After forcing myself to finish King, Queen, Knave by the celebrated Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov (best recognised for Lolita), I was desperate to read a book I could relate with and enjoy. Although it has been praised for its ‘delicious prose’, I found the excessive metaphors and personification in King, Queen, Knave tiring. The pace too was a real drag. I was eager to begin a new novel.
A few days earlier, my ex-colleague and friend Shiwangi sent me an author signed hardcover of Land Where I Flee by Prajwal Parajuly, all the way from Gangtok, Sikkim, as a belated birthday gift! Shiwangi has always been the super sweet girl so I was more touched than surprised. Last year, I had borrowed from her and read the debut novel by Prajwal (who is her friend) called The Gurkha’s Daughter and quite liked it.
Now, coming to Land Where I Flee. To put it very simply, I had a good time reading it. Land Where I Flee is set in Gangtok, where the author himself grew up. So, it’s a culture and people he knows well. At it’s core, it’s a tale of fractured familial relationships, old wounds, and the refusal to patch up. The characters that people the novel are interesting, real, conflicted, layered, and thankfully, not complex to the point where you do not fully understand their motivations.
An old, formidable, beedi-smoking, Nepali-speaking Hindu widow Chitralekha Nepauney is set to turn 84. Her 84th birthday, or chaurasi, is an event to commemorate. Her grandchildren, who she single-handedly raised after their parents’ death in a car accident, are coming from different parts of the world for the chaurasi. She has, however, a bone of contention to pick with all three of them.
The eldest, Bhagwati, had eloped at 19 to marry a low caste, untouchable Damaai. She, of Brahmin ancestry, had ruined the family reputation. Her Baahun grandmother left no opportunity to taunt her slither by. The second in line, Manasa had done the respectable thing by marrying a man from one of Nepal’s most prestigious political families but by refusing to get her husband along for the chaurasi, earned the wrath of her grandmother. Chitralekha’s only grandson, Agastaya, stubbornly remained a bachelor at 34. Apart from Chitralekha’s incessant mocking, complaining and rebuffs, the three siblings have their own demons to fight and hope only to come out of the chaurasi unscathed. The novel follows the events that unfold when they all congregate in their childhood home. As if there wasn’t enough melodrama in the household anyway, a mischievous eunuch maid and an uninvited guest take it upon themselves to create even more.
The sentences Parajuly weaves are quite simple in structure but every third page contained a word or two I was unfamiliar with! An aspect of Land Where I Flee I particularly noticed and liked was the liberal doses of dialogues and the muted, crisp narrative. The author doesn’t waste precious words in describing scenes and settings in great detail, and lets the story flow freely and quickly. The tension among the siblings and with the grandmother is brought out appropriately well by the words the characters chose to speak. The novel inevitably has a sprinkling of the Gorkhaland movement. However, one does wish that the author move out of his comfort zone in his next outing.
To sum it up, Land Where I Flee is a non-pretentious novel—literary enough but not absurdly, unbearably so.
On an aside, I hope 2014 turns out to be a great year for Indian authors and of course, the publishing industry in general. People of the world, please buy more books and show them damn Kindles and e-Readers who’s the boss.
PS: I also reviewed Sangeeta Mall’s Flight of the Flamingo recently. Click here for the link.