|Review by Charlie Dickinson
GURU OF LOVE
by Samrat Upadhyay
Mifflin Company, 2003, 290 pp.,
GURU OF LOVE is a satisfying novel of family life despite the
ordinary mix of irritating in-laws and a marital affair and delivers
much more than expected.'
In June 2001, the
world's image of Kathmandu, Nepal, as an exotic, often spiritual, destination
inevitably changed after the country's crown prince took an automatic
rifle to a family meeting and opened fire. He killed his parents, King
Birenda and Queen Aiswarya, and seven other members of the royal family
before committing suicide. Prince Dipendra, it appears, argued often
with his mother about his choice of a marriage partner. The question
of how marriages are arranged in contemporary Kathmandu also powers
much of the conflict in THE GURU OF LOVE by Samrat Upadhyay.
A Poor Urban Professional, Ramchandra teaches math at an equally impoverished
school in Kathmandu. He must also tutor a few students after hours to
barely support his wife, Goma, and two children. The family apartment
shares a bathroom with other tenants. Ramchandra dreams of saving to
build their own modest house. Adding to his burden, Goma comes from
a wealthy family and the Pandeys are openly critical in-laws.
Ramchandra wonders why they ever offered their daughter to him in marriage.
Into this combustible mix arrives Ramchandra's new tutee, Malati. A
poor, unwed teenage mother, she needs to pass the School Leaving Certificate
exams to enter college and secure a better future. Like David Gilmour's
SPARROW NIGHTS (reviewed earlier at hackwriters.com),
THE GURU OF LOVE features a middle-aged male teacher's affair with an
attractive, younger female student. But Upadhyay weaves a story that
goes anywhere but the Dantean circle of hell to which Gilmour's self-focussed,
repulsive protagonist descends. Instead, THE GURU OF LOVE examines a
web of dependencies, not unexpected in a traditional, but changing society.
With a novelist's eye for inclusiveness, Upadhyay studies relations
within an extended family, within a neighborhood, within a workplace,
and finally, on the stage of Kathmandu, where political dissent and
demands for democracy are painfully, often violently acted out.
The narrative turns in this novel are anything but predictable. Goma
is one of the wiser, more forebearing wives the reader is likely to
encounter in fiction. Upadhyay ably gets under the skin of his characters,
developing compassion for everyone caught up in this moral tale of apparently
dysfunctional family deadlock. Take petulant daughter, Sanu.
She tells off the Pandeys-as only a tactless child can. Yet we care
about her when overprotective Ramchandra begins to lose it once Sanu
has her first crush on a boy.
Ramchandra, of course, remains center stage. The idea of a teacher seducing
a student might easily spin out as simple-minded lust. But Upadhyay
keeps up reader tension about why Ramchandra strays. We see the teacher
often makes choices roiled by feelings that leave him exhausted, nauseated,
and vulnerable. Certainly, Ramchandra's marriage is fire-tested, but
that also sets the stage for him to realize durable love.
THE GURU OF LOVE is a satisfying novel of family life despite the ordinary
mix of irritating in-laws and a marital affair and delivers much more
One special joy of this novel is the depiction of daily life in Kathmandu.
Such details as clothes worn, food cooked, and evening pasttimes like
caroms played. Many of these details have an Indian flavor, as might
be expected for these neighbors of the Asian Subcontinental colossus.
Upadhyay closes THE GURU OF LOVE with an epilogue that marks the passage
of eleven years. The novel was evidently written before the royal massacre
in 2001, but the epilogue rightfully incorporates that wrenching experience
in an update of not only Ramchandra's family, but the country as a whole,
which Upadhyay accurately depicted on an inevitable path toward devolution
from autocratic rule.
© Charlie Dickinson 2003
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