Rediscovering the Social Group: A Search for Identity and Security in Manjushree Thapa’s Seasons of Flight

Seasons of Flight is a haunting tale of misplaced identities, and at the same time, an expression of solitude. The novel opens with a feminine experience of “being Nepali” in the US.

Its protagonist, Prema, a Nepali woman from a rural hill-town, wins a green card in a US government lottery and immigrates to Los Angeles, who is overwhelmed by her environment at every juncture of her life. She has been disembedded from her Nepali language, cuisine, homeland and Hindu religion. She does not find any constants or signposts as she navigates the territory of Los Angeles which she could call her own. A very simple question, “Where are you from?” (1) and the chain of conversation that follows, compels her to think about her national identity.

Migrating people have been disembedded from their indigenous homelands and are relocated elsewhere. The effect has been the creation of permanently shifting ‘ethnoscapes’, to use Arjun Appadurai’s term, characterized by an ongoing dynamism of cultural renegotiation and radical challenges to the tradition of both indigenous ethnic communities and modern nation state (32). Prema tries to safeguard her indigenous identity in her new location by defining to everyone who asks her where she is from. She is frequently asked if she was from India. But she says she is from Nepal, the country of Mt. Everest. More commonly the Americans would say ‘Naples’ as if it was a part of Rome. Prema heard a lady saying: “My husband and I went to Rome for our honeymoon, but we never made it to Naples (1).” Prema, all the time, negotiates her identity by trying to locate herself to her hill-village, to the Shiva-Parvati temple, the ammonite given by her mother, Nepali Language and food on the one hand and she wants to be real American through her physical and mental attachment with her Latino-American boyfriend Luis on the other.
Johann Gottfried Herder, an eighteenth century philosopher, argues ” the foundation of construction of identity rests on the perceived ‘wholeness’ of a community derived from the totality of its expressions – language, customs, dress, architecture, religion (qtd. in Kerr 362).” Prema has broken her ties with her family back at home and the Nepali community in Los Angeles in an attempt to assimilate her identity into a vague pluralism of American multiculturalism. Identities are increasingly liminal and hybrid as capital, commodities, information, technologies, images and ideologies circulate across the borders due to “ethnoscapes, technoscapes, financescaps, ideoscapes and mediascapes” (Appadurai 31). It engenders the growth of new local identities. She as a subject engages to channel existential fears and feelings of loss and despair. It is at such times of homelessness and alienation she tries to reinterpret and redefine her national identity in a foreign land.
Cultural identity depends on some degree of continuity with the past – the geography, culture and location. It has its own history which is constructed on the binary of self and other. Daniel Boyarin and Jonathan Boyarin argue: “Group identity has been constructed traditionally in two ways. It has been figured on the one hand as the product of a common genealogical origin and on the other, as produced by common geographical origins” (86). Though, Prema tries to assimilate her identity into a vague pluralism of American multiculturalism, she can never find any link to either genealogical or geographical origin.
One way for the Nepalese immigrants’ generation like Prema to deal with its identity crisis is to reestablish connections with its past through nostalgia. There are various ways of connecting with the past, but the most important is remembering. Remembering is the material objects and photographs on display or people we encounter that are tangible links to the past. Prema’s encounter with Mata Sylvia in Los Angeles, a preacher of Hindu religion, reciting lines from Bhagavad Gita, The Mahabharat, The Ramayan, and the books about Osho, Krishnamurti, Vivekananda, Ram Das, Sai Baba takes her back to “Nepali home” away from her “present home”. It is a kind of place where Prema could find refuse and claim to be real and yet not real enough to feel authentic. Prema is confused when she listens to Mata Sylvia reciting lines from Hindu religious book. It could not assuage her:
Prema did not feel any love. She felt, instead the wounds of her childhood. She recalled her mother’s bedroom shrine, crowded with the gods: Krishna, Parvati, Shiva, Lakshmi, the avatar of Vishnu in a fossil. … She saw her mother with blankets drawn over her, a coal-fire by her bedside. Unconscious. (155)
An encounter with her mother in “Nepali home” through memory is a space where she could find a trace of identity and completeness which is too fragile to call her own. The construction and reconstruction of her indigenous identity through historical symbols and religion supply her alternative identity to everyday insecurity. It conveys her a trace of security – though elusive – of a ‘home’ safe from intruders.
Prema, a drifting woman, is always in search of her fixed cultural identity. Stuart Hall in Cultural Identity and Diaspora states, “‘cultural identity’ can be thought in terms of one, shared culture, a sort of collective ‘one true self’, hiding inside the many other, more superficial or artificially imposed ‘selves’ which people with a shared history and ancestry hold in common” (234). The “oneness” underlying all the other, is the truth, the essence, of Nepalipan she is trying to discover, excavate and bring to light. Though she is physically located in Los Angeles, she is occupied by the memory of genealogical and geographical links to her village. The narrator in her novel says:
Some days her village felt centuries away, and the other days it was too close; she could not get far enough away from it. Her family home was sturdy, two-storied, of stone. It had felt sheltering, and safe, when she used to run through the bamboo groove past the Shiva-Parvati temple that bordered the terraced rice fields, to school. (2)
At the center of this nostalgia is a concern for meaning and cultural identity newly problematized by the conditions of contemporary life. Who am I? What am I doing here? These questions continually make her ponder. Under these conditions nostalgia becomes a means of identity construction. Nostalgia connects her to her past, compels her to articulate her generational experience in narratives, and contrasts the present, increasingly dominated by economic, geographic and genealogical inequality and instrumental rationality, with the past which she could call her own.
The global changes have meant that an increasing number of people now lack the protective cocoon of relational ties that shielded community members and groups in the past. In this wider sense, Giddens in Modernity and Self Identity: Self and Society in the late Modern Age says:
Globalization tends to break down the protective framework of the small community and of tradition replacing these with many larger, impersonal organizations. The individual feels bereft and alone in a world in which she or he lacks the psychological support and the sense of security provided by more traditional settings. (33)
Absence is understandable in the cosmopolitan city like Los Angeles. Prema frequently dwindles between absence and presence. Prema, in the company of Luis, feels the presence as she finds herself assimilated to American multiculturalism but the moment she idealizes her lost realm of culture, geography, innocence, purity and happiness; she is overwhelmed by absence. Her search for presence continues throughout the novel.
Prema seeks nostalgically to recapture her “happy days” of childhood past in her imagination, in turn, often associated with fond memories of food and festive meals: reminiscences of those culinary delights that brought her such warm feelings of pleasure, security, and even love as a child. When Luis, her boy friend in Los Angeles, says: “Hey Prema, know what I had for dinner last night?” “Dull-bath. A kind of Nepalese, I mean, Nepali food (61),” she is very happy and says she cooks it often but “just – the ingredients. I don’t know where to buy them (61).” When Luis says:
‘There was also – tur-curry?’
‘Tarkaari. Vegetables.’
‘It was great. Really great.’
‘That is nice, ‘ she said.
‘Yeah.’ (61)
The moment she discusses about the Nepali cuisine, she feels like eating them and being very near to her ‘home’, a secured place. This individual case of oral regression experienced at a personal level find a larger parallel in the immigrant Nepalese in Los Angeles.
Nostalgia emerges as a form of cultural resistance. At its center is a concern for meaning and identity newly problematized by changing conditions of Nepalese way of life in Los Angeles. Nostalgia can help to maintain and construct cultural identities by connecting the present to the past, by articulating past experiences and their meanings, at present.
When Prema visits Neeru-didi and sushil-bhinaju, she is very happy to see them offering Nepali food. She exclaimed with joy when she finds two plates of hot dumplings before them: “Momos! Can you believe? Momos in America (171)!” We see how a rhetoric of nostalgia – a rhetoric saturated with gastronomic images of food, feasting, and festive dining – is used as a plea for Nepalese to resist being ushered into an adulthood of western-style capitalist modernity. Juxtaposing the concerns of the stomach to those of the head or heart, Manjushree Thapa has used food and eating in her Seasons of Flight as an ‘identity markers’ to reflect, a means of security for the immigrants.
When home as a category of security is lost as a result of immigration and rapid socioeconomic changes, then new avenues or a new home – a new identity – for ontological security are sought. Homesteading is a strategy for coping with homelessness. Homesteading as a strategy means making and shaping a political space for oneself in order to surpass the life of contradictions and anxieties of homelessness. This may simply involve becoming a member of an exile community, by finding common places of assembly such as gurdwaras, mosques, or meditating place as of Mata Sylvia. Gyatri Chakravorty Spivak says “In the field of rational analysis, a feeling of recognized kinship is more desirable than nationalism” (773). Prema, like other immigrant Nepalese, takes part in the Bhajan and enjoys the privilege of kinship. The wails of harmonium and the tiny ching-ching of cymbals touch her heart. She claps when she hears: “Jaya Krishna, jaya Krishna, Radhe swami jaya jaya. Jaya Krishna, jaya Krishna, Radhe swami jaya jaya. Jaya Krishna, jaya Krishna, Radhe swami jaya jaya” (157). With her involuntary clapping she feels secure in this desolate land.
Prema time and again steals away to “the sleepy, elm-lined neighborhood of low, cream-colored houses. Little Nepal (167).” She speaks in to Nepali: “Neeru-didi hunuhuncha (169)?” When Neeru-didi and Prema meet they feel secured in the company of each other and promises to meet again. The recognized kinship provide them a sense of security.They hug each other in American style. Neeru says: “There’s only one Nepali restaurant in LA, it’s called Kathmandu Kitchen” (170). So she in her restaurant, The Shangri-La, offers Nepali food: dal-bhat, momos. In cases of rapid domestic change and real or perceived geographical and genealogical inequality, Prema involves joining a local identity-based group that seems to provide her answers and security.
Prema does this because she is afraid of losing her cultural identity against her will as Sigel has noted in his Political learning in adulthood, “There exists in humans a powerful drive to maintain the sense of one’s identity, a sense of continuity that allays fear of changing too fast or being changed against one’s will by outside forces” ( 459). Those people who find themselves both structurally marginalized and ontologically insecure often give rise to a politics of resistance and the growth of local identities. Prema teaches Luis to speak Nepali. She thinks by teaching Nepali, she could establish a linguistic link and possess him whole heartedly. She says:
‘Ka, Khha, ga, gha, nga.’
‘Come again?’
‘The first five letters of the alphabets. Ka, Khha, ga, gha, nga.’
‘Um.’ He said, ‘Ka, ka, ka, ka, ka.’
She laughed. (135)
She laughs at his inability to pronounce Nepali alphabets. She corrects all the Nepali words when they are mispronounced. When Luis asked if she was a Nepalese, she says it is not ‘Nepalese’, it is ‘Nepali’. Luis wants to go to see the mountains of Nepal. He says: “‘I’d love to go to the Himmel-aa-yas.’ ‘Himal’ Prema said. ‘Sorry?’ ‘Himaals. Himaalayas’ (36).” She does not like Luis pronouncing her name ‘Pray-muh.’ Prema seeks ontological security taking recourse to language as she is afraid of losing her identity.
Those who engage in resistance politics tend to feel a genuine sense of loss as expressed in the recreation of a real or imagined past, or through the distant and often romanticized memory of a home. In the process of identity mobilization, these are all likely to become political weapons. As Nandy has noted in relation to expatriate South Asians;
In recent years many expatriate South Asians in the West have become more aggressively traditional, and more culturally exclusive and chauvinistic. As their cherished world becomes more difficult to sustain, as they and their children begin to show symptoms of integration into their adopted land, they become more protective about what they think are their faiths and cultures. (158)
The feelings described by Nandy are evidence of the destabilizing effects of the global-local nexus. Prema, towards the end of the novel, renews her relation and reconnects with her national roots by visiting Nepali people in Los Angeles and by taking a trip back home. Her effort to reconnect with previous relations revives the ties that had become numb while updating and renewing her cultural identity. As she feels increasingly uncertain about her daily life, the search for cultural identity takes on ontological and existential dimensions.
Prema, the abstract character of modem society, with her implicit anonymity and alienation in Los Angeles, has made her life ever-changing and mobile as she is uprooted from her original social milieu. The result, according to Berger, has been increasing attempts to “de-modernize” in order to seek “reversal of the modern trend that has left the individual ‘alienated’ and beset with the threats of meaninglessness” (qtd. in Kinvall 744). Going back to an imagined past by using reconstructed symbols and cultural reference points is, in other words, a response to the destabilizing effects of changing patterns of global mobility and migration. Prema brings in the images of Hindu religion, Nepali language and food – Momo – as imaginary coherence on the experience of dispersal and fragmentation. It is her attempt to recreate a lost sense of cultural identity.
To sum up, Manjushree Thapa’s Seasons of Flight is a compelling tale of alienation and homelessness. Away from ‘home’ – Nepal, in the foreign land – Los Angeles, Prema is disembedded from her root and she lacks the protective cocoons of home. Identity is newly problematized by changing conditions of Nepalese way of life in Los Angeles. Identities are increasingly liminal and she feels insecure in the foreign land. To overcome existential fears and feelings of loss and despair, she visits new Nepal in Los Angeles, eats Nepali food, visits Mata-Sylvia and recites Nepali bhajan. She joins a local identity-based group that seems to provide her answers and stability. Prema, an immigrant in Los Angeles desperately tries to recapture, excavate and bring to light the traces of indigenous homelands which is constructed and reconstructed in the face of globalization and cosmopolitanism through culture, language, culinary nostalgia, community and love. In the conclusion the paper suggests that the alternative identity sought out by Prema could be real and yet not real enough to feel authentic. It only gives her a fragile sense of belonging. This individual case of insecurity and homelessness experienced at a personal level find a larger parallel to the immigrant Nepalese in Los Angeles.

Work Cited
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