The Gulf exodus that determines so much of the society of, majorly the Indian Malayalis, is a familiar story. Lifetimes of people live suspended in between there—the place of work and money—and home, at least the concept of idealised home. It is a narrative of labour, migration and sociopolitics that is applicable to every country in the Indian subcontinent. The lives, decisions and consequences of this economic migration on Nepali society is the core of Greta Rana’s Hostage, a novel ‘inspired by the true story of Nepali migrants’.
In Nepal, the boatman Hari Prasad is going to ‘Arab’, their generic name for the Middle East. A family man, attached as he is to his land, his country and his beloved River Rapti, Prasad has debts to pay and education to buy for his daughter Subadhra and twin sons. The immigration market is rife with corrupt officers who find fault in everyone’s papers—“a ploy to get their palms oiled. Kathmandu was all about fragrant grease!” Prasad gets through and once in ‘Arab’, he keeps his head down and works hard.
Meanwhile, in Nepal, the Maoists are fast gaining power. Siva Bahadur works at the residence of the Congress man, but his subservient job is only a cover for his membership in a Maoist cell. Some follies later, he will find himself on a plane to the Middle East where his boasts of Leftist ideals and Maoist connections will be quietly ignored by his roommate, the older Hari Prasad.
Five years later, Prasad returns to Nepal, pays off his loans, frees his ancestral land and dreams of living quietly by the Rapti. But the country is in chaos, the standoff between the Maoists and the government is making everyday life a terror of existence. He decides to go back to a job in Jordan that promises to pay more—it will buy his family a brighter future, after all. En route to this job, things begin to go horribly wrong.
Then proceeds a faster-paced sequence of international legal matters, terrorist operatives, the ‘right thing to do’, family secrets, old loyalties and new relationships that covers various countries, many characters dipping in and out of the plot and touches on global politics to carry the story ahead.
Hostage dwells deep into the plight of poor migrant workers of Nepal and how men—it is nearly always men—desperately attempt to go to ‘Arab’ to try to make their families’ lives better. The economics of the migrant trade are well spelled out and in all of the simultaneous lives Rana writes about in the book, the effects of this business is ever looming. The chronology of the book takes the reader back and forth between generations and time zones.
Where the novel falters is in the way it attempts to tell too much, instead of showing. The migrant issue—its causes and effects on the individual and the larger social fabric—and gender stereotypes, both of which are globally common issues for the most part are explained sometimes to the point of fatigue. Steeped as it is in parts of history and contemporary global geopolitics, Hostage would have been more moving a novel if only it ‘showed’ more than it feels so compelled to ‘tell’.