The Nepali constituent assembly elections are due to take place in five days as I write this. In the last couple of days several bombs have been set off around Kathmandu and other parts of Nepal, mainly petrol bombs lobbed at buses defying the transportation bandh (strike) that the CPN-Maoist have been trying to impose, in an effort to prevent the 19th November elections going ahead. The current political situation in Nepal is complicated. Even after living in the country for three and a half months I don’t feel able to summarise it; there are so many parties, factions, competing and contradictory interests, as well as the corruption and horse-trading that is a feature of politics everywhere. The current government has praised people for defying the bandh and going about their lives, but defiance in the face of risking attack is a very serious thing. My office, and from what I’ve heard all places of work, will be shut on Monday and Tuesday, both as a way of allowing people to vote, and as a precautionary measure against violence that could occur as people commute.
In this long (469 pages) social and political saga, The Tutor of History, Nepal’s best-known contemporary English-language writer did something that no amount of newspaper reading had managed to: help me understand the nuances of contemporary Nepali politics. Granted, it was first published in 2001, the exact mid-point of Nepal’s ten year long civil war, but the political climate that Manjushree Thapa illustrates is not so different from that of today, even if the details are slightly different.
The Tutor of History is set in Khaireni Tar, a real town south of Pokhara, during the campaign for elections. Thapa follows the lives of several ordinary, probably typical, small-town Nepalis as they juggle life and politics, the latter something that nobody can avoid uncomfortable confrontation with in this country. The titular character is Rishi Parajuli, an over-educated, under-employed, disillusioned communist who helps in campaigning as a way into a more stable job. Despite the title, no one character dominates the narrative. We also follow an alcoholic chairman of a local political committee; a former British Gurkha soldier; a brave but fearful widow; and a couple of teenaged characters who, while unable to avoid being touched by politics, are still more concerned with the things all teenagers are: love, sex, fashion.
Every character’s negotiations with politics are means to ends, it’s just that their ideal ends vary. As during most revolutionary periods, it’s often difficult in Thapa’s narrative to justify the means employed for the ends actually achieved.
Strong echoes of Thapa’s background in rural development come through in this novel. In her earlier Mustang Bhot in Fragments she railed, from first-hand experience, against aid projects that cared little for the desires of the communities involved. Here we see that rural development is used as a political football, which after elections is kicked off into the wilderness. Until the next election cycle, that is:
“People spoke of hunger, they spoke of injustice, they spoke of the kind of changes they wanted to live to see. Their dreams weren’t lavish. A bridge here would change their lives. A hundred-metres-long PVC pipe to bring drinking water to the village. A few benches for the school. A little more thought in the way they were treated by the district government. Who was talking of big sums? Small allocations sufficed. Perhaps the district centre could allot money for one medical camp a year?” (p. 262)
This isn’t fiction, it’s real, and should be realised by all who perpetuate an image of Nepal as a peaceful, friendly, Himalayan Shangri-la, astonishingly common still.
It was said at the recent NCell Nepal Literature Festival that so much contemporary Nepali literature is of the social realist bent (not to be mistaken for socialist realism). This comment was made largely of literature from Nepal in the Nepali language, there being relatively little English-language literature from the country. Yes, Thapa’s novel could be considered social realism, but it is deeper and smarter than that, playing with satire throughout. I largely appreciated The Tutor of History for what it revealed to me about the country I’m currently living in, but Thapa’s satirical tone and vivid portrayal of small-town Nepali hill society make it a book I would recommend to all readers interested in politically-motivated fiction.