Half Nepalese, half Indian, Prajwal Parajuly came to the attention of literary critics with his debut novel The Gurkha’s Daughter, a collection of short stories about the Nepalese diaspora. In his second book, Land Where I Flee, Parajuly takes the various skeins he created in The Gurkha’s Daughter and weaves them into a single story about a dysfunctional Nepalese Indian family based in Sikkim.
While many Nepalese moving to India have comfortably assimilated into mainstream Indian society, there are a few categories of immigrants settled in the north-eastern Indian states who maintain close kinship with their homeland and consider themselves Nepalese first. The Neupaney family belongs to an upper caste immigrant class called the Baahuns, or Vedic Brahmins, who, despite making their home outside Nepal for several generations, cling to Nepalese social structures, religious observances, cultural mores, and casteist boundaries in a way that sometimes only the diasporic can.
At the head of this family is the irascible Chitralekha, the matriarch whose 84th birthday, an auspicious Hindu celebration, pulls her grandchildren back into her somewhat erratic orbit. Guardian of her grandchildren ever since their parents died in an accident, Chitralekha has been accustomed to ruling her brood with an iron fist and they, in turn, have acquiesced to or rebelled against her dictates in ways that have marked their lives forever. The scars they bear set the stage for a fiery reunion at the family house. Adding to the fireworks is the clash of politics between the diasporic Neupaneys and the assimilated Gorkhas, erstwhile Nepalis looking for a separate state for themselves in India.
Parajuly does a wonderful job of creating unique voices for this disparate cast of characters. Apart from the indomitable, scheming, bidi-puffing Chitralekha, there is the closeted and literally buttoned-up Agastaya, whose lover Nicky shows up unexpectedly at the family reunion. There is Bhagwati, whose marriage to a lower cast Damaai has not been forgiven, and Manasa, the dutiful child resentful at being trapped into a burdensome marriage. The siblings’ tentative approach towards rapprochement with each other and their difficult grandmother is threatened by the verbal and emotional bombs launched by their youngest brother Ruthwa, a failed writer trading off of the family secrets to make a name for himself.
The complex identities forged by the various family members who have landed in various geographic and economic situations are expressed beautifully by Parajuly, who writes, “… citizen of the world? Not quite. Nepali-speaking Indian.
Indo-Nepalese. Indian of Nepalese origin. Gurkhali or Gurkha or Gorkha—terms gaining rapid popularity to describe the Nepali in India, words embraced to chisel out our identity, to distance ourselves from Nepal. Old words with new meanings.
Words not meant to confuse our ethnicity with our nationality. Hoping the association that comes from sharing our new names with those valiant soldiers doesn’t spawn a different kind of identity conundrum.”
That search for and understanding of identity is perfectly encapsulated in the most colorful character of the book, Prasanti the eunuch who is both Chitralekha’s servant and dearest confidant. Her flamboyant acceptance of her fractured identity masks the same insecurity plaguing all the other characters, and it is she, ironically enough, who achieves the redemption that is denied the others as the book wraps up.
Despite its musings on identity, Land Where I Flee is, at its heart, a tale of dysfunction, of what happens when we let the obsession with our past cast shadows over our future. Parajuly’s novel is therefore a deeply resonant work to even those who are unfamiliar with the history of Nepalese struggle.
To Indian Americans in particular, each sharply etched character is likely to evoke a congruent memory of a family member.
Parajuly’s characters are not particularly nice people, but they are profoundly human in their desires and sorrows and striving. We could imagine having exasperated conversations with each of them, and what more can a writer aspire to?
Vidya Pradhan is a freelance writer and a published author of children’s books. She was the editor of India Currents from June 2009 to February 2012. She hosts the popular Safari Quiz Show every Saturday on 1550 AM in the San Francisco Bay Area.