Shopping for Buddhas, Jeff Greenwald (1990)

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Shopping for Buddhas, by Jeff Greenwald. Originally published by Harper and Row in 1990. Ebook edition published 2011, purchased for Kindle.

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.

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Himal Southasian team

Himal Southasian team
Himal Southasian team, Kathmandu

We had a group photo shoot today, with the entire Himal Southasian team (rare to get us all in the same place at one time!) I’m fourth from the right.

Launch of new Himal Southasian website

Himal screenshot

Last Friday, Himal Southasian‘s new website went live, and on Monday we launched it. The slick new appearance looks professional, it’s easier to search and navigate than the old site, and contains specially-commissioned art by illustrator Paul Aitchison. And, the first article to appear on the site, Patrick McCartney’s ‘The Sanitising Power of Spoken Sanskrit‘ is a cracker.

Here are a few pictures from last night’s launch at the Himal office, Patan Dhoka, Kathmandu.

Me talking the audience through Paul Aitchison’s awesome illustrations
Hanging out on the terrace… it’s what we do.
Himal’s new mascot
Our hostess Githa didi
Nepali journalist Kunda Dixit, our new mascot, and one of the editorial team
We were still eating the leftovers for morning tea the next day
Boss man Kanak Mani Dixit himself

Year of Reading Women

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(Bookmarks by Joanna Walsh)

2014 has been designated the Year of Reading Women on a couple of fronts: Critical Flame journal has designated 2014 a year in which they will only read and publish in women writers and writers of colour; Joanna Walsh has started the #readwomen2014 campaign.

I am probably in an opposite situation to many readers out there: for the four years that my PhD lasted, I read books almost exclusively by Indian women (apart from a few scholarly books), so when I’d done with the PhD I promised myself that I would read a bit more broadly, including plenty of men!

But I’m aware that the literary and publishing establishment the world over still favours men, white men at that. Not always deliberately or consciously, but nevertheless (statistically speaking, anyway) books by women authors receive less attention than books by male authors.

Unlike the Critical Flame journal who got the ball rolling, and some other readers and bloggers out there, I’m not going to pledge to read more female authors of colour this year, because I really do think I read plenty–ie, the majority of what I read. But I read a good piece on the Arabic Literature (in English) blog recommending a book by an Arab woman author for every month of the year, as a way in for those readers who perhaps don’t know where to start.

So here are my recommendations for South Asian women’s books to read this year:

January: Manjushree Thapa’s The Tutor of History. I’m not of the opinion that women should always write exclusively about women, as even feminists of some persuasion do. Thapa writes cleverly and humorously about the political and social turmoil of contemporary Nepal, showing that women writers can have enormous breadth of experience and imagination.

February: Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice-Candy Man/Cracking India. This Pakistani author’s fictionalised account of her experiences during the Partition of India in 1947 is published under two different titles. It is a brutal account of the horrors of communalism.

March: Anjum Hasan, Lunatic in My Head. This young author from India’s Northeastearn Meghalaya state wittily brings together small town and metropolitan India.

April: Mahasweta Devi, Breast Stories. You can’t go wrong with anything by Mahasweta Devi, but this powerful collection from the fierce Bengali author is a good place to start.

May: Yasmine Gooneratne, A Change of Skies. This Sri Lankan-Australian author wrote about the immigrant experience before Jhumpa Lahiri et al made it fashionable (one could even say passe…)

June: Sorayya Khan, Noor. Khan was one of, if not the first Pakistani English-language novelist to address (West) Pakistan’s crimes in East Pakistan/Bangladesh in 1971.

July: Anita Desai, Clear Light of Day or Baumgartner’s Bombay. This prolific Indian author has many short novels to her credit, and has been nominated for the Booker Prize several times, though she has never won. Her daughter, Kiran Desai, won the Booker in 2006 though, with The Inheritance of Loss. Many consider the mother the better writer, and these two suggestions, amongst her best loved, are good places to start.

August: Githa Hariharan, When Dreams Travel. Hariharan is also a prolific author, with many good novels. This recommendation is a retelling of the classic Thousand and One Nights.

September: Urvashi Butalia, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. The only work of non-fiction to make this list, Butalia’s work of oral history is a stunning and groundbreaking work of feminist oral history.

October: Qurratulain Hyder, My Temples, Too. This Urdu-language Indian author translated her novels into English herself, which many critics say altered them enormously in the process. Several of her novels are sprawling histories, but the English translation of her first novel, My Temples, Too, about India’s Independence, is quite accessible.

November: Meena Kandasamy, Ms Militancy. The only collection of poetry to make this list (I don’t read much poetry), Kandasamy’s fierce anti-caste and anti-patriarchy poems live up to the collection’s name.

December: Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things. If there’s one novel by a South Asian woman that the wider world is likely to have read, it is this Booker Prize winner. If you haven’t already, you can still fit it in in December!

Jaipur Literature Festival 2014- Day 2

The biggest perk of my job in Kathmandu so far has been a last-minute trip accompanying my boss to the 2014 Jaipur Literature Festival. I returned from a three week holiday to Australia and Cambodia fully expecting to wallow in the rest of the Kathmandu winter, barely enduring tepid bucket showers and twelve-hours-a-day power cuts, missing my partner, with few lights on the horizon expect the monsoon season and hot showers again.

Less than two weeks later I’m in Jaipur, staying in 5 star luxury at the ITC Rajputana! And doing two of my most favourite things–being in India (all the better, Rajasthan) and being bookish.

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(The lobby of my home for four nights, the ITC Rajputana hotel)

Being a work trip, we haven’t come for the full five days of the festival, and I’m busy jumping around between sessions so haven’t been able to do the same amount of reporting as I did for the 2013 JLF (see day 1 here, day 2 here, day 3 here, day 4 here, and day 5 here). My experience of the festival this year has been somewhat different, but I think that’s worth reporting in itself.

Our first day at the festival was day 2, Saturday. The crowds are even worse this year, and there are 6 different stages at the Diggi Palace, as well as a separate publishing event, Bookmark, being held at Narain Niwas a short drive away. The crowds have been crippling: it was always the case that if you weren’t early for a session, you wouldn’t get a seat, but now there isn’t even standing room if you don’t arrive early. Surely the organisers will have to start seriously thinking about this for future years, either by setting it in alternative or parallel venues, or perhaps introducing some kind of token fee system for some sessions.

Day 2 began, for me, with an interesting session on the global novel, featuring Ethipian-American writer Mazaa Mengiste, Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathan Franzen, Jim Crace, and Chinese-British Xiaolu Guo, and moderated by Chandrahas Choundhury. The whole gamut of perspectives on that slippery term ‘global literature’ were put forward. Jhumpa Lahiri stated the common opinion (among literary and academic types, anyway) that ‘global’ is a current marketing term for literature and music, and that perhaps ‘international’ or ‘universal’ is more apt for the kind of literature being discussed. Mazaa Mengiste shared a different opinion, telling the audience about a cousin of hers who moved from their home country to Italy, and then Bulgaria, and finally the US, and is now a filmmaker. This kind of ‘global’ citizen is the person writing truly global literature, sharing experiences and entering language worlds that are beyond simple marketing categories. Jim Crace held a much more simplistic perspective, stating that, to him, global literature is that which intrigues readers from outside, that gives the broader world an insight into Nigeria or Poland or Brazil. But, as Jonathan Franzen rightly suggested, this perspective runs the risk of being simply a nostalgic exoticisation.

Other highlights of day 2 were the horrendously cliche-titled panel ‘Behind the Veil’ which brought together women writers from Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Somalia, moderated by the ever-wonderful Urvashi Butalia; and a discussion between talented Nepali author Manjushree Thapa, new Bangladeshi author Farah Ghuznavi (see my review of her short story collection Fragments of Riversong in The Asian Review of Books), and Indian feminist publisher Ritu Menon. Someone had pointed out to me earlier in the day that it seemed as if women writers were being put together, leaving the ‘general’ or ‘mainstream’ panels male dominated. This may be true to some degree, but these panels consisting entirely of women were very well attended, and one young lad was brave enough to ask “why don’t more men support feminism?” A good question, which prompted just wry smiles.

Palpasa Cafe, Narayan Wagle (2005, English translation 2008)

Palpasa Cafe
Palpasa Cafe, by Narayan Wagle. Translated from the 2005 Nepal novel of the same title by Bikash Sangruala. Kathmandu: Nepa-laya, 2012. (Purchased in Nepal).

The collective literary wisdom in Kathmandu seems to be that there is a serious dearth of willing, let alone good, Nepali-English translators. Indeed, Narayan Wagle, in his acknowledgements in the English version of Palpasa Café, writes: “This novel was translated by Bikash Sangruala. Unfortunately, the lack of skilled and enthusiastic translators in Nepal is one reason Nepali literature is not more often published in foreign languages.” I know I am not alone in interpreting this as Wagle’s dig at the quality of this particular translation.

But this time I’m not subscribing to that common disclaimer that the quality of this book could be down to the difficulties of translation. Palpasa Cafe is simply a bad novel, and it’s quite clear that even the best of translators couldn’t have rendered it good.

The novel is set some time in the early 2000s, in the midst of Nepal’s ten year long Maoist insurgency. The protagonist and narrator is an artist from Kathmandu, largely shielded throughout the war from its worst effects. He falls in love with a mysterious woman named Palpasa. A friend of the narrator’s is a Maoist sympathiser, and invites him to the hills to witness all that is happening. He thinks that his art can help bring about, and reflect, revolutionary transformation. Events are witnessed, tragedies occur, life lessons are learnt.

I don’t wish to be flippant about the topic of the novel, because it is important. Nepal suffered, it still does, and fiction is one powerful way of telling and disseminating serious issues. But Palpasa Cafe just doesn’t work. Wagle–one of Kathmandu’s most prominent journalists–tries to stretch thin characters too far, rolls out important descriptions of poverty and insurgency in the hills far too quickly and superficially, and relies too heavily on dialogue. Pages and pages and pages of dialogue. Dialogue is used to expose much of the political debate at the heart of this novel (and at the heart of Nepali society), which makes it come across as diatribe, polemic:
“‘Most of the people who’re being killed are representatives of the old power elite. True, some innocent people are getting caught in the cross fire,’ he conceded. ‘But consider how the crisis first arose. Wasn’t it the state which drew first blood? Didn’t the state first arrest, torture and kill unarmed people?'” (p. 92)
And it’s not even good, convincing dialogue. People simply don’t talk like this:
“Though you fall into the reactionary camp, I feel it’s my duty to show you the right path because you’re a creative person and I believe there’s some hope for you.” (p. 96)
I’m willing to concede that this stilted manner of speech may be the fallout of translation, but it’s the only concession I’ll make to a novel with a weak plot, cliched characters and, despite all obvious intentions to the contrary, a banal outcome.

Ironically, a passage of Palpasa Cafe reads:
“I wasted my time reading a bad Nepali novel, a recent release. It took real effort to finish it. It had nothing new in substance or style. I would’ve been better off watching a movie, going to a restaurant or visiting Nagarkot or Kakani. I prefer Kakani to Nagarkot because it’s closer to the mountains and windier; my imagination runs free in the breeze. Standing on a windy hillside, I feel far away from Kathmandu. But the badness of the novel truly upset me. Why had I wasted my money on it? I couldn’t sleep and spent the while night painting. It was morning before I finally went to sleep.” (p. 45)

Nepali-language literature must have greater depths than Palpasa Cafe, and growing its international recognition not just a matter of cultivating competent translators: it’s about choosing the right books to translate.

La.Lit: A Literary Magazine from Nepal

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My latest post on the Asymptote blog:

A new journal reviewed

At a session of the 2013 NCell Nepal Literature Festival, Nepali author Rabi Thapa asked whether small literary magazines still have much of a role to play in the promotion and dissemination of literature, considering they are so difficult to keep afloat. It was, however, somewhat of a rhetorical question, as Thapa himself is the editor of La.Lit, a Kathmandu-based literary magazine launched in January 2013. The word lalit is derived from Sanskrit and used in modern-day Hindi, Nepali, and other languages of the Indian subcontinent to mean finesse, grace, elegance, or beauty. The play on words is clear in English (the ‘Lit’ suggesting literature), but the title has another level of meaning, as Lalitpur, where it is based, is an old kingdom of the Kathmandu Valley that these days is part of the greater Kathmandu urban conglomeration. La.Lit is produced in two forms: on the web and in print, the second volume of which was launched at the Literature Festival. There is some overlap of content in the two formats.

Read the rest on the Asymptote blog.