By Jiva Nath Lamsal
University of Sydney
25 January 2020
Sanu Ghimire’s Sydney Sapana, published 2019, is a bold presentation of the psychological and cross-cultural realities of the Nepalese expatriate community in Australia. The compelling narrativization of the ups and downs, trials and tribulations of Nepalese migrants engages us through the heart-rending portrayal of Sristy – the main protagonist of the novel. It combines stories of love, sex, ambition, the aching absence of the warmth of parental care that young immigrants had while in Nepal and the ensuing hardships of a woman in her ‘dream land’.
Sydney Sapana, a Nepali language novel, stirs our emotional imaginations, our critical minds and our political interrogations. The novel is Sanu Ghimire’s feminist interrogation of gender and patriarchal heterosexual normativity that brings into focus a woman’s perception of loss, trauma, fragmentation, marginalization, vulnerability and the fierce need to survive –the essential hallmarks of diasporic literature. In that sense, Ms Ghimire’s Sydney Sapana is a powerful contribution to understanding what is happening in the lives of thousands of students emigrating to Australia in search of a better life. The book casts the spotlight on some key questions that ought to concern us all. The gendered perspectives it explores, the political contexts it trawls, the human challenges and navigations it draws to our attention are crucial in the contemporary ‘border-crossings’ from Nepal. The novelist is only trying to pose some pertinent questions around how we understand them and respond to them.
Sydney Sapana has multiple layers of plot lines that pose a challenge to any attempt at summarising. The novel centers around the journey of Sristy, a young Nepalese woman in Australia. As the story goes, Sristy had developed an infatuation with Prajwal, her classmate in Nepal. But unfortunately, there was no reciprocity of feelings between them. Eventually, Sristy falls in love with her teacher, Binod sir, who happens to be a married man. Disillusioned, she plans on leaving Nepal and ultimately heads to Sydney, Australia.
The new place gives her many tales to tell. She encounters a plethora of psycho-social, economic, cultural as well as psycho-sexual problems as she settles in down under. Recent arrival in Australia, the challenges of study, living cost, tuition fee, accommodation on the one hand and love, loneliness and longing for home and familial warmth on the other start gnawing at her. The trial begins with ‘where to stay, whom to stay with, how to land a job, how to pay exorbitant tuition fee and weekly rent?’
She shares her room with Nikita and tries to cope up with the ‘Sydney life’. She eventually gets a job at a Lebanese café. The owner, Musaffik, is at once besotted with her ‘body’ and ‘beauty’. He tries all of his tricks to woo her – gifting of Pashmina shawls, walking her to the train station after her evening shifts to promising her a rich life. She rejects his offers by quitting the job at his café; she can’t imagine converting from being a Hindu woman to a Muslim and having to possibly cover herself in a veil.
Sristy and Nikita move to the apartment of Pritha, a married Nepalese lady living in Sydney, who is in love with a Panjabi man, who, lo and behold, also happens to be married. Her roommate is from a higher middle class ‘Kshetri family’ from Kathmandu who is having an affair with Bibek, a ‘Newar boy’, also from Kathmandu. One day, she encounters Aditya at Bibek’s birthday party. A friend to Bibek, Aditya takes care of her at the party and ends up taking her to his apartment after a heavily intoxicated Sristy throws up excessively. Aditya appears to be a generous man and Sristy falls for him. She begins to live with him hoping for a secure life and permanent residency and before long, they get married. But the nuptial knot did not end Sristy’s troubles as Aditya soon begins to reveal his true colours. He starts to sexually exploit her; she became his tool of sexual experimentation, trying different sex positions. It did not matter to her husband whether she was interested in the lovemaking or not after a hard day’s work. He becomes increasingly violent revealing all his bestiality and pounces on her every night and forces her into sexual acts she isn’t interested in biting into every part of her tired body. Sristy ultimately arrives at her “enough is enough” moment when she hits him with a bottle, in self-defense and in a fit of rage. She then leaves for Brisbane in the middle of the night.
The life of Brisbane and people working in the farm adds another dimension to her life. Sristy befriends other Nepalese migrants working in a farm and soon begins working with them. She learns to drive and soon owns a car. In the meantime, Aditya follows her there and presents himself aggressively. He still tries to ‘possess’ her claiming her to be his wife. In the presence of her friends and a ‘foreigner’ boss popularly called Father, she narrates all the excesses he meted out to her. When she threatens to report him to the police, he steps back and becomes ready to send her ‘divorce papers. The novel ends ‘open ended’ when Sristy, now a bold and undaunting lady have gone through many trials and tribulations of life, a mature woman with many experiences leaves for Melbourne leaving readers much curious: What will Sristy do thereafter? What sort of life will she lead? Will she marry again?
Sydney Sapana is the depiction of the Nepalese diaspora’s bleak side of life in Australia. Arguably, it’s been around 50 years since Nepalese started migrating to Australia. In recent years, there is an unprecedented surge of Nepali students to study in Australia putting Nepali students in the third highest number of international students in Australia after China and India in the first and second position respectively. Moving to a foreign country undoubtedly presents multiple challenges and complexities for the ‘movers’ of all kinds. Even more challenging and complex it becomes for students coming from the third world like Nepal who can’t ‘bring’ money from home and are compelled to get to work from the beginning to survive. One the one hand, University tuition fee has skyrocketed in recent times in Universities across the world and on the other, living cost is dizzyingly expensive in metropolitan centers like Sydney of Australia. Besides, it has been quite hard to get a job as well. For a student who is away from love and support of family, the longing for home is intolerably strong. The power of Sanu Ghimire’s pen lies in being able to narrate all these trials and tribulations of Nepali students in particular and the socio-cultural decadence of Nepalese migrants in Sydney in general in her debut novel Sydney Sapana. To the best of my knowledge, it is the first novel written by Nepalese diaspora in Australia. Moreover, it is not only the story of students as mentioned above. It is also the representative story of hundreds of thousands of Nepalese migrants spread far and wide across the world. Sydney Sapana touches upon the issue of current trends of migration in Nepal and its attendant pathetic stories. Sanu Ghimire is able to depict all the attendant psycho-sexual problems husband and wife face when they are separated from each other. Pritha’s affair with a Panjabi man, both married; Parbati Magar, Rina and their ‘sexual dissatisfaction’ work as testimony to this fact. In addition, migration has created familial and social disintegration. One of the remarkable achievements of Sanu Ghimire in the novel is her powerful narrativization of those stories which hitherto had remained hidden and covered. Sanu has unravelled, unearthed and uncovered all of them honestly, boldly and brilliantly in the novel. Through Sydney Sapana, the novelist has brought into discussion the huge cost migration has caused in social, economic, cultural and psychological level in a clear, loud, direct and explicit manner. Through the explicit portrayal of sexual encounter Sristy’s female body faces in every moment of her life from Nepal to Australia, Sanu Ghimire has hit hard on the hypocrisy of people who still hesitate to talk about the sexual violence women face today and the patriarchal mindset that still persists so strongly irrespective of whether they are in the third world or first world.
Moreover, Sydney Sapana heavily comes upon the patriarchal mindset and social structure by depicting the men’s treatment of Sristy merely as sexual object. Many men came into her life. But their attraction was fundamentally based on her ‘young female body’ which they all tried to ‘take advantage’ of. Rather than treating her respectfully, they took her as a ‘plaything’, a source of entertainment. But Sristy does not give in. She keeps on fighting and her fight is going on even at the end of the novel. Another very powerful aspect of the novel is the psychological exploration of ‘diasporic people’ whose memory of home haunts them perennially. Sristy is 7981 km away from home but the memory of home haunts her so powerfully that she often cries not being able to come to terms with homesickness. She is caught between two opposing dimensions of life – physical and emotional, Nepal and Australia, native land and foreign land, nostalgia and the desire for a better life in a new land. Her past is bitter, present restless and the future uncertain.
Sanu Ghimire’s power to describe people, place and object in clear, idiomatic language is quite absorbing. The description of Sydney, its clean roads, beautiful gardens, shining cars plying on the streets, snake like trains crawling on all directions, massive development of infrastructure, magnificent uses of science and technology, the rule of law, the socio-cultural landscape is juxtaposed with Nepalese culture, psycho-social make-up and the backwardness.
The story of the Nepalese diaspora in Australia, however, is not always a story of ‘failure and fear’. There are many bright sides to it. Though it has hinted at the ‘success story and good people doing great job’ in Australia at the beginning of the novel’, Sydney Sapana fails to build on them and create a parallel structure of ‘good people doing great things in Australia’. Perhaps, the novelist has left such gap to fill through her creative endeavors in the future.
Jiva Nath Lamsal is a PhD candidate at the School of Literature, Art and Media, University of Sydney.
The author is solely responsible for all aspects of this article.