Published in the DSC South Asian Literature Festival’s online magazine, 22/09/2011. Original post no longer available.
Last weekend’s Kathmandu Literary Jatra promised a fantastic line up, including Rabi Thapa, former editor at the Nepali Times. Lex Delaney interviews him about Nothing to Declare, his debut collection of short stories
Nothing to Declare centres on the experiences of Nepal’s middle-class youth in and around the capital. They follow a loose chronological progression, starting with Initiation where a young boy is deeply embarrassed by the rituals of an initiation ceremony, moving through to boarding school experiences in Angels, to college, moving abroad and returning, to exploring an arranged marriage. “It’s a series of characters in transition against the backdrop of the city and country in transition. It’s about their aspirations, their disappointments, their revelations,” Rabi explains.
“I was desperate to get on with writing, and when the novel proved resistant and the stories started coming, I soon realised I’d have enough for a collection and kept at it.” He admits to struggling with a “monolithic novel set in Nepal while not in Nepal”, but his worthy debut is certainly impressive. Nothing to Declare has already been long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story prize, like fellow Nepali writer Sushma Joshi’s earlier collection of stories, The End of the World.
Some critics have questioned whether the content will appeal to an international audience. “Any one of us could have written it”, believes Paavan Mathema writing in Wave magazine. While it’s certainly true that anyone who has ever spent time in Kathmandu will feel a stab of nostalgia for the characters portrayed and the places described (and may have to resort to google translate for the odd word), Rabi’s attention to detail and vivid depictions of the more mundane aspects of Kathmandu life make for fascinating reading.
There’s a feeling as though many of the experiences are deeply personal, such as those of boarding school life in Angels. “I draw on events that happened to me, those that happened to people I know and don’t know, and my imagination. My short stories are the first to make it out of me, so there was probably a tendency to stay close to the bone”, he reveals.
Fortunately for the reader Nothing to Declare steps away from the clichés and the continued media focus on Nepal as a war-ravaged, poverty stricken country with low social development indicators, led by hopeless —and hapless — politicians. “It can get tedious”, Rabi says of the somewhat obsessive focus of the (inter)national media on the country’s political quagmire. “There’s a tendency among fiction writers to have the Maoist insurgency as an obligatory backdrop”, as with Narayan Wagle’s best-selling Palpasa Café, a work that has been defined by many as an anti-war novel.
“Writing about the middle-class may seem indulgent, but there are other ways to address the social change. I refuse to write stereotyped, ‘social’ fiction.” While it’s deeply refreshing to see an author so unashamedly celebrating a city’s bourgeoning middle-class youth the reader is left with the impression of a privileged, but insecure elite. This rings true in A Nepali Maid, where an affluent son feels the need to justify the presence of the family’s long-standing maid and recount her experiences from his fortunate position.
There is also a recurring theme of displacement, tinged with failure and disappointment in many of the stories. In The Trail, located in the murky tourist area of Thamel, we see the protagonist revealing his feelings of rootlessness when living abroad while attempting (and failing) to seduce an Israeli girl. There are also glimpses of the more deprived Nepal in which inequality and injustice are still very much alive. In Home for Dashain, a policeman is brutally murdered by Maoists and in Desire we see a frustrating exploration of Nepal’s rigid social structures as a wealthy employer’s son is attracted to a domestic servant.
While the stories invoke curiosity, the reader is left with only a partial sketch. You can’t help but feeling that by looking at Kathmandu culture through a privileged and almost entirely masculine lens, Rabi limits his humour and insightful writing style to a very select group. That said, this is a very welcome and well-written addition to a growing number of Nepalis writing in English.