'Kathmandu' is rare peek inside Nepal

Mention Kathmandu, and most Americans' thoughts run to attempts on Everest, hippie pilgrimages; or, more recently, the shocking massacre of the Nepali royal family. Unlike India, which boasts a vibrant and growing community of writers working in English such as Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai and Rohan Mistry, Nepal's literature has remained largely untranslated, and its people and culture essentially unknown.

Until now. In "Arresting God in Kathmandu," Samrat Upadhyay becomes the first Nepali-born writer to deconstruct his country and his countrymen for an English-speaking audience. Upadhyay, who came to the United States when he was 21, introduces a broad spectrum of Nepali society in the nine short stories collected here.

Businessmen and housemaids, poets and new brides populate the pages, their problems universal, yet their responses uniquely shaped by the culture they all share. In "The Good Shopkeeper," an educated Nepali loses his office job and finds himself teetering on the brink of social demotion as well. In "The Cooking Poet," an elderly poet takes on a brilliant young protégé, only to find himself forced to re-examine his art — and his politics. "The Limping Bride" follows the tangled relations between a grieving widower, his undeserving son and his son's worthy bride, while the pain of unrequited love lies at the center of "Deepak Misra's Secretary."

However, if the characters and situations are exotic, the writing itself is less so. Readers expecting the linguistic pyrotechnics of a Salman Rushdie, the quirky voice of Manil Suri, won't find it here. These stories are minimalist in form language; Upadhyay's prose is fluent, but it is too unaccented to be interesting on its own.

Still, "Arresting God in Kathmandu" provides a rare glimpse into the inner workings of a people and a society few of us have ever experienced.

"Arresting God in Kathmandu"

by Samrat Upadhyay
Mariner, $12