Nepali Moksha

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“Jaya Nepal” needs a “Careless Whisper” level indiscretion to make the inclusion of Adriana worthwhile.

For the untravelled (like me), Martin David Hughes’ Jaya Nepal is a unique opportunity for an enticing glimpse at Nepali life beyond the tourist camera. Benjamin Creed, a newly enlisted Peace Corps volunteer and our narrator, provides us with special access behind a social curtain that is inaccessible to most tour guides.

His Peace Corps colleague, Beth, describes Benjamin’s ability to engage with the Nepali people as seeming “fluid and effortless.” He has “this universal sense of humor that people find attractive.”

In her own words to him:

I think that without even trying, without even being conscious of it, you cut out a lot of the filters that normally exist when two people from such different cultures try to communicate. You drop your filters and they, correspondingly, drop theirs. It’s an instant heart-to-heart connection.

We are fortunate Benjamin so willingly shares the fruits of his talents. He takes us, bounding from rooftop to rooftop with his newfound friend, Nepali Pete, a ex-patriot happily scavenging to make ends meet on the streets of Nepal. Benjamin travels with him by jumping from rooftops to rooftop to a Nepali drive-in where the night’s feature is a Bollywood film called Gangster.

He also takes us to the Slice of Life Bakery, a renowned Katmandu cakeshop whose clientele includes tourists and according to Benjamin’s Peace Corps friends, “career criminals, thugs, pushers, and mercenaries.” We get to know the establishment’s “imposing” owner, Raju Shrestha and peek inside the Slice’s backroom where many of Katmandu’s underworld figures lounge and smoke a hookah.

Benjamin introduces us to Dr. Damu Sankar Singh, his boss at Pepsicola Townplanning’s medical clinic. Dr. Singh is a respected figure in the community and enlists Benjamin’s help with mounting public campaigns to persuade its citizens to follow the 3Bs: “boil your water, bury your excrement, and build a chimney.” Benjamin eventually imbues Dr. Singh with the role of surrogate father and asks his advice regarding an important life decision: He wants to leave the life he’s built in Katmandu to pursue the woman he loves in India — Adriana.

Adriana de Rosa is the reason Benjamin Creed joined the Peace Corps. The bad ending of his relationship with her drives him to pay penance by “investing” himself in “the lives of all members of the society in which you are placed” (the unspoken deal with the Peace Corps). Beth believes it’s Benjamin’s self-loathing over how he ended his relationship with Adriana that makes him such an effective Peace Corps volunteer. She refers to it as his “dark side.”

She explains her belief to him on a trip to raft down the Bhote Kosi:

At the heart of it, something happened to all of us that made us angry about the state of things. Something upset us so much that it caused us to look for meaning in other areas of our lives… I do believe that that anger, when harnessed properly, can be a beautiful thing, and that it can be used for the purposes of good.

While they were never the lovers he hoped they would be, Benjamin squashed his budding friendship with Adriana through a hateful message. He regrets sending that message and joins the Peace Corps as a penance.

But does there need to be a dark side? And if there does need to be a dark side, I fault the author, Martin David Hughes, for not providing a darker one. Jaya Nepal is littered with details about Benjamin’s relationship with Adriana that distract from his Nepali narrative. The story jumps back and forth between Benjamin’s time with Adriana to his present day adventures in Nepal. However, the Adriana flashbacks do not provide readers with a deeper understanding of Benjamin or enhance his Peace Corps experiences.

On the banks of the Bhote Kosi, Benjamin’s friend, Beth reveals the reason she joined the Peace Corps. She is conflicted over her decision to give her daughter up for adoption. Comparing this revelation to Benjamin’s, the latter’s seems very insignificant. Benjamin’s darkness was a let down. The time I spent reading about his relationship with Adriana was wasted on an angry letter. I think it would have been different if he had made an inappropriate advance and was rebuffed by her like in that “Careless Whisper” song by Wham! It would have been the darker shade I needed to see meaning in Adriana’s ongoing inclusion in the story.

Because of the pages devoted to her, Martin does not provide readers with a deeper exploration of Benjamin’s character. For example, when Benjamin meets Nepali Pete, he tries to “mimic his loping, swaying gait” but he never reveals why? Before that, Benjamin tells readers he “picked up a few simple Nepali phrases along the way, just enough to make some common requests and pose a few relevant questions.” But he does share these requests or questions. In that same chapter, he speaks about the “soulful melodies” that would become “personal anthems” to him. But he never tells us which songs or why they came to hold significance to him.

Benjamin provides interesting details about life in Katmandu like building latrines and smokeless stoves to combat endemic Nepali illness like bronchitis, emphysema, and conjunctivitis. It had never occurred to me that Nepali’s suffer from a lack of protein as a result of their predominantly vegetarian diet or that it is disrespectful to touch the serving spoon to your plate. Also, I believe his revelations about cabbie-cabbie and cabbie-passenger interactions in Nepal could be collected and expanded into their own book.

Martin helps readers explore Nepali life but not the notion of love and its expression in different cultures despite the opportunities he creates to do so. Benjamin’s relationship with Adriana is ripe with potential to examine love as an act of passion as it is in Benjamin’s case versus an act of duty as it is in Adriana’s case. Shruti’s abandonment by her husband is another frustratingly missed opportunity to explore love through a cultural filter.

If you skip the pages dedicated to Adriana, Jaya Nepal is an interesting exploration of life in Nepal as a Peace Corps volunteer. If Adriana really is an important character for Martin to write about, she should have her own book. A book that would explore love through various cultural, generational, and social filters: East vs. West, traditional vs. modern, urban vs. rural, etc.

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