Mustang Bhot in Fragments, Manjushree Thapa (1992)

Any book nerd who has spent enough time in Canberra knows that the most exciting (twice-) annual event (yes, even more exciting than Floriade) is the Lifeline Book Sale. A huge exhibition hall full of every kind of book imaginable, cheap, and well-sorted, too! Dunedinites, the Lifeline Book Sale is much, much better than the Dunedin 24 Hour Book Sale, which was always quite disappointing, I thought. (Does that still even happen?) The spring 2012 event, held over the past weekend, was as exciting as ever, necessitating a Friday morning off work, and my enthusiasm was only dampened by the fact that I will soon be leaving Canberra and probably having to dispose of an awful lot of books. So this time I restricted myself to just one bag.

Manjushree Thapa’s Mustang Bhot in Fragments was one of the books that made it into my bag, and a testament to why I love the Lifeline Book Sale- you can find all kinds of obscure things, out of print, or unavailable elsewhere. This is a short travel account, printed on newsprint, the first publication by Himal Books, who also publish the excellent magazine Himal Southasian. It is also Nepali writer Manjushree Thapa’s first book.

The poor quality newsprint and photographic reproductions so fuzzy you wonder why they even bothered aside, this is a lovely book. It was written shortly after Thapa’s return to Nepal at the age of 22, after growing up in the US, when she was trying to reacquaint herself with her country of origin, and figure out her place in it. From an elite background, where only English was spoken at home, she knows in theory before she embarks on the journey to Mustang that the upper class’ sense of entitlement is wrong, and seeks to find out why, and how.

Mustang District is in the north of Nepal, a plane ride from Pokhara, and is described as being on the other side of the Himalaya from the rest of Nepal. Ethnically, linguistically, religiously, geographically Tibetan, the Bhot people of Mustang share little with other Nepalis, yet are part of the Nepali state. At the time this book was written, 20 years ago, the area was restricted and outsiders were not allowed to visit. Thapa describes the extreme poverty of the Mustang region, and the “development” projects that were attempted and largely failed due to corruption, and because they did not actually take into consideration the needs, wants and resources of the people affected–a tale that could be told many times over about different parts of the world.

Mirroring the disconnection of the Mustang Bhot from majoritarian Nepali society is Thapa’s own sense of disconnect from her country. It opens with an epigraph that illustrates this:

“Where are you from?” the girl asked.

“Kathmandu,” I said.

“You’re from Am’rica?” she said, then slipped behind my camera to look at her village through the viewfinder.

“I’m Nepali. Are you from America” I teased.

“I’m from Nepal,” she said with textbook patriotism.”

In this sense, Mustang Bhot in Fragments is a fairly formulaic travel narrative, an individual embarking on a journey to find themselves. Does Thapa achieve this? Not really, as she returns to Kathmandu at the end even more disillusioned with Nepal than she had been before, feeling even more cut off from it. Towards the end she states:

“The suffocation I had come to Nepal to confront, and then gone to Mustang to escape, had surfaced once again. In Mustang, as in Kathmandu, no one could know or trust others. There were feudal loyalties that spanned generations and class, caste, sub-caste, ethnic and linguistic barriers to cloak and obliterate the humanity of others.” (p. 105)

I would be interested to know what Thapa has to say about the developments in her country over the past two decades, as much of the poverty, corruption and political positioning  that she describes has directly contributed towards the situation that Nepal is now in.

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Corridor: A Graphic Novel, Sarnath Banerjee (2004)

I’m not terribly familiar with the graphic novel/narrative genre, but several weeks ago I had the good fortune of attending a workshop by Hillary Chute–a young American academic who specialises in graphic narratives. Hillary has worked with and written on Art Spiegelman, author of the wonderful Maus, and engaging with her made me think I needed to familiarise myself with this growing form of literature: a post-PhD reading project, I thought. But then I came across this example of an Indian graphic novel, so I squeezed it in amid the thesis revision, RA work, lecturing, marking, job applications (offers welcome), general panicking of this final two months of PhD.

I found it rather unsatisfying, as it just seemed… unfinished. Like a draft of something bigger and better. This may be a result of my relative unfamiliarity with this genre. Perhaps the parameters of graphic narrative criticism have not yet permeated throughout academia (just like facebook etiquette is not yet generally agreed upon!), so I’m unfamiliar with the grammar and vocabulary of it. If anyone reading this has a different perspective, I would be very happy to discuss it.

Corridor is set in Delhi, Lutgens’ New Delhi to be precise, and opens with the narrator trawling the bookshops of Connaught Place in the heat of summer to find a specific book. He admits to being an obsessive-compulsive collector, and quotes Jean Baudrillard, in a passage I felt an affinity with:

“Yes, the collector. He regresses to the anal phase- expressed by accumulation and retention. His passion is not for possessing objects themselves, but stems from his fanaticism for an illusory wholeness, for completing the set. But really he is trying to re-collect himself. And if he gets the last object in the collection, he is effectively signifying his own death.”

And then it progresses into discussions, and illustrations, of various characters’ sex lives, romantic liaisons, all their attempts to find satisfaction in a difficult world, and I was left wondering how it all tied together, and what the point really was.

The blurb on the back cover states: “Played out in the corridors of Connaught Place and Calcutta, the story captures the alienation and fragmented reality of urban life through an imaginative alchemy of text and image.” Alienation and fragmentation I could see. But if graphic novels/narratives are to transcend the assumptions that so many people will have about them–that they are just comics, pictures–then I think they need to rise above appearing like an unfinished story-board. Unfortunately, I don’t think Corridor quite manages this.

Noor, Sorayya Khan (2006)

Noor by Sorayya Khan is a beautiful book. And, as one of the first, and only, Pakistani novels in English to deal with the 1971 Bangladesh War, it is also very important.

The Noor of the title is the mentally disabled daughter of Sajida, a Bengali woman brought to East Pakistan as a young child during the 1971 war, and raised as a Pakistani. Sajida has forgotten much of her background, her language and family, with only dreams and fragments remaining to remind her of who she once was, and who she might have become had circumstances been different. But she has particularly vivid dreams, in which her long-dead mother comes to her in uncanny detail. With the birth of Noor, mentally disabled but more sensitive and intuitive than others, Sajida discovers more about her past than even she remembers. Noor also has an extraordinary artistic talent. As one of her only means of communication, Noor paints and draws her inherited memories of the massacres that her mother witnessed, but had forgotten and repressed for so many years. These memories have the potential to be explosive, as Sajida’s adoptive father Ali, Noor’s grandfather, was a West Pakistani soldier in East Pakistan/Bangladesh as a young man, and had done his best to bury the horror that he not only witnessed like Sajida, but was partly responsible for, too.

Part of Khan’s skill is in making the fantastic and the far-fetched seem completely natural. Noor, disabled, is rejected by her father shortly after her birth, but Sajida accepts her unwaveringly as an extension of herself. It is as this extension that we believe Noor is able to represent the inherited, repressed memories.

Along with the plot elements in which the imagination needs to be suspended are those for which it shouldn’t: graphic descriptions of rape, mass murder, barbaric nationalism and the ferocity of war. An indication of the controversial nature with which the Bangladesh War of Independence is still discussed can be seen in Khan’s introductory note, in which she thanks the many Bangladeshis and Pakistanis who shared their experiences of the war with her, but whom she could not name.

I have decided not to include a passage from the novel describing the horrors of the 1971 war in this review, because decontextualising them feels wrong. Noor is not a pornography of violence, and I do not wish to make it one. It reminded me, in some ways, of Bapsi Sidhwa’s Cracking India, in that it subtly builds up to something so shocking that it leaves the reader reeling. The graphic violence should be placed alongside the beauty of the relationships Khan portrays, relationships that can withstand secrets, repression and the knowledge of brutality, but only through compassion for the lessons learnt. Perhaps that is where the salvation lies for Ali, representative of West Pakistani crimes.

The suggestion is, then, that Noor represents the Pakistani memory of the war: repressed, but bursting to get out, be acknowledged, and properly atoned for; unspeakable, beyond language, as it is Noor’s paintings that dredge up the past, not her words; shameful, reconfiguring family and community ties. Noor’s father rejects her, as Sajida and Ali rejected their memories of the war, but only recognition of the trauma can allow the family, and the community, to grow.