The Royal Ghosts: Stories by Samrat Upadhyay [in Christian Science Monitor]
While Samrat Upadhyay’s latest short story collection, The Royal Ghosts: Stories, offers no happy endings, few feel-good moments, and hardly any contented characters, it is most undoubtedly an enticing book to savor and reread for all the nuances you might have missed the first time around.
In each of Upadhyay’s three works – including his two previous titles, the luminous debut short-story collection Arresting God in Kathmandu (2001) and the quietly desperate novel The Guru of Love (2003) – Upadhyay writes unflinchingly about displacement and deprivation in the Nepali capital of Kathmandu.
The city’s unpredictable upheavals are as much a character in his stories as the actual people he writes about.
Although the book’s title comes specifically from the final story with the same name, each of the nine stories in The Royal Ghosts is filled with characters who are haunted by loss.
The collection opens with “A Refugee,” in which a family of three takes in a newly widowed woman and her young daughter after the husband is brutally murdered by Maoist rebels.
The arrival of the partial family brings unexpected repercussions to the host family. The father finds himself inexplicably attracted to the widow, while his son must endure teasing from outsiders that his father has brought home a second wife.
In “A Refugee,” Upadhyay revisits a similar scenario he explored in his novel The Guru of Love. In fact, it’s probably no coincidence that “A Refugee” opens this collection, his immediate follow-up to Guru. The short story could be a condensed version of his novel, in which the wife shockingly insists that her husband bring home his mistress and her young daughter to live together under the same roof.
The philandering husband reappears in the collection’s middle story, the fantastically ironic “The Weight of a Gun.”
A man leaves his wife and their schizophrenic son to marry a much younger woman. When the ex-wife seeks her husband’s help because their son has disappeared to join the Maoist rebels, she befriends the new wife, who is now pregnant and feeling desperately isolated after being shunned by her family and friends for stealing someone else’s husband.
In the heartbreaking “A Servant of the City,” a young servant watches helplessly as a fickle, powerful married man devastates his mistress.
Marriage is also at the core of three additional stories.
In “The Wedding Hero,” a near-stranger’s marriage pulls a three-way friendship apart. In “Chintamani’s Women,” an office worker invites a co-worker to meet his ill father, who is not-so-patiently waiting for his son to marry.
Pressure to marry also drives “Father, Daughter,” in which a recently married daughter returns to her parents’ home to escape her unhappy, arranged marriage.
In the remaining stories, the question of love – between a man and a woman, between an actor and his audience, and between two brothers – is clearly under scrutiny.
In “Supreme Pronouncements,” a not-so-attractive political activist becomes involved with a beautiful woman. But after he briefly meets her ex-lover while in prison, the lovers’ relationship quickly disintegrates.
In “The Third Stage,” an older actor reluctantly returns to the screen and to a filmmaking world far different from the era during which he was a lauded star.
In the final story, “The Royal Ghosts,” amid the turmoil caused by the murder of the royal family by the Crown Prince, a burly, protective taxi driver experiences great personal upheaval when he learns about his younger brother’s homosexuality.
While each of Upadhyay’s stories might be summarized in a sentence or two, the depth of emotional response is difficult to quantify.
His characters linger. They are captured with such concise, illuminating precision that one begins to feel that they just might be real. I was certain I had met them before, at least in Upadhyay’s books.
I returned to his previous titles, delighted to have an excuse to reread them, and I found only a single returning character. The eponymous “Deepa Misra’s Secretary,” in Arresting God, reappears as the school headmistress in Guru.
Reading all three of Upadhyay’s books together only reconfirmed Upadhyay’s facile storytelling.
The final line of “Ghosts” – “eating well was probably the best thing to do in times like this” – reflects Upadhyay’s characters’ undeniable instinct to survive.
As crushing as the tragedies are, as unbearable as the pain seems, as frustrating as the losses can be, answering the need to survive for these lost and searching characters offers just enough hope that life may someday be, if not better, then somehow different.
“TBR‘s Contributing Editors’ Favorite Reads of 2006: These Are a Few of My Favorite Things … in Print, That Is …,” The Bloomsbury Review, November/December 2006
Tidbit: Upadhyay was a guest at SALTAF 2006 (South Asian Literary and Theater Arts Festival), a much-anticipated, highly-attended annual fall event sponsored by the Smithsonian APA Program and NetSAP-DC.