I was very excited when I came across ‘Land Where I Flee’ by Prajwal Parajuly as it is set in the North East of India, a region which even today is on the periphery of India’s mainstream. This region is blessed with handicrafts, traditional dances, comforting food and humble people. However for some reason, it is the separatist movements in the region that have gained greater media coverage. I wish I knew more people from this part of India as it would have been enriching to gain further insight into the culture of India’s North East. I must say that ‘Land Where I Flee’ did indeed contribute to a certain extent in helping me satiate this curiosity. I say certain extent because it gave me a glimpse into the Nepali community settled in India and considering India’s vast diversity, this merely serves to scratch the surface.
Prajwal Parajuly tells us the story of an old matriarch Chitralekha, who lives in a house atop one of many hills in Gangtok, Sikkim and her grandchildren who live across the world. The event that brings them together is that of the matriarch’s ‘Chaurasi’ or 84th birthday to be celebrated in their hometown. The significance of this birthday milestone is explained well by Parajuly in the appendix to the book.
Chitralekha is not your stereotypical Indian grandmother. She is an uncanny, beedi smoking, opinionated businesswoman with a tongue in cheek sense of humour. Her grandchildren have their own stories to tell and their characters become more and more impactful as you delve further into the book. One grandson a successful surgeon and closet homosexual ; The other a rebellious writer. One granddaughter, an Oxford educated young woman now burdened with the domestic symptoms of patriarchy; The other a fierce young woman who chose her own path against all odds. A very strong character that is worth mentioning is that of Chitrlekha’s domestic help Prasanti, a eunuch or India’s third gender.
Parajuly through this story has shed light upon a few social issues that still exist in India today – acceptance (or the lack) of homosexuality, caste divides and the stigma related to the eunuch population. On a more positive note, the descriptions of Gangtok and particularly that of the Kanchenjunga mountain range are stunning! I could almost hear the mountain calling out to me..Sigh..