Wizard of words
Writing fiction is like moving into a house with people you don’t know.”
Words of her professor that have stayed on in author Manjushree Thapa’s memory. In her new book of short stories titled Tilled Earth, she has lived with so many characters and understood them so well that readers can actually identify with them.
Her portrayal of Nepali characters are so convincing that it sounds strange when she says she had a tough time adjusting to Nepali society. She studied at St Mary’s in Kathmandu till Class VI, but was in America during her formative teens. She made short visits to Nepal, and during those visits the only things she could associate with Nepal were “traditional and conservative”.
“I felt I couldn’t do things I wanted to in Nepal. At that time I thought that there is no way I could fit in this society,” says Thapa as she enjoys coffee at Mike’s Breakfast, her favourite haunt in the Capital.
Even when she returned to Nepal at the age of 21, she was not ready to stay here forever. However, her visit to Ghandruk and Mustang changed her mind. Thapa says she realised she could live in the country if she could travel to different places. She headed the project in Lo Monthang, Mustang under the Annapurna Conservation Area Project.
She coins her one-and-a-half-year stay in Mustang as “very interesting” and adds with a smile, “The most interesting thing was that neither the locals nor I could speak proper Nepali, but somehow we managed to communicate.”
And it was there that she felt the urge for “creative expression”.
Her first book — Mustang Bhot in Fragments — a travelogue came out in 1992. Though she confesses she was not confident about being a writer, her three other books have well established her as a talented writer. With Tutor of History and Forget Kathmandu she has made a mark in both fiction and non-fiction writing.
For Thapa, fiction is all about discovering her characters and believing in their individual stories. She confesses she does take certain external details from real life, but she believes fiction is an investment in people that do not exist.
“You can’t force the characters to do anything. They dictate the story and they move it forward,” she says.
The subject matter dictates the writing in non-fiction, and Thapa believes non-fiction has clear boundaries giving a writer less freedom.
“For non-fiction, you have to meet people, see things. It’s basically a reportage. Non-fiction gets me out in the world, but while writing fiction, I am stuck in my room with my computer,” she says.
Thapa can write anywhere provided she is “alone and has the whole day free to write”.
“I prefer long hours so that I can take breaks. I don’t even answer my phone when I am working,” says the writer.
She counts the no-television days of her childhood as a major plus as she got to read a lot then. From Enid Blyton to classics, she just ate her way through the books.
“My parents were horrified that they had to buy books from Ratna Pustak Bhandar so many times as I would finish books very quickly,” Thapa adds with a grin.
Russian literature is a major influence she says and picks her Tutor as example.
A member of Gallery 9, Thapa says visual art is her other passion besides the written word. Her opinion of the Nepali art world: though the creations are technically sound, the subject matters need to be more involved with the nation’s social and political context.
Thapa enjoys watching movies and listening to music though she pleads she doesn’t know much but “appreciates them as a fan”. Rock’s her tune and enjoys Wim Wenders’ movies.
Her friend’s house is her other favourite hangout and Thapa says she enjoys hosting parties for her friends. “I am not a very good cook but I do cook occasionally. I like to cook Italian food. I cannot eat daal-bhat everyday.”
Big parties are not her scene and though people have considered her to be reclusive, she prefers to call it a “professional hazard” saying, “I have to protect time for my writing.”
A self-confessed “tensed person”, Thapa works out at a gym on a day-to-day level to help her de-stress.
A practising Buddhist, Thapa attends retreats whenever she has time. This, she says, helps stop her thinking process and wash out things stuck in her mind.
Apart from her new novel that she has been working on for the last two years, she is also working on the biography of Dr Chandra Gurung, who died in the tragic Ghunsa helicopter crash, and who was her mentor.
“If I had not met him, I would not have stayed in Nepal,” says Thapa of late Dr Gurung. She believes that if youngsters meet people like him who are living a productive life in Nepal, they will get inspired to create opportunities in the country itself.
The turnout at the launch of Tilled Earth is proof that she has proved her calibre as a writer in Nepali society. However, the writer herself finds fame very strange.
“I am still not used to being recognised. I often get surprised,” she says.
But she does agree it has opened many doors for her. “I no longer have to face the insecurity of not being able to publish my work.”
In her own words:
I like his work a lot. His breakthrough is very impressive and I think we should all be celebrating his achievements. He has got a very good focus on individual story, and that is the ssence of a fiction.
After reading Tutor of History, a lot of people said that they felt like they have met the characters in the book. I wrote Forget Kathmandu for the international community, and it is very humbling to know that foreigners do pick up the book when they are in Nepal.
There are writers who know much more than me, or are more talented. It is just that I write in English and I have the advantage and hence get more publicity. But I consider myself lucky as I have got immense support from the literary community of Nepal.