09 June 2010

Palpasa Cafe by Narayan Wagle

Pulitzer Cafe
When we first meet Drishya, the hero of this book, he’s a tourist, spending Christmas in Goa and on his way to Kerala to celebrate the New Year. A girl he sees on the beach is engrossed in a book – the book he wrote about his paintings.
This makes him sound sophisticated, and he is, but the way he becomes besotted with the girl, Palpasa (“like a bee to nectar”) and the way he is unable to express his feelings, reveal a simple and vulnerable person.
Back at home in Kathmandu, Drishya, Dai to his friends, receives a visitor to his art gallery one day. This is an old friend and student leader who had turned to violence and who now forces him to travel back to the village of his birth. The beauty is as he had left it, and birds wing on rhododendron blossoms as the snow on the hillside melts – but the trail is stained with blood. Drishya sees a cowherd who reminds him of his childhood: “He was still tending cattle, while I’d become a painter. We were separated by a span of two decades, but at his age I’d been no different from him. I spoke like him, I even looked like him. The only difference was that this boy’s mother didn’t drag him to school by his ears. A bomb had ripped his school apart. After that, forty of his classmates had been abducted and held for two days. The headmaster had been killed. The cowherd came every day to these forests littered with mines.”
Walking through the hills, Drishya stops at a lodge where he stays in a room with Manisha Koirala smiling down at him. From his rucksack he takes out a novel, The Bridges of Madison County, imagining Clint Eastwood as he reads about the character called Robert. Suddenly the lights go out, throwing the film stars on the wall into darkness. As the electricity comes on and then goes off again, he notices that the telephone lines are dead. Suddenly it seems as if the whole market has gone up in flames and a sound like hail pours onto the tin roof above. The attack had begun.
This book is beautifully written and tells the tragic story of modern day Nepal, weaving the fear, helplessness and trauma of the people Dai meets as he wanders, with his own romantic feelings and longing for Palpasa.
Author Naryan Wagle is a respected Nepali journalist and he makes brief cameo appearances at the start and end to give context to his story. The book also uses different forms – letters, poems, and long passages of dynamic, scintillating and lifelike conversation, which I particularly enjoyed.

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