Manjushree Thapa’s All of Us in Our Own Lives is something of a misnomer. No one is really ever in their ‘own’ lives, as the novel makes evident. There is no hermetically sealed cocoon within which an individual can exist, detached from everyone else. Lives overlap and there is no such thing as one’s ‘own’ life. Each life is but one thread in a tapestry, intertwined with all the others. This is a conclusion that Sapana, a young village girl and one of the novel’s four major characters, comes to early on in the novel. She muses:
“And anyway, maybe there’s no such thing as ‘my life’ or ‘your life’, she thought. Maybe everyone’s life is part of a whole. It felt so to her, because when she thought about it, she felt that the actions of one person shape the lives of others, and…don’t all of us in our own lives shape the lives of others?”
This, then, is the thread that binds the four characters that Thapa follows in their attempt to live their lives as wholly their own, only to realize, often belatedly, that such an endeavour is futile. Everything is connected, everything is everything else.
Young Sapana is sister to Gyanu, a chef in the Middle East who’s returned home for his stepfather’s funeral. Sapana is part of a community-based organisation (cee-bee-o) funded by WDS-Nepal, a national NGO run by Indira, a middle-class woman married into a conservative Brahmin family. Indira’s NGO, in turn, is financed by IDAF, a major INGO that Ava Berriden, a Nepali adopted by a wealthy Canadian couple, joins after becoming disillusioned with her job at a law firm. These disparate characters are bound initially by the imperceptible machinations of the development aid industry, with each successive layer exerting an invisible influence of the layer below it. Sapana’s CBO answers to Indira’s NGO and Indira’s NGO answers to Ava’s INGO. But as the novel unravels, the unseen becomes visible, most notably for Ava, by way of Gyanu.
In All of Us In Our Own Lives, Thapa hammers in the adage that the personal is political, especially in a country like Nepal where there is no circle around the individual. The ever-widening gyre of relationships takes in family, society and the nation but never allows any one person to become fully individualized. Responsibilities and expectations always intrude, as with Gyanu who only wishes to go back to the Gulf and begin a life with his Filipina love but is hamstrung by the responsibility he feels for his younger sister Sapana. Or Indira, who co-directs a women’s empowerment NGO but is constrained by the expectations of her middle-class family and her overbearing mother-in-law. Ava, brought up in the West, has seemingly more freedom but her demons are more personal, tied to questions of belonging and identity.
Thapa’s exploration of these varied personalities is deft and incisive, prodded along by her easy, unadorned prose. The woman in Nepal is her subject, along with the many ways in which she is disenfranchised, subjugated and stripped of identity. Characters like Durga, Indira’s maid, are overt as victims but even seemingly powerful women, like her employer Indira, suffer the vagaries of a patriarchal phallocentric society that refuses to yield. Thapa doesn’t reduce these women’s predicaments to the personal. She indicts the entire system, a j’accuse that rebounds throughout the pages of the novel with increasing force, culminating in Indira’s strident denouncement of ‘the penis’. Ava is the ‘modern’ woman, independent and free but plagued by an existential crisis. Sapana is the romantic, unaware of the parochial powers at work that will try to tear her down and thus, is suffused with a wide-eyed optimism in her own capabilities. Indira is the modern middle-class Nepali woman, outwardly free but inwardly oppressed, who has internalized the patriarchy and reproduces it in her own way, most explicitly in her getting Durga married off at a young age and her own subservience to the standards dictated by that witch, her mother-in-law.
This investigation of the place Nepal accords to women is really the heart of the novel, not the criticism of the aid industry. Though the three women characters correspond to the three rungs of development aid, the industry itself is not so much indicted as gently criticized. The NGO jargon that litters the beginning of the novel is a chore, as it is supposed to be. But the intricacies of this other parallel system that runs Nepal are not delved into too deeply. The practicalities of corruption, cronyism, leakage and opacity are impeached but the greater socio-political raison d’etre for the industry is not interrogated. The industry is assumed a priori.
There are other incongruities. References to Nepal’s new constitution, specifically its curtailing of the right of women to pass on citizenship to their children, feel shoehorned. Little time is spent on what this actually entails and the only sentiment expressed is a natural derision, that too only by Ava. It is similar with the April-May 2015 earthquakes, which have little bearing on the trajectory of the characters. It feels as if these two incidents, the constitution and the earthquake, came late in the writing of the novel and were included more as temporal markers, rather than paradigms that drive the story.
A few characters could have also used more dimension. Indira’s mother-in-law, for instance, is an easy caricature, referred never by name but often as a ‘witch’. She is only a looming malevolent presence in the household. The male characters too sometimes get short shrift, with Gyanu as a notable exception. Indira’s husband Uday Sharma is a drunken lout, Ava’s friend Tomas is a lovable hippie, Ava’s brother Luke is a somewhat insufferable hipster. Gyanu’s characterization, however, more than makes up for this. He is a beautifully written character, portrayed with much sensitivity and care, as much as Ava. Fittingly, the book begins with Ava and ends with Gyanu: they are both voyagers of sorts, migrants searching for a home that is an idea, not tied to space.
In All of Us in Our Own Lives, Thapa allows her characters breathing room to expand and grow. Sapana, Indira, Ava and Gyanu are warm, sympathetic characters, fully fleshed out and inhabiting their own lives. This novel is testament to Thapa’s ability to tell an important story about socio-political realities without succumbing to polemic, but also to do so with empathy and literary flair. In the deft connecting of the various trajectories of her characters, Thapa impresses on us the existential truth that her novel propounds: no one is an island.
All of Us in Our Own Lives, Manjushree Thapa, Aleph Book Company (2016), 246 pages