Prajwal Parajuly’s wonderful new novel about family ties, caste and homosexuality, is also about life’s unpredictability
Land Where I Flee
• Rs 550 • PP266
Manjula Narayan email@example.com
Sikkim has lately gifted us with two very good writers – Chetan Raj Shrestha and Prajwal Parajuly. While Shrestha’s The King’s Harvest explored how malevolence could be catching, Parajuly’s earlier collection of short stories The Gurkha’s Daughter, that appeared last year, took the reader through the lives of Nepali victims of Bhutanese ethnic cleansing, a hare-lipped servant girl, and a shopkeeper desperately attempting to outwit a kleptomaniac from a powerful local family, among others.
That first collection established Parajuly, a Nepali Indian, as a promising talent, someone able to sensitively explore how mental knots can be just as restraining as the tightest physical harness.
His new novel Land Where I Flee, which focuses on the lives of siblings who return to their home in Gangtok - years after they’ve fled to different parts of the world - to celebrate their formidable grandmother’s 84th birthday, is even better. Each of the siblings has a secret – Bhagwati, the one ostracised for marrying beneath her caste, is sensitive about her poverty; Manasa, the academic overachiever, has been reduced to her father-in-law’s caregiver, and Agastaya hides his homosexuality so well, no one would guess his life in New York included a demanding boyfriend.
And then there’s the fantastic grandmother Chitralekha who runs a business and enjoys unnerving local politicians, and her sidekick Prasanti, probably the most sympathetic and witty transgender character you’ve come across in fiction. Parajuly is good at presenting the thorny issues that are a part of the subcontinental mindscape: So Bhagwati’s husband Ram is a journalist from the tailor caste and the chapter that deals with his deep religiosity and conversely, the impossibility of his ever escaping his caste identity to be ‘good enough’ for his wife’s grandmother, the Brahmin matriarch, is one of the most powerful portions of the novel.
A nuanced book about family, about relationships and about people striving for individual freedom in a society that compels them to hide their innermost selves, Land Where I Flee has no black and white characters. The grandmother with her caste pride is also an admirable woman who raised her grandchildren by herself and, instead of the usual revulsion of eunuchs evident everywhere in India, has a close bond with her servant Prasanti.
Agastaya’s realisation that he enjoys far less freedom to be himself than Prasanti does, Manasa’s disgust at her husband, Bhagwati’s refusal to participate in rituals because she too believes she has lost caste through marriage – the predicaments are real. Strangely, they have rarely been written about with this level of clarity. This is definitely one of the best novels of the year.