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Review by Charlie Dickinson
by Samrat Upadhyay
Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003, 290 pp.,
ISBN: 0-618-24727-0

'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 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, 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 than expected.
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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