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Perceptive and Passionate Writing Pranaya Rana's 'City of Dreams'

This Spilled Ink column is dedicated to good reading and writing in Nepal. This month’s essay focuses on both.

Wandering the streets, the gallis, and ob-scure byways of Kathmandu, writing about love and passion, and about writing, are Pranaya Rana’s forte, judging from the tales he tells in his debut book of short stories.

In City of Dreams, I am struck by Pranaya’s sensual, lucid, easy style, and the ebb and flow of each yarn. His characters are well developed, their deep feelings well described, and the small details and moods they feel well sculpted, from varying backgrounds and walks of life. Some are young adults exulting in or suffering the throes of youth, of love and passionate desire. Some experience devastating deception, distrust, or rejection. And a few stories verge on the surreal. In almost every case, his characters dream of becoming..., what? (You decide.)

Meet Kanti, a boy who wandered the city incessantly. By the time he passed his SLC exams, “he had explored almost every road, galli and nook of Central Kathmandu. From the five-star hotels of Lazimpat, the spacious old-world walled compounds of Bishalnagar, the urban sprawl that is Dhumbarahi, and the nondescript Battisputali, to the messy, dirty, pungent Bagbazaar, the chaos of New Road and the madness of Asan, back home to Lazimpat—Kanti considered all this Kathmandu proper, his own Kathmandu, and he walked it like an explorer, a cartographer, a preserver even.”

He ducked into “alleys that turned into roads, into doorways that opened up into courtyards. He traced new pathways through empty lots and negotiated the tops of low brick walls. He cut across front yards and snuck through backyards,” ... “climbed trees and jumped fences,” ... “avoided wide roads and squeezed sideways in between houses built too close.” 

Kanti is the near tragic image of a lonely introvert, a wanderer, a dreamer. It was his passion, his mission, to see and feel and know the whole city on foot. Amongst people, however, he felt “truly lost,” which worried his parents and bothered his relatives. “Over time, he passed by grieving corpse-bearers, revelling groomsmen, jaunty bikers at motorcycle rallies, strike enforcers, citizen protestors, armed policemen, political leaders, British Gurkha hopefuls, women’s rights activists and Hindu-nation fanatics.” But people were mere “appendages, vestigial organs” to the physical aspects of his city of dreams. 

Pranaya Rana is deft at turning a phrase. A train entering a railway station came  “creaking like an old man.” And in his Kathmandu, “social ties run thicker and more matted than congealed blood.”

In one story, the narrator is a young writer, like Rana himself, trying to produce something meaningful and reflective. Alone in his room, he writes feverishly, but instead of telling us what it was, we learn only that it “wasn’t drivel, it wasn’t drool from a dog’s open jaw, it wasn’t trash, it wasn’t two rats gnawing at a piece of white, white bone. And then, just as easily, it was gone...” 

When the writer/narrator meets an elusive girl named Maya, it has a devastating effect on his psyche. Later, sitting at his computer with his head “buzzing with ideas,” he pounds out 15 pages and stops. “But I dared not go back and read it,” he writes. “I wanted to finish it first, get it all down, and then I would go at it with a hacksaw.”

Meanwhile, Maya fills his mind, affecting his writing. “In Nepali, Maya is to love,” he writes. “In Sanskrit, Maya is this world, the veil of illusion, the maya jaal, ...the lie that is reality...” Heady stuff.

Pranaya Rana’s City of Dreams (Rupa Publications, New Delhi, 2015; 190 pp., 10 stories) is available in Kathmandu bookstores. The columnist is a contributing editor to ECS Nepal. Reader inputs to this Spilled Ink column are welcome, as suggestions or as short guest essays (approximately 650 words) on appropriate topics. Contact don.editor@gmail.com.