Of the many rough divisions possible in the world of literature, one is the separation of writers of fiction into those who demonstrate sympathy with their characters, even flawed ones, and those who manifest a kind of impatience with them, viewing them through the lens of irony and satire.
The talented Nepalese writer, Manjushree Thapa, is no misanthrope, but the overwhelming mood of Tilled Earth, her first book of short stories and third book overall, is that of weariness shading into cynicism. Sometimes it is Thapa’s characters who feel impatient with, and dispirited by, their circumstances, but just as often it is Thapa who swoops on how, in different ways, they either lack the courage to break their shackles or have sold out and retired into complacency.
Many of Thapa’s characters are low- or high-level government servants or else workers at NGOs—people who could have made a difference to what they know is a poor, developing country, but who have succumbed instead to sheer apathy.
The pressures of life and love lead her characters to experience the tension between tradition—the way of “families, friends, society”, of caste hierarchies and unequal gender relations—and modernity, with its idea of the individual as sovereign over his or her own life, free to choose the course that seems best. Thapa’s characters also sometimes betray what she has elsewhere called “small-nation thinking”—they feel they are bit players in history, and often look over the border at India.
Some of her short stories beautifully evoke an entire world in just one or two paragraphs. In Solitaire, the aged government clerk, Hit Bahadur Thapa, indifferent now to the goings-on in the world outside his room (“Democracy had come and gone and come again over the span of his career”), is shown having discovered the pleasures of playing solitaire on his office computer in the last year of his working life. And the ambitious and self-involved student, Ramesh, is shown riffling through a dozen career options in a fine story called—the title is long as the story is short—The Secretary of the Student Union Makes a Career Choice.
In the best story of this collection, The Buddha in the Earth— Touching Posture, a retired bureaucrat is shown travelling all by himself to Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha.
The bureaucrat thinks of himself, as do many of his station, as a man apart from the masses, sage and rational while they are credulous and servile. Thapa’s achievement is to show that there is truth in his reflections. The bureaucrat has left his wife behind because she is “driven by passion, the kind who supplicates to every god” while, for him, the Buddha is indisputably a historical figure, a wise man iterating the need for reflection, not devotion.
At Lumbini, he is irritated to find the tourist brochures full of historical inaccuracies which are swallowed by tourists, the various sites anointed with flowers and vermilion, and giant but soulless monasteries raised by various missions from around the world to make “a gaudy Buddhist wonderland”. “How banal people are,” he thinks, and Thapa allows us to register the sense in which this is true, but also the way in which the bureaucrat has cut himself off from the world.
Thapa is less sympathetic to her protagonists in a story called The European Fling, which is about two middle-aged people, a Nepalese woman and an American man, who meet in Europe for a fling. Sharada and Matt are both in thrall of radical ideas—that is what brought them together during their university days.
But, meeting after several years, they find they have less patience with each other. Matt has turned vegan, and spends all his time in bookstores obsessing over various injustices. Sharada, meanwhile, is pursued by a handsome Tibetan youth, and feels a little odd to be flirting with him when she is “a leading gender specialist”.
Thapa’s irony here is crushing, but it is when she leaves some channel of redemption open for her characters that Tilled Earth is most satisfying.
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