Print Length: 171 pages, Publisher: Speaking Tiger Publishing Pvt Ltd (10 August 2018), Language: English Paperback ₹ 220.00, ASIN: B07GFM8SNW
Hari Prasad, a boatman living by the banks of the Rapti in the plains of Nepal, is saddled with debts and responsibility for his three children and wife.
“Source-force and sheer banditry” in the Himalayan Kingdom: On Greta Rana’s magnum opus, Hostage
by Vipasha Bhardwaj 16 July 2020
“Who are all these people, these brain-dead zombies who preach democracy at us? You know their very presence here telling us how to run things and handing us their diktats is undemocratic. What is left but institutions destroyed, a nation fractured and more of the young who should be rebuilding Nepal, leaving?” grieves a fuming Arjun towards the end of Greta Rana’s magnum opus Hostage. Human rights in Nepal are a myth for the underprivileged and those skimming off the cream from the lucrative labour market were politically powerful ones, seated on the Everest of Kathmandu. Arjun himself had to leave college at the age of eighteen because becoming a doctor or an engineer would never materialize into reality if one is born as the elder son in a poor family whose crops have failed year after year yielding zero income.
Authoritarian populists have seized power and our authors might be the knight in shining armour for the underdogs. As the role of money in politics soared and important issues were taken out of public contestation, a system of rights without democracy took hold. Populist’s lofty claims were perceived with a pinch of salt when they vociferously trumpeted about returning the power to the people. But in practice, they created something just as bad: a system of democracy without rights. Great Rana is an exemplary author in South Asian literature owing to her critical academic engagement with the political and humanitarian hullabaloo in the Himalayan Kingdom, Nepal. The sheer scale of her literary enterprise and chivalry in the novel Hostage was hard to take in, so was its novelty. A more critically substantive reading of Greta Rana’a Hostage allows the readers to participate in the lives of ‘others’, the Tharu people; an ethnic group of landless bonded labourers in the Terai region of southern and northern Nepal. A Yorkshire born Nepal-based author, Greta Rana could not be charged with conforming to the Orientalist tradition of misrepresenting the ‘other’ since she has dangerously dismantled the hegemonic narrative. The academia is both parts of the problem and part of the solution and Rana chose to join the bandwagon of the latter. Hostage, partly an antithesis to the bildungsroman novel, chronicles the dismal life of Hari Prasad, a Tharu boatman for whom a prospective job in the Gulf snowballs into a deadly execution by the Islamic militants in Iraq.
Politically oppressed and economically browbeaten, Colonial British accounts characterized the Tharus as timid and retiring in the face of more organized and aggressive agricultural people, abandoning their land and retiring deeper into the forest in the face of encroachment. In the post-colonial reading of Hostage, the plight of the Tharu community has not changed much. Hari Prasad’s family lived a hand to mouth existence depending heavily on his meager income as a boatman in the Rapti river since his ancestral land was under the clutches of a certain Chaudhary, a title bestowed upon the zamindar families in British India.
After pulling a lot of strings with the broker and a manpower company for a visa and passport and Hari Prasad, like many other Gulf-bound enthusiasts, sets off for Dubai. Expounding on the greasy world of labour market in Nepal and the role of the big shots in keeping the ‘business’ afloat, Greta Rana writes “It’s a well-known fact and the worst-kept secret in Kathmandu that every politician has a labour quota and gets paid to ensure workers get passports and get through immigration” (Hostage 19). Hari Prasad’s brother-in-law had been a greedy snub whose enthusiasm in sending him to the Gulf seemed a little out of character but the skeletons in the cupboard would not keep quiet anymore. The woeful tales of Nepali migrants are poignantly captured by the author who is often manhandled through a) the hands of police, district officers, ‘tuloh manchey’ ( roughly translates to the big shots in power) maneuvering the bureaucracy and, b) exploitation in the Gulf countries where they are primarily engaged in construction works and other low-skilled positions. Hostage is a politically charged novel as it uncovers the lackluster response of the government to the crisis faced by the piss poor sections of Nepal. The content of the novel is highly explosive, not in a way that would shock the readers but definitely capsizes the solipsistic and complacent self. As you glide from one page to another, you will come across many gut-wrenching revelations about the state of affairs in the Nepalese embroglio. For a U.K born author who has been living in Nepal for the past forty years, Greta Rana is privy to the dark underbelly of the political mayhem plaguing Nepal for many years now. By attempting to write a novel of such stature and calling a spade a spade, and an excruciatingly sharp at that, Greta Rana can be placed above her peers: a dark humor that simmers beneath every syllable as she unapologetically blows up the cover on the so-called People’s Army of Nepal who, according to Rana, “were just another gang of dacoits who one day would be converted into politicians, retiring in their old age to loot the country from the legal stronghold of Kathmandu” (Hostage 73). Not only this, but Greta Rana is also highly polemical when dealing with the politicians and their failure to address the grievances of the rank and file citizens.
The novel is roughly contemporaneous with Ranajit Guha’s ‘The small voice of history’ and Spivak’s ‘Subaltern theory’.The novel’s privileging of the small drama and fine detail of social existence lived at its lower depths presents an alternative perspective focusing on traces of subaltern life in its passage through time. The small voices are often drowned in the noise of statist commands and those who do not fit into the narrow elitist’s definition of ‘beings’ are often denigrated to the periphery. Such crass and discrediting categories historically existed in nineteenth-century Nepal during the rule of Jung Bahadur Rana who, in 1854, adopted a legal code known as the Muluki Ain (Chief law). This obvious discriminatory nature of the law organized or rather visibly struck out different population groups depending on their relative purity (or lack of it). The Tharus were categorized as ‘Enslavable alchohol-drinking castes’ and because of their relative political marginality to the state they were relegated to a lower social status in the eyes of the ruling elite in Kathmandu.
As an integral part of an unfortunate South Asian region, Nepal faces severe internal chaos. The 250 years old Monarchy has witnessed a prolonged tiff-off with a six years old insurgency against Kingship led by the Maoist faction of the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN). The rising Maoist insurgency forms a parallel backdrop for this political novel. Stunted employment opportunities in their homeland and the yawning gap between the rich and poor have pushed many Nepalese workers seeking employment to other countries. Far from being the messiah for the poor, the Maoists in Rana’s novel are nothing less than thugs, demanding money from piss poor landless labourers who have toiled day and night to make both ends meet. Nepal represents a major labour supplier to Persian Gulf countries which include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
The alarm bell rings when Hari Prasad transgresses political boundaries and sets foot into a country with which his country (Nepal) has no diplomatic relations and employment for Nepali migrants is barred in the war-torn country of Iraq. Just when Hari Prasad’s grim existence had begun seeing the light of the day and his family’s conditions were gradually improving, he along with twelve other hostages were abducted en route Iraq and killed by Islamic militants who mistook them to be American spies. These poor labourers were illegally hired by an American company through their agents in Jordan. The lure of quick money had drawn these fated labourers to accept the job offer in Iraq even if they were forbidden to work here. Nepal, the landlocked country, faces severe internal chaos and is torn by internecine conflict in the form of insurgency by the Maoist faction of the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN), government corruption, political backbiting. Even after the establishment of the multi-party parliamentary system in 1991, the social development in Nepal has not reached the desired mark. The employment of Nepali labour in the Gulf may seem to be a win-win situation for both the migrants and the faltering Nepali economy. Yet there is a dark side to Nepalese migration to the Gulf and through her novel, the author has poignantly exposed it. With unlimited aspirations and limited means, Nepali labourers agree to work for a pittance in foreign lands where they are exploited and made to slog under horrific working conditions.
Greta Rana’s novel represents different layers of hearing and listening to subaltern voices and allows for reading the text through the lens of New Historicism as well. Hostage mobilizes ‘history’ explicitly as a recurrent trope through which the repressive state regime and dominant political malfunctioning are brought to the forefront. The ‘small voices’ in history have invariably been dealt with neglect and disdain by those in status quo and by representing these voices within the textual space, Rana has justified what J.M Coetzee had written in his collection of essays White Writing; ‘our craft is all in reading the other: gaps, inverses, undersides, the veiled, the dark, the buried, the alterities…’
Vipasha Bhardwaj is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Pub Kamrup College (Guwahati University), Baihata Charali, India. She is also a Doctoral candidate pursuing her research on “Understanding Trauma: Literary Representations of 9/11” from North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, India.