In the Land of No Right Angles

Bookworm Issue 90 Jul, 2010
Text by Neale Bates

This remarkable novel has been described as “A meditation on what it means to be a traveler not only of the world, but of one’s own ever changing, inner topography.” It’s a glimpse into the life and times of young Western expats and one naïve Nepali girl confronting modernity and self.

The story is told by a twentyish American student who comes for a year of backpacking and photography. In Gorkha District, she looks up a Nepali girl for a friend, a Dalit named Maya. At the request of a friend named Will (who’s not her ‘boyfriend’ she insists) she brings the willing village girl to Kathmandu, only to see her rather quickly become the object of Will’s considerable attention (he’s a rather spaced out Casanova). The complication is that Will has another girlfriend, and the storyteller herself has her own rather strained relationship with him, so that a rather knotty love triangle evolves.

This novel is the author’s biographical-sounding descriptions of youthful, or “hippy-ish” (her term), life in Kathmandu. We see love, trauma, drugs, dharma, sex and kinky near-sex often revolving around Will. (“I didn’t sleep with him, if you’re wondering”, we are told; but stay tuned.)

We are taken into popular bars and restaurants, meeting a few of the city’s well established characters, some not very well disguised. (I was reminded of Han Suyin’s famous early novel of Nepal, A Mountain Is Young from 1958, where names of prominent Kathmandu-ites of her day are also dropped on the reader.) ‘Pete’s Bistro’ sounds a lot like Mike’s Breakfast, and it’s an easy guess who is the model for the long-suffering expatriate debutante who left America years ago “to become the king’s uncle’s mistress”. Ah, the price some expats must pay for their part in the lives of others.

We are taken in and out of Kathmandu and Nepal to Thamel and Asantol, Gorkha and Nagarkot, America and Bombay and back. One passage in the middle of the book is easy for long term expats to identify with. It tells of the ennui the story-teller feels when she returns home for awhile to Iowa. “I returned to a life so subdued in Des Moines, so absent of stimulus, sensory or otherwise, that I felt as though someone had injected Novocain into my soul,” she says. “Home was the whir of air conditioners and the smell of baked chicken, boiled noodles, lawns and more lawns. Outside, a perfect grid of streets led me to perfect stacks of sweaters behind spotless plate-glass windows at the mall... I couldn’t get enough oxygen in my lungs... One time [on a drive in the country] I got out and lay down in the middle of an empty country road at night” staring up at the stars, which “yes, ...were the same ones” she remembers seeing over Nepal.

The plot thickens when we are taken to Bombay’s seedy Falkland Street, the red-light district, while the main characters become all the more enmeshed in complex social and personal issues. But I don’t want to give away much more of the tale...

The book provides readers with an insightful glimpse at Western youth life in Nepal, both the hedonistic and the spiritual. Beal rather skillfully and seamlessly entwines Nepali phrases and concepts into the story, though some spellings are way off. The most inexcusable is “Ghorka” for Gorkha, though she spells the soldier kind correctly as Gurkha. Novels are not typically ‘fact-checked’ for correct spellings and pronunciations, but this one should have been; then, those of us who know Nepal well wouldn’t squirm. These quibbles, however, do not detract too much from a creative story told with perception and skill. The author is an accomplished writer with magazines as Vogue and McSweeney’s, The New Yorker and the London Review of Books on her CV. It’s a good read. Recommended. g   

Anchor Books, New York, 2008, 278pp. Price 1150 NRs, at Vajra Books, Jyatha/Thamel, Kathmandu (Tel 4220562).