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Waiting

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In line at the bank. Queuing up at the fuel station. A slow-moving procession at the passport department. In an endless column to get gas. At the window on a dreary February morning, sky overcast, with a light drizzle beginning.

We wait. Everywhere we wait.

We wait for everything, whether in the physical or the metaphysical. We wait for materials like gas and petrol as much as we wait for intangibles like freedom and equality, respect and identity. The promise of being Nepali is an eternal longing, a wait so long no one knows when, or if, it will ever end. It is an absurd wait and we are all Vladimir and Estragon, Didi and Gogo. For like those two, we too don’t know if what we wait for will ever make an appearance. Godot is always just a day away, not today but surely tomorrow. Meanwhile, our masters have gone blind and we slaves have lost our voices. For those very masters, those Pozzos, once promised many things – a glorious republic, a vibrant democracy, development, progress, wealth and standing – just like Godot promised, not today but surely tomorrow. They have gone blind now, for everything is immaterial except for the dark that hides behind their own eyes (or glasses), that very dark where reason sleeps and produces monsters. And we slaves, we Luckys, once we spoke with conviction and feeling, a passion born out of what we thought of as values we should aspire to – freedom and equality, respect and identity. But now, in the midst of that long wait that never ends, we speak volumes of gibberish that pour liquid gold into the ears of those who would only deign to listen, poisoning them from within. Until, until, we don’t speak at all, struck dumb and yet, yet, still leading the blind.

But if we are Luckys, we are also still Didi and Gogo, waiting always. And this waiting, it’s not really a choice; it’s a compulsion. Since April’s disaster, thousands have been waiting. First, they waited for rescue, then relief, then reparations. Now, they wait for anything that will come. They braved the monsoon and they braved the winter. Not because they chose to, of course, but because is there any alternative really when the whirr of a helicopter’s blades triggers, Proustian, the palpitating rush of the earth rumbling underneath and the obliterating crash of an avalanche.

Sometimes, the waiting seems to come to an end. But it is almost always a false dawn, a sham of a thing, made up to look like something it’s not. So it was with the constitution, which finally arrived in September. Only it wasn’t really what we were waiting for. A celebration was held, a masquerade, where all dressed up in finery, the statute was unveiled, touched to forehead in reverence. And while some of us asked if this was really what we had waited for, others burned it angry and yet others marvelled at the elaborate farce. Much had been promised, that something wondrous would arrive. Instead, 10 arduous years, 10 long years, for something so meagre. Godot had metamorphosed.

Waiting implies hope and hope implies aspiration. In these godawful times, when we are neither here nor there, reeling from one natural disaster and a few unnatural ones, we wait for anything that might provide some semblance of inspiration. So when a football team runs a blitzkrieg and despite all odds, comes out on top, it is a rousing moment, especially when one considers the long years spent waiting for one Supreme Leader, among many, to vacate his toasty throne. Overnight, men become heroes. It is deserved, no doubt, but we have learned to reach for champions like drowning men clutching at straws. A prime minister dies and we extol his humility, his poverty, meagre qualities that have become all too rare. We have been waiting too long for another kind — a visionary stalwart, honest and open, global and local, respectful and compassionate, erudite and wise.

We all do our own personal waiting, whether it is waiting for a love or waiting for the bus, waiting on the rain or waiting for a friend. This is the waiting we do every day of our lives, not for some grand solution or some abstract ideal but for things simpler, the breath of a newborn against your chest, the touch of a longed-for hand against your own. But waiting is so much easier when you know the outcome is all-but-certain; it is much harder when you don’t know if what you wait for will ever arrive. But what else can we do? So much of the time, circumstances dictate where you are and what is coming your way. The universe is indifferent to us, but at times, it can feel so wilfully malicious.

So we wait, in lines, in queues, in columns and in rows. At the side of the road, in our bedrooms and every so often, day after day of our dreary, workaday lives. Maybe there is some romance to this waiting, some personal meaning to this cosmic absurdity, like Sisyphus with his rock. Perhaps, it is as Didi reasons, “What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come.”

What keeps us going is that there is light at the end of this abysmal dark, that we are not just waiting for waiting. But there is always that nagging fear, that maybe there is no end to the waiting and that life for us is just this, an endless delay. We were promised, not today but surely tomorrow. And we are afraid it is already tomorrow.

[Published March 5, 2016 on The Kathmandu Post]

 

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Written by Pranaya

March 6, 2016 at 10:12 AM

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