Many of Thapa's characters are low or high-level government servants or else workers at NGOs - people who could have made a difference to what they know is a poor, developing country but who have succumbed instead to careerism or sheer apathy. The pressures of life and love lead her characters to experience the tension between tradition - the way of "families, friends, society", of caste hierarchies and unequal gender relations - and modernity, with its idea of the individual as sovereign over his or her own life, free to choose the course that seems best. Thapa's characters also sometimes betray what she has elsewhere called "small-nation thinking" - they feel they are bit-players in history, and often look over the border at India.
Unusually, Thapa shows a facility for both the long short story, or the form as it is traditionally practiced, and the short short story, which is the briefest of glimpses into the world of a character, a window opened up and then shuttered almost at once. Some of her shorts beautifully evoke an entire world in just one or two paragraphs. In "Solitaire", the aged government clerk Hit Bahadur Thapa, indifferent now to the goings-on in the world outside his room ("Democracy had come and gone and come again over the span of his career"), is shown having discovered the pleasures of playing solitaire on his office computer in the last year of his working life. And the ambitious and self-involved student Ramesh is shown riffling through a dozen career options in a fine story called - the title is long as the story is short - "The Secretary of the Student Union Makes a Career Choice".
In the best story of this collection, "The Buddha in the Earth-Touching Posture", a retired bureaucrat is shown travelling all by himself to Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha. The bureaucrat thinks of himself, as do many of his station, as a man apart from the masses, sage and rational while they are credulous and servile. Thapa's achievement is to show that there is an element of truth in his reflections. The bureaucrat has left his wife behind because she is "driven by passion, the kind who supplicates to every god" while for him the Buddha is indisputably a historical figure, a wise man iterating the need for reflection, not devotion.
At Lumbini he is irritated to find the tourist brochures full of historical inaccuracies which are swallowed by tourists, the various sites anointed with flowers and vermilion, and giant but soulless monasteries raised by various missions from around the world to make "a gaudy Buddhist wonderland". "How banal people are," he thinks, and Thapa allows us to register the sense in which this is true, but also the way in which the bureaucrat has cut himself off from the world. Here is the acute way in which the bureaucrat is shown reflecting on his marriage:
My marital life has not been atypical. My wife and I have shared the usual joys and given each other the usual sorrows, and have settled into a passionless partnership. Though she would never admit it, she probably likes the life I have given her more than the person I am. I do not mind this. I too find her company limited. We are not intellectual equals, merely co-owners of lives jointly led. We consult on matters relating to our sons, our house, our properties, but we do not share a joint vision.
"Though she would never admit it, she probably likes the life I have given her more than the person I am" - it is by the articulation of these subtle but unsettling distinctions that fiction derives its power. Note how this conclusion is so much more affecting because the bureaucrat has arrived at it by himself, instead of the writer making this judgment about the character.
Thapa is less sympathetic to her protagonists in a story called "The European Fling", which is about two middle-aged people, a Nepali woman and an American man, who meet in Europe for a fling. Sharada and Matt are both in thrall to radical ideas - that is what brought them together during their university days. But, meeting after several years, they find they have less patience with each other. Matt has turned vegan, and spends all his time in bookstores obsessing over various injustices. Sharada, meanwhile, is pursued by a handsome Tibetan youth, and feels a little odd to be flirting so shamelessly, even needily, with him when she is "a leading gender specialist". Thapa's irony here is crushing, but is when she leaves some channel of redemption open for her characters that Tilled Earth is most satisfying.
Manjushree Thapa's website is here. And here are two more pieces about contemporary Nepali literature: a piece of Samrat Upadhyay's Royal Ghosts, which I liked very much, and a long interview with Upadhyay.
[A shorter version of this piece appears today in Mint.]