Book Review: Land Where I Flee

Sunday, 2 February 2014 - 10:45am IST | Agency: DNA

Book: Land Where I Flee
Author: Prajwal Parajuly
Publisher: Quercus
Pages: 265
Price: Rs499

Four siblings return after eighteen years to a home in the hills and a grandmother, Aamaa, whose vitriolic personality challenges all notions of a quiet, pacified old granny. The occasion is Aamaa’s Chaurasi, her 84th birthday, an important celebration according to Nepali traditions. The family which parted ways, reunites and what follows is a melange of rituals, altercations, confessions, accusations and gossip leading to an unexpected climax.

Born and brought up in Gangtok, Parajuly bases his first novel, Land Where I Flee, in his hometown. After dabbling in advertising at an agency in New York and while working on a course in creative writing at University of Oxford, Parajuly published a collection of short stories called The Gurkha’s Daughter in 2012. Though he calls himself a “writer by accident,” he has been hailed as the next big thing in South Asian fiction by leading newspapers in India and UK. He is also the youngest Indian to sign a multi-national book deal. “Before The Gurkha’s Daughter could be available to the public, the media were singing praises about it. I was very nervous about the response of readers. I did not imagine that the books would do so well,” confesses Parajuly. “I am not able to write in Nepali as well as I should be able to. These works are my love letter to the Nepali language,” he adds.

Land Where I Flee sees the saga of a family unfold driven by a deceptively simple plot and characters which resonate with readers. The seamlessness and fluidity in the narrative stems from the innate familiarity with the locales and the customs, believes Parajuly. Born to a Nepali mother and an Indian father, Parajuly was born and raised in Gangtok.

Chitralekha the grandmother, better known as Aamaa, captures the frame of the novel with her caustic words, manipulative ways and genius deviousness. At its heart, the novel explores Chitralekha’s relationships with her orphaned grandchildren Bhagwati, Manasa, Ruthwa and Agastaya and their relationships with each other.

As the family re-unites each sibling has their own secret. Bhagwati who was afraid of reproach after fearing that she had failed in an exam eloped with a man of a lower caste. Manasa the Ox-bridge educated granddaughter who married with the faimly’s blessings grows bitter as she turns into a caretaker for her geriatric father-in-law. Agastaya is a successful oncologist in New York, but has a secret. Ruthwa is the prodigal son who has shamed the family and no one knows the reason for his appearance. Aamaa’s confidante and caretaker, the effervescent eunuch Prasanti adds punch to the saga with her teasing ways, though a hidden sadness lurks. “I decided to take all the taboo issues in the Indian subcontinent such as homosexuality, inter-caste marriages and eunuchs and have a blast with them,” says Parajuly.

The author who was brought up in a joint family, dreamed of living in a nuclear family. “I observed other people and found family dynamics engrossing.”

The socio-poltical and cultural milieu in which the novel is set is significant as one sees the Gorkhaland movement gather momentum and the plight of the Bhutanese refugees who were shifted from one camp to another while some sought refuge in USA, where they exist in poverty and face racist attacks. The author travelled to USA, and in India and UK while conducting research for Land Where I Flee.

When asked about who his favourite characters in the novel is Parajuly answers, “It would have to be a tie between Manasa and Prasanti. Some people might say that Ruthwa is a portrayal of a Prajwal Parajuly gone bad, but I would never do what he did.”

The novel probes the hidden lives of eunuchs in a manner rarely witnessed in contemporary Indian writing in English. “Researching about eunuchs is a battle and a half. They are suspicious of men and a female friend of mine had to intervene. I realised how isolated they feel,” comments the author.

The images in the novel and the effortless writing help create an atmosphere which lingers in the reader’s mind. Land Where I Flee is a story of forgotten languages, love, forgiveness, tragedy and all things human ­— a story that lives with you beyond its pages.

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