Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Prajwal Parajuly | The Gurkha’s son

He promises to give me “something extra" as we begin the interview in the lobby of a hotel on Kolkata’s Park Street. In the city for the Kolkata Literary Festival (8-13 January), he’s been giving several interviews.

Two stacks of his just-released novel, Land Where I Flee, and the 2012 collection of short stories, The Gurkha’s Daughter, are brought to him as we begin to talk. He signs his full name, Prajwal Parajuly, with practised ease—the two Ps much bigger than the other letters.

“I am thrilled," he says about the response to his novel. “The reviews have been extraordinary and it’s already on the best-seller lists."

Land Where I Flee: By Prajwal Parajuly, Quercus, 272 pages, Rs 499
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Land Where I Flee: By Prajwal Parajuly, Quercus, 272 pages, Rs 499

The 29-year-old, Nepali-speaking Indian author shot to fame three years ago with a two-book, multi-country deal with Quercus. The buzz was that it was for a “record amount". He was reportedly the youngest Indian to have achieved that feat. “I hope it is untrue because I feel bad for a nation if a 26-year-old is the youngest Indian to land a multi-country book deal," he says, almost gloating.

“My primary intention is to tell a story. That it is based in my community is convenient," says Parajuly, his big, inquisitive eyes darting behind dark-rimmed Burberry glasses. With a grey-black Burberry jacket and a striped muffler thrown over a white T-shirt, teamed with black trousers, I say he’s quite dressed up. At other times, he’s more likely to be spotted in Bermudas—as I saw him at a creative writing workshop he conducted in Kolkata last year.

I first met Parajuly at a conference on the Nepali diaspora in Shillong in November 2011. His publishing deal was under way and he had just finished his short-story collection. “I quit a successful career as an advertising executive at The Village Voice in New York and travelled the length and breadth of India to write... mostly on Nepali-speaking Indians," he said at the seminar. “(My) novel will be a platform to voice the struggles of a people trying to belong in a country that is as much theirs as any other Indian national’s," he said.

The Indian Nepali community, sometimes referred to as Gorkhas or Gorkhalis, has been in a long-drawn struggle demanding a separate Gorkhaland state be carved out of West Bengal. The territory sought includes the famous Darjeeling hills. “I think it’s a valid cause," Parajuly says. “I don’t see why a Nepali majority area should be under a Bengali-majority state; the two people do not share anything in common. However, I’m opposed to the methods adopted by the political leaders, such as strikes, arson and dress codes." In Land Where I Flee, he has decried the excesses of the political party he calls the Gorkha Jan-Shakti Morcha, an obvious reference to the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, the leading political party in the hills.

Parajuly has written with the zeal of an anthropologist and the wonder of a child on the life and culture of the Nepali-speaking community in India, Nepal, Bhutan and the West. He has painstakingly stuffed his books with every aspect of the multi-ethnic linguistic community—marginalization, the Gorkhaland movement, the Bhutanese refugee crisis, Maoism, women’s rights, the caste system, and Indian and Western stereotypes.

“I hate this stereotype of Nepalis being loyal," he says. “Loyal! This description just smacks of servitude. Sample this,‘I have a Nepali working at my restaurant, he’s so loyal.’ Of the many things that we are, loyalty is what we get ‘praised for’!" But even while battling stereotypes, he resorts to some—his characters and situations are often oversimplified representations—as he creates an exotic world full of “fascinating revelations". An explanation for that can be found in his novel: “Of course, you must stick to pigeonholes in your writing, there’s all that talk about inauthenticity."

A Gangtok boy, Parajuly was born to a Nepali-speaking Indian father and a Nepalese mother. He went to the Truman State University in the US to study communications and worked as an account executive at The Village Voice for three years. In 2010, he went to the University of Oxford, UK, to study creative writing. The Gurkha’s Daughter, which he had finished even before this two-year master’s course was over, was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas prize in 2013.

Sometimes autobiographical elements seep into his writing and it’s as if some lines have been taken straight from his everyday conversations. “Everyone in Darjeeling speaks Nepali. We speak Nepali at home. I am Nepali," Amit says in the short story Immigrants. The characters of Amit, a 25-year-old successful Nepali who owns an apartment in Manhattan, and that of Ruthwa, a writer trying to work on a new story in Land Where I Flee, have often made his friends and followers on social media ask him if he is writing about himself. “I draw from my personal experiences; everyday incidents make my stories. But these characters are definitely not me," he tells me.

Parajuly is already a hero to his community, on the lookout for an icon who will help dispel stereotypes of Nepalis being fit only for blue-collar jobs. Criticisms of his writing, if any, are mostly restricted to private conversations. “Some Twitter followers have written to me saying I’m helping change the mindset towards Nepalis," Parajuly says.

“For a young Gorkha writer, a debutant at that, to have his two books published internationally is heady. And Prajwal is a fabulous storyteller," Kalimpong resident Bharat Mani Pradhan tells me. Pradhan helped organize a “launch" of the novel in the Himalayan town in December.

Meanwhile, Parajuly is busy doing the rounds of festivals, and promoting his books on social media. He says he dislikes all this—travelling, networking and promoting. “I was forced to be on Facebook and Twitter." However, he hardly betrays any such apathy on social media, where he engages intently with his followers, replying to every comment, retweeting every compliment and carefully avoiding those that could be potentially controversial. His links are accompanied with lines such as “Here is a fantastic review...", “This is one of the most intelligent reviews I’ve read", and “Fantastic, intelligent review...".

With no immediate writing plans, the self-proclaimed poker addict—he claims to have survived one term in Oxford from money he made while playing at the Poker Society—is currently reading Amit Chaudhuri’s Calcutta: Two Years in the City and “vegetating".

I ask him about the possibility of a sequel given that some of the characters in his novel had made their appearance in his collection of short stories. “So you noticed," he says. “I thought it was fun to inject some characters from the stories into the novel for my loyal readers. You are the only one to ask me about that ‘masturbatory inter-textuality’," he smiles with the satisfaction of an advertisement copywriter who’s just discovered his punchline.

That’s my “something extra"!

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