In common retellings of Nepal’s recent past, the democratic revolution of 1990 and the decade-long civil war that began in 1996 dominate the historical landscape. Sandwiched between these two colossal events is a thin slice of time, scarcely more than half a decade. This interval is almost always ignored and unremarked upon, save for passing references to how disillusionment with the promises of the former planted seeds that grew into the violence of the latter.
It is in these unexamined years that Shradha Ghale’s The Wayward Daughter lands a rich, immensely satisfying debut novel. It follows the fortunes of the Tamule household as they strive upward in the trickle of new economic opportunities and find footholds towards respectability and success in Kathmandu’s expanding social matrix. The family, the result of an inter-caste union between a Gurung migrant to Kathmandu and a Limbu woman whose roots in the valley run just one generation deeper, is a source of deep embarrassment for Sumnima, the titular wayward daughter. Her schooling has given her a window into the lives of classmates from aristocratic and established Kathmandu backgrounds. In contrast, Sumnima’s home – located unfashionably outside of the Ring Road and populated with a ribald, curse-spewing, junk-hoarding maternal grandmother, frequent visitors from her father’s distant eastern village, and parents who must judiciously weigh the potential return of any investments in their two daughters’ futures – does not, in her eyes, measure up. The result is sharply perceptive and deeply humorous, with a cast of characters to rival a Russian epic in size and the type of astute social commentary reminiscent of English portraits of class in the satirical vein of Austen or Thackeray.
For anyone who lived through Kathmandu in the early 1990s, The Wayward Daughter excavates gems of half-forgotten former daily realities. Everyone mourns the lush open fields that have fallen, anna after anna, to this city’s insatiable appetite for construction. Often less faithfully remembered are details like the tiresome chore of pumping up kerosene stoves, the existence of VCR rental shops, or the years spent on waiting lists in hopes of getting a telephone line. Ghale charts the rise of the Tamule family through the material culture of Kathmandu’s emerging middle class; a Chekov-like Godrej steel almirah, for instance, moves from pride of place in the parent’s room into the daughters’ once it is replaced by a teakwood closet, and then again is left for less fortunate relatives as the entire room is abandoned for space in an added floor, before later serving a supporting role in a dramatic scene. The book also contains deliciously thinly veiled references in the social spaces the family accesses; the daughters’ “Rhododendron Girls High School” is instantly recognizable for any former student at St. Mary’s, and the mix of books, incense, handicrafts and white clientele at “Seekers” bookstore sounds remarkably close to Pilgrims. Sumnima’s fledgling romance with Sagar, a caddish America-returnee RJ, is fertile ground for Ghale’s witty exploration of this era: Thamel before it was common stomping grounds for most young Nepalis, a restaurant where a small child is taught to pronounce “Peet-za, not pija”, and block heeled shoes as the height of fashion.
Interplaying with the ‘90s consumerist artefacts and status symbols of Kathmandu is Lungla, the village that Sumnima’s father Gajendra Bahadur – called Tamule ji in society – comes from. The author deftly channels the text to inhabit two views of Lungla. There is the way that city-born Sumnima, her sister Numa, and their mother’s side of the family see the village, as nothing more than a backward source of unwanted visiting relatives bringing “the smell of Lungla” and never-ending demands on the family’s resources (in one hilariously snooty moment, the sisters whisper that items being packed for the village “look like a flood relief campaign”). Then there is the view Tamule ji and his village relatives have of Lungla, in all its living landscapes, personal and community histories, and painful decisions to be made between staying to toil for never quite enough and leaving for questionably better prospects. While marginally softer and more sympathetic to the Lungla characters than the city ones, Ghale does not make the mistake of painting the village folk as monolithic or their lives as simple, and gives the social anxieties, relationships, and personal motivations and destinies of the village the same nuance and consideration as those playing out in the city.
Much can and should be made of the rarity of Ghale’s voice as a Janajati woman writing in English in Nepal’s literary landscape. While her narration is broad enough to encompass forays into the inner lives of men (Tamule ji’s in particular) it is the novel’s vividly mobile, voluble women that show by example how pale and patriarchal our written images often are of Nepali womanhood.
Without losing sight of the harsh frames of expectations on women – to be mothers of sons, to keep husbands alive, to haul water at dawn and scrub pots into the night – the women of the Tamule household and others they encounter are drawn and coloured in well beyond those borders with agendas, opinions, grudges and desires. They are written with little concern and even disdain for making them agreeable or acceptable. While there are distinctly female bonds between these characters, there are no saccharine, sanitized images of innate womanly goodness and unfailing sisterly solidarity. Boju, Sumnima’s grandmother, with her vast repertoire of vulgar swear words, rude gestures and fierce battles for household power stands technicolor in place of insipid social conventions of pitiful elderly widows. Without villainizing, there are mothers who do not blindly like or perhaps even quite love their children, sisters and cousins who lie, steal, mock, and slyly shift unwanted chores on each other, and friends who size each other up and choose seemingly innocent words that cut to the quick.
If the full humanity Ghale brings to her female characters is rare, the centering of a Janajati family and their divergence from many mainstream markers of nationalistic Nepali identity is so uncommon it is almost a shock to find depicted on page at all. The school social tiers Sumnima finds herself at the bottom of are laid out almost immediately: first, the children of the royal and royal-adjacent, followed by those of politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen, and doctors, and finally those like her – “from middling families [that] made it through sheer persistence and dumb luck.” Less plainly stated and more skillfully revealed through the novel is how closely these class divisions fall along caste lines. Visiting a friend from the royal rank, Sumnima finds familiarity only in the “strong jawline, small eyes and evenly tanned skin” of the guard whose face reminds her of a cousin when he opens the gate. When Tamule ji finds moderate success in the NGO world, the only other Matwalis in his organization are a human resources assistant, a receptionist and a driver. The repeated use of “Matwali” in itself is a somewhat jarring reminder of how recently this was a widely used term; it is not until the very end of the novel, as the war begins to intrude on the lives of the Kathmandu bourgeoise, that the self-appointed Janajati identification makes its historical appearance.
It is in the swirling internal ethnic dynamics of the Tamule household, however, that the novel gleams, showing how clumsy the broad strokes of Matwali or Janajati classifications are and the scope that is missed in more narrow views of Nepali culture. There are the mutual snobberies and prejudices between the Tamule and Limbu family branches – one embracing Hindu ritual and pan-Nepalism so wholeheartedly as to have a member nicknamed “Chimse Bahun,” the other disdainful of these pretentions and flush with pork and pride and alcohol – as well as further distinction from the relative that marries a Tamangni, or the village niece’s ready embrace of Kathmandu’s viciousness towards Madheshis. There are glimpses of tradition – for instance, references to Mundhum texts and the kipat land use system – floating in the wash of Mahendra-era mainstreaming, hints of how the history of lahure service shapes families and frequent mentions of meals that include pig-foot stew, kinema, and millet rakshi.
Ghale’s prose and plot flow unadorned and with moments of sheer poetry, but the novel is not without a few awkward points. Perhaps most noticeable is that while the opening historical bookend of the 1990 revolution and the continuing monarchical presence is incorporated with relative ease, the pacing of political time with the introduction of the Maoist conflict in the final act of the novel is not nearly as smooth. For instance, it seems out of character when Sumnima – wrapped up as she is in her own love life – takes a moment to puzzle over a radio headline on the “People’s War”; a later conversation her cousin has in a tea shop about the Maoists and other references feel similarly shoehorned in. The novel may have benefited from less declarative introductions to signal the emerging war, a rare misstep in a book that otherwise displays subtlety in placing social and historical context.
For readers familiar with Shradha Ghale’s years of extensive non-fiction writing, covering topics including conservation, development, and politics, the fact of her keen observation and understanding will come as no surprise. In fiction, however, she creates a world where all of Nepal’s capital-I Issues are woven back into the lives they are extracted from, where they become threads organic and proportionate in the everyday social patterns of family, love, work and friendship. The Wayward Daughter is compulsively readable, deeply relatable, laugh-out-loud funny and announces the arrival of a lively new literary talent.
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