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Book Review

Nothing to Declare


SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | New Delhi, May 23, 2011 15:14
Tags : International & Diplomatic Affairs | nepalese | bollywood | world | physical | agenda | anjel | leeberal art | nothing to Declare | Rabi Thapa | Penguin Books |

Book Review: Nothing to Declare
Author: Rabi Thapa
Publisher: Penguin Books
Language: English
Binding: Paperback
Pages: 172
ISBN-10: 0143415435
ISBN-13: 978-0143415435

In another avatar as a correspondent covering International & Diplomatic Affairs; there is this question that is time and again put to me. “Why does India have such a bad relation with every possible neighbour it has?” And invariably, receptions after receptions, seminars after seminars, there are two sets responses that I offer. I either slip away pretending a call or change the topic to cuisine or, in the case of Delhi, weather.

But back to my home, I always ponder upon the question. Lately, I have come to realise that there is but one simple answer. We Indians don’t know anything about any neighbouring country of ours, but surprisingly, have very definite (and unshakable) opinion on almost all of them. Our media, driven by unclear and often mutually conflicting agenda, either confirms the stereotype or plainly ignores it. Bollywood, that despicable, incestuous, physical non-entity that festers in Mumbai, has managed to achieve something that even Joseph Goebbels will envy. It is from this indoctrinated group that the flesh and blood of Indian bureaucracy and diplomacy is drawn. Needless to say, they remain as clueless in office as they used to be when they merely aspired to be in that office.

The process of reverse indoctrination is not easy. In fact, it has never been easy anywhere in the world. In such circumstances, it has fallen on the writers to set the record straight. I, therefore, maintain that writers like Shahryar Fazli, Jameel Ahmad and Manjushree Thapa are not merely writers. They are our instruments in the process of reverse indoctrination. Today, I can arguably add one more name to that: Rabi Thapa.

‘Nothing to Declare’ is a collection of short stories by Rabi that are either set in Nepal or amidst Nepalese Diaspora. A mix of sweet, sour, coming-of-age and sexual-awakening sagas, ‘Nothing to Declare’ allows its readers to pip into the life of a rainbow of Nepalese characters like never before. Not all of the 16 stories are engaging, but a majority of them that are, are enough to spellbind you. Rabi gets to his act in the very first story, ‘Initiation’, which maps a child’s matrix of emotions during his ‘Bratabandha’ ceremony. But more than anything, the story inadvertently takes it readers in a world that draws parallel with some of the traditions that are prevalent in Eastern states in India. It just gave me a goose bump that ‘Brayabandha’ and ‘Upnayan’ ceremonies in Bihar, Eastern UP and Bengal are similar to the smallest of rituals. And surprisingly, rather tragically, it is in these frontal states that Nepalese blue-collars get a taste of an oxymoron called Indian hospitality. Humiliation, chastisement, molestation, assault and what not: these people, the bravest of the brave, bear all that in their quest for a better livelihood.

A more sophisticated lot of Indians, the Hill-boarding-school boys and girls, will have their own sense of Déjà vu in another story called ‘Angels’. The story talks about Dhiraj, a boy held in equal disdain by his seniors and peer in a boarding school, and his coming of age. In many ways, this remains the most moving story of this book. By exploring the theme of boys-having-sex-with-boys and the bonds that generate it or is generated from it, Rabi successfully manages to outline a creed, the creed of boarders, which transcends boundaries between the nations in this region.

“For some, their “anjels” were trainee girlfriends, in all innocence. They’d go see their anjels, take them presents, tell them how much they loved them. It was no surprise that the cutest kids were noticed first of all.”  Those frantic attempts in the dorm and otherwise to satisfy the sexual urge, the judicious use of chloroform, the tradition of keeping a junior as sort of protégé and above all, the almost passionate urge to protect the name of the institution in the face of almost certain blots; the story is as much true for Banepa, Chitvan, Bhaktapur or Pokhra as it is for Mussoorie, Dehradun, Shimla or Darjeeling.

Indian stereotypes about Nepal in two broad genres: while the first holds it as an underdeveloped, conservative, backwater of a nation, the second notion, mostly held in Indian metropolis, considers Nepalese boys as Junkies and girls as “available”. Rabi mocks these notions very subtly. In the story titled ‘No Smoke Without Fire’, Rabi first debunks the notion of conservative-backwater by making the protagonist, a boy, and his younger sister smoke marijuana in unison and then, as if in an attempt to rub it in, adds, “In Nepal, it’s hard to get grass sometimes, though it is supposed to be everywhere.” Ouch.

Rabi has also dealt subtly with a subject that has the dubious distinction of being almost the national passion in Nepal—migration to the west. This motif has been explored in many of his stories and in many different toners. But that this idea so dominates a Nepalese mindscape is best described in a story named ‘Desire’. Somewhere amidst his search for a suitable girl and opportunity to satisfy his desire, the protagonist also takes out time to imagine about America. “Even their college system is so liberal, you understand,’ Chitra had observed the other day. ‘Leeberal arts.’ He said this with relish. ‘They only have five hours a week. Machikne, we have five hours a day!’” If a boy of 20, brimming with libido, allows his restive mind to divert to anything other than the contours of the female form, that thing is one hell of a national passion indeed!

Yet, another moving story is ‘A Nepali Maid’ that delves into the world of urban-feudalism and its changing contours in the light of economic prosperity. The story about a maid and her complex relation with her masters has a universal appeal. The protagonist, who is also the narrator, has left Nepal long ago and has been exposed to liberal ideas in the west. He, however, desperately tries to balance it out with the conflicting notion of feudalism. “When I am done, I take my plate to the kitchen rather than simply leaving it on the table, a token gesture I have adopted since I left Nepal and started coming back home for holidays. It makes me feel as though I’m not too much of a feudal lay-about.”

This and his mother’s self-righteous advice for the maid to stay back on the pretext of her own benefit every time she makes her mind to return to her husband (when her biggest concern actually is how to find a replacement), concedes a lot about how this system works in any of the country it is still working. But he is also cautious enough to give space to the wind of change. The advent of money, the rise in social status, and how it affects the relationship between the newly rich onetime servant and his onetime master makes an interesting read. “When we bump into each other, on the phone, in Thamel, he addresses me in the circumspect manner of a Nepali who has risen above his social station. The old demarcations of class, reinforced by his former standing as a servant with us, are still discernible, as much as both parties pretend they do not matter anymore. By speaking English to me, Krishna avoids the need to choose between differential levels of address.” Too good.  
However, Rabi’s masterpiece remains the title story, ‘Nothing to Declare’. Bikram migrates to London to stay with his friend Raghav who had come to the city a couple of falls earlier. The segment where Raghav briefs freshly landed Bikram about the nightlife of the city is a class in itself.  “You might find a nice Indian chick tonight, if Srijana don’t mind. Just for one night, don’t worry! Here the Indian girls are different, understand, they only look Indian, they act like they’re kuire.” With that one line, Rabi has not only straightened the record but has taken a collective vengeance on the part of Nepalese girls as well. It serves us Indians well. After all, there cannot be a better way to make us Indians realise how stereotype hurts than by making us exchange the place with the victim.

However, not being a hypocrite, Rabi also explores the possibility where every stereotyped community searches another community to stereotype. In the same breath where Raghav shows Indians their place, he also calls Blacks, “Hapsi”, and adds for good measure that in the darkness of a discotheque Blacks, the only thing he could “barely see were just eyes, teeth and gold!”

‘Nothing to Declare’ is an essential buy for everybody who wants to experience Nepal up, close and personal. Rather, I’ll add, it remains the second best thing after going Nepal and experiencing it by yourself. Not the landscape, but the people.                 

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017