After his essay collection A Wonderer Within, writer Dipesh Parajuli has come up with his novel Essence , the success of which remains to be seen. The novel steers clear of the criticism of lacking linguistic and grammatical refinement—one most commonly received by Nepalis writing in English. This may set Parajuli apart from many who try for fiction in English, but the young writer, in his twenties as yet, has yet to innovate in the domains of narrative structure and choice of themes.
Essence is about the plight in paranoia and the light in optimism. Based on the career of cricketer Siddhartha Sharma, the novel borrows heavily from the author’s experience as a cricketer himself. The protagonist Siddhartha is plagued by sour relations with his colleagues that in turn affect his own performance—he is bothered by his apathy towards the team captain, the avarice of his colleagues, his failures by marginal slips and his frustrations in love.
The glorious world of cricket and the popularity it brings attracts Siddhartha to the game. He fancies himself playing in the field, smashing strokes after strokes and receiving abundant applause. But despite his capacity and calibre, Siddhartha is never favoured by the team captain. He is relegated to being a lower-order batsman instead, who does not get to perform because he will not have completed enough overs before the game terminates.
Much of the narrative hinges upon the exposition of internal rifts and contradictions within the team Siddhartha plays for. This is suggestive of the reality that marks most organisations—even and streamlined on the outside, but rife with contradictions, splits and misunderstandings within. Siddhartha is often held accountable for all the losses the team suffers and is never credited when victory comes home. Love and confidence between the players fade, much to the detriment of juniors who struggle to strengthen their positions.
Consequences are not in favour of Siddhartha, who loses grace, his friends and his hope and things only worsen when his beloved sends him news of wanting to break-up with him to marry another man. When these mounting problems disillusion him completely, Siddhartha decides to give up and make his way to Ramgram —his maternal grandfather’s home and his last straw of hope.
Siddhartha’s grandfather, supposedly a saint, lives in an ashram funded by smugglers and black-marketers who abet their sins by donating to a religious firm. Parajuli writes satirically of this ashram that rinses people of their sins no matter how heinous, and is accessible to everyone except the untouchables.
Parajuli establishes the antithesis of this pomp and sin with ‘the Chandal’—an untouchable who draws Siddhartha’s mind. Siddhartha —whose name is suggestive of the Buddha—and his foreign friend Angelina make secret visits to the Chandal’s house located a little further from the Ashram. The Chandal, an outcast in the village, does not care much for religious dictums. A rebellious subaltern, he even dares to appear in some ceremonies to trivialise them. Rumours float in the village that he once forced a woman to live with him and bear him a daughter. The woman, no longer able to bear the shame of rape, is said among the villagers to have committed suicide.
Siddhartha discovers later that all rumours woven around the Chandal is false. This revelation comes when he discovers the death-note of the Chandal’s deceased wife in a large cistern outside his house. The wife writes that the Chandal was the best husband ever and an architect par excellence who denied an offer for a high position in a foreign land. His daughter was an orphan picked from the street, brought up with love, and he had given away all his property
and wealth to an orphanage to live a simple life in the village. The Chandal’s wife, in fact, was wronged by the saintly Brahmin and thence proceeded to hang herself after leaving a death note. Ostracised by all and stigmatised by religion, the Chandal turns out to be a man of philanthropy and principle instead. Despite social reproach and the loss of his wife, he lived laconically, far from the hubbub of society. Siddhartha learns from the Chandal that social pressure should not take precedence to one’s own interests. Both disillusioned and enlightened, he returns to cricket, and discovers the ‘essence’ of life.
The novel imparts a strong message that could be of benefit to many, but its plot appears episodic and unnatural—the Chandal is too good to be real and falls short of the Aristotelian tragic hero which makes him a near average man. What Siddhartha derives from his life to apply to his own appears a tad incongruous, more like a deliberate juxtaposition. The novel’s theme, being religious hypocrisy, runs the risk of being too common and its ending happily makes for an additional cliché. The young Parajuli is to be appreciated for his efforts in making it an error-free read, but his skills in narration and choice of themes still has room for improvement.
[First published in The Kathmandu Post]