On the persuasion of a Canadian friend, my first ever book-review:
“ The Guru of love : A novel”: By Samrat Upadhyay. First published 2003 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
“The guru of Love” is the second book by Samrat Upadhyay, who presently lives in Cleveland USA, and teaches English at Baldwin-Wallace college. Samrat dedicates the book to his wife and appreciates the contribution of his family in the opening, who believe in his writing ‘without having to read it.’ He, a dedicated husband perhaps, often publishes books revealing the sexuality of the Nepali people, mostly living in Kathmandu, or as he thinks it is.
His first book ‘Arresting gods in Kathmandu’ had been a collection of many short stories that revolve around sexual themes. His third book ‘The Royal ghost’ had a title that promised some politics. But Samrat Upadhyay inevitably returns to talk about homosexuality in it.
‘The Guru of love’ is a title given to a middle-aged man, by his infant daughter Sanu, considering him a loving father. The daughter who grows up to flirt with a boy who comes to her father for tuition and resent her father, when he tries to intervene. She is squeezed once on her bottoms by the crotch of a passenger, in a crowded local bus of Kathmandu, while travelling with her family. RamChandra, her father, looses his cool on seeing his daughter being molested like that in the city bus, and challenges that passenger for a fight, to be only calmed by his wife Goma, to ignore the incident.
Goma is a devoted Hindu wife from a reputed family, who marries Ramchandra, a tutor-student without any regular income, who gives tuition to her sister Nalini, as arranged by his parents – the Pandeys. Pandeys are the elite of Kathmandu, unable to treat a destitute village migrant like Ram chandra as an equal, till they live. Ram Chanra was raised by his young mother, who was perhaps abandoned by her husband: something which Samrat doesn’t explain, avoiding carefully the sexual harassment a young woman living without her husband is subjected to, in the society. In one scene the young, tearful Ramchandra chases away a landlord trying to rape his mother, in a small room they have hired to live in. Pandeys treat Ramchandra contemptuously for his poverty, even front of their, other, richer son-in-law Harish. Sanu protests it at times.
RamChandra often suspects Goma had a scandalous life before he was offered to him as a wife, as he finds his in-laws unable to reconcile with his poverty. Ram Chandra teaches mathematics to the children at school and to the ones who come to him for tuition. He comes across an older student Malati, to whom Ram Chandra considers a loose-woman for merely belonging to the eastern part of the country. Soon it turns out that Malati had fallen into an intimate affair with a taxi driver, who deserts her when she becomes pregnant. Malati lives with her stepmother, an albino, the second wife of her late – a migrant village destitute – father. Malati, after giving birth to a daughter out of an illicit relationship, has no shoulder to fall back upon, as her stepmother is rendered querulous due to her motherhood.
Malati thinks she will pass the school exam and find a job after going to a college, to grow her daughter. And she meets Ram Chandra while seeking the mathematics tuition. Ramchandra gets involved with her in a sexual relationship, while she came daily to his home: a dilapidated rented apartment in an old house, that has a courtyard before it opens into the busy street, also shared by a few other tenants. She begins coming frequently during the hours they are left alone, as Ramchandra arranged. A fellow young widower tenant, Mr. Sharma, leading a sexless life, sings in a loud voice the prayers, gaping out of the window of his room, at the window of the kitchen of the apartment of Ramchandra, just as they kiss for the first time. Mr. Sharma stares wistfully at the growing up daughter of Ramchandra and got pummelled by a young man later, after he tries to molest his young sister one early morning, after she came to fetch water in Mr. Sharma’s house.
A young tutee arrives a little late one day, to give away tips to RamChnadra sent by his father, on the occasion of festival, and passes comments to Ramchandra on finding him alone with Malati in the apartment, soon after they make love for the first time.
Her husband told Goma about the affair, with a woman half his age. She protests initially, walking out with her son and daughter to her parents’ spacious home. Ramchanra makes love to Malati for the first time in his apartment – after Goma leaves – after a monkey foils their earlier attempt at an abandoned temple behind Pashupatinath, and leaves Malati with scratches on her shoulder and thigh. But Goma returns, considering it disrespectful to live with her parents after her marriage. And she accommodates Malati to live with them, along with her infant daughter.
She sleeps in one room with her children trying to explain to them the circumstances; or, rather asking them to avoid talking about the same, while Malati and Ramchandra make love in the another room after some foreplay. The young son of Ramchandra even starts likening the infant daughter of Malati and plays with her when she cries.
One day, some how, Malati comes in contact with her taxi-driver lover, who is ready to accept her and her daughter. And she is about to go away. To it Ramchandra protests bitterly. He is unable to let go of a destitute young woman, who might have served him as a sexual slave for life; to whom he thought of hiring as a servant at his home earlier. He considers it as a slipping away of a chance, to deny him fulfilling his newly awakened sexual needs in the middle age. But Malati is adamant and leaves with the father of her daughter. She probably had instinctively understood what the life ahead would be like, if she stayed with Ram chandra’s family for ever. Ram chandra felt like a victim for being used by Malati thus, and resentful of her leaving him.
Due to such an impetuous life Ramchandra is not able to purchase a piece of land to build a house, a deficiency for which his parents-of-laws are ever resentful. But Goma, the girl from an elite family of Kathmandu, tolerates everything Ram Chandra does, but never forgives him for betraying her. And, finally, the problem of the house too is solved, as his in-laws leave him his house while they die, giving the rest of the property to his divorced second daughter Nalani. Ramchandra is a complex character, who still follows Malati around the streets, while trying to win back the love of his wife whom he suspected to not be a virgin, as insinuated by his mother, before their marriage, as she was of his age. He thought, like others, that a wife must ideally be seven years younger to her husband.
There are some chapters in the book that also authentically describe the political turmoil in the country around the time Samrat Upadhyay left for the USA, where he even did the job of washing, as he conceded himself in an interview. It was when India imposed economic sanctions on Nepal that exacerbated the political problems and resulted in a movement that brought a kind of democracy under the constitutional monarchy in 1990. The resentment of the people in Kathmandu against India, for making a commodity like petroleum products scarce too is depicted by Samrat, who earned a degree in English to teach the same at a university, and write his books in the USA.
There are some factual mistakes too. Like the goddess of wealth, Laxmi is described as wielding a trident in one of her many hands. Also a goat or a hen is not sacrificed in front of a deity, as mentioned in the book, but only a male animal is. In the later part of the novel the story stretches on trying the patience of a reader, describing the political situation in the country and Ramchandra’s hidden followings of Malati in the bazaars of the city, who disappears for sometime, in between. Ending the story a few chapters earlier might have been better, but that might have rendered the book only half as thick.
Some of the western analysts have described his books as a good combination of spirituality and sensuality. Samrat’s characters seldom talk sex, but they always have it in their minds. They have it too, without ever referring to it directly.
But the analysts in Nepal had not been as kind. A lady columnist said of him: “ …you can take a boy out of country, but not the country out of the boy.” Perhaps he authentically describes the typical Nepali psyche in his stories that prudishly treats the matters sexual. The politics of sex is tyrannical or predatory in the work of Samrat, as the psyche of Ram Chandra elucidates. Who wants to keep a young woman as a sex-slave, but at the same time retain his kind, tolerant and well-bred wife; whom he suspects repeatedly to not be a virgin before their marriage.
Samrat has written the book well. So it invites praises and invectives simultaneously. He makes no pretensions at having a lofty vision for his characters. They lead the real, instinctive life of the ordinary Nepali mortals. Writing about the sexuality of the society, which is so often considered spiritual and conservative, is a new experiment by Samrat.
April 1, 2007.