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Some thoughts on Pranaya Rana’s “City of Dreams”

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Fantastic review. Thank you so much!


I wanted to read Pranaya Rana’s City of Dreams since it was published.  So, when Balu sent a copy of it as a gift from Nepal to Pravat and Pratima, I took the opportunity to read it quickly before passing it onto its rightful owners. And, here are some thoughts on it:

All works of fiction have descriptions of things and narratives of events, but City of Dreams not only has ‘stories’ to tell but also ‘art’ in it.  The finely woven surreal tales told in flowing prose full of intricate details tread along that thin grey line of human existence that divides the beautiful from the ugly, bravery from cowardice, good from bad, and salvation from doom. It is not that these stories cannot be narrowed down to an issue or theme: for instance, “Dashain” is a coming of age story, “Knife in Water” is about marital violence, “Maya”…

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Written by Pranaya

February 5, 2017 at 5:37 AM

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A Lament for Loneliness

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Photos by Priyankana Bastola
Text by Pranaya Rana

Written by Pranaya

November 26, 2016 at 6:59 AM

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The long wait

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And so it begins, this long year, this year of interminable gloom, of a sky that is seemingly never not overcast. All life is one of disappointment. For those of us born unlucky, our lives were charted out long ago and the constellations only say one thing: prepare yourself, for nothing is ever going to go your way.

I suppose I should’ve gotten used to it, I suppose I should’ve let my pessimism take due course. But just once, just this once, I wanted to hope for the best, because maybe things would work out. That was a mistake, and I’ve learned my lesson. There’s nothing great about having a positive attitude and when you dream big you almost always wake to the harsh light of rejection. Keep yourself grounded, don’t shoot for the stars. Learn who you are and sometimes, just come to terms with the fact that maybe you’re just not good enough, maybe you will be one of those people who will die in obscurity, alone and lonely. That has to be someone, why not you, why not me?

Another year. If I am to get through it, there are a few things I must tell myself. First,  that anything worth having is worth waiting for. And second, if you can’t fix it, you’ve got to stand it.

Written by Pranaya

March 26, 2016 at 12:30 AM

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Things that quicken the heart

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The very first moment I wake.



A picture or a painting, a landscape of snow, and I remember what you told me once, that you liked trees in winter. Now, every scene of snow reminds me of you.


“He is all pine and I am apple orchard.”
You are all pine and I am apple orchard. It makes all the difference and yet, it makes no difference at all.


“You know the male species can be redundant
I mean we love a woman and think we can satisfy her
Between sheets, covers and pillows
I’m promising your lack of tolerance stuck on a zero
I’m promising that I’m acknowledging you as my hero
Cause you believe in me
No you’re not easily impressed
But I possess qualities that you need to see
Look at my flaws, look at my flaws
Look at my imperfections in awe
Look how you think that my mystique is a round of applause
And yours equally valued
You stick out like an alien compared to those around you
And that’s alright because I like it
You and me are the same
Hopefully I’m invited, hopefully you don’t change
Because I know for sure who you are.”

Kendrick Lamar – Untitled 06 

I know who you are but not all of who you are. It’s a process, a slow, steady accumulation of ideas and inclinations. I’ve missed this, this learning to explore another vast, infinite world. Of course there’s a world inside you, like there is in all of us. But yours is brilliant in its hues and relentless in its pull. I’d rather be one infinitesimal orbiting moon in your sky than a brilliant sun in another’s.


ansel adams

“Well, it depends on what you call fleeting. Sometimes, in the geological sense, a year is a very fleeting moment. And sometimes, to people, its twenty-fifth of a second.”  – Ansel Adams

Our lives are but blips on the infinity of the arrow of time. We will end before we have even begun. But that fleeting moment, that twenty-fifth of a second, I’d want that to be you.



Another winter’s day. Here, in the winters, it is not cold enough to freeze but it is just cold enough to want the warmth of another.

When it is night and there is rain, the world is a muffled footstep. When the rain clears, the very first star appears, like a solitary heartbeat in a dead world. And I think of you.


Love makes fools out of all of us. That’s just the way of it, this madness that seems to descend. The constant yearning. The obsessive thinking. There is a hollowness seemingly filled — you’ve found something when you never knew you were really missing anything at all. It’s a whole different kind of completeness. It’s more than just puzzle pieces that fit.


“So what’s wrong if there happens to be one guy in the world who enjoys trying to understand you?”

“But who can say what’s best? That’s why you need to grab whatever chance you have of happiness where you find it, and not worry about other people too much. My experience tells me that we get no more than two or three such chances in a life time, and if we let them go, we regret it for the rest of our lives.”

“I have a million things to talk to you about. All I want in this world is you. I want to see you and talk. I want the two of us to begin everything from the beginning.”

― Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami

How apt, I thought. But then, at times like these, everything seems to make sense in some perverse manner. It is like when you study a certain theory or a philosophy in college and acquire a new worldview, starting to see everything as fitting the pattern perfectly. It’s like that, only not so bad. It turns you into a romantic. But it doesn’t hurt. Sometimes you just have to believe that things will work out. Doesn’t matter if she’s thousands of miles away. Things will get figured out. That’s how I’ve always approached things, impulsively. But we will. It’s the kind of destiny you make yourself.


This scene, with that song and those people. This fear’s got a hold on me.

You approach someone and offer them yourself, heart and mind, because that’s all you’ve ever known to offer anyone. And you hope that they won’t take you and bleed you dry. But there’s that fear, there’s always that fear, that somehow you’re not good enough, that what you offer will never be enough. You still trust them though, because how can you not? All that fear, it’s inside you, not inside them. You project your insecurities on them and watch if they run screaming. If not, you’ve found yourself someone.

Two people find each other. It’s the oldest story we know.


You of the nighttime rain that lulls me to sleep
You of the morning dew on every petal of every flower
You of a voice like prayer, echoing in my head.

You of the morning, you of the night
You of my heart, you of my light.

Always the very last thing before sleep descends.


Written by Pranaya

March 18, 2016 at 5:26 AM

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स्वप्न सहरका नयाँ लेखक

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प्रणयलाई लाग्छ, नेपालीमा लेख्नेहरूले प्रयोग गरिरहेका छन् । उदाहरणका रूपमा उनी कुमार नगरकोटी, अमर न्यौपाने आदिको नाम लिन्छन् । नगरकोटीले झैं उनी पाठकलाई स्वैरकाल्पनिक संसारमा पुर्‍याउन चाहन्छन्, न्यौपानेले झैं भाषासँग बग्न चाहन्छन् ।

– अजित बराल

नाकाबन्दी र मधेस आन्दोलनको चरम निराशाबीच प्रणय राणाको ‘सिटी अफ ड्रिम्स’ कथासंग्रह पढ्दै थिएँ । संग्रह पढ्दापढ्दै थाहै नपाईकन म निराशाको संसारबाट आशाको संसारमा पुगेको थिएँ, संग्रहका पात्रहरू यथार्थवादको संसारबाट अतियथार्थवादको संसारमा पुगे जसरी ।

र, पढिसकेपछि होचो कद भएका प्रणय राणालाई लक्ष्मीप्रसाद देवकोटाबाट सुरु भएको नेपाली अंग्रेजी लेखनको साठी, पैंसट्ठ्ठी साले इतिहासको कसीमा अग्लो पाएको थिएँ । नेपालका तर्फबाट अन्तर्राष्ट्रिय साहित्य जगत्मै सबैभन्दा बढी प्रभाव पार्ने लेखक उनै मृदुभाषी प्रणय हुन पुगे भने अचम्म मान्नु पर्दैन । उनी उमेरले सानै छन्, तर आफ्नो लेखनमा केही नयाँ गर्न चाहन्छन् । यस्तै शक्तिशाली प्रयोगहरू उनको पहिलो कृति ‘सिटी अफ ड्रिम्स’ का धेरै कथामा पाइन्छन् ।  यस पुस्तकमा उनले अंग्रेजीमा लेख्ने नेपालीले प्रयोग गरिराखेको सामाजिक यथार्थवादको कथ्य शैली (न्यारेटिभ टेकनिक) लाई छोडेका छन् । संग्रहको पहिलो कथामा हिँड्न औधि मन पराउने कान्तिले काठमाडौंका सबै गल्ली चहारिसक्छ र सडक नापिसक्छ । सबै ठाउँको ज्ञाता भएपछि ऊ पाटन सरेर नयाँ सहरमा रम्ने कल्पना पनि गर्न थाल्छ । तर यही बिचार्दै ऊ जब एक दिन बस चढ्छ, नौलो ठाउँमा पुग्छ, ‘ह्यारी पटर’ शृंखलाका पात्रहरू ट्ेरन चढेर हग्वार्टस् स्कुल अफ विच एन्ड विजाड्रीको जादुयी संसारमा पुगे जसरी ।

त्यसपछिको घटनाक्रम औसत पाठकलाई पहिल्याउन गाह्रै पर्छ । दोस्रो कथामा प्रेरणा खोजिरहेको एउटा लेखकको कथा होइन उसको सपना पढेझैं लाग्छ । त्यस्तै, यथार्थिक संसारबाट अतियथार्थिक संसारमा लैजानै अर्को कथा ‘द प्रेजेन्स अफ गड’ मा शिवपुरी डाँडामा हाइकिङ गएका दुई जोडी साथी बाटो बिराएपछि एउटा मानिसलाई पछ्याउँदै रित्तो गाउँमा पुग्छन् । राति त्यहाँ अलौकिक क्रियाकलाप देखिन्छ– यी यात्रीहरू विशाल पशुबलिजस्तो कुनै भयावह घटनाको साक्षी बन्न बाध्य हुन्छन् । तर, बिहान उठ्दा उनीहरूले त्यहाँ राति त्यस्तो कुनै अनुष्ठान भएको केही संकेत पाउँदैनन् । आआफ्ना घर फर्कंदासम्म दुई जोडीमध्ये एक जोडीमा अनौठो परिवर्तन आइसकेको हुन्छ । भगवान्प्रति आस्था भएकी केटीले त्यो आस्था गुमाउँछे भने उसको नास्तिक सहयात्रीले भगवान्लाई विश्वास गर्न थाल्छ ।

संग्रहका बाँकी सात कथामा जादुयी यथार्थवादको यस्तो अद्भुत प्रदर्शन त हामीले पाउँदैनौं तर पनि ती पारम्पारिक सामाजिक यथार्थवादभन्दा पृथक् लाग्छन्, किनकि तिनमा प्रणयले समय र स्थानको संगतिलाई भत्काइदिएका छन् ।

प्रणयले प्रयोग गर्न खुबै रुचाउँछन् । उनको यो रुचिको स्रोत हुन्, होय लुई बोर्गेस र इटालियो क्यालभिनो । र, प्रेरणाका लागि उनीहरूका कथा पढिराख्छन् उनी । उनीहरूले लेख्ने कथाजस्तो पनि लेख्न चाहन्छन् । भन्छन्, ‘म सामाजिक यथार्थवादबाट टाढा जान चाहन्छु ।’ उनी थप्छन्, ‘हाम्रो संसार विसंगत छ । मलाई जादुयी यथार्थवाद मार्फत यो विसंगतिलाई हेर्न मन पर्छ ।’

उनका विचारमा नेपाली अंग्रेजी लेखनमा प्रयोग हुन पाएकै छैन । ‘हामी अंग्रेजीमा लेख्नेले अंग्रेजी साहित्यलाई बेवास्ता गरेर लेख्न सक्दैनौं । हामीले अंग्रेजी साहित्यमा केही न केही थप्नुपर्छ,’ उनी भन्छन् । अनि आफैंलाई सोध्छन्, ‘अरूहरूले गरिरहेको कुरा हामीले किन गरिरहेका छैनौं ?’ अनि अरुन्धती रोयको ‘द गड अफ स्मल थिङ्स’ को उदाहरण दिन्छन्, कसरी उनले उपन्यासको भाषा र संरचनासँग खेलेकी छन् ।

‘कथा भनेको कथामात्र होइन,’ प्रणय भन्छन् । उनका विचारमा यसमा पारम्परिक तत्त्वहरूबाहेक अरू पनि प्रशस्त प्रयोग हुनुपर्छ । वास्तवमा उनीे अंग्रेजीमा लेख्ने लेखकहरूलाई भाषा र संरचनासँग खेल्न आग्रह नै गर्छन् ।

उनलाई लाग्छ, बरु नेपालीमा लेख्नेहरूले प्रयोग गरिरहेका छन् । उदाहरणका रूपमा उनी कुमार नगरकोटी, अमर न्यौपाने आदिको नाम लिन्छन् । नगरकोटीले झैं उनी पाठकलाई स्वैरकाल्पनिक संसारमा पुर्‍याउन चाहन्छन्, न्यौपानेले झैं भाषासँग बग्न चाहन्छन् । त्यसो गर्न उनी सफल भएका पनि छन्् ।  उनको यो सफलताको जग उनी सानै छँदादेखि नै बन्दै थियो । उनी पाँच, छ वर्षको हुँदादेखि नै पढ्थे । ‘आई वाज ए नर्ड,’ उनी भन्छन् । अहिले पनि हेर्दा उनी नर्डी नै देखिन्छन् । फिस्टे शरीर । चिन्डे टाउको । लाम्चो अनुहार । र, त्यो अनुहारलाई झन् लाम्चो बनाउने मालीले स्याहार्न नभ्याएको बगैंचाजस्तो दारी । उनको परिचय नै ‘किताब पढ्ने केटा’ को रूपमा बनेको थियो, शीर्षक कथा ‘सिटी अफ ड्रिम्स’ को प्रमुख पात्र कान्तिको परिचय ‘हिँडिराख्ने केटा’ को रूपमा बनेझैं ।

पढ्नुबाहेक उनको अन्य केही रुचि थिएन । पढ्नमा कसरी रुचि बस्यो त्यो उनी खुट्याउन सक्दैनन् । उनको बुबाले अलिअलि लेख्नुहुन्थ्यो र छोराले पढोस् भनेर ‘टिनटिन’, ‘एक्स्टि्रक्स’ कमिक्सहरू ल्याइदिनुहुन्थ्यो । उनी भन्छन्, ‘म ती कमिक्स नबुझे पनि पढ्थें ।’ यसरी बुझी–नबुझी पढेका कमिक्सले सायद उनमा पढ्ने लत बसाल्यो ।

उनको पढ्ने लतलाई बढाउन काम गोदावरीस्थित सेन्ट जेभियर्स स्कुलको पुस्तकालयले गर्‍यो, जहाँ थरीथरीका पुस्तकहरू उपलब्ध थिए । त्यहीँ हो उनले सीएस लुइसका फ्यान्ट्यासी, हार्डी ब्वाएज र इनिड ब्लाइटनका जासुसी पुस्तकहरू पनि पढ्न थालेका । र, उनीहरूकै नक्कल गर्दै लेख्न पनि थालेका । उनी हाँस्दै भन्छन्, ‘मेरा कथाका पात्र, परिवेश सबै हार्डी ब्वाएज, इनिड ब्लाइटन शृंखलाका हुन्थे । तिनमा कथा पनि हुँदैनथ्यो, खाली प्लटमात्र हुन्थ्यो !’  पुस्तकहरू माझ हुर्कंदै जाँदा प्रणयको पठनमा परिपक्वता आयो । १४–१५ वर्षको उमेरमा उनले फेरि लेख्न थाले । त्यतिखेरको लेखाइ पनि उरन्ठ्यौलो र सतही हुन्थे । तर पनि उनी लेखिराख्थे । अनि साथीहरूलाई पनि देखाउँथे । आफ्नोभन्दा पृथक् दृष्टिकोण, ‘सेन्सिबिलिटी’ भएकाले आफ्नो लेखनलाई कसरी हेर्छन्, बुझ्छन् उनलाई जान्न मन लाग्थ्यो । उनका साथीहरू पनि पढन्ते थिए, विश्वसाहित्य पढ्थे, महत्त्वपूर्ण सुझाव दिन्थे । त्यसले पनि उनलाई राम्रो लेखक बन्न सहयोग पुर्‍यायो भन्ने उनी ठान्छन् ।

लेखक बन्छु भन्ने त उनलाई सानैदेखि थियो । तर, उनले लेखन गम्भीर भएर पछ्याएका थिएनन् । उनी भन्छन्, ‘राम्रो साहित्य लेख्न सक्छु भन्ने आत्मविश्वास मसँग थिएन । ४० वर्षसम्ममा राम्रो लेख्न सक्छु कि भन्ने लाग्थो !’ उनी सुनाउँछन् ।  पछि केही घटनाहरू भए जसले उनको आत्मविश्वास बढाउने काम गरे । सबभन्दा पहिलो, पढ्दै जाँदा उनले निष्पक्ष भएर अरू लेखकलाई मूल्यांकन गर्न सक्ने भए । विशेषगरी अङ्ग्रेजीमा लेख्ने नेपालीहरूको लेखनको तुलनामा आफ्नो लेखन कहाँ छ भन्ने ज्ञान पनि उनलाई हुन थाल्यो । उनी भन्छन्, ‘आफूभन्दा नराम्रो लेख्नेको पढेँ भने आत्मविश्वास पलाएर आउँथ्यो, लेख्नु भनेको नसकिने काम होइनजस्तो लाग्थ्यो । अनि आफूभन्दा राम्रो लेख्नेको पढ्यो भने लेखन दुरूहझैं लाग्थ्यो ।’

उनी राम्रो लेखनको रहस्य जान्न चाहन्थे । कुनै कथा राम्रो लाग्यो भने किन राम्रो लाग्यो, लेखकको कुन प्रयोगले कथा मन पर्ने बनायो, त्यो बुझ्न खोज्थे । कुनै राम्रो वाक्य पढ्न पुगे भने त्यत्तिकै राम्रो वाक्य आफूले बनाउन कसरी सक्छु भनेर उनी सोच्थे । विषयवस्तुको प्रस्तुति, पात्र चित्रण, संवाद कसरी गरिएका छन् भन्ने हेर्थे । कुनै पुस्तक पढिसकेपछि त्यसले आफूमा पारेको प्रभावको कारण खुट्याउन खोज्थे । यही कारणले होला सायद उनको अंग्रेजी भाषा, व्याकरणमाथिको पकड राम्रो भएको । अहिले त उनी एउटा राम्रो सम्पादकका रूपमा दरिइसकेका छन् । तर, उनी भन्छन्, ‘सम्पादन मेरो रहर होइन, बाध्यता हो । सायद अंग्रेजीमा लेख्ने सबैको स्थिति यस्तै होला किनकि अंग्रेजीमा लेख्ने सबैले लेख्नुबाहेक सम्पादन पनि गरिरहेका छन् ।’

सम्पादन कोर्स नगरीकन, सम्पादन र व्याकरणसम्बन्धी कुनै पुस्तक नपढीकन सम्पादक भएकाले होला व्याकरणीय पण्डित्याईं छाँट्नेहरूझैं उनी भाषा प्रयोगमा त्यति कठोर छैनन् र त्यही प्रयोग गर्छन् जुन राम्रो सुनिन्छ । अनि के सही, के गलतभन्दा पनि वाक्य सजिलै बुझ्न सकिन्छ कि सकिँदैन, त्यो हेर्छन् ।  यसरी अर्काको सम्पादन पनि गर्ने लेखक भएपछि बढी सम्पादन गरिदिने लालसा पनि हुँदो रहेछ । उनी भन्छन्, ‘सम्पादन गर्दा सम्पादकझैं भएर सोच्छु तर कहिलेकाहीँ मभित्रको लेखक हावी भइहाल्दो रहेछ । अनि योभन्दा राम्ररी त मैले भन्न सक्छु भनेर पुनर्लेखन गर्न, आफ्ना कुरा घुसाउन मन लाग्दो रहेछ ।’  अरूको लेखन पुनर्लेखन गर्न बेचैनी हुने सम्पादक–लेखक आफ्नो लेखन पुनर्लेखन नगरी किन बस्न सक्थे र ? उनी आफ्नो कथाहरू बारम्बार परिमार्जन गरिराख्छन् । उनले एउटा अन्तर्वार्तामा भनेका थिए, ‘सिटी अफ ड्रिम्स’ का कथाहरू पाँच, दस वर्षको बीचमा लेखेको हुँ । मैले लेख्दै गर्दा तिनले धेरै स्वरूप लिएका छन् ।’

त्यसो हो भने, पहिला लेखिएका कथाहरू र प्रकाशित कथाहरूमा धेरै भिन्नता छन् ?

उनी भन्छन्, ‘कथाहरूको रूपरेखा, ‘भ्वाइस’ त उस्तै हुन् । तर, पनि कथामा धेरै परिवर्तन भएका छन् । कथामा कुनै पात्र मिलेझैं लागेन भने त्यसलाई मिलाएको छु । यथेष्ट विवरणहरू थपेको छु । पात्रहरूलाई अलि परिपक्व बनाउने र पूर्ण बनाउने काम पनि गरेको छु ।’ यसरी निरन्तर पुनर्लेखन गर्ने उनको प्रवृत्तिले उनलाई फाइदा गरेको छ ।

उनको पहिलो कृतिको प्रशंसा समीक्षकहरूले गरेका छन्, उनलाई आशा गर्न सकिने नेपाली लेखकको रूपमा हेर्न थालेका छन् । उनको सुखद आगमनले नेपाली अंग्रेजी लेखनको अझै समृद्ध हुन मौका पाएको छ ।

City of Dreams reviewed in Lalit

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Reams of Dreams

Republished in Nepali Times, January 1-7 2016, #789

There are at least two ways to go about telling a story. More straightforward, though not necessarily easier, is to document societies and situations that amuse, frustrate, illuminate. Writing in Nepal, in English, one is tempted to do so simply because it hasn’t been done to the satisfaction of the writer, as much as a national and international readership. The risk is an anthropologizing or exoticizing bent that may overshadow the “meaning” of the text.

The alternative is to go straight for the jugular through the mechanism of a central conceit, a fictitious assumption. The advantage is the reader can be more easily convinced, if s/he agrees to suspend disbelief, that there is more to the tale than the tail that you see. The risk, if the writer places too much trust in the reader or has not, in fact, bothered to justify the conceit, is confusion.

Why should a book review begin in such didactic fashion? You may only want to know if City of Dreams is good, or bad. But in freely indulging himself in both social realism and fable, Pranaya SJB Rana has rather forced this reviewer to approach his debut collection of short stories crab-like, each pincer holding up a quite different species of fictive āhārā.

In truth, I dove straight in. The eponymous opener, about a man who likes to walk the streets of Kathmandu, and the next, about a man who stumbles across an intermittent muse on the streets of New York, sucked me into a phantasmagoric landscape strongly reminiscent of Calvino and Borges, both declared inspirations of Rana. The stories charmed me, just as the author’s winning entry to this year’s Writing Nepal had, which told of a man who can’t stop taking photos. I was convinced Rana had grown tired of documenting – perhaps he felt enough had been made of the preoccupations of Kathmandu’s middle class – particularly given the visceral realism of earlier stories of his. The prose was accomplished, the possibilities rich; I felt a rare excitement.

But herein lies the paradox of one’s first anthology. These are often cobbled together from stories written over time and space, encompassing formative periods of doubt, learning and inspiration. They can be uneven, both in stylistic approach and quality. And so it is with City of Dreams. The third story brought me back down to earth with a jolt, brusquely dispelling the mystery of the first two. Despite the fluent writing, the clever observations of human relations, “Dashain” seemed half-baked, even mundane. Perhaps it simply struggled to live up to the opening stories.

There are other stories in City of Dreams that, despite their lurid content – a girl who works in a massage parlour, another who suffers abuse in a Kathmandu home – appear to be going through the motions of documenting tragedy, performing the rites of social realism simply because they are worthy, downtrodden subjects. I couldn’t help but think that gender balance aside, the autobiographical author – the pained, meditative yet ultimately losing, sinking male protagonist – worked best.

But it would also be oversimplifying to say realism, bad; fabulism, good. “The Presence of God” is fantastical, but its central device seems inspired more by B-horror than any substantive philosophy. On the other hand, the gentle disintegration of “Our Ruins” as much as the violent denouement of “The Child” are as real as can be, yet work beautifully.

There are experiments too, in which Rana plays around with points of view. Dead men speak, finally sorry for the misery they have caused. City folk bounce off each other in a day’s trajectory, a voyeuristic narrator allowing us sneak peeks into their lives as we pass them. These tableaus not only hint at Rana’s imaginative power, they also demonstrate that he is a bold writer, willing to push against the boundaries of what we might have come to expect of South Asian writers. In each of the ten stories that make up City of Dreams, the author has tried to pull off something quite different. That he succeeds to the extent he has done is a tribute to the city we live in as much as Rana’s prose skills – even in a losing cause, the writing is always careful, sometimes scintillating, and promises much in what remains a sparsely populated field.

City of Dreams review

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Not like changing shirts

  • In City of Dreams, Rana’s stories are not superficial renderings of everyday Nepali life; they are animated with each character’s fear, insecurities and desire to become.
Weena Pun


“Becoming is banal. It is what we do every day, in subtle ways we never notice. Becoming someone different is not about adopting a persona; it’s about never admitting to yourself that you were ever anything other than this.”

These are the lines the protagonist of the short story, The Smoker, from the collection City of Dreams, thinks about after meeting an enigmatic character named Maya on the subway in New York City. Maya, whom the protagonist cannot recall if he has met before, asks him about an identity, seemingly his, and leaves him nonplussed, pondering about what it means to become. By the end of the story, it is clear that becoming is much more confusing than these lines appear to make. Having a name is not enough to be. Neither is being a published writer of short stories under that same name. The protagonist shares his first name with the author of the collection, Pranaya SJB Rana, and also with another mysterious character in the same story. In essence, here is Pranaya writing about Pranaya who meets another Pranaya, who could be the future or imagined self of either of the two Pranayas. It is dumbfounding. Becoming is dumbfounding. But the lines, nonetheless, encapsulate the theme of the book.

Becoming stronger, becoming freer, becoming more or less religious, becoming aware or becoming stuck, and in the course of becoming, changing or rather, as the above quoted lines put it, admitting what the person always was deep down, is a recurring idea in the book. In a reductionist’s version, this fixation might seem like a cop-out, but while becoming might be banal, Rana captures its subtlety and portrays them brilliantly—the change always a few pages away but still a lovely surprise when it happens.

For instance, in the last story on the book, The Child, the protagonist, Seema, hits with her carand kills, what she wants to believe, a stray dog. But that moment, which happens in the opening paragraph, gnaws its way in and by the end of the story summons in her the courage to call her marriage what it is—a loveless, hassle-free compromise. She tells her husband that she cheated on him. He yells and cries in response, but she is adamant in her refusal to hear them. Her marriage is crumbling not because she slept with her co-worker, but because she knows it was not just a stray dog, or even a child as the title suggests, that died that night; she killed something else inside her as well. The story is about her suffering through the realisation and ultimately accepting it.

In the book, Rana is remarkable at doing this: capturing a ‘tiny’ moment, allowing it to worm its way inside a character’s psyche, and then letting it explode at the end, with monumental irreversible consequences. In another story, Dashain, the central character, Rabi, goes from becoming a doe-eyed person in love to one sickened at the cruelty affection demands. A goat is not just mutilated in his desire to win a girl over; he loses self-respect in the course as well.What remains inside where there used to be butterflies then is hollowness, which the reader feels it equally acutely.

In stories like The Child and Dashain, the moments that force a character to reconcile with who they are happen in the physical world the reader knows, as a result of which, irrespective of the fine execution, some might say, “Seen that, done that, read that”. Where Rana really shines then is in stories like City of Dreams and The Presence of God, in which the elements of change come from a surreal world, real but not real, relatable but alien—in moments where Rana infuses a dose of magic in realism.

In The Presence of God, for instance, a bickering couple and their two friends, married to each other, hike up the Shivapuri hill only to discover a world incomprehensible to all of them. As they follow a man to a village beyond the hill, they realise the emptiness of the place is misleading. The village awakes at night, with creatures not of this world, devouring cows, goats and buffaloes alive. This scene, while it shakes the characters to their core, takes the reader one step deeper into the meaning of escapism intrinsic to hiking. For most people in Kathmandu, walking up the hill to Shivapuri is about getting away, getting inside and feeling fresh. They go up and they descend, hoping that the intense physical exhaustion puts them in touch with something inexplicable inside. In this story, however, the walk goes beyond and the inexplicable takes a bizarre form—frightening for the characters, but refreshing to the reader.

Most Nepali writers writing in English, like other ‘ethnic’ writers worldwide, have had to scream, while they write. It is understandable. Nepal is rarely a setting for stories in English and its people their characters. And while humanity is the same everywhere, cultural nuances do make a difference in how it manifests. As a result, ethnic writers often face the challenge of writing about a country/culture the world does not know. And sometimes, they solve this challenge by sacrificing stories and writing as if they are saying, “Look, this is my country. This is my culture. This is who we are.” Except in very few throwaway lines, Rana does not do that. His stories are set in Nepal, but they are not uniquely Nepali. His characters are not caricatures; they are layered and deeply flawed. And his stories are not superficial renderings of everyday Nepali life; they are animated with each character’s fear, insecurities and desire to become.

Weena Pun’s review of City of Dreams in The Kathmandu Post, December 19, 2015