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Groovy, funky, and dark

| | in Agenda
Groovy, funky, and dark

Mad Country

Author - Samrat Upadhyay

Publisher - Soho Press, Rs 1,059

In the backdrop of political turmoil in Nepal, Samrat Upadhyay gives intriguing portrayals of characters who battle with their personal issues, creating a sense of madness in which the public and private entwine, writes Anubhav Pradhan

In as much as art is a mirror of life, the realities of our lived experiences today put considerable pressure on the conventions of representation. The task of the artist seeking to conjure the truths of our existence is particularly onerous. Not only is our world too diverse, too contrary, literature itself has a bewilderingly rich canon of techniques. It is from this plurality of contexts and methods that writers have to craft a distinctive style, a voice singularly their own. That Samrat Upadhyay is a master of this craftsmanship is amply demonstrated by Mad Country, his latest collection of stories. Groovy, funky, and dark, Mad Country hurtles through eight jumbled narratives to evoke a Nepal which is the stuff psychedelic nightmares are made of. The certitudes of civilised life, the certitudes of citizenship and democracy, none of these apply in the grittily surreal and deeply iniquitous country which Upadhyay evokes. With Kathmandu as his primary canvas, he gives uncanny depth and colour to the acute contrariness of not just Nepal but also the lives we live and share across much of South Asia.

The political, first and foremost, stands out as a formative influence over almost all of the stories in Mad Country. Far from the snow-capped Shangri-La of tourist brochures, Upadhyay’s Nepal is rife with revolutionary and sectarian violence. The state’s repressive shadow looms taller than the country’s fabled mountain peaks, touching all citizens with the insidious threat of governmental brutality. Indeed, no life is secure, no corner of the quotidian untouched by the regurgitative machinations of the body politic. This visceral risk to the body, to individual bodies to the integrity, tangible and otherwise, of these bodies with reference to their communities, their country, this is apparent throughout Mad Country. Whether it’s the disappearance of Chitra, the hard-hitting investigative journalist in the story “Fast Forward”, or the decapitation of the painter by Hindu fundamentalists in “Dreaming of Ghana”, or the whimsical incarceration of Anamika Gurung, the well-heeled and well-connected builder, in “Mad Country”, Nepal as it appears in these narratives is splintered red: massacred from within, imploding upon itself.

Upadhyay’s achievement in Mad Country, however, is not in simply portraying the political turmoil of his homeland. His achievement seems to lie much more in layering the atomised individuals who live and die and dream in this insanity. Families, for the most, appear dysfunctional, as in “Beggar Boy”, “What Will Happen to the Sharma Family”, and “Dreaming of Ghana”: parents see no future in or with their children, and children find no solace at home. Where there is a semblance of filial love, as in “Mad Country”, the state invades the private to tear it irreparably, making the love of a mother an unpardonable crime. Love in itself is a freakish mirage, as scarring as the hits of hashish and opium, and the psychosomatic transformations which kuirineys like Sofi desire in “Freak Street” result only in ruthless reassertions of their identities as inalienable foreign. Escape and exile seems to be a solution, as in “An Affair Before the Earthquake” and “America, the Great Equalizer”, but in both cases the personal is too umbilically affected by the public to not turn to the torpor of melancholia.

In all of these varied stories, Upadhyay’s narrative style is what binds Mad Country as distinctly contemporary. From positions of omniscience, his narrators delve deep into the troubled hearts of his characters: Shalini Malla’s numb helplessness at her young colleague Chitra’s disappearance, Ramesh’s tortured unravelling in the absence of parental love, the Sharmas’ fragmentation as a family, Sofi/Sukumari’s affective transitioning, Aakash’s attempts to find in Ghana an absolution for his ennui, and Biks’s descent into uncaring social defiance, all of these are presented with just the right amount of obfuscated detail. Insanity, after all, is just a scratch below the surface, and in Upadhyay’s Nepal the blows struck by context-by history and politics and the heavy weight of the future-to individual minds are enough to push one over to madness. The fact that this madness is real, that it is reality, is what makes the book a startling read: as much familiarly weird as magically real, both in a manner reminiscent of not just Chekhov but also Marquez. Significantly, the book is accessibly priced despite being well produced. Though the jacket cover fails to do justice to its vibrancy, nonetheless, at a time when accessibility is being routinely sacrificed at the altar of quality, Rupa’s example for this South Asian edition of Mad Country is one which other publishers will do well to follow.

The reviewer is a doctoral candidate with the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia. The views expressed here are his own




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