The stories in Khem K Aryal’s new collection present a deeply human perspective on the travails—and triumphs—of a group of Nepalese immigrants struggling with the consequences of their decision to come to America.
When we think of Nepal, we think of its high Himalayan mountains, or maybe the highlands of Kathmandu. But somewhere between a quarter and a third of the country is nothing like that: marshy, forested, malaria-infested swampland, along the southern border with India.
Seemingly small and, thereby, homogenous, Nepal is a nation-state fraught with problems common to almost all of South Asia: ethnic diversity that leads to tensions between the various groups, painful identity politics with the aim of securing group rights, debates about who originated in an area that has come to be defined by migration over centuries, border conflicts, corruption, and environmental policies that create conflicts between humans and other species (dilemmas in which wildlife all too often takes precedence over human rights). And yet, it is the images of the snow-capped Himalayas, the abode of the Lord Shiva, and Sherpas and Gorkhas as quintessentially Nepali that come to mind when one thinks of Nepal.
South Asian history is so complex and layered that making sense of it can take considerable effort. T Richard Blurton’s richly-illustrated India: A History in Objects emphasizes precisely this complexity and diversity—“The variety of South Asia is remarkable in terms of language, script, ethnicity, religion and architecture”— rather than a single narrative throughline.
Today, the idea that the Himalayas have the world’s tallest peaks—by a large margin—is entirely uncontroversial. Just about anyone can name Mount Everest and K2 as the world’s tallest and second-tallest mountains respectively.
The exploration of the Himalaya contributed vastly to scientific knowledge. From botanical discoveries, to understanding of how human bodies work at altitude, to pioneering the use of new scientific equipment, the mountain range had an immense importance. Yet its hostile environment meant that this knowledge was not easily gained. Moreover these scientific endeavors were by no means apolitical. Empire and imperialism was a central aspect of these activities. Despite the notional purity of science and scholarship, these western surveyors, naturalists and scientists were taking part in the imperial project.
As is so often the case, when Tibetans fled their homeland for Nepal and India, they thought to return in their lifetime. Their homes in these new lands were in what were hoped would be temporary refugee camps. Decades later these camps have now become permanent and Tibetans work in jobs that revolve around the tourist industry, serving trekkers, mountain climbers, and westerners out to “find themselves”. Tsering Yangzom Lama covers these realities in her debut novel, We Measure the Earth With Our Bodies, a family saga of love and loss that spans three generations and centers around an ancient statue of a deity, or ku, that both represents their rich cultural heritage and a guiding light in their exile.