Book review

A novel about leaving home that you cannot leave home without

There may not be a more delightful character than Prasanti, the eunuch, in recent Indian fiction in English.

It couldn’t only be a rich coincidence that the title of Prajwal Parajuly’s delightful novel, Land Where I Flee, has the word “land” to flag off the travel trail. Journeys of the most common kind are made on land, true, but in this novel set largely in the eastern Himalayas, where four grandchildren come together to celebrate their grandmother’s eighty fourth birthday, the “chaurasi” whose astrological significance Parajuly explains in a note – “With 12 full moons a year, it takes 84 years for one to witness 1,008 full moons. The 84th birthday is, thus, celebrated as a day of gratitude to the moon” – there are many kinds of “movements”, and not all moony.

“Flee” is a strong word, stronger than the centrifugality that blood ties often bring upon us, especially in the cusp of adolescence and adulthood, which is the time the four siblings, having lost their parents in a car accident, leave the Neupaney family home for various reasons: a girl for fear of the consequences of failing a board exam, another for a safety valve out of the restrictions of a sanctuary life, a son for the commonest cause of finding and furthering a career and another son flees, not once, but several times, because he, like many writers, sells family truth as pornography.

The family home, both nest and cage, cause of ailment and cure, is the axis around which the novel and its characters move – a better metaphor might be the staircases that Parajuly affectionately points out about Gangtok, Sikkim’s capital city. People, places, family, friend – all is a staircase. Run, Flee.

Subtle storytelling

To return to the title for a bit: the “land” in it, both as noun and verb. Parajuly, master storyteller, manipulates the narrative in such a way that we never forget that the “land” in the title is an important suffix to a greater demand, a collective voice for Gorkhaland, a political movement which also travels: “The alcohol flowed out, motionless. Like the movement. ... This is Gorkhaland, not Hitlerland”.

Subtlety is a technology that Parajuly has mastered early in his career – caste in his novel, for instance, is not a barbed wire that scratches; it is so much a part of the footwear of Nepali society that one slips into it without shoe bites. Parajuly does not put a question mark at the end, an act that might turn fiction into propagandist literature, but allows an accretion of details that collect in front of what would be an exasperated exclamation mark.

“‘Such a nice, long, pointed nose on such a fair face – you look as good as a Brahmin,’ said Aamaa.” This is a compliment for all purposes, and yet when it comes from Chitralekha, the grandmother, to Ram Bahadur Damaai, a man from a lower caste, the reader adjusts his spine against the wall. Parajuly refuses to play prompter. His job is done.

Special people

Land Where I Flee is a special novel about “special” people, special in the sense of politically correct nomenclature that goes these days and special by virtue of the interesting people who walk in it – the doctor from America who hides his male lover from his family, the granddaughter who hides her poverty, another whose burdensome marriage scars her face with age marks, the other grandson who puts secret family history out to tan into a successful writing career.

The novel, perfect in its control of speed in the narrative, could be a mix of two games, hide and seek and treasure trail, is also “special” because of the character of Prasanti, the eunuch. I have not encountered a more delightful character in recent Indian fiction in English. “How brave the eunuch servant was to live life on her terms. She was her sexuality, revelled in her in-betweenness, lusted openly, lived unapologetically. ...Was Hanuman, the Brahmacharya god, like him a homosexual?”.

If for nothing else, read this novel for Prasanti.

Land Where I Flee, Prajwal Parajuly, Quercus.

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