A Book Review of 'A Cry in the Wilderness and Other Short Stories'
Translation is a challenging art in itself as there is always a high risk of losing the crux of a written piece. However, Nepalbhasha to English translation of 'A Cry in the Wilderness and Other Short Stories' is credited to two of those names which leave no ground for any further debate, - Keshar Lall and Tej R. Kansakar. That sealed with the editing attributed to someone like Prof David Gellner, simply adds fuel in skyrocketing readers’ expectation from author Srilaxmi Shrestha. Before even reading a single line, her acid test begins in a curious reader's eyes, so this review will be keeping things as down to earth as possible.
The first in the collection, 'Bent But Not Broken' was written a couple of years even before this reviewer was born. That it is still relevant today proves that time has not changed for Nepalese women even till date! It is one of the shortest stories but speaks volumes of what is to unfold in the remaining majority of pages. Readers’ expectations keep rising whether or not it is doing any good to the book.
Then comes the second story 'Fickle Fortunes' as an account of NhuChhenMaim's tragic life. Here, of course, the main character is again a lady, again facing biggest of life's challenges, but she keeps fighting with all odds as an ordinary and no big hero. Basically, the characters’ lives are insignificant here but their tales are not. A stereotypical climax would have in it a lot of preaching and revolt probably establishing NhuChhenMaim as a demigod, but what we get is a much colder reality unfolding in a few daily life sequences, and that still works. What doesn't work in the entire package is the repeated quoting of traditional proverbs, which after a while sounds forced. Had she carried on with this pattern, the entire collection could have reached its monotonous low but fortunately she doesn't.
Most of Mrs Shrestha’s characters seem directly lifted from real life. The backdrops change, family histories change, relationships change but what get retained are the character's lows and highs in life, mostly in that order, dealt with a fresh new social issue. Sometimes the story is that of a saviour daughter, sometimes a sacrificing mother, sometimes a supportive wife, but more often a combination of these emphasizing the importance of woman in the male-dominated Nepalese society. The female lead generally follows social customs but does not hesitate to cross every orthodox boundary when needed for herself or her family.
The other genre of stories depicting her experience of a Nepalese lady’s life in the Netherlands comes as a gust of fresh air in the enterprise. These stories not only involve computers, Internet and pen drives, as in 'The Suspect', but also deal with cultural differences like in 'The Funeral'. 'The Funeral' can very well be considered her classic work as it interestingly peeps into the life of a working Nepalese housewife in a foreign land, gradually getting to learn about the Christian society. She cries when her Dutch friend's father dies and hugs her; the land is foreign for her but the grief is not.
It is not until the title story 'A Cry in The Wilderness' that Mrs Shrestha actually proves her mettle as a gifted story-teller. The narration opens up with a countrywoman washing dishes. As she removes sticky food grains from the dishes, it reminds her of overcoming life's equally stubborn obstacles. Shrestha's characters generally go through the toughest test of time, often involving extreme poverty and/or loss of family member(s). What makes her climax believable is not climbing back the ladder to prosperity but learning from life. Most of her happy endings generally involve forgetting about the miseries of life in the happiness of one's children.
Mrs Shrestha, for sure, likes indulging in detail characterization but on a flip side, it challenges the reader's patience at times. If you had enjoyed a more complex psychoanalysis of Nepalese society handled by the likes of Vishweshwor Prasad Koirala et al, Mrs Shrestha’s works may sound somewhat one-dimensional. She mainly excels in looking at characters through the window of culture, and depicting their social behaviour realistically. Because her stories have been translated from Nepalbhasha, it can help the readers in two ways, - a general non-Nepalbhasha reader can find out more about socio-cultural aspects of the Newars, whereas a more analytic observer can draw important conclusions about the state of story writing in Nepalbhasha literature, and that of Nepalese women’s involvement in writing.
Title: 'A Cry in the Wilderness and Other Short Stories'
Author: Srilaxmi Shrestha
Translators: Keshar Lall & Tej R. Kansakar
Editor: David N. Gellner
Publisher: Vajra Publications, 2011.