‘In a complicated relationship with a book’, by Paromita Vohra in Mid.Day. I have one of those reclining reading ladies 🙂
‘The 2013 SAARC Festival of Literature’, in La.Lit. The SAARC summit is currently being held in Kathmandu, and this article–along with so many other non-literary stuff I’ve been reading–points out what a white elephant the organisation is.
‘Book Review: Meena Kandasamy’s The Gypsy Goddess is Undercut with Anger”, by Aishwarya Subramanian, in The Hindustan Times.
‘Funny Moments From India’s Litfest Carnival Circuit’, by Arunava Sinha, on Scroll.in.
Himal Southasian, Kathmandu, seeks Assistant Editors. Take this from someone who has done this, it’s a great experience and a lot of fun. Salary, however, is below subsistence level, important to know from the outset.
I devoured this in about three days when I had lots of other work I should have been doing. ‘While the Gods Were Sleeping’ is a wonderful, honest account of a young woman’s encounter with an alien culture that she hadn’t been all that interested in coming face-to-face with, and it was that honesty from the outset that made me like, and empathise with, Elizabeth Enslin.
A young anthropology student in the 1980s, Enslin meets her future husband Pramod while at grad school. She had intended to specialise in some part of Africa, but as Pramod becomes an increasingly important part of her life, she switches academic tack and forces herself to become interested in South Asia. Her descriptions of the confusion and desperation of finding your path through grad school is so relatable to anyone who has been through this themselves. Her attempts to combine her research and love interests leads her to the Nepali Terai–the plains bordering India–where her husband’s family live. She admits never having been drawn to Nepal, even while her peers were taking themselves off on pilgrimages to the mountains, and this is something I feel an affinity with. After having lived in Kathmandu for a year myself, I feel a strong attachment to the country now, but while I loved India and was constantly drawn back to it, I still am, it was really only my job in Kathmandu that took me there, and it might have taken me several more years to make it there if not for the job. I still don’t entirely understand the stereotypical hippy-trail pull of Nepal, and neither did Enslin.
While the Gods Were Sleeping is Enslin’s account of how she trod the very tenuous line between Nepali daughter-in-law and foreign anthropologist, how she had to make enormous compromises and sacrifices in both roles, but was ultimately successful–in that way that ambitious, talented women often are–in making it all work, imperfect as it was.
Although the sub-title of this book–‘A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal’–is actually perfectly descriptive of what transpires, as Enslin is involved with some women’s movements in Chitwan, knowing what I do of Nepal, I thought it meant the Maoist insurgency. In fact, the book is set some years before that, in the 1980s, but it was only when I was quite a long way into it that I realised that particular rebellion had no part in the story. It’s a minor thing which might not bother a reader who knows less about the country, but I thought it was unnecessarily misleading.
Anthropology is a discipline that, as a student of literature and history, I was always taught to be suspicious of, and I admit that I still am, even after completing a PhD at an institution in which it was strong. While the Gods Were Sleeping, while not an overt critique of the discipline, certainly raises a lot of the issues that we should be suspicious of, particularly those concerning neo-imperialist attitudes. Even as a pretty savvy young scholar, Enslin had some rather naive beliefs that can be largely attributed to the need for an academic to structure their work in a particular way to meet funding requirements and so on. For example, Enslin writes:
“When I switched from Africa to India, I had hoped to base my work in an area where there would be a clear divide between oppressors and oppressed, and some grassroots movement welling up from the latter. When I gave up on India and resigned myself to Nepal, I knew the grassroots movement would be hard to find but still hoped for some line between the haves and have-nots.” (p. 89)
Enslin was approaching Nepal as somewhere that didn’t fit the parameters that she required for her PhD study, that failed to rise up and meet her, rather than vice versa. But, to her credit, she recognises this in hindsight and that’s what makes her account the nuanced, self-reflexive study that it is. She writes, later:
“I grew to love that concept of culture the way I loved my Swiss army knife. If culture, rather than human nature, made us who we were, there was nothing natural or inevitable about racism, hate, war. With a concept of culture, we anthropologists could fix anything, or at least explain it. But too deep a love can disappoint, and that concept of culture had so far mostly failed me in Nepal. Ever since my first arrival, Pramod’s family and village had offered a perfect opportunity for intimacy with another culture. My pregnancy offered even more. Even when I didn’t plan research there, I should have been more curious. Yet all along disappointment nagged at me: these Brahmans I lived among were not the kind of Others I had in mind when I decided to become an anthropologist.” (p. 120).
Enslin is the author of an influential academic essay, ‘Beyond Writing: Feminist Practice and the Limits of Ethnography’, which I have been encouraged to read after reading this book.
While the Gods Were Sleeping is not a ‘mainstream’ book that a large number of readers will be able to identify with, but anyone with an interest in real South Asian issues, feminism, athropology and the developing world will find it immensely satisfying.
Delhi: 7th November, Himal Lecture 2014: ‘Between the People and the Polis’ by Arif Hasan at the India International Centre.
An excerpt of Avtar Singh’s Necropolis is available here. I just received a review copy of this book, and have worked with Avtar (he is associated with the lovely Indian Quarterly magazine, where my work on Kathmandu street art has been published) so I’m particularly excited about this one. I just hope his novel’s similarity to Jeet Thayil’s award-winning Narcopolisdoesn’t cause any confusion!
What I’m reading this week:
‘Logframe of Life’, by Usuru, on La.Lit. A foreigner’s take on expat life in Nepal, featured in the Nepali literary magazine.
‘Narcissistic Gloss’, by Prawin Adhikari, in La.Lit. On a recent Nepali film, Himmatwali.
‘India Court Says Ban on Female Make-up Artists is Illegal’, on BBC news. My WTF moment of the day.
I have discovered the excellent blog ‘Travelling in the Homeland‘, an Indian literary blog, that does a weekly round-up of the sort I aspire to. Why aspire, and not do? I don’t have as much time for South Asian literature as I once did–my primary job now is academic editing, and I rarely deal with anything South Asian-related in that work. My continuing link to the region lies with my editorial work for Himal Southasian, and my inability to concentrate on any literature that isn’t based in the area. BUT, it is good to aspire, and my blog is a little different in that I take a whole of South Asia approach (hey, I was partially schooled by Himal!) rather than an India focus.
My short review of the upcoming Nepali-language film Red Monsoon, accompanied by a q&a with director Eelum Dixit, has just been posted on the Asymptote blog. Here is an extract; the full piece can be found here.
“Red Monsoon, a Nepali-language feature film directed by young Nepali filmmaker Eelum Dixit, will open in Kathmandu multiplexes in May. A select crowd of Lalitpur intelligentsia, myself included (I say this with my tongue firmly in cheek!) were invited to preview the film last week in the more intimate atmosphere of the refurbished 1920s-era Yalamaya Kendra complex.”
The best, and first book that anyone should read, on Nepal. I wish I had read this as soon as I had arrived in Kathmandu, it would’ve helped me understand the politics and history much quicker. Manjushree Thapa is a brilliant writer, no less so in her non-fictional works than in her fiction. Forget Kathmandu begins with the infamous 2001 massacre of almost the entire Nepali royal family (including the king), and ends in the midst of the Maoist insurgency in Western Nepal in 2003. The essays in between are all attempts at explaining contemporary Nepal–both to explain it to others, and for Thapa herself to come to terms with the chaos and instability of her country. Much of this book is akin to her novel The Tutor of History, in its elegant style as well as its vigorous, political content.
An admirable and unusual characteristic of Thapa’s writing (here and elsewhere) is her owning of her bourgeois urban privilege. When she travels, in 2003, into the heart of the Maoist insurgency, she admits her background that enables her to make the judgments she does, far removed from the realities of Nepal’s rural working class, yet she doesn’t apologise for it. There is a fine balance to be struck–between an over-compensatory liberal guilt, and an arrogant dismissal of the ‘masses’–and Thapa does it perfectly. She strongly disagrees with the Maoists, particularly their violent and disruptive tactics, yet concedes that if she were an uneducated young peasant woman, she, too, would have been drawn to the movement. Thapa’s bewilderment at everything that is happening in her country around her could come across as naive or self-indulgent in a lesser writer, but her anger, her deep knowledge of politics and the centuries-long inequities of Nepal turns what could be a book of catharsis into something so much more important.
Forget Kathmandu, though several years old now, is certainly not outdated. The events recounted here are important for Nepal’s history (and its present) and Thapa’s speculations as to what could happen to Nepal are still largely relevant today–things are far from decided, here. Yes, parliamentary democracy has been reinstated, and a fairly successful election was held this past November. But democracy here is young, and there is still no constitution (successive Constituent Assemblies have failed to produce anything) and here the country is, six years later, treading water. The subtitle of Forget Kathmandu is An Elegy for Democracy, and in the years since the book first appeared, that subtitle could very well have become A Eulogy for Democracy. This updated edition, published in 2013, includes updated paratexts, but in 2011 Thapa produced another book to follow the story. The symmetry is clear and jolting: the final essay in Forget Kathmandu is called ‘The Massacres to Come’, and this newer book The Lives we Have Lost. I started that immediately after finishing Forget Kathmandu, to complete the picture.
Isabella Tree’s The Living Goddess narrates a fascinating and unique part of Nepali–or, more accurately, Kathmandu Valley–culture: the tradition of the Kumari, the worship of a prepubescent girl as the physical home of the female mother goddess. Despite living in Kathmandu (Patan, to be precise) I have seen or heard little of this tradition since I’ve been here. Isabella Tree’s personal history, then, of not just the Kumari of Kathmandu, but of surrounding areas (such as Patan, Bhaktapur, and other places that were perhaps once separate kingdoms or entities, but are now suburbs of Kathmandu) was an enlightening read. Tree first came to Kathmandu in the 1980s as an eighteen year old, living in a house on Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, opposite the Kumari Chen, or house. She became fascinated by the tradition then, and made it her mission in subsequent visits to Kathmandu to find out more about it.
After buying my copy in Jaipur in January, I have noticed that this book has sprouted everywhere in Kathmandu, the type of book that will likely sell well among tourists. And it should, it’s an interesting book, but it did have its problems. I have written before that the contemporary re-telling of mythological or religious tales have a tendency to take a stale narrative form. Roughly every second chapter of The Living Goddess is on the religious tales and traditions of the Nepali people, of relevance to understanding the Kumari tradition. But I found myself skimming through these chapters, bored by the unimaginative style. OK, these are tales that have been told again and again, and deviation from the understood narrative could risk offending the sentiments (god forbid that anyone should do that in India) of those belonging to the religion whose stories are being told. But I don’t see why this should be an excuse for bland telling-not-showing. Tree could have done much more with these sections of the book, considering they take up so much of it.
There was also a rather forced defense on Tree’s part of the Kumari tradition against its detractors. In the past decade or so, questions have been raised from various quarters on the dubious nature of the tradition in terms of the human rights of young girl children. Kumaris, particularly the Kathmandu Kumari, are not treated like normal children, so are often prevented from attending school and from playing and interacting with others of their age. Ex-Kumaris themselves have come out in defense of the tradition, saying that they gained much more than they lost from the experience, and do not feel that any human or child rights were violated. Assessing both sides of the debate was essential for Tree, and while some semblance of a balanced discussion is presented, she at times falls rather too easily back on the side of the defenders. This is her opinion, but I found this particularly problematic when she reiterated the empowering aspects of Hinduism on women because of the importance placed on the divine feminine forces. Such an easy equation between female worship and the actual condition of women is dangerous and usually very misleading. Take the following passage, for instance:
“The question remained as to why UN reports had included the Kumari tradition alongside the most brutal examples of child abuse and sex discrimination in the country when evidence existed suggesting that, far from constituting child abuse, the tradition actively protected and championed the rights of women and children; and that ex-Kumaris themselves supported the practice. Sloppy research must be partly to blame. Like most journalists it seems the UN reporters had also been persuaded by the prevailing rumours and had failed to examine the tradition closely, including the Newar beliefs and intentions behind it. But then, perhaps the answer was simpler than that. Perhaps no one, let alone the UN, could conceive of a tradition anywhere in the world where a little girl was genuinely worshipped as a Goddess.” (p. 229)
I don’t doubt that the UN’s research can be sloppy, or that it may have been inadequate in this case. But I (and a great many other feminists) do not equate any type of religious rituals around the worship of female deities, humans, spirits, or energies with the actual well-being of women in general. Tree seems to make this equation far too uncritically.
For anyone interested in Nepal, this is an interesting book, though certainly not the definitive one on the Kumari tradition.
I first read this travel narrative about ten years ago. I was studying at the University of Otago, and aside from the books I had to read for my English major, I would select my reading material by browsing the library bookshelves and picking whatever appealed. I haven’t read like that for a long time, my habits dictated by firmer intentions now. But this system set me on the path of South Asian literature, as it was usually the Indian books that caught my eye on the shelf. One can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can be attracted by it.
Shopping for Buddhas was selected this way, I remember it clearly as it made a strong impression on me. I knew very little about India then, let alone Nepal, and there are three things that I clearly remember from this book: being surprised to learn that Nepal was a Hindu kingdom (it still was, in 2004), as my half-baked impressions of it were of a Buddhist country; being fascinated that in Hindu belief, Buddha was an incarnation of Vishnu, and that the first few incarnations were lost to human memory–I didn’t, and still don’t, really understand Hinduism, but there was something revelatory about this fact; and finally the visual image of Kathmandu that the book conjured stuck with me–until I came here! I imagined a city perched on snow-capped mountains, and when Jeff Greenwald wandered them purposefully on his hunt for the perfect Buddha statue, the streets were steep–probably a result of my living in Dunedin at the time, the city home to the world’s steepest street!
I probably should have left this book in my fond memory. It is not that I know so much more about Kathmandu these days that led to disappointment, but that I have read so much more travel literature, most superior to this. The basic premise of the book still holds–Jeff Greenwald is a young writer and traveller, who has spent a lot of time in Kathmandu from the late 1970s to ’80s, and embarks upon a mission to find the ‘perfect’ Buddha statue to buy. The more he learns about the iconography and craft of religious statues, and of the Nepali antiques business, the harder his quest becomes. I still liked this part of the narrative, but Greenwald’s forays into the Nepali politics of the time seems forced. Not just that these parts were out of date (that is inevitable), or basic (if one doesn’t know much about Nepal then they’re not basic at all, as my twenty-year-old self found) but they felt like padding, like the author had intended to write a story about shopping for Buddhas, and some editor along the way told him that this narrative alone wouldn’t pass muster.
It’s a light and enjoyable read if you’re in Kathmandu–I read it primarily whilst hanging out in a cafe near the Patan Durbar Square, so near to many of the shops that Greenwald would’ve perused, so it was easy to visualise the world he was trying to invoke. But ultimately the author’s overly-flippant tone (meant to be humorous, but sometimes just not) and meanderings between the world of politics and that of traditional art, with no real integration of the two, left Shopping for Buddhas very flat.