The Gurkha’s Daughter is a collection of short stories set mostly around Nepal and North India, the border-straddling region which is home to ethnic Nepalese. Educated in the West, Parajuly shares the ability of other South Asian authors like Aravind Adiga, Mirza Waheed and Mohammed Hanif to write about utter foreignness in a way that we Western readers can relate to, and in The Gurkha’s Daughter he uses the short story format to highlight multiple social classes, backgrounds, religions and perspectives to build up a textured portrayal of the region and its people.
Many of the stories treat class issues. A servant decides not to leave her employer, despite years of verbal abuse. A girl leaves her boyfriend, a good man who is not from her caste, to end up marrying a Brahmin who is a drunkard and a bit of an idiot. A shopkeeper cannot complain about a regular shoplifter because the girl’s family is rich and respected.
“They laughed the laugh of two people who had known each other a long time but were still uncomfortable with the vast gulf separating one’s silver-spoon upbringing from another’s fast-improving but modest existence.”
The story I found most affecting was ‘Mixed Blessing’, set in Darjeeling. An orphaned engineering graduate has forfeited his chance of a lucrative IT job to look after his elderly grandmother who could not bear to leave the mountains. He lives in poverty, has been targeted by missionaries, endures family slights and puts up with abuse from his grandmother about not getting a job.
“Rajiv wheeled their suitcases into the bedroom, all the while hoping they wouldn’t ask where the sitting room was. An aunt had once made the mistake of enquiring about the sitting room, and Rajiv hadn’t known how to answer. She understood his jumpy silence and didn’t pursue the matter further, but Rajiv, to this day, remembered the humiliation he suffered at the insensitive query.”
The final part of the book looks outwards towards the Nepalese Diaspora: refugees in Bhutan are offered the chance to resettle in the USA, a Gurkha returns from an overseas posting, children are sent to the USA to study and hopefully work as well. The last story, set on the East Coast of the USA, is written from the immigrant’s perspective, turning the usual immigrant tale on its head when (spoiler alert) a six-figure salaried professional contemplates marrying his domestic help to get a green card.
This all adds up to a neat, intelligent collection. If I have to criticise it I’d say that the style is not particularly groundbreaking, and the stories did start to get a bit samey around the middle of the book. But if spare, elegant prose is your thing there’s lots to like here. And not just because of the whiff of exoticism – I think it would be equally interesting if based somewhere like Sheffield, for example, which must be a good sign.
Any Cop?: Indian newspapers claim that Parajuly is ‘the next big thing in South Asian fiction’, and his first book shows sure signs of good things to come. Read it now so you can say you were in there at the start.