Book: Land Where I Flee; Author: Prajwal Parajuly; Publisher: Quercus
A caustic grandmother, a lovable eunuch, and four orphaned siblings returning home to Gangtok after 18 years, each carrying their own burdens — Prajwal Parajuly’s first novel is a tale of a Nepali-Indian family, which gathers to celebrate their grandmother’s chaurasi – her milestone 84th birthday. It is a tale of reunion; filled with conflict, fear, accusations, justification, vengeance and catharsis.
Written without pretension, Parajuly exposes the lives of a well to do Bahun –Brahmin – family from the hills of Sikkim; weaving in South Asia’s taboos such as inter-caste marriage, homosexuality and eunuchs into a simple plot.
Parajuly knows the milieu of his story well. He grew up in a Nepali-Indian family in Gangtok, Sikkim, and later moved to Truman State University in the United States for a Bachelors. After moving to New York, he experimented in advertising until he enrolled to study creative writing at the University of Oxford. While there, Parajuly published a collection of short stories, The Gurkha’s Daughter, and became the youngest Indian author to sign a multi-national book deal. The Gurkha’s Daughter was an instant success and Parajuly was hailed as “the next big thing in South Asian literature”. Knowing that writing Land Where I Flee was always going to be a challenge, Parajuly stuck to a subject he was familiar with.
The life of an upper middle-class family in Gangtok and their constraints form the structure of this novel. There is also a constant battle between values transcending the geography of the book; between individual and the family, the familiar and the changing, and the complexities of the human ego. In the midst of all this turbulence is Chitralekha –Aamma– the strong grandma, hardened by years of dealing with disappointments and consumed by the knowledge that she overcame them all.
Aamma is used to getting her way with everyone, except the other protagonists in this book: her grandchildren, and her sidekick Parsanti. There are deep tensions between the grandmother and her siblings, who have have all moved out and fled to different places. Bhagwati married a lower caste Bhutanese refugee and settled in America; Manasa, the overachieving Oxbridge graduate, married according to her grandmother’s wishes, but is resentful of being a full-time caregiver for her ungrateful paraplegic father-in-law. The brothers, Agastaya and Ruthwa, too find their respective lives in a muddle. Agastaya works as an upright oncologist in New York, where he lives a life he dare not share with his family; and Ruthwa is a disgraced writer, and an unwelcome visitor.
Parajuly’s humanisation of the sharp- tongued eunuch Prasanti adds extra punch to the story. She is the perfect sidekick to the authoritarian Aamaa, complimenting her hard ways with a flirtatiousness, so unique to South Asian eunuchs.
Simmering in the backdrop is the tumultuous politics of the region.The story is of a time when the Gorkhaland movement has picked up pace and the family has an important role to play. Barring a few instances where the author vents at the way the movement has panned out — politics — for the most part, takes a back seat.
There is no happy ending as such, but one is left with a feeling of satisfaction that although the lives of the protagonists will never be uncomplicated, the reunion has enabled the family to gain new perspective – by returning to the lands and life they fled.
Read the Prajwal Parajuly’s exclusive interview with India Writes here: On Writing, South Asian Taboos, Beauty of the Nepali Language
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