The Nepali novel Palpasa Café by the journalist Narayan Wagle (Publication Nepa~laya) addresses the civil war that plagued Nepal for ten years. Based on true events, it follows a Nepali artist, Drishya, and his encounters with a young woman by the name of Palpasa in India and Kathmandu. The prose is dense and flowery and at times its poetic zeal put me off, but I persevered, reminding myself that something subtle may have been lost in the translation to English. The story spirals into something more heart-wrenching and meaningful when, following the massacre of the royal family, Drishya is forced out of his art gallery in Kathmandu and returns to his home village on a month-long trek with his college friend Siddartha, now a Maoist leader.
The reader is spun through broken reunions, civilian deaths and disappearances, bombed police shelters, and villages emptied of children—all recruited for the Maoist cause. (Children young enough to be in school use phrases like “Where words don’t work, bullets do.”) We see a country torn asunder by violence. (A boatman explains: “Someone will ask, ‘Why did you take that person across the river? Who was he? Why didn’t you report it?’ and one day I won’t have the right answer.”) Meanwhile, as the hills of his childhood are drenched in blood, Drishya dreams of opening a café for artists. Every room would be a gallery looking out into the mountains, and the café would be named for the woman he loves.
The story does not end happily; it does not even end in acceptance or understanding. From the outset the reader knows that Drishya will be abducted. But the stark fact of his disappearance only hits home when his story, as far as we will ever know, has ended. Amnesty International has placed Nepal at the top of the list of countries with the highest rates of civilian disappearances, and this novel explores the muddy political waters that still terrorize the country.
One of the few Nepali novels translated into English, it is a story about war, but it is also a story about love and how it may bring hope through the creation of art and the preservation of memory.