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Opening Windows on the East

ARRESTING GOD IN KATHMANDU, by Samrat Upadhyay. Houghton Mifflin, 191 pp.,


IF YOU BELIEVE the latest news from Nepal, the recent massacre of the royal

family in Kathmandu rests, at least in part, on the shoulders of a young woman

named Devyani Rana. The girlfriend of Crown Prince Dipendra, who gunned down

nine family members and killed himself after an argument with his mother over

whom to marry, Devyani was a privileged young woman who enjoyed a life most

unlike that of her countrymen and -women. But even more than her social status,

her attitude makes her truly unique. When Prince Dipendra complained to her

that he was ordered to marry a princess of royal blood in order to inherit the

king's crown (though his mother did suggest that his girlfriend could stay on

as a mistress), Devyani, modern and Westernish, stood her ground. Refusing to

subsume her desires to the customs of Nepal, the strong-willed daughter of a

former foreign minister rejected the queen's advice and insisted on marrying

Prince Dipendra, because she loved, deserved and equaled him.

Removed from her upper-upper-class trappings, Devyani could mingle

comfortably with the characters in Samrat Upadhyay's first story collection,

"Arresting God in Kathmandu." The women in his spare, stirring stories are,

like Devyani, passionate and tough. Some are young and modern, others older and

traditional. In "This World" there's Kanti, who attends graduate school in

America; upon returning to Nepal, she insists on being able to date and

participate in the choice of her husband. In "The Room Next Door" there's

Nandini, who gets pregnant while away at college and wants to keep the baby.

Her mother, who everyone calls Aunt Shakuntala, will hear none of it: "The

thought of her daughter's figure swollen and deformed brought the taste of

vomit to Aunt Shakuntala's throat ... if Shanti wanted to keep the baby, Aunt

Shakuntala would give her such a thorough beating that the girl would never

mention it again." Faced with the very real prospect of Shanti's leaving her,

Shakuntala gives in, though she forbids her daughter from stepping outside her

house even once during the course of her pregnancy, lest she shame the family.

Then there's homely Bandana-ji, the title character of this collection's

true jewel, "Deepak Misra's Secretary." Skinny, single and with "thin hair ...

combed back with an awful smelling oil," Bandana-ji is an excellent secretary,

and a most unlikely seductress. On the surface she's traditional: quiet,

respectful, reserved. But she's also in love with Deepak, whose wife, an

American named Jill, left him. With assertiveness worthy of an American - or

Devyani - Bandana-ji tells him, "I think of you all the time, Deepak Misra. ...

I can give you so much more than [Jill] will." She becomes "more and more

beautiful to Deepak. Even [a pink blotch] on her face appeared to him a beauty

mark, enhancing her appearance." Through her own desire she creates a need in

Deepak, and turns her professional relationship with him into a personal one of

intense intimacy.

The relationship crashes, of course, though not with the drama and death of

the royal family. While his stories are sensual, Upadhyay's main elements are

disappointment and heartache; he tempers them only briefly by those most

pleasurable treats of life: touch, sound, desire, smell. (The scent of women's

hair oil leaves a trace on each story.) And though the characters in "Arresting

God in Kathmandu" are surprisingly sexual beings - Bandana-ji makes love to

Deepak on the floor; Pramod, in "The Good Housekeeper," distracts himself from

a job search by having a full-blown affair with a housemaid who picks him up in

the park - they never find true happiness through such primal wants. Throwing

caution to the wind gets you nowhere in Upadhyay's Kathmandu.

At the risk of sounding clich�d, it's safe to say that if you liked Jhumpa

Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, "Interpreter of Maladies," or Akhil

Sharma's pitch-black novel, "An Obedient Father," you will love "Arresting God

in Kathmandu" (which is the first book by a Nepali author writing in English

to be published in the West). All three open windows on the East through

characters who, even when unlikable (or worse), are understood. Lahiri and

Upadhyay also share a concern with the collision of East and West. Most

distinctly, however, Upadhyay strips down even further Lahiri's and Sharma's

most un-American style - a plain prose that skillfully accentuates the

emptiness and tension of each character. It is a style as fresh as the coconut

oil one of Upadhyay's women might comb into her hair.

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