Author: Anshu Basnyat, LCPC
(Therapist, Parenting Coach, and Blogger of http://www.theempoweredparent.net)
A hot plate of steaming momos with achaar, chia, and laughter kicks off the CHAI Book club discussion of The Guru of Love by Samrat Upadhyay. As the reading group gather around the dining room, a wide range of topics spring up for the first hour and then an even livelier conversation takes place with the author himself via Skype! Through the discussions, we learn various aspects of Nepali culture such as family dynamics, sexuality, and national politics during the prodemocracy movement in the 1990s.
In the absence of the writer, we first talk about the story of Ramchandra, a Math teacher with meager means living in Kathmandu, Nepal and his adulterous relationship with his tutee, Malati. From the title, the reader might expect the protagonist to be a handsome person with excellent people skills and exuberance. On the contrary, Ramchandra is an average looking man who is less than charming with a bitter flavor in his personality. For the majority, what struck the most about this novel was how Goma, Ramchandra’s wife, reacts to his infidelity. She insists that his mistress live with their family, sleep in their bed with her husband while she sleeps with her two children in a separate room, and who also happens to be an unwed mother! Although Nepal is a socially conservative culture where arranged marriages take place and infidelity is not common practice; however, one of the Nepalese readers pointed out that it did occur more often than one would have imagined. These infidelities happened behind closed doors and women passively accepted their circumstances. Only through gossip did others found out about these practices. This, of course, led to a whole host of other interesting discussions!
Next, we engaged in a discussion about the complex web of family dynamics in Ramchandra’s life. His in-laws belittle him every opportunity they get since they come from a well to do family and he has not amounted to much in their eyes. Ramchandra struggles to make enough money to feed his family and save to buy land for a home in Kathmandu, which is a major status symbol Nepali culture. Goma’s parents want to exert their power and control with their money to buy them a home, but Ramchandra resists this every step of the way. He resents that his wife does not defend him to her parents, but feels quite gratified when his daughter, Sanu, has the courage to stand up to her grandparents about how they mistreat her father. Further, she scolds her mother for not speaking up. An alliance between Sanu and Ramchandra is formed until the infidelity comes out in the open. A cycle of disappointment, hurt and chaos ensue in the family.
The steamier theme of sexuality permeates throughout the novel. As Ramchandra faces his inner demons, he is asked by the Principal of the school he works at to talk some sense into another teacher who has an affair with a student. This irony keeps the reader engaged in the characters in the periphery like Shailendra Sir and Namita. The power differential between the men and girls in these relationships stir up a discussion on how the line gets blurred between consensual relationships and criminal behavior such as in rape and sex trafficking, due to the language we use to describe such acts. The steamy aspects of the novel took a different turn when Professor Upadhyay joined in the discussion. We reflected on how expressions of sexuality had changed over time in Nepal. In particular, public display of affection (PDA) was a rarity in the past, but in modern times, not only are the young couples freely display with holding hands and kissing, but so do the older generation. The author pointed out that this is quite evident in social media such as in Facebook pictures. Outside of PDA, talks about less common and less conservative topics of open marriages and young people engaging in orgies in their apartments in modern Kathmandu take place. Another reader stated that this is also becoming a trend in the affluent circles in India. I can tell you from my experiences that this was not a typical South Asian discussion taking place!
The book club discussion took a full circle when a reader asked the author how national politics during the pro-democracy movement impacted the people in Kathmandu. Although the author was not living in Nepal at this time, he did observe that the pro-democracy movement was not psychologically shocking to the people, but the King getting dethroned was significant. The royal Rana family had stripped the country of its wealth and everyday people such as Ramchandra, suffered because of it. It invited a mix of dynamics between the individual and the nation. For example, corruption took place where teachers purposefully did not teach their students well in order to gain residual income by privately tutoring students. Likewise, doctors in public hospitals freely referred their patients to their private clinics. The ethical boundaries quickly became blurred and continue to do so till this day.
This conversation was most intriguing when the readers were divided on who actually was the Guru of Love. Was it Ramchandra, Goma, Sanu, or Malati? The various meanings of love were cleverly portrayed in this novel by the writer. Love was not compartmentalized in The Guru of Love, but rather fluid, as it often is in real life.
Glossary of Nepali terms:
Achaar: Sauce often made from tomatoes, cilantro, and other spices used as a condiment.
Momos: Steamed dumplings filled with spiced meat of choice.
Chia: Hot, milk Nepali tea often with spices such as cardamom and cinnamon.