A married and middle-aged male teacher whose life is going nowhere woos one of his young, female students, thereby fouling up his life all the more. Sound familiar? It should. Cautionary tales about adultery are a perennial favorite with writers and readers. And now that many writers are also professors, the temptation to dally with the cutie in your Comp-Lit class must be sublimated into yet another version of The Scarlet Letter, lest the institution of marriage crumble altogether. But The Guru of Love by Nepalese-American author Samrat Upadhyay offers a slight variation on the threadbare scarlet A, and the novel, despite its hackneyed premise, is utterly absorbing.
Ramchandra is the teacher; Malati the student; Goma the teacher's wife. Malati, who already has a child by an AWOL father, hopes to pass the national exam, go to college and escape her squalor. Ramchandra seduces the young woman and confesses the transgression to his wife, who promptly leaves him. Yet and here's the twist when Malati finds herself homeless, Goma makes the bizarre decision to take Malati into her home. Rumors fly; Goma's parents wail; the kids rebel. "Something," thinks Ramchandra, "had gone terribly wrong." But Goma perseveres until, happily, the AWOL father returns.
Mirroring this moral chaos is the chaos of Nepal, the novel's setting and one of the world's poorest countries. Westerners tend to identify Nepal with trekking in the Himalayas, smoking dope in Katmandu and so on. Upadhyay's novel should help change that. His Nepal is no Shangri-La. "I'm stuck in this miserable job, teaching you miserable students, clinging to my miserable salary," moans Ramchandra. Nepal and India share a culture that includes a deep and abiding fatalism, which Upadhyay superbly conveys. The novel is not joyless, and its descriptions of Nepalese festivals and family life are colorful and inspiring. But no sooner has the party ended than somebody, somewhere, is weeping. And only love, however fleeting and confused, offers a respite. Kenneth Champeon is a writer based in Thailand. He formerly lived in India.