There was a time when postcolonial fiction in English routinely addressed the politics of state, though this was always more common in Africa than in South Asia. Among the great examples of such work are Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood, and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. But postcolonial fiction has been retreating, for the most part, to a more private world. Few contemporary works of postcolonial fiction confront the politics of state with that sense of urgency.
Nepali writer Samrat Upadhyay’s debut collection of stories, Arresting God in Kathmandu, falls squarely within the contemporary pattern. It will not, for example, provide the reader with an alternative to the tabloid treatment of the hopes and fears behind the recent tragic massacre in the Nepali Royal Palace, in which Dipendra, heir to the throne of the Himalayan kingdom, killed his parents and other members of his family because of a disagreement over the choice of a bride. Nor will it help the reader comprehend the hopes and fears behind the Maoist insurgency shaking vast areas of Nepal. What it provides—and this is no less legitimate an endeavor for postcolonial fiction—is a window into a Nepali petit bourgeois world at some distance from the politics of state.
There is indeed love, betrayal, violence, power, and wealth—all the elements screamingly highlighted in the tabloid representation of the palace tragedy—in this collection of stories by “the first Nepali author writing in English to be published in the West.” However, Upadhyay’s paramount interest is in presenting these aspects of human life within a more subdued middle-class milieu. On the evidence of these stories, the petit bourgeois of Nepal are exactly as petty as their counterparts elsewhere. They too live in a shadow land between true deprivation and true freedom from want. Therein lies the drama—between means on the one hand and hopes and fears on the other. Innumerable writers of prose fiction, some of them great (Flaubert in France, Narayan in India), have trawled here for material.
Upadhyay’s collection opens with “The Good Shopkeeper,” to my mind the best story included here. Pramod, an accountant in Kathmandu, loses his well-paying job in a finance company. Reluctantly, he goes to Shambu-da, a distant relative of his wife, for help in finding a similar job. Shambu-da makes promises, but as the weeks pass no help is forthcoming. Pramod’s wife entreats Pramod to open a shop, but he finds the suggestion demeaning. He grows listless and disinterested until he falls into an affair with a servant woman who has left her husband in her village. Through the affair Pramod learns to put his sundered life back together, not by escaping his material constraints but by giving them a new shape. He decides in fact to become a shopkeeper after all.
The insights into Pramod’s world that Upadhyay offers through his story are subtle and satisfying. Pramod’s transformation is gradual. Upadhyay fights the temptation to offer a resounding “message,” yet we are left with a fundamentally moral vision. Though no other story is quite as accomplished as “The Good Shopkeeper,” they cover a variety of characters—a famous but aged poet, a householder suddenly obsessed with a male stage actor, a young woman who is back for the summer from the States.
One of the things that distinguish Upadhyay’s collection is the fine sense of place. With one exception, all the stories are set in Kathmandu. Upadhyay draws an evocative map of a city ringed by mountains and centered on the famous Pashupatinath temple. The marketplace of Asan, the tourist sector of Thamel, the Royal Palace, the park at Gokarna—as Upadhyay’s characters move through and around them an intriguing physical description of the city accumulates in increments.
Postcolonial fiction has not had—and it should not have—one purpose or one governing principle. Some works of postcolonial fiction have provided windows into the customs and mores of exotic locales—they have been a form of ethnography. Other works have offered readers a more challenging political engagement. For some time now the latter species of postcolonial fiction has been largely out of favor. If Samrat Upadhyay’s collection brings to our attention some of the strengths of the former, it also reminds us, by what it does not do, of the value of the latter.