04 Sep 2023

I just finished reading the Nepali version of the book LAND WHERE I FLEE by Indian-Nepalese author, Prajwal Parajuly. The story revolves around the life of an 83 year old woman, Chitralkeha. She is a bidi (local cigarette) smoking, veteran businesswoman who has great influence and power in the area of Gangtok, India. The country has five such states where the majority population speak Nepali as their ancestors once belonged to areas of Nepal which were later taken by India after the British-Nepal War.

The story starts with the announcement of Chitralekha’s upcoming 84th birthday. A joyous occasion where the whole village will be invited. Chitralekha’s son and daughter-in-law are no more. But her three grandchildren (Augustya, Bhagvati and Mansha) are alive and are coming to celebrate her birthday. But these grandchildren haven’t met their only living guardian in years. They are not loving or even cordial to one another. This family has separated into their own individual lives years ago and now things are mostly awkward.

The story is remarkable in pointing out how three siblings and a grandmother are completely unaware of the troubles that each of them face. (Spoiler Alert: For example, Mansha thinking that her brother’s Augustya has a simple easy life being a man — whereas in reality, he is struggling to admit to society and his family that he is in a relationship with another man.)

Nepali Cover of the Book ‘Land Where I Flee’
Each character is interesting and unique. The disassociation among them due to distance and dissatisfaction with their grandmother’s antics and habits are relatable to the frequent quarrels we see in Nepalese society among the old and new generation. The inclusion of a transgender woman, Prashanti, in the story (as their housemaid) is hilarious. She is liked by the grandmother, Chitralekha — despised by the youngest granddaughter, Mansha, envied by the son Augustya and sympathized by the eldest daughter, Bhagvati.

The book is well paced, revealing historical events appropriately to advance the story further, maintaining the curiosity of the reader. Parajuly binds his readers by exposing more and more secrets of the bunch through every chapter. Like (Spoiler Alert), there is a fourth grandson. One who is despised even more than the earlier three by the grandmother. What did he do so wrong that Chitralekha refuses to even see his face?

I must commend the writer’s genius in thinking of a plotline that seems so far out of reality. Every grandchild is actually loved dearly by their grandparents. But in this story, the battle of words, the fire these scorned characters burn each other with is as intense as it is comedic. Humor is a big part of the story. And although the scenes are tragic in themselves, other people’s tragedies have always been someone else’s source of comedy.

One of the most poignant aspects of the book is how everyone is so ignorant towards everyone else’s plight. To each, the other’s life seems perfect, unbothered. They are too overwhelmed with anger and feeling of injustice to stop, breathe and look around and realize that the world does not revolve around them. These other characters are all siblings and related and even Prashanti, the maid transgender, has been part of the family for a long time. And yet they are incredibly ignorant towards the other person’s stories and their sensitivities.

The dialogue does seem a bit rushed. Weaved into small sentences that are mostly back and forth between two or more characters. But the comedic timing of dialogues must also be commended. The author truly knows his characters and knows who would interject where to make the scene uncomfortable and yet humorous. The book also dives into various issues an author faces in the process of writing books, getting published, becoming popular and then dealing with fame and all that come with it. (How the author is able to put in this perspective in the story is interesting.)

One of the most glaring aspects of the book is how Chitralekha is mentioned in the title but she isn’t the central theme of the story. Her grandchildren and the conflict within their lives are. For most part of the story, Chitralkeha is actually missing. But the conflict in the lives of her grandchildren is mostly because of her. Her personality shines when she appears on the page. Her willingness to get into quarrels and even start some for no reason (perhaps to have a little fun) lasts till the last page. Chitralekha is certainly an amusing character. She shows that people who come of strength do not let go until the very end.

Questions of Identity, where one belongs, how one should look at themselves are thoroughly asked by the characters and situations. The persistent problem of being judged by other people’s lenses and trying to make sense of who we want to be regardless of where we are from.

All in all, I gave this book 4 stars out of 5. A Great Read.

- Miller Shrestha, Booksmandala.

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