Land Where I Flee is a terrific read, says Aashnaa Seth.
A woman osctracised for marrying beneath her caste, a closeted homosexual, a frustrated Oxford graduate taking care of her father-in-law, a fallen writer, a formidable grandmother, a eunuch servant and a white American. Welcome to Prajwal Parajuly’s debut novel Land Where I Flee. Think of it as a Jane Austen novel set in modern day Sikkim, except the characters are the cattiest fictional characters you have come across.
Prajwal Parajuly is a very talented writer. This was obvious from his collection of short stories, The Gurkha’s Daughter. In eight succinct stories, Prajwal gave us an insight into the world of Nepalis in India, Nepal and Bhutan. The book was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize, became a bestseller and was received with critical acclaim. While some stories in The Gurkha’s Daughter like The Cleft and the title story are superior to others, the book was still an accomplished debut and deserved its success.
As with many writers whose first book does very well, there were many expectations on Prajwal to deliver with Land Where I Flee. I was prepared to be disappointed in the novel. I don’t think Rushdie’s books after Midnight’s Children have been as good. Amitav Ghosh’s first book is still his best. In the case of Prajwal his first two books are so different from one another that it is impossible to make comparisons. They are both about the Nepali-speaking world but while the collection focused on many places, the novel is based in Gangtok, a small city he aptly describes as the city of stairs. They are both differently written and are even written for different audiences. But Land Where I Flee is still the better book of the two.
A grandmother’s 84th birthday brings her grandchildren back in her house after 18 years. A grandson is afraid his secret will be discovered. A granddaughter is nervous she hasn’t been forgiven. Another granddaughter blames the grandmother for all that is wrong in her life. The grandmother refuses to believe she is wrong. A eunuch servant is always up to some mischief. An unwanted guest comes into the picture. He is joined by a surprise guest.
Reading the book is like watching a movie, making you wonder if the author had the goal of getting the book adapted into a film in mind when he was writing it. The colour and energy of Nepali festivals are well-conveyed and the beauty of Nepali, which is Prajwal’s language, is well written about. The descriptions, of Gangtok and of internal struggles, are evocative. What takes the cake as always with Prajwal’s books is the dialogue. I know of very few writers who have Prajwal’s skill to move a story forward with conversation alone.
The Gorkhaland agitation of the Darjeeling hills plays a prominent role in the narrative. Prajwal proves astute in his prediction of the movement in the novel. It is interesting that in mid-2013 the demand for a separate state by Gorkhaland agitators suddenly became stronger and stronger but just as Prajwal writes in the book, this movement went nowhere. This makes the book as much a commentary on the political climate of the hills of North Bengal as a work of fiction.
Land Where I Flee is a terrific read. The flow is natural, the language beautiful and haunting, the narrative unsentimental, the characters amusingly addictive and the plot flawlessly executed. If ever there was an unpretentious book that is as fun to read as it is well-written, it is this one. I for one am hoping for a sequel. These characters are far too interesting not to make an appearance in another book.
Aashnaa Seth teaches English and is working on her first novel.