Book of the month: Prajwal Parajuly

One of the joys of this project has been the number of people who have shared their book recommendations with me. Even now, six years on from my year of reading the world, I usually get several messages a day from readers telling me about literature from different parts of the planet.

I wish I had the time to follow up on them all. But even if I were still reading at my 2012 rate of four books a week, I would not manage to keep pace with the volume of suggestions I get. Still, I’m always delighted when someone posts a good recommendation on the blog: even if I can’t get to it, I hope it might catch the eye of some of the other adventurous readers who pass this way.

From time to time, however, a suggestion stands out. This is particularly common when the messages concern countries with little published literature in English. As I’m always keen to help increase the opportunity for underrepresented voices to be heard, I do my best to pursue these leads.

That’s how I came to read The Gurhka’s Daughter by Prajwal Parajuly. Suyasha from Nepal emailed me with several suggestions of books available in English from her country. Of these, Parajuly’s short-story collection most intrigued me because it promised to contain depictions of a diverse range of characters and experiences.

This proved to be the case. Ranging from the woes of a paanwalla in the north-east Indian hill station of Kalimpong, to the troubles of an ambitious young property owner in Manhattan, the collection, which was written in English, is impressive in its scope. Yet, there are two common threads, neatly encapsulated by the name of the title story: familial ties and cultural heritage.

For Parajuly, the distinction between ethnicity and nationality is a major theme. Several of his characters comment on what it means to be Nepali and how this should dictate life choices such as whether to stay married and the duties owed to relatives. Others, meanwhile, find themselves frustrated by outsiders (usually Westerners) who exist in ‘uninformed bubbles’ and cannot understand that it is possible to be Nepali even if you were born in a different nation. Nepal is not so much a country as a physical inheritance – and perhaps, also, a state of mind.

Alongside these cultural concerns, anxieties about status, class and caste are key sources of momentum that drive the narratives. Delighting in hurling his characters into scenarios that destabilise the social norms they have absorbed, Parajuly reveals the petty hypocrisies that can erode and divert the course of lives. We see a daughter so bent on marrying a fellow Brahmin that she sacrifices her happiness on the altar of tradition in ‘A Father’s Journey’ and a young man driven to cruelty by his fears about how his wealthy cousins will respond to his small home in ‘Missed Blessing’. There is also a beautiful rapprochement in the final piece in the collection, ‘The Immigrants’, in which a relatively wealthy man and a poor village woman are brought together by virtue of both being Nepali outsiders in New York.

Although many of the stories have tragic currents, they also carry a great deal of humour. Parajuly has a keen eye for inconsistencies and foibles, and makes use of these both to endear his characters to us and at times to ridicule them. Mock grief, insecurities about bad teeth and naked greed all parade through his pages. Often the only distinction between likeable and unlikeable characters is whether they acknowledge these imperfections in themselves. There are some wonderful examples of bathos too.

This is not a perfect collection. The stories are a little uneven and occasionally topple into a kind of journalism in the passages where Parajuly deems it necessary to include a great deal of contextual information  Sometimes they feel stagey and a little bald, particularly when characters step forward to deliver fluent speeches about what has led them to a particular point.

Overall, though, this is a rich and intriguing book. For those keen to discover something of the multiple layers of Nepali society, it is a good place to start. And you’ll get some chuckles, surprises and moving moments along the way too. Thanks Suyasha!

The Gurkha’s Daughter by Prajwal Parajuly (riverrun, 2012)

Picture: Kathmandu Nepal by Macro Eye on

Nepal: tall tales


Reading a book from every country in the world would be nigh on impossible without the schemes and initiatives that exist to promote the work of emerging authors on the global literary stage. The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program is one of the most established of these, and it was on the list of its alumni, who hail from more than 140 countries, that I came across Ajit Baral.

Even with the exposure from IWP, Ajit Baral’s English language collection of Nepalese folk tales was not easy to come by. In fact, I had to get it shipped from India via Penguin when the usual online retailers drew a blank.

Luckily Baral’s lively retelling of 31 largely oral folktales never before rendered in English is worth the effort. Illustrated by Nepalese cartoonist Durga Baral, they present a vibrant picture of some of the myths, legends, themes and cultures that have shaped the Himalayan nation.

Irreverent, funny and occasionally disturbing, the stories evoke a world full of contradictions, frustrations and marvels. Gods walk the earth, bickering and betting, ghosts steal people’s coats, rats get married and tigers talk.

Some of the tales, like the story about the old man who tries to cheat death and learns the hard way why endless life is not a good thing or the yarn about the vain Uttis tree that falls over a cliff in shock when it is insulted and is left clinging on for all eternity, have an Aesopian quality and seem to serve to explain some of life’s mysteries.

Others, like the story about the scheming barber who ends up being burnt to death when his plans backfire, seem more calculated to raise a laugh at a crook getting his just deserts.

Yet these are largely not moral tales. In fact it is rare that the good win out over the bad. If there is a common theme, it is the punishment of short-sightedness, dullness and stupidity and the rewarding of cunning and quick-wittedness — that and pushing coins up animals’ bottoms to make them appear to pass money, which happens in a surprisingly high number of these tales and which I’m at a loss to explain. If anyone from Nepal (or elsewhere for that matter) can offer a reason for this I’d be intrigued!

All in all, though, it’s the qualities that make for a good storyteller that carry the day — as must have been the case for the people who first told these tales, those who passed them down, and for Baral, who opens them up to a new audience today.

The Lazy Conman and Other Stories by Ajit Baral, illustrated by Durga Baral. Publisher: Penguin India (2009)