The spaces between
EVEN if writers are not especially showy, most intend us at least to linger upon a metaphor or a sentence, to notice the brightness of a phrase. But Samrat Upadhyay is among the smoothest and most noiseless of contemporary writers. His is an abstemious art. He sees that his characters, mostly members of the middle and lower classes -- businessmen, middle-rung workers, housewives, servants -- do not think in any obviously literary manner, and he strives to keep his work in the same key as their lives. He resolutely eschews metaphors, makes sparing use of colons and semicolons, and almost never resorts to that word so favored by short-story writers: “suddenly.” His work is so subtle that it does not even seem especially subtle.
Although he has resided in America for nearly two decades, Upadhyay has never lost touch with his native Nepal, a country that has produced very little English-language fiction. Indeed, the capital, Katmandu, is the locale for all of his work. His debut collection of stories, “Arresting God in Kathmandu,” showed people negotiating a thicket of choices in a close-knit, tradition-bound society in which the needs and preferences of families are as important as those of individuals and various codes of caste and class restrict the free intermixing of people. (For example, even adults cannot marry without parental approval and, in fact, often have their life partners chosen for them by their parents.)
In a magazine interview, Upadhyay described life as “a constant negotiation between limits and freedom from those limits, regardless of culture.” The country of his birth has given him an especially rich mine of material; the tension between individual freedom and societal constraints is evenly weighted and, therefore, narratively compelling. It is to his credit that in his 2001 stories and the 2003 novel “The Guru of Love,” he writes about Nepali society in English, for a primarily Western readership, without ever letting the whiff of exoticism invade his work.
Upadhyay returns in his new collection of stories, “The Royal Ghosts,” to themes familiar from “Arresting God,” the most pervasive of which is the struggle of men and women to understand each other, to work their way across the hollows and uncertainties that lie between them and find a way of living together. He often writes from the point of view of an interested third party, not just one or the other protagonist. (As if to dramatize how intricately people’s lives are linked with others, his stories always attend closely to the lives of at least four or five characters and how they feel about one another. This gives his stories a kind of novelistic roominess.)
In “Father, Daughter,” Shivaram is alarmed by the behavior of his daughter. She has left her husband -- a match Shivaram arranged -- for no other reason than that she cannot love him and has resumed an earlier liaison with the son of a low-caste cobbler. Conscious of the disapproving murmurs all around him, Shivaram declines to participate in her second marriage, so that “people would say less, say that he’d at least attempted to protect his dignity.” His speculative knowledge of his daughter’s motives and feelings, and his mixture of perplexity, outrage, tenderness and frailty, gives the story an unusual charge.
In “A Servant in the City,” a teenage village boy, Jeevan, is a servant to a single woman and witnesses her affair with her former employer, which has made her a pariah. Gradually she confides in Jeevan, who supports her through her low spells. Over time, Jeevan finds that he has become “strangely possessive of her, as if he were the only one who truly knew her.” He suspects that her lover will never keep his promise to leave his wife and marry her, and one day Jeevan blurts out these thoughts, turning from a spectator into an agent. Reprimanded by his mistress for his insolence, he thinks about returning to the village, “to remind himself where he came from.”
A new pressure is also at work on Upadhyay’s characters: politics and recent events in Nepal. The young democracy overseen by a monarchy has endured a turbulent five years. In 2001, the crown prince fatally shot several members of the royal family, including his father, King Birendra, in a drunken fit before turning his gun upon himself. Since then the country has been riven by a bloody Maoist uprising that has taken thousands of lives. “The Royal Ghosts” shows how the tension among the monarchy, democrats and communists has eroded the country’s social fabric, demolishing the old stability against which the characters of “Arresting God in Kathmandu” played out their lives. This darkness and violence lie at the edges of several stories in the new collection and are addressed explicitly in a few of them.
In “The Weight of a Gun,” the elderly Janaki finds a gun hidden under the mattress of her schizophrenic son, Bhola, who has often boasted that he is a Maoist. She lifts it gingerly, her head buzzing with questions. “Holding it carefully, she peeked out of the window. People were going about their business.” Everything is as normal, but this one gesture of Janaki’s is revelatory; she has stepped over the threshold and has been sucked into the morass.
Even when he engages most closely with politics, Upadhyay always illuminates the private realm, as in the book’s splendid title story. On the morning that word of the killings in the royal family sends shockwaves across Nepal, Ganga, a taxi driver mistrustful of the monarchy and generally of all those in power, drives around Katmandu, observing various scenes. He pays a visit to his younger brother Dharma, who works in a photocopy shop.
When Ganga enters the shop, it is dark. He sees his brother sprawled naked on a bed with another man. Learning that Dharma is homosexual hits Ganga much harder than the death of the monarch.
Distraught, he beats up his brother, then wanders from place to place. (Upadhyay’s characters are great wanderers -- when they feel tense about something, they go for a walk.) Late that night, a very drunk Ganga seeks out an acquaintance, who wonders if there was some conspiracy behind the killings.
Ganga’s response meshes the day’s two big events. “Maybe, maybe,” he slurs, interpreting history through family. “How can we know what goes on behind closed doors? We cannot even know with our own relatives.”