Millennium Post

Nostalgia, an alpha bait

Sikkim is back on the literary map. After a scintillating debut with The Gurkha’s Daughter, a short story collection that brought us closer to life and times of Nepali-Indians in Bhutan, the young Prajwal Parajuly is here with his first novel Land Where I Flee. This one is about homecoming. No, not really. It’s perhaps about reunion, of ‘family members’ thrown asunder by active life choices and are now reassembling in Gangtok to celebrate a Chaurasi, the 84th birthday of the family matriarch, Chitralekha Neupaney.

While the reunion is an interesting literary trope, often used to elucidate the peculiar and precarious but routine and mundane situations thrown up by modern life, Parajuly bathes it with a loving incandescence.

There is a lot of heart in this novel which, in a more schematic dissection, could be taken to be about outing one’s offbeat sexual choice, sweetening the bitter pill of an inter-caste marriage and elopement, or even reconciling academic over-achievement with the threadbare necessities of real, lived life, whether in the West or in the heart of Gangtok, not quite locked in a time warp but, when compared to the superhighways of fast life in global cities such as New York and London, the ebb and flow of the smaller town appears doll-like, almost a continuation of the past.

There’s really very little of the plot. But then the whole point of literary modernity has been to effectively do away with a structured narratives, and rely more upon whimsies of the mind, the memories and the flashes and the recognitions and the denials. The three siblings who return to their home in Gangtok to reunite over their grandmother’s 84th birthday, all have ghosts of the past and present haunting them.

While New York dwelling Agastya is homosexual and has a dominating but handsome boyfriend in Nicolas, Manasa is the Oxbridge stunner, whose life has been reduced to being an attendant for a father-in-law. Bhagwati, who married a journalist from a lower caste and led a life of ostracisation since then, is happy, but not quite without the blessings of the biri-smoking and quite rustic Chitralekha, who is, undoubtedly, the powerful emotional core of the novel.

Happy families are happy in similar ways. Unhappy families have unique stories to tell. Perhaps, Leo Tolstoy would appear maladjusted to the changing realities of our time, when the divisions between happiness and unhappiness, home and the world, centre and periphery have blurred to such an extent that one forgets which one to call home after all. Still, what a novel, a delicate one as this one at that, does is illuminate the dark and winding roads that connect the dots, often in remarkably similar ways. Case in point is Shyam Selvadurai’s
The Hungry Ghosts
, which has a similar storyline, with a central matriarchal figure in a strong grandmother, who’s exacting but not, in the end, unforgiving.

South Asian fiction in English is coming of age and maturing at an accelerated pace. Parajuly’s first novel is a welcome addition to the expanding oeuvre, confident and self-reflexive, aware of the myriad little cultural boobytraps out there to trip a first-time novel writer.

As multiculturalism becomes the norm in the urban nodes and the world cities, as London, New York, even New Delhi or Mumbai, accept and accommodate to become mini worlds in themselves, becoming undesirable replicas of each other, it is the land that we escaped from in the past that beckons us with a come-hither look.  Parajuly’s world is not just an answer to that unmissable call of nostalgia, it is also a compulsion, a necessity to bridge the gap between the conflicting realities, lived and imagined.
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