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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Book Review: Seasons of Flight

ARKESH AJAY | New Delhi , May 7, 2011 13:10

(This book review appeared in The Sunday Indian Magazine)
Author:Manjushree Thapa
Imprint: Viking
Publisher: Penguin India
Language: English
Binding: Hardback
Pages: 240
ISBN-10: 0670084388
ISBN-13: 978-0670084388

There is a clear sense of rising euphoria in literary circles about the growing South Asian voice in English literature. Not only is the South Asian style of prose a matter of interest, but also the themes that they concern themselves with; angst and anxieties that have been experienced by their respective countries, and sometimes by the entire subcontinent, in the past decade or so. If there has been one note to mute in this melody, it has been the absence of deserved excitement over works emerging from Nepal, echoing a similar quiet about this hill country when one compares it to the frenzy across the word over its two politically-more-relevant neighbours. No longer. As Manjushree Thapa, a Nepalese who has lived around the world, delivers yet another stellar work after Forget Kathmandu, in the form of Seasons of Flight- a brilliantly poetic and yet so contemporary tale of a young Nepali woman’s never ending journey in search of personal fulfillment.

Prema, a young woman who grew up in a village in the mountains of Nepal, travels to Kathmandu and then to a bazaar at the base of the hills, wins a green card in a lottery and takes flight to America, on a guarantee that life will become better. What exactly is she escaping- her country torn in the strife between Maoist insurgency and counter-insurgency or the demons that lay within her since her mother’s death in her childhood, or both- the discerning reader will surely ponder over. This journey, which forms the backbone of the entire investigation that the novel undertakes, is not just another incident in your oft-read immigrant-escaping-troubled-country novel. Nothing captures what lays at the very heart of this phenomenon better than the author’s own words- “For those who felt they were from a shabby third-world country, it was hard not to believe that life in a richer land was more- proper, solid”.

What follows is a meandering path of a woman’s self discovery, faced often by roadblocks of her own mind or beyond. Her tribulations, often quite comic, start with her name. Type the name ‘Prema’ in MS word, look at the suggestions that the software throws up, and you’ll have a faint idea. Equally difficult is to explain where Nepal is to a largely self-absorbed American: it oscillates from Naples to nipples, and is centered often at India by an exasperated Prema herself. She begins her American chapter like any typical immigrant- in the ghetto. But soon she breaks out of these vestiges of a life she has chosen to reject, and moves out into a house with two ‘American’ women. Her attempt to “reach America” takes her into an employment as the care-taker of an elderly woman; and the irony of the fact that she has left behind her own ageing father in Nepal is not lost on the reader. She encounters Luis, a very American man, and it leads her to a relationship she finds quite unique, very different from the unsaid one she had with Rajan back in Nepal, and one which she discovers almost as if it were a tutorial into American life.

Though the relationship does begin on expected lines, it soon breaks from a clich├ęd trajectory and explores far-away nooks of the minds and thoughts of both the people in it, at the same time being a study into the many aspects of America as we know it, or even the one we don’t. What results, however, in just more confusion for Prema, and though it seemingly answers her has-she-reached-America question, it brings her back to her original inquiry- finding herself, finding fulfillment. That makes her take flight again, till she finds the El Segundo butterfly, and which almost turns out to be like finding herself- in ways many more than one.

This journey, with its many destinations, would have been a compelling read nonetheless. But the devices Thapa employs in narrating it to us turns it into a compulsory read. The multiple parallels that she creates in Prema’s life in Nepal and in America brings alive wonderful debates not only about her personal life but also about the politics of Third World countries and the American play in almost all of them. We discover Guatemala through Prema, and contrast it with Nepal, study the varying roles of America in these countries’ sorrows, and arrive at a difficult question- why do they all seek refuge in America? The reader shall definitely find clues to that however unanswered question in the author’s words.
Then there are the extremely endearing appearances of the sub-continental English. There is the “atomatic garantee green card” which even after the correction to ‘automatic guarantee green card’ still puzzles as to why is this guarantee automatic. Then there is “different-different” for ‘varied’- a pointer to how the language alters as convenience of expressing yourself takes the front seat over propriety of its rules. Just counting a few.

There are also the symbolism- ammonites Prema inherits from her mother, the fossilised exoskeleton inside it making an obvious reference to Prema herself; or the games of chess Luis’s dad used to play; or the El Segundo butterfly, and its moments of calm between bursts of flutter.

Thapa doesn’t fail to point out that Nepal, or the Third World in general, is often nothing more than a picture postcard for the average American. However, the tone she takes doesn’t intend to belittle Americans for that. In fact, she respects the tribulations of their lives too, however, banal and shallow they may look when compared to those of, say, a Nepali or a Guatemalan. She uses the same brush to paint Luis’s search for something “elemental”, as she does for Prema’s searches. Peace is not only freedom from violence, but also a state of inner calm; and survival is not just physical but also metaphysical. How “normal” attains different meaning for different people and different countries.
However, what really makes Thapa remarkable is the feminism of her description of the protagonist. Not once do you find

Prema a figment from a patriarchal world. Here is a woman from a small village in the “misty hills” travelling the unknown corners of a man’s world, and not once is she portrayed as seeking a man for either protection or direction. She may be lost often, but is never afraid. And this feminism attains peak when Prema seeks physical fulfillment. Unapologetic. Both Prema and the words the author chooses to describe it all. The freshness and the maturity of this narration clearly points towards an author at complete command of her craft.
Through all these multiple layers and themes, one thing always remains. You can always smell the world Thapa inhabits, through her words. You sense Nepal’s melancholy and feel the emptiness of life torn by strife, and you also live the air-conditioned loneliness of Los Angeles. And this is the mark of an extraordinary author. You can otherwise, only imagine what passes upon an aging father whose one daughter stays away after she leaves “just like that” to join the Maoists, and the other, he has to ask to stay away so that she can lead a “complete life”. With Thapa around, you can actually feel it.