Saturday, June 23, 2007

On Manjushree Thapa's Tilled Earth

Of the many rough divisions possible in the world of literature, one is the separation of writers of fiction into those who demonstrate sympathy with their characters, even flawed or inadequate ones, and those who manifest a kind of impatience with them and choose to view them through the lens of irony and satire. The talented Nepali writer Manjushree Thapa is no misanthrope, but the overwhelming mood of Tilled Earth, her first book of short stories and third book overall, is that of weariness shading into cynicism. Sometimes it is Thapa's characters who feel impatient with and dispirited by their circumstances, but just as often it is Thapa who swoops on how, in different ways, they either lack the courage to break their shackles or have sold out and retired into complacency.

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.]


ak said...

This seems like a book I'd like to read. And why, oh why, have you stopped putting up anything but your pieces for Mint? Where are Constantine Cavafy and Willa Cather?

Chandrahas said...

Anirudh - Well, the pieces for Mint aren't too bad, are they? And usually they're longer here than they are in the paper. I think that just recently I've written about some good non-fiction, in particular, which I wouldn't have looked at were it not for the paper.

The thing is, I've had a great deal of commissioned work lately - which is good news, as I've got to make a living just like anyone else - and as I'm also working on a longer project, there isn't much time left over for new pieces for my blog. There's no point in doing something if you can't do it well.

But I agree - there's a fun in writing about old and forgotten books and personal favourites that there isn't sometimes in weekly reviewing. All that should resume very soon - I'm thinking of doing something next month on Aristophanes, or another post on Cather.

Anonymous said...

Chandrahas, do you allow requests?

Lysistrata, Lysistrata! of those pugnacious women. then you can tackle Willa Cather.

Chandrahas said...

Swar - Strangely enough Lysistrata was just the play I was thinking about - what could be a funnier plotline than a nation's women who won't sleep with their men till they stop going to war? But I don't know if I have a translation with me - an edition of Aristophanes's plays I bought off the streets recently doesn't have it. We'll see.

Sundeep Pattem said...

I used to be able to read books online, not anymore. Anyway, here's a link to Lysistrata in .txt:

Chandrahas said...

Sundeep - Yes, I don't like reading books online either. There's something about the feel and heft of a book that is lost on a computer screen, and of course you can't take notes in the margins if you're reading online, which to me is one of the points of reading books.

Anonymous said...

as playwriting is making a pauper out of me, i am training to be a parapsychologist. and you might just have to change your mind on screen-reading in the future. some exciting inventions are coming up - to soothe the book lovers' bellyache.

Have you read Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle'? Just found out that there is another very good novel called 'The Fourth Circle' by Zoran Zivkovic, which sounds as complicated as the First.

Chandrahas said...

Swar - No matters what revolutions there are in screen- reading technology, I don't see how one could write notes in the margins. And if they find some way around that, I'll exercise my ingenuity to find something new to complain about - such as that you can't lie on your back reading your computer in bed.

I've only read some of Solzhenitysn's essays, such as "A World Split Apart", his famous spech at Harvard University in 1978 ("I have spent all my life under a Communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society based on the letter of the law and never reaching any higher fails to take full advantage of the full range of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relationships, this creates an atmosphere of spiritual mediocrity that paralyzes man’s noblest impulses.") But some of his novels are so large that they scare the reader off.

Zivkovic I have to say I've never heard of. But it's clear that between him and Solzhenitsyn they've claimed two of the first four circles.

ak said...

I also take notes in the margins sometimes. But for that, one has to own the book (or do you find some way around that), no? Also, instead of increasing the joy of reading the book, it sometimes takes away from it -- especially in the case of fiction -- since it keeps breaking the flow of one's reading. You never feel that way?

Chandrahas said...

Anirudh - Well, I work almost full-time in books now, so the review copies I get are for keeps, and even otherwise I mostly possess everything I read, because I buy a lot from sales and secondhand shops. For that reason I generally don't borrow books from friends, because I can't leave any marks on them.

If anything, taking notes while you're reading, even if it is fiction, greatly increases the enjoyment of the experience, because it feels like all the secrets of the work are opening up for you. Novels are not like movies anyway, where hitting the pause button would interrupt the flow. You can read novels at exactly the pace you want, and over the span of days rather than hours. You only stop to make notes when something has struck you as being especially significant, and it's good to think about those things. The pleasure of reading is to a good extent a function of the care and knowledge you bring to the work as a reader.

Sometimes I take a look at novels where I haven't made any notes, and it feels like I haven't read them at all - I can't tell any more what I liked about them. To my mind books are lovingly written works that also ask, as a record of your engagement with them, to be written in.

ak said...

I'll address the rest of your reply later but for now, one question: Doesn't having to own each book limit what you read? Like you, I buy a fair number of books from sales and second hand bookshops but I still rely on my book network (friends, family, acquaintances) and library for a lot of the books I read. Not that I've read all, or even most, of the books I own but quite often, I get an urge to read a particular book and it is rarely feasible to buy the book.

Space Bar said...

I love the way this discussion has less than nothing to do with Manjushree Thapa; in celebration of which (not that I have anythign against her or her book, but I love side tracks), here is Billy Collins' poem, 'Marginalia':

I love books that have been scribbled in just that little bit more than I like scribbling in books!

Chandrahas said...

Anirudh - These aren't the old times of scarcity and privation any more; everything is available, though for some kinds of books you have to work harder than others.

In my college days I used to read lots of books from the British Council and the Max Mueller library because it was hard to get those books otherwise. Also, there were some remarkably pretty girls to be seen in these locations, as there were fewer places to hang out in those times than now.

Now I've been collecting books seriously for about a decade, and hav a nearly self-sufficient collection. I even have a substantial amount of high-quality but hard-to-find literary criticism, such as Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, Roger Shattuck's Forbidden Knowledge. or Harry Levin's The Gates of Horn, which I've just been looking at. Last year at a bargain-basement shop in Cambridge I was thrilled to find Jose Ortega y Gasset's Meditations On Quixote, which I promptly bought. Three books I don't possess yet and have borrowed from libraries on more than one occasion are Nabokov's great Lectures on Literature, Konstantin Mochulsky's marvellous biography of Dostoevsky, and Joseph Frank's Through The Russian Prism, a copy of which exists, incidentally, in your very own college department library.

There are two poles here: wanting to own each book limits what I read, and not owning books I read makes for a limited kind of reading. I do the best I can within these boundaries, prefering possession for the most part but making exceptions for rare or out-of-print books.

Chandrahas said...

Space Bar - Yes, we left Manjushree Thapa behind after sentence 1 of this comments string. But never mind, all general discussion of literature leads back somewhere into particularities.

Anonymous said...

Manjushree THapa is a fantastic writer which she has already proved in THE TUTOR OF HISTORY and FORGET KATHMANDU. i am great fan of her and her writing. Tilled earth is trend setting in a way that has new style of story telling and style. i had never seen story of five lines!!!! keep it up, Didi.