Prajwal Parajuly’s NepalisphereSikkimese author weaves stories of identity, culture, and family across the Nepali-speaking world and beyond
The Gurkha’s Daughter, Prajwal Parajuly’s debut book was birthed out of a lie. Parajuly had just quit his advertising job in New York and temporarily moved back home to Sikkim.
Like any South Asian household, Parajuly’s family was not too keen on this career choice. He was met with endless questions about his plans.
To shut them up, I just told my parents I was writing a book,” recalls Parajuly, who had never really considered becoming a writer. Aside from creative writing class in college, it had been long since he had actually written fiction.
Parajuly grew up in a Nepali-speaking joint family of lawyers in Sikkim. Academics did not elicit as much excitement as winning a debate competition or ranking in a short-story prize, reading was always encouraged and books were always aplenty.
He grew up in Gangtok, which despite being small was a melting pot of cultures. He grew up in a Hindu family, went to Sunday school at the Protestant church next door, and attended a school whose leanings were heavily Buddhist. This made him more conscious and considerate of the intricate lives of the people around him.
The maternal side of the family had its roots in Nepal, and Parajuly visited Kathmandu every other year. “This was where you’d escape to when you wanted to go to a big city but were too nervous to go to Delhi or Calcutta. At least in Kathmandu, you can talk in Nepali,” he relates.
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The mixed family roots influenced his own sense of identity. “One of the reasons you write is to make sense of all the different identities you’re juggling, and I’ve had to negotiate this for all my life,” he says.
This perspective changed as Parajuly grew older, and he liked that he was a “hodgepodge” of the two countries. This is perhaps a reason why Parajuly is so popular in polyglot South Asia. His Nepali-Indian ancestry and his childhood in Gangtok are recurrent themes in his stories which deal with the sentiments of a new generation of South Asians, and their struggles with identity and culture.
Writing his first book was a struggle. “It felt like I was learning how to write all over again,” he remembers, “I didn’t even know if a comma went inside the quotation marks or outside them. But I was 23 or 24, and blissfully unaware about how the publishing world actually functioned. The sole reason I started writing a collection of short stories was that I naively thought that a novel would be too difficult to write.”
Parajuly never expected the book to achieve the level of global success that it did. At 27, he became the youngest Indian to sign an international publishing deal when he got a multi-country, two-book deal with London-based Quercus Publishing.
“It’s the biggest professional mistake of my career,” he says about releasing Land Where I Flee just a year after his debut. “I was at a literature festival still talking about a book that I wrote years ago. This didn’t sit really well with me. But then writer-friends around me tell me that that is the dream, to still be able to milk a book that came out so many years ago. Sometimes I feel smug about that, and other times I feel extremely ashamed of it. It’s a bit of a rollercoaster.”
Since his last book came out Parajuly has started teaching creative writing at Colby College in Maine and recently finished up a stint as a visiting faculty at Sciences Po, Paris. He was also on the jury panel for the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2018, a contest where his own debut book had been shortlisted in 2013.
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Much like the characters Parajuly writes about, his books have also crossed borders and in turn, crossed cultures as well. His books have been published in various languages, Land Where I Flee was translated into the French Fuir et revenir.
But the task of translation goes beyond converting words from one language to another. Even when Parajuly himself is writing, he is continually thinking of Nepali-Indian dialogues and adapting them to work well in English. Many of the things Parajuly writes about would be alien to his Western audience.
The main reason The Gurkha’s Daughter is the title story for the book is because the publishers wanted a title that could resonate with readers in both the Subcontinent and the UK. When the book was being launched in North America, the publishing team and Parajuly even considered changing the title story to The Immigrants, the final story in the book.
The translations Parajuly feels most grateful for are the ones closest to home. The Gurkha’s Daughter was translated as ‘Gurkha Ki Chhori’ in 2015, and the Nepali translation by Bibhu Luitel of Land Where I Flee was published last month as ‘Chitralekha ko Chaurasi’. Both translations were published by nepa~laya in Kathmandu.
It must feel strange that characters speaking in Nepali were first rendered into English in his stories, and then had to be translated back into Nepali. At the launch of ‘Chitralekha ko Chaurasi’, Parajuly admitted that he always imagined characters in his book conversing in a mixture of Nepali and English. Now that those dialogues are in Nepali, he feels the book has come full circle. A homecoming of sorts.
Says Parajuly, “There was a point in my life where I thought that this was the end, perhaps there will only be two books. But I’m at a different point in my life where I think maybe I have another book or two in me.”