Saturday, April 19, 2014

Republica review: The Prediction

Through a spyglass
SEWA BHATTARAI
Though Sushma Joshi names her book The Prediction, it is not very predictable. Most stories in this collection have surprise endings, or even begin from strange subject lines. For example, there is her first story about a man getting lost in Mongolia, and another about a satellite that crashes among the Himalaya, both very unusual subjects for Nepali writers.

Sushma sets the tone right at the start with a very readable story. The Discovery of the High Lama has an intriguing subject matter and enough dialogue so that the reader is not bored. Her plot, too, holds the reader’s interest till the very end. And that perhaps defines most of her stories: unusual subject matters, lots of dialogue, and interesting plots.

When it comes to the subjects she addresses, they are a wide variety: From a Nepali drummer making a life in Europe to an astrologer in Mohan Shumsher’s court. Sushma seems to know a lot about each of these subject matters, and the tidbits she scatters makes the stories appealing. For example, in A Boleria for Love she describes intricate drumming patterns of Tabla, an instrument of classical music, and in The Prediction she goes into the technical details of classical Hindu astrology. She also gets the accent and tone for her characters right, whether Nepali, Mongolian, Spanish, or American.

Where Sushma falters is in denouements. The first story, about a man who is perceived by everyone as stupid takes a trip and gains a remarkable kind of wisdom, is superbly told. But then comes the conclusion, of the narrator becoming convinced of his own inadequacies compared to the former stupid man’s wisdom. And it is so sudden and abrupt that the reader is not at all convinced about the narrator’s conviction. Sushma mentions in her afterword that the story is a true one that she heard from a friend. It almost seems as if she should have stuck to the true narrative of the stupid man and left her narrator, presumably her creation, out.



In fact, as Sushma mentions in her afterword, all her stories are either true or partly inspired by true events. This gives her stories a journalistic quality, as if she has looked at real-life characters through a spyglass. For example, there is the story called ‘Hunger’ about the newest daughter-in-law of a large joint family who never gets enough to eat. As Sushma has admitted in her epilogue, this story is very similar to Law and Order, another story she has written previously about hunger. And yet, Hunger brings to light the plight of women, especially younger daughters-in-laws, who are at the bottom of the pecking order in large families. Sushma portrays their unwritten rule of suffering everything in silence, which prevents them from seeking solutions, very well.

And then there is the story about correct astrological predictions, which Sushma reveals in her afterword as an account that has been passed on in her family as a true one. The story portrays not just Hindu society’s (including royals’) dependence on astrology, but also astrology’s roots in science. This story raises astrology from mere superstition to something which has deep connections to the Hindu psyche, and depicts why we are so influenced by it.
The Promise and Shelling Peas and History Lessons both deal with the historical place of women in Nepali society. The Promise is a multi-layered story, where a goddess who will improve his fortunes has been promised to a man. Women of all stripes enter his life, including a pretty maid, an old crone and self proclaimed priestess, and a slumbering family deity. The reader is left wondering which one of them is the promised goddess. In the meantime, the reader takes a fascinating tour into the debaucheries and family politics of the high and mighty royals of old. The ending makes it sufficiently clear which one of these women is the goddess, and also, how goddesses are actually treated in Nepal. Shelling Peas and History Lessons adds another facet to the life of the super-wealthy. It portrays one of the many casualties of unequal society: women who pay in life for proximity to the rich.

A Boleria for Love and The Best Sand Painting of the Century are perhaps the most fanciful stories in the collection. A Boleria for Love is simply delightful, its unusual and seemingly impossible love story immediately drawing the reader in. But once again, one wishes Sushma had provided more of a conclusion. The current open ended one leaves rather more to the imagination than desired, especially after some pages of remarkable storytelling. The Best Sand Painting of the Century, on the other hand, offers too clich├ęd an ending, even though the lengthy pieces includes some priceless sarcastic observations. The characterization of a monk who degenerates into a worldly life is one of them, and another is the monk who displays a mandala of Princess Leah (from Star Wars, I assume) as the greatest mandala in the world.

Curiously, the best part of Sushma’s book is her afterword where she talks about the process of writing all her stories. It is like a behind the scenes peek, something equal to the “making” of movies, and makes you wonder if every other book you like has interesting “making” stories that you never got to read. Here Sushma offers insights that could not fit into the stories, and they give the stories a wholly new dimension.

Sushma’s book is for those who want to read the stories of Nepal in English language. Her elegant language and simple but effective and varied plots are the mainstays of this book, and will please the reader despite a few glitches.

Title    : The Prediction
Author    : Sushma Joshi
Genre    : Fiction, in English
Publisher    : Sansar Books
Published    : 2013
Pages    : 174, Paperback


sewa.bhattarai@gmail.com

Read the review in Republica online here.

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