By Kevin Rabalais
One third into the year, I’ve discovered my first must-see film: Jennifer Peedom’s documentary Sherpa: Trouble on Everest. Sherpa takes the viewer into the lives and homes of the eponymous ethnic group we know too little about. In the West, they remain most famous for leading climbers to the summit of Mount Everest.
Sherpa offers us a privileged perspective into an unfamiliar—unknown, for many of us—world, and it does so with some of the most beautiful cinematography you’re likely to see.
Peedom provides us with an intimate view of family customs and relationships. We get to know Sherpa husbands, wives and children. We follow them through the steps of setting up base camp and as they pave the way to the summit of Everest for Western climbers who pay tens of thousands of dollars to “conquer” the mountain. Rather than that verb, however, the Sherpa—and this includes the most famous of them all, Tenzing Norgay—believe you don’t conquer Everest but that she is like a mother into whose lap you crawl.
Sherpa begins before the 2014 climbing season and covers its first dramatic days. On April 18 of that year, a 14,000-ton block of ice shifted and killed sixteen Sherpas. The day marked the worst disaster in the history of Everest.
With this unforgettable documentary in mind, I recently read a novel by the first Nepali-born novelist writing in English to be published in the West. Samrat Upadhyay is the Whiting Award-winning author of Arresting God in Kathmandu and The Guru of Love. I picked The City Son among other Upadhyay titles for the direct force of its opening line: “A stranger comes to the village and delivers the news.”
Months, sometimes an entire year, pass between the Masterji’s visits from the city, where he works as a teacher, to his wife and two sons in the country. The novel opens when an unfamiliar woman approaches the wife, Didi. “I have to talk about an important matter,” she says.
The woman identifies herself as belonging to the next village, then she makes some connections—throws out some names—that form a vague picture in Didi’s mind about who she is. A sickly feeling has started in Didi’s stomach. She doesn’t want to hear this woman. I should shut this window, she thinks, and I can go back to sorting my boys’ clothes. But there is no going back.
“The matter is a bit too delicate for the open air,” the stranger informs Didi, who invites her inside only to learn that her husband has a mistress. And then: with this mistress, he has a beautiful son.
Shortly afterward, Didi sets out with her two sons to learn the truth. The three of them reach the city and move in with the Masterji, his mistress and their young son. Within days, Didi begins to act like this “city son” is her own. She then expels the beautiful mistress from the household.
All of this unfolds in the opening pages of this remarkable novel by a writer whose other books I look forward to reading. Upadhyay grants us the honor of getting to know those unfamiliar to us, or at least to this viewer and reader. My “discovery” of his work reminds me of the Nobel Committee’s citation of Patrick White: “for an epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent to literature.” White’s country, like Upadhyay's, was already there, of course. The continued pleasure of being a reader, however, is that our explorations remain endless. The gift of literature permits us to see and hear and know what we will never get to see and hear and know in the course of our own limited lives.