THE VANISHING ACT by PRAWIN ADHIKARI, RUPA PUBLICATIONS
Prawin Adhikari’s debut collection of short stories, The Vanishing Act, is introspective, intuitive and illuminating. Propelled by the sheer strength of Adhikari’s studied reflective prose, the stories in the collection are acutely observed and finely noted. In that sense, Adhikari recalls Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz and his debut collection, Drown. This is a parallel not easy to explain, for the difference in subject matter is as vast as the stretches of land and ocean that lie between Nepal and the Dominican Republic. But like Diaz, Adhikari displays a keen sense for the often overlooked minutiae of the lived human experience, whether it is a truant kid from a highway town playing meandering hooky or the maddening complacency of a man whose wife has just left him for another. These observations are rendered in inventive prose, not a hint of a cliché in sight–another hallmark of Diaz’s writing. Adhikari’s stories sweep through the mind like the cleansing eddies of the Marshyangdi River, which, at times, is almost a character.
The first two stories in the collection–‘The Boy from Banauti’ and ‘Mayapuri’–are set in Khaireni, a highway town far from the madcap chaos of Kathmandu, where most stories by Nepalis writing in English are set. And these are the most developed, most heartbreaking stories in the collection. A boy skips school to build cities in the sand and in the process, discovers that imagination must be marshalled if sand castles are to be anything more than packed dirt. Adhikari writes: “You have to know. That is the whole point. Knowing. Exactly. Who, where, what, when. That is the point. Why. That is the point also. Otherwise you are just a stupid kid playing with wet sand.” Later, when the boy discovers in himself a cruelty, Adhikari recalls: “I knew the where, when, who, how. I was the marauding why.” These kinds of insights are frequent throughout the collection. A terse sentence, short and matter-of-fact, imbues the narrative with a sense of ambition, a reaching for something beyond the bounds of the plot and the characters. This is Adhikari’s strength and he plays to it knowingly.
In ‘Mayapuri’, Adhikari captures beautifully the adolescent yearning of a young boy for an older, married woman. There is little that is sexual or even romantic in this misplaced desire. Rather, it is quiet, restrained and charming. The woman’s love for her husband, in contrast, is burning hot. The plot goes downhill in the second half but nonetheless, it is a fine piece of work, with characters that leap out of the page, alive in their individual longings.
The two stories that are set in Kathmandu–‘The Messiah’ and ‘Stamp and Signature’–are the strangest pieces in the collection. They are both deeply introspective works, the narration grounded firmly through the point-of-view of the primary characters. Existential crises come in the form of offerings of change—one in society and the other in cash. Adhikari, true to form, wears his acumen for insight on his sleeve. The internal battle between resignation and rebellion is portrayed thus, “But, in those years, I also thought friendliness with fate brought a twisted freedom. Fate doesn’t have to entertain a notion of fairness. What fool will expect any different? If on the sixth day the hand of Fate has written on our foreheads the course of everything that is to come, there will be no blame to give, no thanks to offer.”
These are of the social realist vein but they are anomalies in the sense that though the world changes around the characters, they themselves rarely do. The characters remain steadfast; their stories personal. Kathmandu is just stage dressing.
Two other stories are set in the US, that fabled land of the tired, the poor and the wretched refuse of our teeming shores. In Adhikari, it is a land of misfits and malcontents. One of the weakest stories, ‘The Face of Carolynn Flint’, is about a woman whose face has undergone so many nips and tucksthat it has now acquired a life of its own, metamorphing at random. The story, to me, recalled many things, from Luis Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire where two actresses play the same character and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Oval Portrait where a painting (metaphorically) comes alive, only for the subject to perish. It is a high concept story and not Adhikari’s forte. It goes nowhere and is frivolous in its treatment.
The story that gives the collection its name, ‘The Vanishing Act’, is also a concept piece but is elliptical and thus, much more successful. Parallels are drawn between two Mexican runway circus performers–a dwarf and a giant–and a Nepali father and son. The links however are not overt, they need to be dug out and worked with. It all seems to coalesce around a small lie that the narrator’s friend tells when narrating their meeting with the circus folk to another–that the dwarf placed the giant in a bag and carried him away. In the end, the Nepali father disappears and the reader is left contemplating just who is the giant and who is the dwarf.
The weakest story in the collection, by far, is definitely the last one, ‘The Condolence Picture’. Difficult to engage with, its subject and treatment left me incredulous. The narrator’s strange attraction towards the wife of his dead friend felt unbelievable, simply because Adhikari does not put the same effort at detailing that he puts into his other stories. In earlier pieces, where he once said volumes about a character through one simple devastating line, this attraction does not get the same treatment. Hence, it is worse for it.
In the end, it must be said that there have been few books by Nepali writers in English that deliver the kind of emotional and intellectual suckerpunch that Adhikari’s does. The stories here are measured and restrained, aching and reflective. The stories often continue long beyond the page, worming their way into the mind. Mohammed Hanif’s blurb on the cover proclaims that Adhikari is “a very promising new voice…” And this, truly, is promise.