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Some thoughts on Pranaya Rana’s “City of Dreams”

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I wanted to read Pranaya Rana’s City of Dreams since it was published.  So, when Balu sent a copy of it as a gift from Nepal to Pravat and Pratima, I took the opportunity to read it quickly before passing it onto its rightful owners. And, here are some thoughts on it:

All works of fiction have descriptions of things and narratives of events, but City of Dreams not only has ‘stories’ to tell but also ‘art’ in it.  The finely woven surreal tales told in flowing prose full of intricate details tread along that thin grey line of human existence that divides the beautiful from the ugly, bravery from cowardice, good from bad, and salvation from doom. It is not that these stories cannot be narrowed down to an issue or theme: for instance, “Dashain” is a coming of age story, “Knife in Water” is about marital violence, “Maya” is about how poor girls from villages are forced into prostitution in Kathmandu, and “The Presence of God” deals with a young atheist ultimately accepting ‘God’. But all these stories are more complex; more layered and nuanced, so that reducing them to a simple theme strips them of their richness. The stories are keenly aware of the social, political and cultural context that surrounds them. There is a rich reference to the socio-political environment around them, from the Maoist insurgency to poverty and social divide, from the hardships of urban life to the inefficiency of the government bodies, and from the alarming brain-drain to social exclusion, yet none of the stories makes a direct commentary on them. Rather, though they make use of these social details, they simultaneously seem to be hinting at a more complex and diffuse reality.

This ability to incorporate both pressing social issues and hint at something beyond seems to be Pranaya’s strength (but could well be his weakness, too). Thus, while his stories are easy to read, they are not so easy to understand, if stories are to be understood at all. Story after story, there is something mysterious, something more than and beyond what the words say, something that is not so easy to grasp. If this is a question of developing his personal style or even a sort of philosophy of writing or indeed life, how far to take it would be an important question for him. He can write more enigmatic stories than these, and by doing that he will surely lose some readers, primarily the so-called ‘general’ readers. But whether he would make himself a better writer by taking this intuition further would be something we could only decide after reading more from him.

Pranaya’s bold use, not only of Nepali words but of entire sentences every here and there, mostly without a translation or even without italics (except for longer phrases/sentences) is something that you surely won’t miss. So, don’t be surprised to find words and phrases like ‘lutey’, ‘saley’, ‘jyotish’, ‘maar’, ‘mamaghar’, ‘pichaas’ and ‘Kuirey’, or fillers like ‘khoi’, ‘kya’ or ‘chup’, or phrases/sentences like  ‘Koi cha?’, ‘Ke bhayo?’, ‘Aira ho?’ ‘Kasto cha timilai?’, ‘Ma sakdina’, ‘Phuchcheharu lai, no entry’, ‘Dai, kun gaon ho yo?’ on every other page. Every time I came across these words and phrases, I would wonder what someone who didn’t know Nepali would make of them. But hasn’t the same thing happened to us when we read many foreign stories, and hasn’t it enriched our experience and knowledge of them rather than limiting it?

Among a few others, there is one thing in particular that I might call a blemish in his storytelling: his endings. His beginnings are amazing, his middles are remarkable, but it is in the endings that he seems to be confused and lost. Sometimes they are overly didactic (as in “The Presence of God”), and at other times they are so perplexing (which is the case for many of the stories) that you are not sure what to make of all the pages that you read to arrive there. In fact, he has accepted this difficulty in one of his stories where he writes, “And yet one little thing remains—the end. How to end it? All that has been said, all that hasn’t been said, all depends on the end….There would be no end to my story. May be that was the way it was supposed to be. After all no story ever ends.” While I appreciate the difficulties endings pose to writers, particularly writers of short-stories, I wonder if the resolution suggested here isn’t a little bit easy, and clichéd, almost a kind of deliberate closure to more original ways of thinking about endings. A more thoughtful and interesting approach to endings might provide better directions to his stories.

The big names of Nepali English writing have more often than not disappointed us over the years; the quality of their works has hardly been able to match to the fame they have earned. Rather, it’s the writers of the younger generation who seem to be doing their job better. After Prawin Adhikari’s Vanishing Act, Pranaya Rana’s City of Dreams has been that book of short stories by a Nepali writer in the recent times that has undoubtedly made me more hopeful about the future of Nepali English literature.

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