“Leech and other stories” by Ranjan Adiga

Ranjan Adiga Ranjan Adiga

Ranjan Adiga’s debut collection Leech and other stories comprises 10 short stories based around the experiences of Nepalis adapting to new worlds, lands and experiences. The majority relate to migration, both internal, with migrants from rural Nepal traveling to try make it in the capital, or abroad, in search of their dream life in America. It is unsurprising that a nation shaped by migration should produce a writer who tackles the subject with such nuance and tenderness. 

Leech and Other Stories, Ranjan Adiga (Penguin India, April 2024)
Leech and Other Stories, Ranjan Adiga (Penguin India, April 2024)

The individuals from all walks of life that populate these stories includeSameer and Puja, a newly married couple who recently moved from Nepal to America; they struggle to fit in among the lives of much wealthier Nepali expats.Life in America isn’t all they dreamed oft is far harder to find work, more intimidating than they feared and the societal expectations are not easy to manage. Coming from a socially conservative background to liberal America, they soon they find their arranged marriage buckling under the weight of expectation.

In another story, we see the lives of Nepali migrants and African refugees working illegally in restaurants and swapping stories about home, visas, legal issues, and their dreams of future. The precarity of their existence is brought home when they are forced to hide from immigration police in the restaurant toilet. Adiga makes the point that so often Nepalis do not fit neatly into the immigrant identity, a country too small for many Americas to know of, and therefore are often misidentified as Indian.

An alcoholic father visits his recently divorced son Nirmal in America after 20 years, since his last visit. They soon find alcohol is the only thing that helps to grease the conversation and avoid awkward silences. As they try, often unsuccessfully, to share and relate to each other’s vastly different and the different societal and cultural expectations, they realise that while these differences have become impossible to reconcile. Nirmal, however, is an unreliable narrator, and his father isn’t the only one his family is concerned about.

Also in America, we meet a Nepali professor in Idaho, eking out a precarious existence of literature tutoring in universities, with no visa security or long-term stability. Despite his education he finds adaptation to campus culture far more challenging than he imagined.

There are also stories from inside Nepal. In “Leech”, the story the book takes its name from, Ram a migrant from near the Indian border, builds an unlikely friendship with a wealthy urbanized and sophisticated student from the city, and must navigate the class barriers between friendships and work out how to respond to patronising but well-meaning comments from his new friend. His accent and clothes show to everyone that he is clearly provincial and not from cosmopolitan Kathmandu. One day he finds a leech in his nose before a vital job interview and how he deals with that will redefine his new friendship.

There is Sanjay, a student who has received a partial scholarship from an American university. As he awaits his visa interview, he deals with the weight of familial expectation heavy on his shoulders and must shift through a mountain of poor and ill-informed advice on what to say or do during the interview.

Not all stories relate to migration. We meet Sarita, a convert to Christianity who struggles to make a name for herself in her bank. There is Ma, a bored housewife, trying to control a rebellious teenager while coming to terms with the fact her own life didn’t go as planned. Or Iqbal, a barber from near the Indian border, making his way in Kathmandu far from home, using his skills as a barber and masseur who soon clashes with one of his customers Krishna, over what is considered proper behavior.

This collection is a compelling series of stories about a vast array of characters and backgrounds amid great personal upheavals. Taken on their own account, the stories individually are compelling and often moving.  As a whole, it shows the impact migration, both the act of and desire to undertake it, has on a collective psyche.

Maximillian Morch is a researcher and author of Plains of Discontent: A Political History of Nepal’s Tarai (1743-2019) (2023)