Good fiction always creates empathy. If by the end of a book you can claim to have lived another life through the experiences of a protagonist, the book is a triumph. Chetan Raj Shrestha’s second novel, The Light of His Clan, takes you through the last years of Kuldeep Chandanth, the ex Minister, with well fleshed-out characters in a simple yet arresting storyline. Ten pages into the book you are empathising with the ex-Minister despite his sexism, sharp tongue and caste obsession. The author’s style is refreshingly original and without trying too hard, Shrestha is able to infuse the story with love, politics, contempt, greed and longing — a realistic portrait of family life. The humour is absolutely unforced and kept me laughing throughout the length of the book.
Kuldeep Chandanth takes his name seriously, and his caste even more so. The main protagonist, whose name literally means “the light of his clan”, dedicated his entire life to uplift the Chandanths. He rues his present existence as a relic of yesteryears and is disappointed that his children are not interested in taking his cause any further and also that his influence over them is almost non-existent. Pradeep, the eldest son is obsessed with transfers and promotions which he believes would help him climb the social ladder and shut his wife up. Yogita, the daughter, is always on the verge of returning to Sikkim from Delhi to care for her elderly father and Yograj is too busy bed hopping. The ex-Minister is 82 years old in the beginning of the book and is still an astute judge of character, a proud patriarch and a politician.
The past is a foreign country. They not only did things differently then, they also did it better. The food was better, the women were better, the customs and practices were better and the ex-Minister was the Minister – nobody had dared to be flippant with him then. Even though the ex-Minister had frolicked in his own time, he had never touched a non-Chandanth woman. Not like Yograj. The boy had no taste and would embarrass the family one day. Once, Kuldeep Chandanth was useful. Sikkim today moved too fast for the patriarch and the Chandanth community’s feeble attempts to maintain the traditions of their forbears was infuriating. Mostly because the ex Minister was not consulted before attempts to preserve traditions went public. For example, the traditional dance costumes have become shorter and tighter, fit only for whores. They get it wrong every year during the Balidan Diwas festivities. Every year.
The author’s style is refreshingly original and without trying too hard, Shrestha is able to infuse the story with love, politics, contempt, greed and longing — a realistic portrait of family life. The humour is absolutely unforced and kept me laughing throughout the length of the book.
Shrestha passes no judgement over his characters, but is compassionate and witty. Pemba, the servant in the household and his never ending attempts to feel up Ai Doma, the momo seller next door is a constant source of humour. The ex-Minister’s attempts to enquire about the caste of any new person he meets and the almost physical pain he endures if he is not allowed to do so make up some of the funniest incidents in the book. The situational comedy of one incident that stands out is when Rann Mann, the small time “low caste” entrepreneur, exacts his revenge on the office of the Department of Village Roads for keeping the toilets locked on a rainy day in an office smelling faintly of urine.
The author depicts the last months of the ex-Minister with sincerity. The patriarch learns painful lessons about his own irrelevance but is grateful the insults were contained within the family. He refuses to be bitter because that would be a public declaration of defeat. He gives up trying to change the world around him. He is worried about the younger children but no longer interferes with their lifestyle and the CAS is not worth the trouble any more. He realizes his own status as a toothless tiger but even then, with the absolute lack of shame only infants and the elderly can manage, he plots, swears and guilt trips those around him, attempting to get things done his way.
But there is a last stand. And if not for a slight miscalculation of the number of days he thought he had, the ex Minister would have decided what to do with the land deed for the temple too. Life moves on however. There is not a single superfluous sentence in the novel and the story flows beautifully. It is not a story about life coming full circle because life does not really understand the need for symmetry. This is a story about an old man and is as funny as real life is.