57. Book Review: Arresting God in Kathmandu

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Title: Arresting God in Kathmandu
Author: Samrat Upadhyay
Genre: Fiction, short stories.
First published in 2001
First published by Houghton Mifflin Company
Published by Rupa.Co, India
ISBN 81-7167-803-3
Price: Rs 250

About the author:

Samrat Upadhyay was born and raised in Kathmandu and came to the United States at age twenty-one. His work has appeared in The Best American Short Stories and The Best of the Fiction Workshops. He lives in Cleveland, US and teaches at Baldwin-WallaceCollege.

Upadhyay is the first Nepali writer to be published in the West.

Blurb:

“With a masterful narrative style, fascinating characterizations, and precise description, Samrat Upadhyay shows us compelling clashes of the spiritual versus the temporal and carnal. This is a distinguished and captivating book.” – Ian MacMillan.

Content: 9 short stories

Review:

The book engages a reader to the various colors of love, hate, lust, jealousy, remorse, estrangement and spirituality in the changing yet rigid social-cultural context of Kathmandu circa 1970s (I assume so). Set in the premises of Kathmandu – the city of gods, each story revolves on family or relationships, in which the members are intertwined by common threads of human frailty, rationalization, and a yearning for salvation. As every good story should, the nine stories present characters in conflict and contemplation.

Behind all mental turmoil, desire for sex/sexual emancipation and moral upheavals of the characters, however, there lies a constant quest for individual happiness. The inner clashes between ideals and carnal satisfaction, the desire and reasoning for personal happiness portrayed in the stories are as universal and as human, as everyday routines.

This book is a vivid representation of common people living in Kathmandu valley, which is seeking modernization and yet is closely restrained in norms, values and religiousness. The stories are about normal city-dwellers – an accountant who lost his job (The Good Shopkeeper), an aging poet who has doubts in his literary ability (The Cooking Poet), a successful financial consultant who falls for his secretary (Deepak Misra’s Secretary), a newly wed bride who helps her father-in-law’s overcome his constrained sexual desire (The Limping Bride), a husband who suspects his wife of having an affair (During the Festival) and so on. These characters can be found in our neighborhoods, in our houses and in our families.

Since this is a collection of short stories, Upadhyay has a tough job to build up characters and the plot in each story. His narrative style of building the stories through the character’s own perspective is quite effective. As a story teller, Upadhyay succeeds in telling these stories without sounding religious or preachy or sexist. However, the only drawback of his style is, a reader might feel that one has been there very often, especially the recurring theme of unfulfilled sexual desires and infidelity.

I recommend reading this book one story at a sitting. These are not new stories; there are no new angles in them. I have one query for the reader though. Does it make a difference in gratification that these stories are in English? Reading our stories in a foreign language, does that give us readers a new perspective on our society? I will leave that to the readers.

(And, hats off to the photographer whose photo made it to the book’s cover. Just like the book, the photo portrays a distinct story of disconnectedness and alienation in a single family.)

Rating: 8/10

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