I opened up Shradha Ghale’s “The Wayward Daughter,” expecting to find a social polemic about Brahminization, or a critique of the way Janjati groups discriminate against people from the Madhesh. Knowing her as a writer and reporter of non-fiction, especially of the conflict of local communities with state actors in national parks, I assumed her work would have a didactic element to it. To be fair, the book reviews that followed her book launch had led me to think this.
In fact, the book delivers exactly what it promises through its cover and its title: it is a novel of a young woman coming of age in Kathmandu. The cover shows a young woman in a summer dress and casual sandals stepping out from the interiors of an old inner city building, into the crazy electricity wire infested streets of Kathmandu. There is an element of uncertainty and shyness in her stride, but also a quiet confidence, which is how the main character Sumnima unfolds throughout the book. While the “Chimse Bahun” father certainly receives a fair amount of critique for his high caste affectations, the novel is more of a slow unfolding of characters and conflicts within one family living in Kathmandu, as it goes from the 1980s to the moment just as the People’s War starts to unfold.
There is Boju, the grandmother, with her feisty cursing and her life trajectory, which goes from her being the proud self-sufficient widow with landed property to an aging dependent in her daughter’s home, suspiciously patrolling the boundaries of the house while she watches her Hindi TV serials and sings her morning bhajans. Boju had a certain universality to her that reminded me of my own family members (who shall remain unnamed)—Boju likes to hoard gifts of food people bring her, refusing to dole them out until the bananas had turned black, and the other food had gone green with mold. As she is pushed out of her own house by her daughter-in-law and son, she moves to her daughter’s house, where her territorial instincts are given full reign through the policing of the inside toilet, which she will only allow close family members to use. Everyone else is delegated to using the outside one. We see Boju unfold from a feisty young bride of a lahure to an aging arthritic elder confined to smaller and smaller spaces at the same time her grandchild goes from being an abused pre-teen with bad tiffin lunches to a sophisticated Kathmandu teenager testing the dating waters with her America returned boyfriend and Italian dinners.
Then there is Premkala, Sumnima’s mother, who struggles to raise her two daughters between an overly generous husband who cannot say “no” to his hordes of village relatives and her own meager teaching salary. In this mixture is thrown Sumnima, whose high class, royalty connected friends at the Rhododendron Girls High School eat extravagant lunches cooked by their servants, and who is ashamed of the halua her mother packs her for lunch. Perhaps the moment that captures the distance between mother and daughter is best captured when Premkala tries to spend some time with her daughter. Sumnima has just found a book recommended by a radio DJ on whom she has developed a crush, and she lets her mother know she is too busy trying to read to spend time with her. That is when Premkala realizes that perhaps everyone is ultimately alone, a moment of existential quietness and discovery which drops like a soft raindrop in the otherwise non-philosophical narrative.
Then there is Ganga, village niece who is unable to pass through the Iron Gate of the SLC examinations, and who Tamuleji and Premkala host in their home in Kathmandu, in exchange for domestic service. Ganga fails the SLC three times, and the only man who her family finds for her turns her down politely after realizing she is not a SLC graduate. We get the sense she will forever be a servant in her uncle’s household, uncomplaining, quiet and hardworking, unable to break free into the outside world. There’s a poignant resignation to Ganga that is in sharp contrast to her other cousin Manlahari, who is also brought down to Kathmandu on the same premise, but loses no time making up and going out to find herself a husband. Everyone assumes that the man she has found is a “tyape” (a drug addict) because of his ponytail and general demeanor. She proves them wrong by showing up in a few months and sharing that her husband is on his way to Japan, where he has managed to get the much coveted visa and an entryway into a high-paying job abroad. Even Boju, who’s berated her for being a slut, eventually reconciles with her once she realizes she has her life in order.
There is only one factual mistake—Sumnima is said to have gotten Second Division marks in her SLC exams, but then the writer decides to describe her as “Third Division” in what feels like a moment of editorial error. The feeling that education is both a prison and a way out to freedom is palpable in the book. The Iron Gate of the SLC, as well as its seeming power to open doors plays a big part in the narrative. Tamuleji is crushed when daughter Sumnima doesn’t get first division in her SLC, because this means that she cannot study to become a doctor. Earlier in the book, he goes to meet Dr. Pandey, the best doctor in town, with his relative. Dr. Pandey is described as “godlike.” Certainly in my own family doctors have always been viewed with a reverence and semi-deification which is hard to miss. During the diagnosis Dr. Pandey dismisses Tamuleji’s suggestion with a single curt sentence, reducing him to fury on the way back home. This tension with the medical establishment is contrasted with the eagerness with which the parents greet Sumnima’s suggestion that she can still study medicine at a private college, despite her bad grades.
In contrast, there is also the faith healer who shows up to cure Sumnima’s grandfather when he returns from the World Wars with what people sense is a mental disorder. He eats small “goat pellet” like Ayurvedic medicine, and his wife calls him “Sanki Buda” (mad old man.) While the healing ceremony called by his wife goes extremely well, and the old man recovers long enough to give the appearance of being somewhat healed, sadly he dies not long after. This paragraph is just enough to capture some of the vast histories of trauma and despair veterans of the World Wars must have felt in Nepal, far removed from any support systems or even words to describe their symptoms.
Then there is the wild herb patch that Boju has planted, with stinging nettles, silom seeds, filinge and other herbs which her daughter-in-law doesn’t eat or recognize and one day tears up and “cleans” to nothingness. As someone who spends her days browsing organic store shelves looking for these wild herbs, I could not but feel the pain of the old lady at her loss. What traditions of sustainable herbs and wild foods have we lost in the rush towards modernity? Will children who are born now only know about it through the pages of a novel?
The women and their stories unfold like origami, from Boju, Premkala, Sumnima, Numa, Ganga to Manlahari, whereas the development of the men seem less fleshed out. Certainly Tamuleji has his own life path, where he goes from renting a small room at Premkala’s mother’s house to becoming the high-paying employee of an international INGO. He enjoys his transition in the beginning—the long trips outside Kathmandu, the local food eaten with colleagues, the regional variations. But then he starts to tire of it all, as people inevitably do. He tires of the development jargon and he tires of the changing trends and job descriptions, until by the end we see him sitting in a dark room playing Solitaire by himself. This transition seem to describe the disillusionment many people in Nepal go through with the apparatus of development itself.
The writer is especially adept at picking up the linguistic quirks of people in different layers of Nepalese society. In one memorable scene, Sumnima is picked up by high class Rajani Aunty for a birthday party and when seeing a man with a load on the road says: Bichawra! Perhaps only a Nepali speaker who’s grown up in Kathmandu can hear this articulation and instantly peg on whom the writer is throwing some shade. Then there’s the middle class mother who is teaching her child that it is peet-ja, not pija, when Sumnima goes to meet her radio DJ for the first time. Premkala wears gilsin during the winters—a particular mispronunciation of glycerine which opens doorways to small beauty parlors and tired middle-aged women trying to deal with dry skin during the winters. There is chibbistick, which is how teenagers from the rural hinterlands pronounce the word chapstick, especially those that appear to be of a foreign brand. Then there is the tyape, the drug addict who started to appear on the scene post-democracy movement of the 1990s, and khatay (referring to the recyclers who picked up used copybooks), which is how Manlahari dismisses those lower on the class hierarchy than her. All of these words open up complex interactions of social class and hierarchy which may only be “heard” by those living in Nepal, especially Kathmandu. Which led me to think this book was written in fact with a Nepali audience very much in mind. Perhaps like Sumnima we have truly come of age in Nepal, if an entire novel has been written in English for a Nepali readership!
I’m going to disclose a key plot point here: Sumnima’s first love ends sadly, with the loser boyfriend who’s mooching off her eventually turning around to tell her that he’s going back to his American girlfriend. The moocher, like Boju, also drew a response of recognition in me. I too have gone on dates, sometimes set up by well meaning relatives to an increasingly bizarre cast of characters, where the men ate and drank heartily and left me to pay the bill. Sadly, as in Ghale’s novel, I think the more invested in social justice the men appear, the more likely they are to leave the woman to pick up the bill!
The only jarring moments in this book came for me during the first few pages, where the writer galloped breathlessly while introducing the new characters. I would urge the reader to sit through those first few pages, because once she gets into the narrative it’s well worth the read. The last few pages also had the same “wrapping up” feel to them, as if all the moments of the People’s War were hastily piled on to give a sense of historical narrative. The book stands on its own merit and the last few pages felt slightly gratuitous.
I enjoyed reading “The Wayward Daughter,” not just because it captured the coming of age of a young Nepali woman with frankness and honesty, but also because it encapsulated many of the social changes that occurred in Nepal during these past decades. I hope Ms. Ghale will write many other novels in the coming years, and inspire other young writers to come forward with their own narratives.
Sushma Joshi is a writer and filmmaker and can be found online at www.sushmasfiction.blogspot.com and www.sansarmedia.blogspot.com
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