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THE GURU OF LOVE by Samrat Upadhyay. Houghton Mifflin. $23.00. 304 pages.


Kathmandu, Nepal. Does it conjure up exotic and mysterious images of a place far away and little known? If it does, beware the stark reality of Samrat Upadhyay’s novel The Guru of Love. This Kathmandu is anything but exotic or mysterious; it is instead a crowded, dirty, confused city where people merely survive during uncertain political times. It is 1990, and while the city teems and swells with immigrants and villagers seeking work and shelter, Nepal itself stirs and brews in anticipation of political change and transformation. Ramchandra, our hapless hero, finds himself caught in the midst of it all, swimming upstream in the rarely serene, oft-times stormy waters of the mid-life crisis zone.

Ramchandra is a 42-year-old teacher at a rundown school that operates despite a failing budget and a restless staff. In order to supplement his slight income, Ramchandra tutors students for their School Leaving Certificate (SLC) exams. Tutees are few, and he wants more out of life. He loathes his job, his neighbors, his apartment, his city, his in-laws, and his life. On the upside, he loves his wife, his children, and his country, albeit without great enthusiasm.

In a small, decrepit apartment on a noisy, busy street live Ramchandra, his wife Goma, and their two young children. Saving for a place of their own—his dream—is next to impossible with rising costs and growing children chipping away at his income. His opportunities seem limited, the educational system is tight-fisted, and his wealthy in-laws relentlessly nag him to get that better job, buy that big house, acquire that respectable status. Goma, as unremarkable as she appears at first, is seemingly content, never complaining about their marriage, prospects, or family life. All the same, she never stands up for Ramchandra when her parents verbally abuse him. Instead, she simply believes that they only want the best for them, which in turn sends mixed signals to Ramchandra, who resents everything about them.

Enter Malati, a young woman with a baby and no husband to show for it. Malati needs tutoring for her SLC, and Ramchandra accepts her, knowing that it will be difficult to collect pay for the sessions. She is unassuming and simple, and although she isn’t very bright, she at least knows when, where, and how to get help. She must earn her SLC, which is the first step to finding a job to support herself and her child. Despite a disobliging stepmother and the memory of the man who is the baby’s father, she presses on as best she can; Malati is on the lowest rung possible, where there is nothing to lose. In Ramchandra’s eyes, she represents what Goma does not: the absence of pressures, expectations, responsibilities. It is not the city that is exotic and mysterious; it is this young mother-waif who struggles to do math. The old mid-life crisis story kicks into gear, and an affair is born.

Short, fleeting touches of the shoulders, the fingers, the hands as Ramchandra and Malati sit or stand together fuel an increasing awareness of the sexual tension they so naturally share. Ramchandra knows he shouldn’t engage in such activity, but he does so regardless. Malati isn’t confident that their blossoming relationship is right, but any protests are feeble and without conviction. And just as Nepal feels the tug of tradition against the push of modernization, so Ramchandra and Malati go with the flow, confusing the fine line between love and lust, need and desire.

As the affair quietly gains ground, Ramchandra finds himself comparing the women in his life and himself between them: “Instead of feeling guilty, he was pleased and proud, not because he was getting away with something, but because Goma accepted him as a complete man, someone who needed no tinkering to be perfect. And he knew, even as Malati brought him so much pleasure, that she would never see him the way Goma did, that even if Malati began to love him, there’d be gaps and holes in her perception of him that her love, no matter how genuine, could never fill.” Eventually, Ramchandra acknowledges to himself that he doesn’t know what’s happening. He is distracted by Malati but protective of Goma. He lies to both to shield them and himself. He makes up stories to cover his tracks and to keep loved ones from being hurt. Although it becomes easier and easier to do, he knows it is wrong, especially when Goma starts treating Malati as a younger sister. With this new, unexpected relationship, each woman represents an opposing facet of the changing norms of Nepali society, and Ramchandra is torn between where he knows he should be and where he knows he wants to be.

One fitful night, Ramchandra wakes, and consumed by guilt, confesses to Goma that he has kissed Malati. Goma does not, as expected, take the news lightly. However, when Ramchandra later reveals that Malati has been tossed out of her stepmother’s house, Goma, in a surprise move, tells him that the girl must move in with them. Goma further dictates that Malati will sleep in the bedroom with Ramchandra, while she herself sleeps with the children. Disguised as the compromise of a faithful-to-the-end-and-forever wife, it really plays out as a wife’s brilliant move to get the wanderlust out of her husband’s system in the boldest way possible while standing by her man. Ramchandra is aghast but helpless to fight her, especially when Goma says she knows that he sees in Malati what he no longer sees in her. Certainly, this is not a formulaic solution to the age-old adultery issue, but it is the twist that elevates the reader’s interest to a new level. And, as life goes on, so the story goes on. To say more about the story would be to spoil the outcome of Goma’s unique proposal.

Upadhyay’s language in the novel is simple, without flourish or embroidery, as simple as Malati. The story, however, is as complex as the mixed-up world in which Ramchandra lives. By this, the author is able to strip away any romanticized images of Kathmandu and present the day-to-day, down-and-dirty version that smacks of reality.The Guru of Love is a “tough-love” story with enough detachment and respect for the characters to keep Ramchandra from plunging into the dismal abyss of the pathetic. Malati never appears sluttish or cheap; rather she is the one character who tries to better herself. And Goma becomes the dignified pillar of strength that holds them all together. Because of her, we feel a sense of hope, a hope that at the very least things will work out without deep, lasting damage.

“Everyone can be forgiven,” Ramchandra says to Goma. So it seems, according to The Guru of Love. Yes, so it seems.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, where she freelances as a copywriter and teaches Creative Writing to children through the Center for Gifted-National Louis University.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in beautiful Central North Carolina where she is a long-time contributor to India Currents and a long-time Books for Youth reviewer with Booklist magazine/American Library Association....