If I have to say only one thing about Rabi Thapa’s debut Nothing to Declare, I’d say that anyone of us could have written it.
An embarrassed adolescent runs too far for his mama to catch him in his bartamanda; a young man dreaming of a girl, finds room for his desires in another; one flies away to his London dreams, while others return to relive the nostalgia and to the unfamiliarity of the place they once called home. The protagonists, middle class boys and men (oh yea, all men!), live under the shadow of expectations from their families or society, but in the end, like us, give in to their desire, lust and rage. Yes, anyone of us could have written about them, for while Rabi writes 16 different stories, each of them are pieces from our lives, and our Kathmandu.
If you have ever lived in Kathmandu, you will effortlessly recognize the streets his characters tread on, the bars where drinks flow freely and breathe in the smoke of weed, and the underlining sentiments in their conversations. The title story deals with the mass dream of studying abroad, and finding a home away from home. As you progress through the almost 200-paged book, the characters mature, as do the plots and perhaps they were sorted in that order deliberately.
From the stories of everyday, Rabi transcends to more serious issues, like in Home for Dashain where a policeman returns home, only to be brutally slaughtered by the rebels. “These grinning idiots are, I have to conclude, part of a rent-a-hoodlum syndicate,” the lead in Julus echoes the perception of the commoner when rallies and strikes burn Kathmandu, before gearing up to charge on the protestors, an urge that I’ve often battled with. Valley of Tears shines in the end, illustrating a time when the capital returns to its past, to be the lake that it once was.
To say the least, Nothing to Declare is a worthy debut of a Nepali writer in English. Rabi has the kind of laid back style that keeps you turning the pages, even when the story itself does not captivate. He does not try to cash in on the stereotyped image of Nepal, like most Nepali writers do, but keeps his stories quintessentially ‘Nepali’ with an honest narration that tracks on the cultural and social points we know so well. The conversations stay colloquial, with an occasional machikne and mujhi, scattered around for the homely feel.
However, it is hard to say if the book will equally appeal to an international audience that cannot expertly navigate the streets of Kathmandu or identify with our experiences. That said, if Nothing to Declare is a preview of what’s to come, I will keep an empty space in my bookshelf for the next by Rabi Thapa.
(As published in the June 2011 issue of WAVE Magazine)