Country Focus: Nepal
The Royal Ghosts
Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 207 pgs.
Acclaim: Upadhyay won the Whiting Award for Arresting God in Kathmandu, and his book The Guru of Love was a finalist for the Kiriyama Prize
We’re all at the mercy of the words of others, even though (or maybe especially when) the thoughts they express may be unkind, thoughtless, untrue, prejudiced or manipulative. In each of The Royal Ghosts‘ nine rich but unadorned short stories, Samrat Upadhyay’s protagonists become disconcerted by what another character has said to them or by what they fear others will think of them. The Royal Ghosts charts a progression: the first few stories feature characters who allow their lives to be constrained by other people, and the last several portray characters who break free from societal limitations to do what they feel is right. In the final title story “The Royal Ghosts”, a character proclaims the collection’s theme: “You can’t live your life always listening to what others say.”
I couldn’t help but compare The Royal Ghosts with Pakistani Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. Whereas Mueenuddin’s stories ended in ruined relationships, Upadhyay champions love. When outside forces threaten to wrest compassion and moral fortitude away from the Nepali author’s characters, most of them are intuitive enough to hang tight.
The tales are set in late 1990s-early 2000s Kathmandu during the Nepali Civil War, a conflict begun by Maoist rebels attempting to overthrow the monarchy. Three of the stories directly relate to the war. The title characters in “Refugee” are victims of political violence; “Supreme Pronouncements” features an anti-monarchy agitator who unwittingly turns a rally deadly; in “The Weight of a Gun” a woman’s mentally unbalanced son asks her to buy him a gun so that he can join the Maoist rebels. The title story “The Royal Ghosts” revolves around the June 1, 2001 Nepali Royal Massacre in which Prince Dipendra killed himself, his parents and seven other family members. The remaining stories delve into friendship, love, parenthood and being true to one’s self – universal experiences with the added cultural twists of arranged marriages and caste dynamics. Upadhyay deftly immersed me in Nepali culture without making me feel lost in a foreign country.
In my book (or, what Nepal means to me and maybe you, too)
Whip up some girl power
Although the CIA World Factbook states that Nepal’s national anthem is “Sayaun Thunga Phool Ka“, the tune that runs through my head goes something like this: “Da da da-da, da da-da! Da da da-da, da da DA DA DAAAH!”
Yes, Nepal instantly brings to mind the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark and the dive bar owned by Indy’s old flame, Marion Ravenwood (played by Karen Allen). Back in 1981, Marion was an unusually strong female character. She was a petite woman who ran a saloon in a rough, far-off part of the world, won a drinking contest against a yak-sized Nepali man, and impetuously decked the world’s hottest archaeologist for leaving her. It’s ironic that I associate Nepal with girl-power; a study completed in 2000 revealed that Nepal’s constitution included 188 laws that discriminated against women. Child marriage, widow abuse and polygamy persist, especially in rural areas.
Capped by the Himalayas, Nepal boasts eight of the world’s ten highest peaks, including the tallest of them all – Mount Everest. Rising to 29,019 feet, the mountain straddles the border of Nepal and China (Tibet). The moniker “Mount Everest” was bestowed upon it in 1865 by the Royal Geographical Society in deference to the British Surveyor General of India, Sir George Everest. The official English name sounds a little out of place among its Asian cohorts – Lhotse, Makalu, Cho Oyu, Kanchenjunga, Dhaulagiri, Annapurna and Manaslu – but you can call the mountain by its Nepalese name, Sagarmāthā, or refer to it as Chomolungma, like the Tibetans .
I love books about real life adventures-gone-bad. In May 1996, just about everything went wrong on Mount Everest. Eight people died on the mountain in one day. Jon Krakauer, one of the climbers in the thick of it all, also happens to also be an outstanding adventure writer. He recounts his version of events in the riveting and bestselling Into Thin Air.