Review: The End of the World by Sushma Joshi

Elen Turner reviews The End of the World by Sushma Joshi (Kathmandu: Sansar Books, 2009. 155 pp.) for Kitaab

Sushma_eowwebThe experience of the way this book reached me was, unfortunately, emblematic of the present state of literary circulation in Nepal. I knew that the review copy had been sent to Kathmandu from Singapore, so I waited and waited. And waited. It never arrived. It still may, but I am not hopeful. This was not my first or last experience of things going missing in the mail. The ‘postal system’ of Nepal is not to be trusted, to put it mildly. How, then, can Nepali writers hope to be reviewed internationally and gain recognition outside Nepal, unless they have efficient and forceful promotion and distribution channels based outside the country? English-language writers from Nepal already face a rather awkward predicament, writing in a language that the majority of Nepalis do not read, and yet not visible internationally in the same way that neighbouring Indian, Pakistani or, increasingly, Bangladeshi writers in English are. Fortunately, the author arranged for the book to be delivered to me in this instance. This ad-hoc means of distribution and promotion should not be necessary, although those of us involved in publishing in this country know that it is.

This rather dire state of affairs is not reflective of what is actually taking place in English-language writing in Nepal, however. Sushma Joshi’s The End of the World is a readable collection of short stories from an author who comes across as both worldy and intimately connected to the local Nepali milieu that she recreates. She is as comfortable recreating the thoughts and actions of a teenage girl as she is of a middle-aged man, which lends variety to the stories within the collection.

The first story, ‘Cheese’, is particularly amusing, describing the luxury cachet of foreign goods that many in the west would consider banal (but, western ex-pats in Nepal may recognise the aura that becomes attached to some good cheese!). This theme of the lure of the foreign, something that often turns hollow and superficial, is a refrain through many of the stories.

Another recurring theme is something that cannot be avoided in present-day Nepal: the ten-year Maoist insurgency from 1996-2006, that claimed the lives of thousands of people, particularly in the countryside, and that ultimately contributed to the abolition of Nepal’s monarchy in 2008. The titular story is one of the shortest, and gets to the heart of peoples’ dreams and desires, what they would do if they actually thought the world was ending.

The End of the World is Joshi’s debut work of fiction, and this does come across at times. Many readers and writers take exception to the idea that short stories are only written as ‘practice’ for writing a novel, that it is an incomplete art form in itself, but it is difficult not to think this when so many stories feel like they could be something so much more.

Joshi’s use of temporal markers in The End of the World suggested this, that these stories were snippets from something larger. For instance, ‘Match-Making’, is set quite some time in the past, four or five decades ago. Yet the situation that is recounted—a girl being unwillingly paraded around Nepali families in Calcutta to find the ideal marriage partner—could have happened any time in the past hundred years, it could be happening today. To have divulged the time setting in ‘Match-Making’ seemed unnecessary, and suggested that the story may have belonged to something larger in the author’s imagination, something in which it was important. The same thing appeared in several other stories in The End of the World.  

Similarly, some stories meandered from one clearly defined topic to another, suggesting that what the author wanted to say shouldn’t be constrained to a short story. For instance, ‘Law and Order’ begins as an interesting, slightly amusing tale of a young man who tries and fails to enter the British Gurkha regiment, a highly coveted military job that comes with a myriad of benefits. Yet the story turns into something else, with the protagonist joining the police force in Kathmandu and dreaming of women. If a story cannot be contained in a short format, it should not be restrained.

This collection was first published in 2009, the latest 2013 edition being its third. Considering that, it is a pity there are so many typographical errors throughout, as one would have hoped that by the third edition these would have been ironed out. Not everyone is a pedant or its professional avatar, an editor (like myself), but the errors were frequent, appearing every couple of pages, which became very distracting. This detail need not detract from the quality of the writing, but it does diminish the quality of the publication. Nepali literature has much to offer to the international literary scene, and it needs to put its best foot forward wherever it can, to make up for the drawbacks described at the outset that it can do little about.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAElen Turner is an editor, writer and reader currently based in Kathmandu. She has a PhD in Literature and Gender Studies from the Australian National University, and writes a blog on South Asian literature.