Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Martin Chautari review: The End of the World

Here's a detailed review of my book from James Sharrock, in Martin Chautari's Studies in Nepali History and Society.
 
Book Reviews

Sushma Joshi. 2008. The End of the World: A Collection of Short Stories.
Kathmandu: FinePrint Books.

The End of the World is an impressive collection of eight short stories in
English by the Kathmandu-based columnist, artist, blogger and filmmaker
Sushma Joshi. A fresh and outward-looking literary sensibility has
been brought to bear on the recent past and present lives of Nepalis. The
book includes details on foreign-returned Nepalis, households in
Kathmandu, lahure lives abroad, village politics, natural disasters, and the
Nepal Police. Nearly all of the stories are set within the last fifteen to
twenty years with the notable exceptions of “Match-Making” and
“Cheese” making the book, additionally, something of an artistic first
draft on the recent Nepali past.

The stories map the limited choices facing a range of Nepalis in
different periods of torment and life struggle. None of the main characters
has reached a position of power and responsibility yet, all of the marginal
men and women are buffeted about by impersonal forces and all long for
change or a solution. Part of the power of the collection derives from this
recognition of the ordinary, everyday choices facing Nepalis as well as
Joshi’s own keen eye for the absurd and humorous. However, the
dilemmas and transitions are not only Nepal-specific. Joshi also moves
many of her characters into representations of universal positions and
truths, in prose which should have wide appeal beyond Nepal.

The opening story (“Cheese”) brilliantly depicts the meeting point of
foreignness with Nepal through the tale of Gopi, a cousin and household
help brought to Kathmandu, and his longing for cheese. Along the way
the tale tells something of the expansion of foreign travel in Nepal and the
reality of Gopi’s young life. In the story one family member, possibly in
the 1950s after Tribhuvan airport has opened, comes back to Nepal from
Switzerland with the then only authentic proof of attendance in vide÷

cheese, a name which confuses Gopi for its similarity to the Nepali for
“thing” (cãj). The young Gopi misses out on cheese during the ritual of
unpacking of gifts, and thus nurtures his own desire for cheese and work
abroad, both only fulfilled 25 years later after his own labor in Kuwait.

Joshi cleverly weaves in the impact of foreignness and foreign things
in the years after Tribhuvan airport opened up. The changing nature of

Studies in Nepali History and Society 14(2): 441–452 December 2009
© Mandala Book Point


442 Studies in Nepali History and Society 14(2), 2009

gifts from foreign lands is noted, from cheese and Rolexes to “fridges and
washing machines” (p. 20). For the young Gopi “the humble thing-i-ness
of the word” cheese “suddenly travelled to the exotic underworld of the
senses and came up packaged in silver foil and cardboard, smelling faintly
of time zones and jetlag…” (p. 15). The story also highlights Nepali
elements of the global drive to be modern, an obsession with development
and a clamor for all things foreign combined in a humorous modern-day
morality tale. It might usefully be read alongside Mark Liechty’s article
on foreignness in this journal (Liechty 1997).

“Match-Making” is an evocative account of a life-changing moment
in 1940s India. It depicts, in short but weighty prose, the meeting of a
Nepali girl, Sharmila, in Calcutta with a prospective groom’s older Aunts.
The story captures the tension, on their way to the meeting, between the
maturing but still young Sharmila and her mother, issuing injunctions to
her daughter and desperate for the match to succeed. The Aunts treat
Sharmila like cattle and check for “the most pertinent trouble spots –
obedience, patience, mental and physical wholeness, skin color” (p. 123).
The seriousness of the meeting and of the older women is
counterbalanced, for the reader, by access to Sharmila’s humorous and
angry thoughts and her inconvenient and inauspicious early period.
Looking into her mouth Sharmila speculates that the Aunts, pleased by
her teeth, may have seen “the world illuminated inside it, just as
Krishna’s mother had done when she opened his mouth to see if he had
stolen the butter” (p. 119). The final passages of the story beautifully
capture a historic moment of self-recognition for Sharmila.

“Betrayal,” is a well-crafted tale told from the point of view of
Gautam who betrays and then was betrayed in turn by his former best
friend Mahesh. The history of Gautam’s relationship with Mahesh weaves
in work in India, time in the Maoist movement and more recent migration
work as a runner to and from Hong Kong. The bitterness of Gautam,
angry with himself, the world and his choices, resonates throughout the
story. This includes his pain at his wife leaving him “That bitch. I should
have known better, I should have never married her” (p. 28), the
realization from Mahesh in Bombay that both men were “missing…not
sex, of which we had plenty, but love” and this despair which “had finally
driven us both back to our home country, the thought of pure,
unimaginable loneliness” (p. 35).

This constant disappointment at what life has offered him includes
eventual rejection of the Maoists. Gautam, fed up with eating stolen and
old rice, betrays Mahesh first when he “…sneaked away and ran to town


Book Reviews 443

as fast as my little legs could carry me” (p. 41). The lowlights and
unhappiness of Gautam’s life continue until he, in turn, is dramatically
betrayed. Occasionally, the nature of the shift in Gautam’s register and
narrative—from crudeness to grand philosophy—is a little confusing and
unrealistic.

The collection also includes a comic tale about a Nepali policeman in
“Law and Order.” The story is built around the binary hunger of Bishnu, a
new recruit to police headquarters in Kathmandu, for both women and
food. Being part of new recruits with only “plain uniforms,” (p. 77)
Bishnu begins police life in prison-like conditions. Bishnu’s longing, as
intense as other characters, is moderated by antics and ability to joke his
way through life. He fails the horse-riding part of the British army
recruitment test as “the horse dragged him for fifty spectacular meters to
the edge of a field” (p. 73) leading to worries about “the permanent
damage sustained by his balls...” (p. 74). He jokes his way into the Nepal
Police by playing a harmonica. The chapter includes a hilarious
description of Bishnu running extra jogging laps as a punishment for
drunkenness inside police headquarters.

Like “Cheese” the chapter also elucidates the options and thoughts of
characters through lists, in Bishnu’s case this includes all the possible
ways of getting extra food supplies. Through these lists the inner mental
decision-making process of characters such as Bishnu is communicated in
a clear but also comic manner, as they fail or succeed in fulfilling their
own goals. Joshi is successful in allying Bishnu’s dreams of food and
women when “at night…he dreamt the girl in the red kurta had
transformed into a long, elegant stalk of radish...” (p. 82). Unlike other
characters, Bishnu does partly fulfill his dreams but he also realizes a
common truth, namely that “his mind would always be roving over
unreachable landscapes of desire…” (pp. 94–95).

Amongst the collection only “The Blockade,” about a desperate young
boy from a starving village in Kalikot is less successful. It relies on a
muddled narrative, containing everything from recent politics and the
twelve-point agreement to Ram Bomjom, the Buddha boy. The story also
contains an unsubtle depiction of recent Nepali politics, a topic already
difficult to write original material on. The other stories in this collection
of eight, however, are well constructed and fresh.

In contrast to “The Blockade,” “Waiting for Rain” begins by painting
an authentic political backdrop before zooming into the teahouse chat of
Churay Khola and the sorry tale of how Harka lost ownership of his land.
While continuing to address universal questions Joshi, as in other


444 Studies in Nepali History and Society 14(2), 2009

chapters, brilliantly describes micro images of Nepal, such as the bees
swarming around the “orange jelabis, piled up in small mounds on top of
the dirt-streaked glass cupboards” (p. 53) in the teashop. “Green
Dragonfly,” is the tragic tale of the death of one sister in a landslide
following monsoon rains. It dramatizes the sheer force of nature as well
as rivers which “are awakened by the monsoon to rage over the
voluptuous folds of the Mahabharat hills in a heavenly tantrum of
destruction” (p. 127). The story convincingly travels back from the
present, into the sad events of a past landslide.

The title story, “The End of the World,” describes one family’s
response to a learned sadhu’s prediction that the world is about to end.
Kanchi is pragmatic about the coming end of times but her husband, Dil,
and son are profligate and celebrate by buying meat and oranges. The
situation is laced with humor by Joshi in sentences such as “the end of the
world was supposed to happen at eleven am. Kanchi wanted to deal with
the event on a full stomach” (p. 102). The story mocks the gullibility,
rumor-mongering and herd mentality of the crowd, leaving realists such
as Kanchi to wonder about survival tomorrow. There is also an amusing
incidental portrait of a foreign development worker.

The whole collection has a unity of purpose, common themes
(longing, desire) and is eminently readable. The experience of being
outside your country, for some writers and artists, enables a different
perspective. The End of the World benefits too from Joshi’s multiple and
deep perspectives on Nepal, as a USA-returnee. Joshi’s amusing and
subtle phrases and depictions are both stylistically pleasing and the
product of hard thinking about Nepali lives today. The book is only let
down, in a minor sense, by elements of “The Blockade” and occasional
sloppy editing. Universal representations of longing for food, love or
change are successfully interwoven inside stories set in very Nepal-
specific contexts. This, perhaps, also reflects Joshi’s own artistic
preoccupations with “the global and the local” (the title of her weekly
column in The Kathmandu Post).

This reader looks forward to future writing by Joshi and hopes this
will include a novel length treatment of lives and events in Nepal today.
This collection certainly illustrates the simple point that English language
fiction in Nepal no longer needs special allowances from reviewers or
constant comparisons with English language fiction in India. National
comparisons will always be present and clearly support for English
language writers in Nepal could be improved. But to even suggest that
English language fiction in Nepal has suddenly come of age seems


Book Reviews 445

patronizing. Joshi too, unless I am mistaken, is not writing to further the
prestige of Nepal but to report her response to the local world she knows.
Our responses therefore should be on that of artistic merit, in which Joshi
succeeds. The marginal men and women of Nepal are given voices in The
End of the World which is a collection to be read and re-read.

References

Liechty, Mark. 1997. Selective Exclusion: Foreigners, Foreign Goods and
Foreignness in Modern Nepali History. Studies in Nepali History and
Society 2(1): 5–68.

James Sharrock

UNMIS, Sudan