Notions of literature transform rapidly at each rediscovery of what books are and what they do. All too often, books may be reduced to blurbs, and their entire bulks have no more to offer. Then there are niche topics, beloved of the publishing industry. Sometimes a good book happens — timeless, unapologetic, and simply ‘unputdownable’. Nothing like an old-fashioned, beautifully written work of fiction as a reminder that a book is ultimately about the writing, about writing with brilliance, humility and compassion. For that, I must thank Shradha Ghale, for this gem of an unpretentious yet exquisitely written book, The Wayward Daughter — that’s a warm, almost sociological sweep of life in Kathmandu in all its inglorious beauty.
It’s a trade secret that writers from the subcontinent translate from the vernacular, even those with impeccable English, because their characters may not share that trait. There are uncomfortable choices to be made, especially with cultural references: over-explain or add an index? It is delightful to find neither while terms like buhari, lahure, jimbu, Dasain or khatey pepper the text with insouciance that says, ‘look it up’. It also provides mastery to the craft while not diluting the taut narrative. As readers, we make absurd attempts to comprehend similar constructs in ‘white’ texts.
Where Ghale excels is in the deft rendering of her observations and in how she carves each character out realistically. Her prose is at once simple, profound, witty and effective. In the reader it results in an understanding and experience of Nepal and its society that even multiple visits may not have afforded. The descriptions shimmer with promise. “Plot by plot, gradually and lawfully, the land has gone into the hands of high-caste settlers, like a slow-spreading natural calamity.”
Sumnima is close and relatable, especially the shades of her experiences that all young girls around us share: shame at her own inadequacy, hopeless notions of romance, and a feisty bumbling spirit that buoys her along the choppy sea of life. Keenly observant, if lacking in purpose or direction, Sumnima serves as an archetypal woman of the Indian subcontinent yet to discover herself amid the structures and strictures that constitute our societies.
In its barest reduction, this novel traces the schoolgirl Sumnima’s absurd obsession over an RJ, Sagar — older, surer, fake in some ways, and not above draining her resources dry in getting her to pick the tab on all their dates.
Each meeting is a discovery, of both her longings and limitations. Love is strange. It makes her totally discount the devotion of neighbour Rishi who woos her with Valentine cards and endless serenades. Coming of age means learning the true nature of the man she lost her head and more over, and finding within herself to wish the best ahead for Rishi in his new life in Korea.
Arrayed around our central character are layers of relatives, friends and romantic interests and their rather intricate stories all pieced together with a skilled hand and painstaking documentation. Her posh friends at the elite Rhododendron Girls High School, fringe royalty and a minister’s daughter soon go on to better things. Of special interest and bearing the strongest resemblance to Sumnima are her first cousins Ganga and Manlahari who come into the household little better than unpaid servants. While studies and an elopement provide the wily Manlahari an escape, inability to clear the SLC dooms Ganga to a series of failures in real life. As a triad their journey seems to encapsulate the outer peripheries of what a Matwali woman may achieve. The real beauty lies in the subtlest subtexts that elevate the narrative. “I hate Indians,” said Sumnima, as she walked towards Bhairey’s shop carrying the oversized jerry can. “Me too,” Nina said. “Except Aamir Khan, he’s too cute.”
This is during a kerosene shortage attributed to an embargo by India. The distaste for India and dark-skinned Indians occurs sporadically in the text, reflecting what appears to be a common sentiment. Like when her uncle Rajan, who migrated and works as a gas station attendant in Texas, believes his Pakistani employer is much better than Indians.
But distaste is reserved for almost all the ‘others’: those who don’t speak fluent English such as her mother Premlata, other tribes or ethnic groups, people poorer or far wealthier, and even relatives in their remote mountainous village, Lungla. Women fare no better. “O my little one, how lovely you are. If only you had something dangling between your legs.”
Ultimately, this book is about the entwined journeys of Nepali women — whether the foul-mouthed Boju, her daughter Premkala who learns of the constancy of loneliness, or her granddaughters Sumnima and Numa, to whom only the Western world promises stability as their country teeters towards civil strife.