly worth losing sleep over.” Another grandchild, Bhagwati, has married beneath her; rather than marrying a Brahmin, as expected of her, she eloped with an untouchable and moved to Boulder, where they live with their “half-caste” children. Ruthwa, a novelist, has brought Zuckerman-like shame on the family by writing sordid details of their lives into his fiction. Manasa has married a rich man from an eminent Brahmin family, has done everything expected of her, and yet, with gleeful irony, Parajuly treats her to the lion’s share of her grandmother’s ire.

Many of the themes of the novel are familiar from The Gurkha’s Daughter; family, caste, religion, and migration are all prevalent. Land Where I Flee is, however, more overtly political in its subject matter, and poignantly so. When the novel was first published in South Asia, homophobia in India was much in the news due to the reinstatement of section 377, an old colonial law criminalizing sex between two consenting men. Agastaya, through his tortured repression of his sexuality, is a stinging criticism of that status quo. Parajuly described the situation: “Agastaya is one of those men afraid not only because gay sex is considered illegal in the country but because he doesn’t know where he’d start the coming-out process.” We see Agastaya impossibly trapped between the Western liberalism of his boyfriend Nicky and the conservatism of his homeland, perhaps most painfully when Agastaya tries to make the most of a blind date set up by his family with an eligible young woman. When she tells him that she can’t give up her medical practice to become a painter, her dream, because of what people would think, he asks her, “Why do you care about what the world says?” His advice to this woman he’s just met, simple enough, is advice that he is completely unable to follow himself. Rather, like so many others, he grins and bears it.

Land Where I Flee also rubs up against current affairs in its scathing depiction of nationalist activism in the region. “A few months before the novel came out,” Prajwal says, “the Gorkhaland movement—a separatist movement in the Indian state of West Bengal to get the Nepali-speaking residents in it their own state—got a new lease on life. However, as predicted in the novel, the movement went nowhere.” He went on to tell me that Moktan, the fictional figurehead of this movement in the novel, “is a composite of many South Asian politicians. First-rate scumbags, toying with people’s dreams.”

Perhaps Parajuly does not write with the idea of “doing good in the world,” but he certainly has one eye trained on identifying the bad that is already there.

The idea that, like the cynical politicians of the book, a fiction writer might be guilty of exploiting people’s credulity is presented in the book through the character of Ruthwa, the novelist within the novel. On the surface Ruthwa is a writer who celebrates his home culture by writing internationally lauded fiction about it. At heart, however, he is self-serving, deliberately playing on stereotypes to sell books. One can’t help but imagine his first novel, Himalayan Sunset, with its shamelessly exotic title, reads like a less good version of The Gurkha’s Daughter. Ruthwa says “The Brahmins in [his book] were stingier and more conservative than those of my real life, the eunuchs more flamboyant, the Western gays more flamboyant, the Indian gays even more deeply closeted.” This sounds an awful lot like self-mockery on Parajuly’s part, and I asked him how much of a self-portrait Ruthwa is. “He could be Prajwal Parajuly, the writer, gone bad. I often used to lie awake at nights wondering what would happen if my books failed to live up to the hype.” But the degree to which Ruthwa provides Parajuly with an alter ego goes beyond this simple what if scenario. There are explicit parallels between the two; Ruthwa, like his creator, is hailed as “the next big thing in South Asian fiction,” they share much subject matter, and Ruthwa even parrots things Parajuly has previously said in interviews. Ruthwa’s view of fiction is essentially parasitic; he achieves international fame by retelling in graphic detail the story of his grandmother’s rape. When he listens to his childhood maid, Prasanti, tell him her life story, he writes that “layer after layer of secrecy was peeled off until the body of Prasanti’s early life was mine to devour.” Ruthwa mocks the Gorkhaland movement to further his own career, taking no genuine interest in their cause. Is this also what Parajuly is doing? He sidestepped the question. “I write with the explicit purpose of telling a story. Nothing more.” This seems very much the answer Ruthwa would have given. Current affairs in India are there to serve the novel, rather than the other way around.

Ultimately, however, there is a level of compassion in Parajuly’s writing that distinguishes him from his pernicious double. Not long after the novel’s original publication he wrote an article for the New Statesman, fervently calling attention to this mistreatment of Nepali refugees from Bhutan. In both of his works of fiction, he has written characters who suffer the indignities of life in the Bhutanese refugee camps, only to escape to the disappointment of life in America. “If my books trigger discourse somewhere about the plight of the stateless Bhutanese refugee, I am perfectly okay with that, but I don’t write fiction thinking about the good it’s going to do in the world. I am shallow.” And yet the literary project and the humanitarian one cannot be so easily separated. Perhaps Parajuly does not write with the idea of “doing good in the world,” but he certainly has one eye trained on identifying the bad that is already there. Perhaps that amounts to the same thing. The interest in the metafictional games of Land Where I Flee resides not so much in the questions of authenticity sometimes foregrounded by metafictional narratives, but in the questions they raise about the responsibilities of novelists to their subject matter, and the interaction between the literary world and the world in which we live. icon