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A practical man

Prajwal Parajuly’s debut collection of short stories stands apart for its quiet irony and fluid writing. Had you remembered, envy would have steered you away from The Gurkha’s Daughter, his first book, a collection of short stories about Nepalis in India and abroad, and you’d have been poorer for it. Manjula Narayan writes.

books Updated: Jan 21, 2013 16:35 IST
Manjula Narayan

The Gurkha’s Daughter
Prajwal Parajuly
Penguin india
Rs 499 pp 280

It’s a good thing you’d forgotten all about the buzz around 28-year-old Prajwal Parajuly’s debut - he landed a two-book deal with UK publisher Quercus in 2011 while still a Masters student at Oxford’s Creative Writing programme. Had you remembered, envy would have steered you away from The Gurkha’s Daughter, his first book, a collection of short stories about Nepalis in India and abroad, and you’d have been poorer for it.

Parajuly’s writing creates whole worlds, taking you into the mind of a disfigured servant girl in The Cleft, a woman of “bad character” in No Land is Her Land and a Bihari shopkeeper in Kalimpong attempting to outwit the kleptomaniac daughter of a powerful local in Let Sleeping Dogs Lie, among others.

If the measure of a successful story is its ability to have an independent afterlife within the reader’s mind with characters being revisited and fictional situations turning up unbidden to present insights into real life, then every story in The Gurkha’s Daughter is a success.

“I’ve thought of doing a sequel to my collection of stories because I’ve received such wonderful messages. People ask me if Kali ended up having a cleft surgery,” says Parajuly when you meet him at a café on Janpath in Delhi. That’s just one of the plans he has for his third book – his second, a novel “will be out same time next year”.

More reason for envy, but the person sitting across the coffee table sipping mineral water is so entirely unaffected and likeable – and not because he needs another good review - that you concentrate on finding out about the novel instead. “It is based in Gangtok, Sikkim; four siblings living in various parts of the world convene in my hometown and things happen,” is all he’ll reveal.

Later, he lets slip a few details but always immediately states that they are “off the record”. As the chat progresses, a lot of things end up being off the record mainly because Parajuly has a fear of appearing like a pompous ass in print – something he believes has already happened in the coverage of the launches in Shimla, Kathmandu and Gangtok. His devotion to Gangtok, though, is very much on the record.

“I’m going to sound like a tourism brochure now,” he says launching into a speech about the town’s beautiful main market square and about the breathtaking view of the Kanchendzonga from his parent’s terrace, now sadly obstructed by a building next door. “Everyone knows everybody. It’s a happy place,” he laughs reminiscing about his life there before he left to study in the US at 18.

“I grew up in a joint family and it was a lot of fun. I come from a family of lawyers. Academics wasn’t really important. People were more excited about public speaking, elecution and debates. So I come from a nice, fun, practical family,” he laughs.

Parajuly practicality it was that led him to take a job in advertising sales at The Village Voice after he graduated. “I didn’t want to live in poverty in New York and I didn’t want to work as an editor,” he says revealing that his stint at the college travel magazine had turned him off journalism.

“There’s too much temptation to do wrong as a journalist. I would be the most corrupt journalist in the world,” he says proceeding to quiz you on what you’d most likely do in hypothetical situations involving writers desperate for glowing reviews and bags of money.

Parajuly claims he didn’t want to be a writer either and that he was led to it by the dreariness of three years in a job that allowed him endless hours “at the Union Square Barnes and Noble”. “You really begin questioning your existence when you are at a stupid advertising job,” he says pointing out that the whole Village Voice experience, however, would “read very well in a novel”.

In the course of the conversation, you do begin to recall ecstatic news reports about his “five figure advance” but it’s difficult to begrudge Parajuly his early success because, like his stories – A Father’s Journey with its fine exploration of the father-daughter relationship and the peculiar grip of the caste system is your particular favourite – he is real.

You can’t remember another man with whom you’ve discussed the taboos surrounding menstruation in South Asia, the paltry advances that publishing houses still give writers in India and the mechanics of creating fictional characters – “Bits and pieces, here and there, a mix and match, a cousin with a sibling with a friend with an ex-girlfriend and so on and so forth and then you come up with somebody” – all at once and with as much ease.

Really, if you are envious it’s because The Gurkha’s Daughter with its quiet irony and fluid writing is the best short story collection you’ve read in a while.