Book Review by Deepak Shimkhada

Other Side of Paradise by Kenny Pandey

Vajra Books, Kathmandu, Nepal, 2017

Pages 391

US $15.00


Other Side of Paradise by Dr. Hari Pandey, aka Kenny Pandey, has received an avalanche of accolades from Nepali fans.  How many of them have actually read it, however, is difficult to determine.  A few months ago, for example, a visitor saw a copy of Other Side of Paradise sitting on my desk and enquired about it.  I wanted him to read it for himself, and therefore didn’t want to reveal the story.  Instead, I asked him to read the book and get back to me with his impression.  He never did.  While my review certainly comes late due to extenuating personal circumstances, I’m happy to finally be able to share my review.

Although I have read the book in its entirety, my review is focused on chapter 16, where the author takes the reader on an unexpected journey.  Through the technique of dream, the reader goes on an imaginative flight from California to Pennsylvania.  The hero, Pemba, dreams one night of visiting an Amish community in Pennsylvania, and a few days later he chases his dream by actually going there.  This chapter sets the stage for Pemba’s decision to live in the Amish community, and it explains what transpired that prompted him to do so.  For those who haven’t read Other Side of Paradise, let me offer a brief outline – without revealing the end.

The novel opens in March 1985, where the author introduces his protagonist.  His name is Pemba; he’s a young, tall, handsome, and strongly built Sherpa, playing the role of a mountain guide for serious climbers and ordinary trekkers.  His job allows him to meet many women from foreign lands, some of whom propose that he marry and move with them.  But since he’s the only son in his family, he feels obligated to stay in Nepal to take care of his mother and two small sisters, who are still in school.

To make a long story short, I’ll fast-forward to the occasion when Pemba meets Linda, an American beauty from California who he quickly falls in love with.  Pemba follows Linda to California, where they get married and live happily together, as in a fairy tale.  But nothing lasts forever, as Buddha himself said.  The marriage ends in divorce, throwing Pemba into an utter state of depression.

We all dream; hence, the author conveniently uses dream as a device for changing the scene.  When Pemba was served with the divorce papers, he had a dream in which an angel told him to live with an Amish community to quiet his disturbed mind.  The prescription of stilling the mind through a change of venue, career, or environment is ingenious.  Since the author is familiar with the tenets of Buddhism, he uses nuggets of it throughout his book.

The mind can be quieted only through meditation.  For Pemba, moving to Pennsylvania to live in a state of solitude within an Amish community offered an escape from chaotic life in Los Angeles.  The author may be seeking to introduce a life of simplicity, as found in the village of Solo Khumbu, where Pemba was born.  Pemba was a Buddhist, and we often associate meditation with Buddhism.  Whether or not the author accomplishes the transition by providing Pemba with a new environment of meditative living with the Amish, I leave to the reader to judge.

There aren’t many Nepali novelists writing in the English language.  Dr. Pandey is one of a handful of Nepali novelists – in addition to Samrat Upadhyaya, Manjushree Thapa, and Durga Pokharel – who live in North America.  As such, he’s carved a place for himself in the literary world of English fiction, for which he deserves our appreciation.

Despite the author’s sincere effort and hard labor, however, the book is not without flaws.  There are some glaring spelling errors – for example, ‘phenomena’ instead of ‘pneumonia’ and ‘exuberant’ instead of ‘exorbitant.’  A thorough edit by a professional editor would have benefited the book.  The book also used some awkward expressions, including ‘quick bath’ rather than ‘quick shower,’ ‘door’ for ‘gate,’ ‘tablet’ for ‘pill,’ and ‘living’ for ‘staying.’  In America, showers are quick while baths are more lengthy and luxurious.  Similarly, people stay in a hotel or a motel when visiting a place – they don’t live there.  These culture-specific expressions are simple mistakes that could have easily been fixed by a competent editor.

Other Side of Paradise is not just boy meets girl kind of story; it’s more than that.  Although there is certainly a boy meets girl element to it, the narrative deals with complex inter-racial, inter-religious, and inter-continental issues.  It could make for an excellent social study of a couple from two diametrically different geographic, ethnic, economic, and religious backgrounds – all of which made their marriage impossible.

When the exoticism of the relationship wears out, the flames of passion tend to extinguish.  This exactly what happened to Pemba and Linda, though the author does not say so in words.  When the honeymoon ended, so did their relationship.  But what led to the cooling of the passion?  The author speaks of Linda’s gradual pulling away from Pemba, but doesn’t let the reader in on the reason.  Was it sexual inadequacy? Perhaps it was a cultural barrier to emotional bonding between Pemba and Linda that led to the failure of their marriage.  The foundation of a marriage is relationship – and if it’s not strong, it’s bound to end in divorce.

The author never explains why the marriage, which Pemba thought was based on true love, ended in divorce.  Obviously, Linda was not happy.  But what was the basis of her unhappiness?  Was it physical or emotional inadequacy that transpired her to divorce Pemba?  I wish Dr. Pandey had explained it by creating a careful scenario of relational drama.  Granted, it seems that he chose to hide Linda’s unhappiness to give the reader an element of surprise in her decision to separate.  As a reader, though, I would have liked to see what brought these two individuals together, and what separated them in the end.  A detailed account of incidents that led to their unity and separation would have been meaningful.

Instead of narrating the story in a chronological order like a biography, the author could have chosen any dramatic moment in the couple’s life as a starting point.  This would have given the story a more interesting beginning.  For example, he could have begun with the bed scene during their honeymoon – drawing the reader into the depth of their love and explaining how Pemba, a simple village boy from Nepal, took it as a ticket to Shangri-La.  But it was not to be; it was just a mirage, a Maya… that which was not there.  It feels as though the author misses many opportunities to make the book truly a clash of two opposite cultures.

The book has a few twists and turns that make the story interesting.  While I’m impressed by the author’s research on the Amish community, they aren’t as primitive as Tanaka, a character in Dr. Pandey’s book, expresses. The onus is on the author to ensure every piece of information is accurate.  And while it’s true that the Amish are traditional people who are unwilling to adapt to a modern style of living, it’s simply inaccurate and unjustifiable to suggest that they are ‘primitive.’

In spite of a few inaccuracies, the book contains scenes and descriptions of Nepal in the 1980s worth harking back.  When I saw the topography of the book like a time travel, I was excited to find it in the similar genre of Pico Iyar’s Video Night in Kathmandu, a travelogue.  To my disappointment, it didn’t turn out to be Iyar’s book, a nostalgic time travel of the Hippie era in Kathmandu.