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Ryan Piurek
IU Media Relations

Last modified: Friday, April 28, 2006

Ghosts (of royalty) still linger in Nepal

IU professorís new story collection tells of Nepalisí daily struggles in time of political unrest

April 28, 2006

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- There was dancing in the streets of Kathmandu earlier this week.

The celebration began after Nepal's embattled King Gyanendra announced he was capitulating to masses of protesters by restoring the nation's parliament.

Samrat Upadhyay

Nepalis, though, aren't easily fooled, said Samrat Upadhyay, a native of Nepal and professor of creative writing at Indiana University Bloomington. Many of them recognize that their nation's political problems are far from over and that democracy still faces threatening challenges, including a Maoist insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives and an army that remains loyal to the king. Having lived with political unrest all of their lives, Nepalis understand that victory might be fleeting.

How they cope with that unrest on a daily basis is the focus of Upadhyay's new collection of short stories, The Royal Ghosts (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). The stories feature characters who are trying to reconcile their innermost desires with the forces at work in Nepali society. Against the backdrop of the decade-long Maoist insurgency, the characters struggle with their duties to their aging parents, an oppressive caste system, the complexities of arranged marriage, and coming to grips with a family member's homosexuality.

The stories demonstrate just how much Nepal's political crises "are affecting the lives of people in very tangible ways. Even in purely domestic settings, there are threats looming in the background," said Upadhyay, whose last book,The Guru of Love, was a New York Times Notable Book, a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year and a finalist for the Kiriyama Prize, given annually to outstanding books that promote a greater understanding of and among the nations of the Pacific Rim and South Asian subcontinent.

Upadhyay, who was born and raised in Kathmandu and lived there until he was 21, has frequently spoken out against the monarchy, which he believes has prevented democracy from taking root in Nepal, and the Maoist guerillas who have engaged in a bloody quest for power. The title of his latest work, he said, is meant to acknowledge that despite democracy's emergence in 1991 after centuries of dictatorship and oppression, "the ghosts of royalty still linger."

As a fiction writer, though, he is less concerned with taking sides in the current conflict than with telling the stories of ordinary Nepalis and how they go about their day-to-day lives in a time of political crisis and significant cultural transformation.

Royal Ghosts

Cover of "The Royal Ghosts"

Print-Quality Photo

In one story, "A Refugee," a middle-aged man with a family provides housing to a widow of a victim of Maoist violence. This act of generosity arouses feelings of violence within him. Another story, "The Weight of a Gun," tells the tale of a mother and her relationship with her mentally unstable son who continues to insist he will join the Maoist rebels.

The title story takes place after a bloody massacre in 2001, when Nepal's Crown Prince Dipendra shot and killed virtually the entire royal family, including his parents, the king and queen of Nepal, in a drug-induced rage. Upadhyay individualized the shocking tragedy by basing his story on a character who is struggling to deal with his brother's homosexuality. Homosexuality, Upadhyay said, is a relatively new issue to Nepalis.

"Politics is not the be-all and end-all of Nepalese society," he said. "Yet people, and how they interact with the political world, are very important to me. Politics is always ensconced in internal conflict."

That politics affects even the most ordinary lives is not unique to Nepal, Upadhyay said. His characters confront issues and challenges that are "universal in nature. I'm writing for both Western and Eastern audiences. I want Western audiences to empathize with my characters and feel what I'm writing about."

Upadhyay also believes it is important that his characters present differing viewpoints, even though he has his own strong opinions about the current situation in his native country.

"This is an extremely difficult period in Nepali life," Upadhyay said. "Personally, I am extremely troubled by the royal takeover, the suppression of media and the atrocities that the army has participated in. At the same time, the Maoists have been up to no good. I don't believe in the ideas they espouse, and if they took over, I think things would be the same.

"It can be difficult not to allow my own perspectives to seep into my stories," he continued. "But I think a writer's primary task is to convey the complexity of society without dictating to the reader his own political viewpoint."

That doesn't mean he won't continue to speak his mind. He truly believes that democracy, no matter where it emerges, can ultimately overcome any resistance it faces.

"As messy as our democracy was in the first decade," he said, "there is no alternative to democracy."

To speak to Samrat Upadhyay or to receive a review copy of The Royal Ghosts, contact Ryan Piurek, IU Media Relations, 812-855-5393 or