I love to get book recommendations from people who know a country better than I do. The Tutor of History by Manjushree Thapa was the recommendation of Elen at southasiabookblog who lives in Kathmandu and said that this book helped her understand what was going on with Nepali politics.
It’s very much a book about politics, and also a book about the lives of a number of people in Khaireni Tar, a small town. All of the main characters are connected in one way or the other with a small political party trying to get just a few seats in the national parliament. Khaireni Tar is one of their best hopes because their candidate is famous film star.
The Tutor of History was published in 2001 and set in the late 1990s. Nepal had only been holding elections since 1990, so democracy was very new. The book did a good job illustrating the challenges and opportunities. Since the book was written, the monarchy dissolved parliament and then parliament/the Maoists dissolved the monarchy and I don’t really understand what happened. Trying to figure that out and parse out all the political acronyms makes me understand why The Tutor of History might be so valuable for understanding Nepali politics.
The title actually refers to a character who is a history tutor, which amuses me. How much grander of a title The Tutor of History is than The History Tutor would be. Even though he’s the title character, the history tutor doesn’t play the role of a main character. The book is more of an ensemble piece, following the lives of some half a dozen major characters and several more minor ones. The ensemble illustrates what life is like in the small town of Khaireni Tar.
Khaireni Tar is a place big enough that you don’t know everyone, but small enough that you’ll probably see someone you know anywhere you go. The latter means that social reputation plays a huge role in people’s lives, leading to a strong influence of traditional values. Some people in town are starting to push back a bit against tradition though. There are a few more opportunities here than in smaller villages, but it is by no means the big city where people go to find their fortune. The individual characters were well enough developed that I ended up caring about most of them (although I never really warmed to the history tutor himself), but it is the life of the town as a whole that I think will be most memorable to me.
Reading this book corrected some of my misconceptions about Nepal. I had somehow always lumped Nepal together in my head with Bhutan and Tibet- mountainous places where Buddhism is dominant. It turns out that Nepal is actually a predominantly Hindu country (though many people mix Hindu and Buddhist practices) and many aspects of Tutor of History reminded me of India.
Something I really enjoyed about The Tutor of History, actually, was the feeling that I had some inside knowledge, based on my (albeit limited) knowledge of India. I recognized Indian English terms like ‘cousin sister’ that completely confused me when I first hear someone use them. “Wait, wouldn’t your cousin’s sister just be your cousin?” (Turns out it just means female cousin.) I even recognized some Nepali words as cognates of another language in the Hindi language family. These things were all small details and its not that they would create a problem understanding the book if you didn’t recognize. Just that I felt pleased when I did recognize something that I wouldn’t have a few years ago.