The Gurkha’s Daughter
When one reads that Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh were friends at university, that Henry Yorke and Anthony Powell lived together as undergraduates, and that Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis were on the very same course at St John’s College, one imagines that you can hardly buy a drink in Oxford without accidentally spilling it over some future novelist or other. Sadly, this is not quite the case; it’s entirely possible to spend three years studying in the country’s oldest university conversing only with dull-witted economists, who dream about working in some incomprehensibly vague job in ‘recruitment’ that no one would miss if it didn’t exist. Would that it were otherwise.
Having said all that, anyone who attended the university either last year or the year before had at least the chance of running into the latest Oxford writer to make a literary splash with his debut collection of stories: Prajwal Parajuly. Typing Parajuly’s name into Google will immediately inform you that he has already been hailed as: ”The next big thing in South Asian fiction”. That’s some claim, particularly as it was made before he had published a single story—about a year before in fact. The excitement surrounding Parajuly began in September 2011, when he became the youngest writer to be signed by Quercus, the publishing house responsible for Stig Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. Since then, he has also become the youngest Indian author ever to secure an international book deal. So, after some wait, we finally have his first book, The Gurkha’s Daughter, riding to our bookshelves on the crest of its own hype. Meanwhile, Mr Parajuly has been placed in the precarious position of having expectations to meet.
The first story, ‘The Cleft’, offers a promising start to the collection. A young girl—cast out by her parents for her physical disability and taken on by a rich woman as her maid—is tempted to run away by that perennially seductive lie: ‘I’m gonna make you a big star.’ The would-be talent scout, whose voice we hear only through conversations remembered by our protagonist, is a shadowy figure who grows increasingly sinister as the story progresses. As the story unfolds, the cleft of the title takes on more and more significance, showing Parajuly’s dexterous handling of physical detail.
Dreams of exile find their way into every corner of this collection. The strain which connects the eight narratives is the nation of Nepal and its far-flung diaspora. In the poignant ‘No Land Is Her Land’, a Bhutanese-Nepali family feels equally chewed up and spat out by both countries. The title story, too, pivots on the promise of another world and the delights of the West. One is conscious when reading ‘The Gurkha’s Daughter’ that the desire to access another world is part of the appeal of reading fiction (particularly fiction set in far-off lands) in the first place. It is this shared yearning that makes these characters so immediately familiar and their struggles so engrossing. Perhaps Parajuly’s greatest achievement is the amount of empathy and understanding he seems to have for such a large and disparate group of individuals; this is not a collection peopled by thinly-veiled versions of the author. Incidentally, the least engaging story, ‘The Immigrants’, a little romance number set in New York, has been called ‘semi-autobiographical’ by the Guardian. It’s difficult to get behind the protagonist, a young Nepali man leading what seems to be an incredibly mediocre life in America and who is trying to win a green card in order to continue doing so. Both in his fiction and in the interviews he has given, Parajuly conjures a picture of himself as a greatly observant and attentive traveller, who is fascinated by story-telling for its own sake. The stories in this volume are neither overtly political nor overt social commentary. Like a good poker player, Parajuly keeps his cards close to his chest, dangling these narratives of identity and nationality before our eyes and inviting us to make of them what we will. His pared-down prose style allows his stories to emerge as though from their own reality rather than from the artist’s imagination.
The fact that Parajuly has been given so much attention for his debut book is made more surprising by the fact that it is a book of short fiction. It is a truism in the publishing world that short stories do not sell. In his novel Model Behaviour, Jay McInerney jokes that a ”famous short story writer [is] an oxymoron. Same category as living poet, French Rock Star, German cuisine.” This marginalisation of short fiction is perhaps even truer in Britain than in America. Our major fiction prizes, such as the Costa and the ManBooker, can only be won by novels. In the US, a short story collection can win the Pulitzer and there is a far stronger culture of short fiction writing in their magazine publications. Despite this bias against the form, The Gurkha’s Daughter has garnered a handful of laudatory reviews in both the British and Indian press and has already gone through its initial print run in South Asia. Interestingly, Parajuly has already written his first novel and had written it before The Ghurka’s Daughter was printed. He and his editor, John Riley, made the deliberate decision to lead with the short stories, rather than go down the safer route of printing the novel first and hoping to sell the stories on the back of the novel’s success.
The question is why short stories are thought to have less commercial potential in the first place? Even among book lovers, one often meets people who express a blanket dislike for short stories. Maybe, it’s to do with a feeling that short fiction, by very nature of its brevity, has a quality of archness aimed at putting off ‘the common reader’, whoever that unfortunate lady or gentleman might be. Gone are the days of Roald Dahl’s twist-in-the-tale crowd-pleasers. To many, the term ‘short story’ immediately conjures the spectre of some quasi-Joycean epiphany: two pages of unfathomable prose that end before anything of note has happened. Or as Parajuly puts it: “stories that [have] less ‘story’ in them than poems”. Well, this is one criticism that could not fairly be levelled at The Gurkha’s Daughter. The book may not be a novel, but it is certainly brimming with narrative, narrative at the exclusion of nearly everything else. Reading this book, it seems that Parajuly is not interested in decorative prose or in descriptions of thoughts. It doesn’t seem likely that the book will be hailed as a triumph of style, but neither does this seem to be its purpose. Every single page is carried forward by story-telling—story-telling in its simplest and most compelling form.
Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in ‘A Father’s Journey’, a moving tale about a man who watches his daughter’s life steadily sliding beyond his influence. There is no recourse to inner monologues cataloguing the thoughts of the eponymous father, and indeed no need for them either. The events are bold enough and vivid enough to speak for themselves. This unabashed dedication to the most basic delight that reading has to offer, the universal desire to know what happens next, is the surest reason for this book’s success, and for Parajuly’s early acclaim.
Toby Lloyd read English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. He now teaches English and Maths at an independent college.