Feeling at home nowhere and everywhere

Ranjan Adiga’s stories are all about fellow Nepalis and the struggle for identity in their new homes

Ranjan Adiga’s debut short story collection, ‘Leech and Other Stories’, is a bold and honest exploration of a wide variety of modern experiences of Nepalis home and abroad.

A million Nepalis leave the country every year, mostly for work, and about 90,000 to permanently resettle abroad. The ten stories in this slim volume revolve around characters who have migrated and are dealing with issue of identity in their adopted homes. 

Four of the stories involve Nepalis in the United States navigating success, divorce, cash jobs in Indian restaurants, diversity committee politics, and the Broncos.

America is where Adiga himself is based currently, teaching Creative Writing and English at Westminster College in North Salt Lake, Utah. After publishing a few articles for this newspaper in 2010, and a brief internship at The Kathmandu Post, he spent some well-paying years in advertising in Kathmandu and Bahrain. 

Fascinated by fiction, he did an MFA in creative writing at University of North Carolina Wilmington, before completing a PhD at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Observing Nepalis struggling with identity and acclimatising to American culture gave the fiction writer in Adiga plenty of plot material to work on. 

Adigais often mistaken for Aravind Adiga, author of the Booker-prize winning author of the 2008 book, The White Tiger that was made into a Netflix movie starring Priyanka Chopra.

“When you introduce yourself in Nepal, it’s never just your first name. If I just say ‘Ranjan,’ the next question is automatically ‘Ranjan ke?” Adiga tells us during a recent visit to Nepali Times. “People are often intrigued, and some harbour preconceptions about who I am.” 

And if it is not being mistaken for Aravind, it is to be taken for an Indian. But Ranjan’s pedigree is even more exotic: his grandfather was a high priest of Pashupati Temple in Kathmandu, whose predecessors have been traditionally sourced from Udupi of the Karnataka-Kerala border in south India for the past 300 years. Both his parents are Nepali.

Like many people who straddle multiple cultures, Adiga does not feel completely accepted in either place. In fact, the uprootedness of being at home everywhere and nowhere helps him in his writing, and that is also reflected in many of the characters in his stories. 

They too feel alienated in new cultures with various values and different requirements for getting by: whether a Madhesi in Kathmandu, a newly-Christian Dalit woman, or a homocurious uncle.

One of the ten stories is titled Leech, and seems to be inspired by the experience of author and former American Peace Corps volunteer Broughton Coburn, whom Nepali Times profiled in 2006.

Says Adiga: “A lot of my characters feel like parasites in the system, they feel alienated in the places they find themselves, often facing dilemmas between morality and survival.”

Indeed, the protagonists in Adiga’s stories are mostly morally ambiguous. They may steal, lie, cheat and drink, but ultimately own up to their mistakes.

“Most of my stories tell themselves as I write. It’s a process of discovery, of observing what the characters do and how they interact,” Adiga explains, adding that in only one of the stories did he start with the plot completely outlined beforehand. 

That story is ‘Student Visa’ about a Nepali youngster named Sanjay on whom his parents have great expectations: he will go to America and eventually bring Mom and Dad, too. Sanjay completely bombs the interview but lies to his parents (and to a neighbour uncle who has a brother in the States, and is naturally an expert) that he got the visa.

The author seems interested in how Nepalis deal with relationship norms abroad. Adiga writes about couples in the US where the wife has a ‘better’ job and earns more than the husband, and a visiting father of a divorced son who looks past all of his successes in tech and only talks to him about his failed marriage.

This is a story titled ‘A Short Visit’and has a strong plot with real writing. Nirmal is the son who works in tech and has a fancy house and a Tesla. His Baba is an electrical engineer turned alcoholic. Father and son bond over alcohol as a poignant, vulnerable story unfolds. Baba is not supposed to drink at all, and when Nirmal’s sister in Nepal finds out, she berates Nirmal.

Brother and sister also have an interesting dynamic. Nirmal is rich and divorced in Denver, while Binita lives in Nepal with a stable joint family and children. The question looms: who has made the bigger sacrifice?As the booze flows, son and father process their different understandings of the divorce, get into arguments, and head to a party where Baba gets on stage and tells the crowd that he loves his son.

“That was the story that I had to write quickly, as a replacement for one that fell through,” Adiga explains. “I wrote it in about three weeks, while usually take several months on each one.” 

Adiga’s stories are observant, uncomfortable and true. Like when he talks about Nirmal texting his ex-wife occasionally and liking each other’s photos on Instagram. Or when he writes: ‘Baba looked like someone’s driver at a wedding in Nepal, cowering in a corner, scrounging on leftovers.’

In ‘A Haircut and a Massage’ a middle-aged man named Krishna is in a sad sexless marriage and teeters on the edge of homosexuality. When his wife sends him out to buy veggies, he starts frequenting Iqbal’s salon for full body massage. Krishna’s marriage had started out well but deteriorated after his wife had their first child. Most of Adiga’s stories feature strong, pragmatic female characters who are in charge, with weaker and often embarrassing male counterparts.

Adiga writes bravely about issues that we usually skirt around. ‘High Heels’ looks at a Dalit woman who converts to Christianity and works at a bank, doing better than if she did what her caste identity dictated. Prosletysation may have its problems, but the Church treats her as an equal. 

The story ‘Diversity Committee’ is about the tension between a professor and his white female student after he follows an awkward hug with an iffy text. Soon there is rumour spreading around school that the prof has a staring problem. The student has heavily bought into diversity brainwashing and is a star student, and now does not know what to do that her Professor-Of-Colour has hugged her and stroked her back.

Meanwhile an interesting interaction is taking place between the Nepali professor and a Black lesbian professor in the same department. They are good friends in lily-white rural Idaho, but also compete for leadership and inclusion grants from the diversity committee.

Adiga admits that one his inspirations is fellow-Nepali writer in America, Samrat Upadhyay (The Guru of Love, Arresting God in Kathmandu, Mad Country) who is also a Kathmandu St Xavierite. The short, clipped sentences, sparse prose and simple plot lines involving Nepalis are indeed vintage Samrat. And like Subcontinental authors who write in English, Adiga also grapples with making the vernacular dialogue sound authentic.

The stories are set where the author lives and works, and it is about fictional fellow-Nepalis, so it is natural to wonder how autobiographical they are. Ranjan Adiga leaves us guessing.

Leech and other stories NT

Vishad Onta