Book Reviews

Review Published in DNA

Sketches, not stories, of life in Nepal

Navtej Sarna

Tilled Earth
Manjushree Thapa
Penguin India
184 pages

The short story is an unforgiving genre. Its architecture has to have complete and uncompromising integrity: all that is necessary, and nothing at all that is not. One knows instantly if a short story works and if it works well, it will leave behind its lingering impact, a touch of surprise, a window into the human soul, a point to ponder. By the same token, if it does not work, it fails miserably; there is no half-way house.

Manjushree Thapa has an abundant landscape from which to mine her short stories. She also obviously has the writer’s eye to discern the possibilities in her material. Tilled Earth touches various themes: traditional Nepalese society, with the rigidities of the caste system; the ups and downs of the development process; the life of the expatriates in Nepal; Nepal as a tourist destination and the dislocation that such tourism leaves in its wake; the experience of the Nepalese abroad; the contradictions within an emancipated Nepalese woman.

And yet the collection disappoints. To begin with, the mix is uneven. Many of the stories — Heera Mahajan Loses His Way, Nineteen Years His Junior, Soar, Diesal — are barely over a page long. And some — Solitaire, The Hungry Statistician — are not even half a page long. These are just sketches.

Well-written, perceptive little sketches, but definitely not short stories and the reader can be forgiven for feeling a trifle cheated when they are passed off as such. Every writer has dozens of these, observed and filed away, either in his mind’s eye or in some notebook, waiting for the time that material can accrue around them to become short stories: some dramatic development, some sudden epiphany, something that shows that a life has changed forever. Without that, a sketch remains a two-dimensional piece, interesting but not complete.

Several, on the other hand, are far too long, with an obvious and early dramatic denouement but yet the reader is expected to trudge along for several pages. Two of these — Sounds That The Tongue Learns To Make and The European Fling — which between them make up more than a quarter of the collection, are particularly exhausting. In the first one, the reader knows almost at the beginning that the Western tourist is at the end of her relationship with her Nepali friend and guide but we have to go over many a hill and dale while the fact is rubbed in.

And in the second, a horribly contrived attempt at a European fling between a Nepali NGO activist and an old American boyfriend (arranged simply since she has to attend a conference in Aix-le-Provence) is doomed from the start. There is not a hint of emotional intensity, nor of physical passion, yet we have to plough through twenty pages while they find other partners to talk to. Good short story collections are desperately needed. This one, however, will not fit the bill. The writer is a diplomat and novelist.