Monday, January 28: Arresting God in Kathmandu is an insightful book of short stories by Kathmandu native Samrat Upadhyay, who has lived in the United States since he was 21. Having traveled to Nepal in January of 2013, I was captivated by his portrayal of the ordinary lives of Nepalis and their search for spiritual solutions to their problems.
In the first story, “The Good Shopkeeper,” Pramod loses his prestigious job at a finance company, and after soothing his wife Radhika’s despair, he makes the rounds of the Pashupatinath Temple to pray for Lord Shiva’s blessing. He finds himself having to ingratiate himself to a distant cousin of his wife’s, only to be put off time and time again. As they go through their life savings to pay the next two months’ rent, they become increasingly desperate. In Pramod’s aimlessness, he begins an affair with a housemaid. Finally, with no prospects in sight, he tells his wife they should start a shop. He tells her, “I will have to grow a mustache.” He then imagines himself as such an important shopkeeper that if the distant cousin came in, he would pretend he wasn’t there. And, if the housemaid came, “he would seat her on a stool, and perhaps Radhika would make tea for her. This last thought appealed to him tremendously.”
I can imagine this story and its setting: pilgrims circling the Pashupatinath Temple; the struggle to make ends meet which is so evident everywhere in Nepal; the pipe dreams of Nepalis who have no easy solution to their employment and financial woes. I love reading a book like this after I travel to a place, and recognizing the deep truth of the stories.
In the story, “Deepak Misra’s Secretary,” Deepak makes the mistake of kissing his “unattractive secretary” Bandana-ji when he hears his ex-wife Jill is back in Kathmandu. He had gotten involved with this Cleveland native after he met her at a party:
Deepak had found her charming, although she was like many of the Nepal-crazy foreigners he knew, people who lived in the country in a romantic haze, love-struck by the mountain beauty and simple charms of the people, but grossly naive about their suffering.
Deepak hopes to renew his relationship with Jill, but finds she has no interest in him. Slowly, he develops an attraction for Bandana-ji, but he denies this attraction, still thinking of his ex-wife. Finally he asks his secretary to submit her resignation. She leaves, but Deepak cannot get her, or the sensation of bliss he felt with her, out of his mind.
Having lived abroad for the last three years, I know of these love-struck foreigners, who see only the beauty and fascinating parts of a culture, ignoring the problems and struggles of the locals, or the troublesome aspects of the culture.
There are many more wonderful stories in this collection, stories in which the author explores the effects of modernization on love and family. Husbands and wives bound together by arranged marriages are driven elsewhere by a strong desire for connection. Constrained by family and society, people find themselves propelled to transcend their difficult circumstances and escape into a world that is diametrically opposed to the one in which they live.