Ordinary People

Reviewed by Wendy Law-Yone
Sunday, April 9, 2006

THE ROYAL GHOSTS

Stories

By Samrat Upadhyay

Mariner. 207 pp. Paperback, $12

This being a collection of stories set in Nepal, it isn't difficult to guess who the royal ghosts in the title are meant to be. The kingdom of Nepal has been ruled since its birth by hereditary monarchs, and, as a famous prince of Denmark learned, many a hereditary monarch is "doom'd for a certain term to walk the night."

In recent years, the ghosts of Nepal's dynastic rulers have formed a long queue. In 2001, the drug-crazed Crown Prince Dipendra gunned down his entire family -- his parents (the king and queen) and his brother and sister -- along with seven other royals, before shooting himself. The palace massacre in Kathmandu was on a scale unprecedented since the slaughter of the Romanovs during the Russian Revolution. But the attacks of 9/11 quickly eclipsed that grisly episode. In a country wracked by civil strife, with Maoist rebels and government forces in ever-escalating conflict, the royal ghosts are subdued -- in the imagination of the outside world, at any rate.

The setting for these subtle stories is contemporary Kathmandu, where the ghosts of royalty seem at first not just subdued but -- with the exception of the last story, which gives the book its title -- absent. These are middle-class lives for the most part, led by decent, well-intentioned, modest city folk. They may be treated occasionally to rum-and-Cokes and margaritas and meals in hotel restaurants that serve pakoras and sushi, but they don't truly envy or trust their affluent friends and relatives: not the rich co-worker who brokers an ill-conceived marriage -- and funds the wedding -- of a destitute peon; not the daughter who drives a red Mercedes and makes "frivolous shopping trips to Singapore and Abu Dhabi"; not the wealthy property-developer son-in-law (" 'Selling condos,' Akhil said, giggling. 'Condo, condo,' he chanted, delighting in the fact that 'condo' sounded like the word for ass in Nepali").

These are salt-of-the-earth citizens, trying to live right and do right by their families and their colleagues, trying to stay the course in the face of considerable political and societal strains. But for all their goodwill and moral purpose, their lives are circumscribed by the fears, prejudices and power struggles played out not only in the streets but also in their homes.

By taking pity on a young widow whose husband was killed by Maoist rebels -- and bringing her and her young daughter into his home -- a good-natured family man is himself provoked to violence that almost kills his son.

A political activist in love with an attractive, engaging young woman ends up in a jail cell with a man who claims to be her former lover. After his release, the activist is unable to ask the woman if the story is true and, in the grip of mistrust and jealousy, succeeds only in driving her away.

These are stories about resistance and conflict, but also about acceptance and surrender. A young boy from a mountain village, who comes to work in the city as a servant to the lovelorn mistress of a married man, is so captivated by the woman's helplessness and misery that he ends up feeling responsible for her, bound to her for eternity. "If he were to leave Laxmi Memsab and find a job in another household, he could see himself . . . becoming racked by guilt . . . . Somehow he knew that this was how things would continue for a long time to come . . . . Even if he were to visit his village, he would keep worrying about her, and return to her as quickly as he could."

A retired film star once known as the "Dilip Kumar of Nepal" decides against his better judgment to make a comeback -- only to achieve a rueful awareness that nothing can reclaim the magic of the years before his first movie role, when "in the dark of the theatre he always imagined himself up there on the big screen, delivering pithy dialogue or expressing complex emotions through one raised eyebrow. He'd leave the theatre with a bounce in his walk, dreaming of the moment when he'd be discovered."

The author of these quietly assured stories is a Nepali writer whose previous books, Arresting God in Kathmandu and The Guru of Love , have won a Whiting Award and much acclaim. The Royal Ghosts deserves an even wider readership -- if only because it takes us straight into the heart of the troubled and enchanting kingdom of Nepal, where it appears that the ghosts -- of royalty or stubborn tradition -- are not really subdued at all. ยท

Wendy Law-Yone is the author of the novels "The Coffin Tree" and "Irrawaddy Tango."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company