Book Review, Literature

When American Dreams Shrug off Reviewed by Mahesh Paudyal

When the Rambo films started hitting the box office way back in the early eighties, liberal critics considered it a ‘jerk’ and almost a regression, while for the nationalists, it was a respite. America was tired of being exposed, first by writers and creators, especially the absurdists, surrealists and the queers, and second by critics and frank journalists, say for example, Frederick Jameson, Noam Chomsky and Samuel P. Huntington. When it lost to Vietnam in a humiliating way,  America had no screen to defend its failure. The old grand narrative of being a Super Power wouldn’t do. So America invented a mask, called Rambo, which tried in vain to rescue the lost American nationalism. 

American dream lingered, in spite of innumerable punctures from within. Withstanding blows right from the days of hard realists like Arthur Miller, through a band of Jazz and Blues artists in the middle, way down to the days of naturalist fiction writers like John Steinbeck, American lingered. This is because the world elsewhere could not develop itself as the best location for dreamers, so obviously, America continued to be the promised land. The EDV culture, and magnetic student-attraction strategies from all over the world continued to make America a Venus flytrap, and the same is true to our own days. The Venus flytrap continues to suck life-sap from emigrants, and to throws the chaff of their beings back to their abandoned homelands ultimately. 

These feelings rose in my mind, as I flipped through the pages of Running from Dreamland, a deeply engaging fiction by young Nepali novelist Tulasi Acharya. Almost in every page of the novel, I could figure novelist Acharya himself, though I constantly reminded my critical self that I should not, at any rate, be a victim of fallacies, whatsoever. But then, the moment novelist Acharya appears as an aspirant academic flying all the way to the US from home and molding an identity there, there is every possibility that the fault-line between his novel’s fictional reality, and the author’s own lived reality, get blurred. When a work of fiction permeates through reality and evokes virtual belief, the work attains extraordinary success. I rate Running from Dreamland as a work of such success, at least for its storyline. 

The story centers on a Nepali migrant character Deepak, who flies to America, living his old and poor parents back in Nepal. A lecturer of English at home and a man of high repute, his craze for an American degree whirls him hard, until he ends up flying. He has other dreams: “…of building his own home in America, a sprawling house like the ones he had seen in films, and owning a brand new Mercedes.” Dreams multiply. He also wants to “…marry Melissa, and start living in the US.” Readers to not approve of these groundless dreams for Deepak who still drags an ambition to take care for his ailing and old parents back home. Yet these high dreams serve as a tragic flaw for Deepak, and he qualifies to the rank of an average emigrant in America, following lucrative but fatal dreams. 

Deepak is on loan at home. On top of that, he has made fake financial documents to earn an I20 from the university he is enrolled in. Upon landing there, the apartment rent, the living cost and the tuition fee he has to pay sum up to an impossible amount. The university denies him a scholarship; the International Student Affair department shrugs off, either. Being someone on student visa and having no social security number, he cannot work off the campus. Reality punctures his soul. 

Thank God, Lucas and Vanessa, students who receive him at the airport, share their apartment with him at 300 dollars a month. Ganesh, a Nepali migrant student who has hybridized himself with American ways beyond repair, finds him a job at Sunny Bagel, owned by one Vikas from Bangladesh. Deepak has to sweep, mop, wash dishes, serve customers, make bagels and what not! Back home, he used to be a lecturer and lived a life of repute. The new job falls like a chisel on his pride, and he cries, considering the hellish nature of his work in the US. Since income from Sunny Bagel falls short of his needs, he also joins Succulent Sandwiches, another firm earned by the same man. In both the locations, same is the work, and similarly bruised is his sentiment. 

With no car of his own, no scholarship, no close mate to share his mind, no job of honor and no enough money in hand, Deepak spends the hardest days of his life. His roommates, Lucas and Vanessa, are impertinent love birds, kissing licentiously at any place they like, and living lives of utter indifference. At his work place, the boss Vikas is professionally a perfectionist, who neither sympathizes with Deepak—even when he has a fever, or his mother is sick at home—nor ever tries to ease his work. Rita, a Nepali at Succulent Sandwiches, and Melissa, a migrant student at his university are the only people who show some lineation towards him. Rita reminds him how America sucks, how Nepali degrees fail, and how one should work like a donkey, forgetting honor and prestige back in Nepal. Melissa helps him with his language, shares moments in the college, drops him to his apartment in her cars, listens to his romantic poems, locks hands with him on their bench, and oftentimes kisses him. In other word, Melissa is his lucky charm; his crush in the US. 

Deepak’s life so far represents the jeopardy of a typical emigrant student, who both faces alien atmosphere and endures inhospitable people. But Deepak has his determinations: to earn a degree at all cost, and fulfill the aforementioned dreams. One of the worst contingencies he faces is the unreliable nature of American friends, and the rough way of their dream. The sudden break-up of Lucas and Vanessa not only leaves him dumbfounded, but also deprives him of the shared apartment, and he has to move to Ganesh’s room, in spite of his aversion for Ganesh’s uncivil nature. Before long, Ganesh’s abusive manners fall hard on his self-respect and he leaves him too, finally taking refuge at the apartment of David, another emigrant student, who is sharing his room with Hee, a lanky student doing his study in the same University. 

One of the subtle aspects of the novel is the way it brews translucent cultural and personal conflicts, and launches it as a sudden blast. There are at least three other serious cases in point. First, David makes a sudden decision to quit America and go back home in Europe to serve his ailing mother. This puts Deepak’s anchor in jeopardy, as the apartment he lives in has been leased by David. David’s quitting means Deepak has lost his grounds. Second, on his way home from his workplace, two boys attack him with a knife one night, trying to rob him of the little cash he potentially has in hand. Thanks to his potent retaliation, they can do nothing, but this slices Deepak’s hope in America and he grows disoriented to the extent of calling names with David, the man who gave him grounds to stand after he broke his terms with Ganesh. Third, though he has shared many intimated moments together, Melissa gives him a cold response when he proposes for marriage. About the time he has graduated from his college, Deepak makes up his mind to move for Florida where his cousin Biplav lives, he offers to take Melissa along. But Melissa writes him an email, not only rejecting his proposals but also alleging him of being self-centered, inconsiderate to her choices, and religiously alien to her Irish Catholic stock. This blow is enough to shatter almost all of Deepak’s shaky American dreams. He pleads her to reconsider her decisions, but to no avail. Though he has a hard-won degree in hand, he had no anchor, no ground, no love, no hope, and no confidence left in him. Though America has at times offered him consolatory hopes, including better skills at Succulent Sandwiches, improved job conditions and better payment at a gas station, a state tuition waiver at the college and a prospect of getting settled in Florida, all these things amount to nothing. Like a child, he cries, cursing his fate. Like a loser, he decides to return to Nepal.

The novel is deeply engaging for a few nascent issues its picks. Though many things are ritualistic and predictable, including the plight of an average Nepali laity flying to America, his suffering, and the mundane airport details, there are other subtle agendas that grip. The narrative forces readers to consider cultural fault-lines, different non-verbal communication systems, conflicts of expectations and values, and romantic nature of unwarranted dreams that often fall hard on the thorns of life and bleed. To take an example, we may consider Deepak’s insensitivity to hug Ganesh in  the public and wearing a pink, typical of gays in the US. His inability to correctly read Vikas’ ground-to-earth demeanors, Rita’s emotionless attitude to life and work and her agentic ways of teaching him things, and Ganesh’s flat and straight rejoinders, is an outcome of self-pity and the fallacy of static viewpoint, namely the expectation of domestic sensitivity in an alien land. Once prepared to face the worst, it does not justify for Deepak to shed tears off and on, including on Tihar days, when thousands of Nepali people are struggling, perking up, and booming not only in Ameica, but at many other locations of the world.

Deepak, at any rate, is an inconsistent and weak character, much pampered by love at home and false sense of pride, when his real capacity of endurance and adjustment is almost zero. He is a victim of exceptional degree of self-pity and is a dreamer without a strong base. He is irresolute. A man who struggled day and night to get settled in America, he forgets all his determinations and decides to return home, when two goons try to rob him of his pocket. He forgets that such goons are aplenty in Nepal as well. Second, rejection of his marriage proposal by Melissa does not sound a justifiable reason for him to quit the whole of America and return to Nepal. He, a graduate now, should be aware of the vulnerability of relations across religions, cultures and geographies. If he were a strong character, he would leave Melissa in peace and find another soul-mate, instead of  crying and lamenting.

When grandmother’s demise and his mother’s illness back home, the family’s financial crunch, the forlorn festivals and his sisters’ love could not force him back, it leaves readers dumfounded to think, two trivial whimpers kicked his soul out of his ‘dreamland’. Some goons’ attack, and an alien girl’s rebuttal fling him back to his country as a staunch ‘nationalist’ , who says, “If we all leave our motherland for developed countries, who will care for her?” A pathetic character out and out. 

But this is a bitter reality. The author catches the nerve of our time, when anchorless dreamers with false sense of pride, exceptional degree of self-pity, and dismal preparation for cultural encounters and failure at large, tend to wear false sense of nationalism to screen their failure. The novel also exposes the internal contradictions of America—the way it grills, the way international students suffer, the way love and marriage are broken in a fit of anger, the way man and machines differ only sparingly, and the way even copper glitters like gold. 

The flow of the narrative is excellent and mature. The characterization is vivid, and the mental conflict excellently engaging. In a novel of 250 pages, it is congratulatory to have less than a dozen characters, the major ones being hardly a dozen. This makes it very comfortable for readers to identify each of the character, and share an empathetic engagement. Deepak, the protagonist is able to sustain the conflict throughout the novel. The slangs and informal expressions used occasionally fitted perfectly into the scheme of the colloquial talks in the American atmosphere. The author deserves a kudos. 

The biggest weakness of the novel, however, is its shaky editing. Linguistic choice is not consistent. There is no uniformity in capitalization and italicization of words and phrases. Words borrowed from non-English lexicons are clumsily forced into the schema of English sentences and the incongruity stands out very conspicuously. At times, punctuations do not fit well. The layout design of the book is, frankly, repelling. Spacing and text justification are not only inconsistent but also crazy. But these are technical issues, and the publisher is more answerable for them. They do not drop any acid on the creation as such.  (Copied from The Gorkha Times)

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