Shradha Ghale, the prodigal daughter

Bikram Rai

The struggle with kerosene stoves, the relief when you move up to propane. The steady stream of uninvited guests from remote parts of the country, who live for months as they try to get a foothold in the capital. The graduation from outdoor squatting toilets to indoor commodes.

Shradha Ghale’s novel The Wayward Daughter portrays a world familiar to many first generation migrants into Kathmandu, and much of it is autobiographical.

“I took a lot of material from the experiences of my near and dear ones, however, none of the characters exist in real life as they do in the book,” she says.

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The Wayward Daughter offers aspects of life in a Janjati family that make it unique from most other Nepali writings in English. The Tamule family celebrates Udhauli and Ubhauli, takes offerings of millet liquor, dried fish and a rupee coin for a marriage proposal. Ghale admits she knew her story had to be about a family from an indigenous community, because she herself had read very few such stories.

A smart Tamule child is complimented with “as clever as a Bahun’s son”. Some Tamules adopt Brahmin gods and traditions, bow down to priests, and look down upon other communities. The looking down is mutual because other communities also despise the “chimse bahun.” These nuggets from Ghale’s book are revelations even for Nepalis, and a reminder to readers about just how diverse Nepal is.

The greatest strength of Ghale’s debut novel is this no-nonsense, lean, almost journalistic prose.

But who exactly are the Tamule? Ghale gives an enigmatic smile to reveal that she made up the Tamule: “Creating an entirely new indigenous community gave me the freedom to explore my ideas, free of established stereotypes about particular communities.”

The Wayward Daughter succeeds in her deliberate attempt to portray a rich cross-section of Nepali society, showing how caste, class, and gender influence everyday life in Kathmandu. The story is about growing up in a multifarious, almost dystopian world that Nepal has become. Youngsters abandon traditions for modernity, as they prepare to go abroad for higher studies.

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At the Rhododendron High School that the protagonist Sumnima attends, students are fined for speaking in Nepali. Some readers will remember ‘boarding’ schools in the 80s, the rise of FM radios and the craze for celebrity RJs that Sumnima adores. She confesses (only to herself) that she eats dal-bhat twice every day, and yet in friends’ auto books she writes that her favourite food is ‘pizza’. Youngsters these days do the same: leave behind rustic roots, pretend they were never there, and head out for sophisticated western horizons.

The meandering story does not necessarily have a plot, even though every little sub-plot about the extended Tamule family offers fascinating nuggets of life. Ghale confesses that she did not start out with a clear plot in mind, but accumulated sections she wrote at different times, and had to cut out many parts that did not fit.

The stories are a continuation of the bits of fiction Ghale penned in her college days, imagining herself to be in league with great writers. “I loved Gustave Flaubert and Virginia Woolf, I did not just want to write like them, but sound as good as them. Writing this book became an exercise in humility for me, when I realised my own limitations. Every day you wonder where your work is going, if you will ever finish it, and if it will ever be any good,” says Ghale.

Hopefully, acclaim for her first novel will motivate Ghale to write a sequel, which many have already advised her to do. The novel ends just when things are getting more interesting, with the country about to plunge into a civil war. Ghale ends it there with a riveting epilogue that leaves you yearning for more.

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