A Russian odyssey

At a time when there seems to be a torrent of travelogues in the Nepali literary arena, novelist Dhruba Chandra Gautam has added one more to the genre: Rustira Rumalida. Like his earlier works Ghadiharuko Deshma Samaya Khojdai and Germany: Naya Aanganma Paila Tekda, this work too chronicles the author’s experience abroad. Only this time, the accounts are of his travels in Russia.

The travelogue chronicles the author’s June 2009 travel to Russia along with critic and novelist Govindraj Bhattarai sponsored by an organisation of Nepali writers in Russia. The purpose of their travel was to attend a ceremony for the Jay Prithvi-Ivan Minayev Honour, to be conferred on Gautam and Bhattarai. All events take place within a week’s time, starting from the preparations at home, the flight to Russia, the hectic schedule there, and the flight back to Nepal.

The primary thrust of the book appears twofold. First, the authors seems interested in presenting the life of a Nepali living in Russia—with special references to business tycoons Upendra Mahato and Jiba Lamichhane—and the hectic schedule they follow. Second, he foregrounds the historical glory of Russia—particularly its rich literary history—and discusses the lessons Nepali authors and rulers need to learn. Mundane, repetitive episodes follow, making the narrative more credible.

Repeated references to Mahato and Lamicchane seem to make a few significant points. These two successful NRN’s are ideal examples for many Nepalis working abroad. The author doesn’t spend many words glorifying their material accomplishments. Instead, he is more interested in analysing their more humane characteristics—their love of art, their fascination with literature, their commitment to Nepal and its development, and above all, the simplicity that marks their lives.

Second, he has taken great pains to record the literary history of Russia. There are detailed descriptions of Tolstoy’s place of birth, his library, the table upon which a few pages of Anna Karenina had been written, his death on a railway platform and his burial site. Pushkin is evoked several times. There is a poignant chapter about his short but highly influential career as an author, and his premature death in a duel with the fiancé of his lover, Natalia. Dostoevsky and Chekhov are also mentioned with reverence.

The author seems to have chosen carefully which Russian leaders enter his book. Infamous Russian leaders like Tsar Nicholas and Stalin are mentioned in passing. But popular leaders get greater space in the pages. Lenin is constantly mentioned; Peter the Great has not only been described in detail, but also idolised. Queen Catherine, the wife of Peter the Great, has been craftily woven into the chronicle.

Humour has been beautifully woven into the narrative. The author’s forgetfulness and his honest confession of the same is perhaps the liveliest aspect of the travelogue. Other confessions, like the one about his love for alcohol and the anxiety posed by his need to appear decent before the hosts are interesting too.

This book, however, has some clear weaknesses. The title immediately brings bringing to mind Tara Nath Sharma’s Belayattira Barallida. Another flaw is the repetition of issues and characters that add monotony to an otherwise smooth reading. Characters like Lamicchane and Krishna Prakash Shrestha occur so frequently that it eclipses the novelty of description.

(Paudyal is a faculty at the Central Department of English, TU/ this article was first published in The Kathmandu Post)