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The Tutor of History, by Manjushree Thapa

May 8, 2014

The Tutor of History, by Manjushree Thapa.  Aleph Book Company (2012), Paperback, 472 pages.



A powerful novel by a Nepalese woman who interweaves the stories of different villagers touched by a political campaign being waged for the representative to the newly organized parliament.

Manjushree Thapa was born in Nepal and was educated in Canada and the United States. She returned to Nepal to work in various NGOs and to translate Nepalese works into English. She has also worked as a journalist and written non-fiction. Her Forget Kathmandu is an account of Nepal’s past and present which lead to her exile.  The Tutor of History is her first novel and the first major novel from her country.  She is committed both to Nepal and to writing.

Writing gave me the means to engage with a broader society. Every thing I want to write about, at least now, is in Nepal. There is so much that can be done here, if politics would stop self-destructing.

Public and private concerns merger seamlessly in Thapa’s writing. Involvement in the political campaign reveals and challenges who individuals really are. Yet politics in Nepal is full of graft and corruption. Thapa gives us bits of speeches from the various parties to show the illusionary promises they make. At one level the political campaign moves the plot, but the process is so flawed it is doubtful that the politicans can deliver much good. What matters more becomes the personal stories of men and women of a the small village drawn into the political campaign. The Congress and the Communist parties are the major contenders, but village supporters of the People’s Party, one of the numerous small ones, are hopeful. Their candidate is a movie star, charismatic, courteous to all, and idealistic, if somewhat naïve about democracy. He was born in the region and has relatives nearby.

Most of the characters that Thapa highlights in the book are men; mainly village men who bring their own needs and dreams to politics.  There is a former banker, deeply addicted to alcohol, who thinks he is the authority on how the region works. His friend is a kind and hopelessly optimistic man who served as  a the British Gurkha. A wealthy contractor is inspired by the words of the candidate to shift his life from the pursuit of money to seek redemption by helping those he had formerly cheated.  An extremely conservative Hindu seeks to gain financially from the party. From Kathmandu comes a  disillusioned Communist who was sent to spy on the local village party and to use them to draw votes away from the Congress party.  Caste may not be formally observed, but it affects how individuals regard each other.

Some women from outside the village are also involved in political campaign, but local women are ” too busy learning letters” to care about politics.  In their literacy class, they are not only learning to read, but are hearing challenges to ideas like “A women isn’t a woman without a baby.”   Later they organize a “mothers club” to work together for goals they share, such as the reconstruction of a shrine to a goddess.  My favorite character is Binita, the sister-in-law of a candidate, who runs a teashop where he stays.  She has been primarily focused on being viewed as a respectable widow, running her shop with her young daughter and an adolescent girl who is a cousin. “A lone woman, still young, draped in a widows’ fariya, a woman unloosened from the control of men: she tried to ward off criticism by subduing herself.”  Unlike the other village women, she had attended college and eloped with her teacher, a man from a different caste.  When he died, his family rejected her and she was extremely vulnerable. Binita blames herself for having given herself to a man who in dying had deserted her.  She and the candidate barely know each other, but his respectful treatment  gives her a place she could enjoy.  “He had given her people, and protection from them.”  At first she is resistant to joining the mothers club,”Was this her place?  Among unsure and insecure women, among women defeated, crushed and bound, among women easily ridiculed for their clumsy attempts at freedom: was this where she belonged?”  Slowly she finds a place for herself among these women, but trusting love for a man is even more difficult.

Thapa is equally adept at describing the village itself and the different ways of life that are meeting and changing there.

Khaireni Tar was a middling kind of town where it was common, while walking through the alleys, to enter the twilight of cultures: to hear the screech of Nirvana on a transistor radio while passing a group of women carrying loads of freshly scooped dung.

One character describes the village,

The city had come here to meet the villages, he thought.  Nepal’s wandering populations had gathered by the highway to make neighbors of farmers and businessmen, of squatters and landlords, of Hindu, Buddhists, Christians, Musalmaans, and the godless like him, and of Gurungs, Magars, Chettris, Bahuns, Kumals, and indescribable half-breeds….The faces that passed by were hewn by ambitions no longer met by local means.

While the village is changing, Kathmandu is like foreign territory, as another character tries to understand.

…The problem was the bigness of this city, its indifference, its people pushing against each other not knowing the background of those they talked to, its assumptions, its way of controlling the talk, its colors, its crowds,its disguises,its secret wires of communication, its whispers and its hidden power.

Whether she is writing about political and social change, the village, or individual characters, Thapa provides sharp, precise descriptions. Her book has its light, humorous moments, but underneath them she shows her care for people, their joys and their pain. The setting is Nepal, and we learn the particular lifestyle of its characters, but these are people we could meet anywhere, especially in other countries trying to adapt to change and to the larger challenge of individuals making their own decisions.

I strongly recommend this book, for those interested in Nepal and South Asia. More importantly, this is a book about cultures and individuals encountering change and about the interaction of the personal and the political. And this is simply another well-written book that is a pleasure to read

Thanks to Elen at southasiabooks for including this fine book in her recommendations for reading South Asian women writers.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 8, 2014 10:55 am

    I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed this one, I’m really looking forward to reading it!

    • May 9, 2014 9:20 am

      And I look forward to your review of it. It is so rich a book that choosing what to write about it is hard.


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