Upadhyay’s “The Good Shopkeeper” was chosen for the Best American Short Stories, 1999 , and subsequently was published in the 2001 collection resting God in Kathmandu , which won the Whiting Award for best emerging writers. Some critics, however, have pointed out some flaws. For instance, Kavitha Rao, writing for Far Eastern Economic Review found that Upadhyay’s collection “has very little to distinguish it from other writers from South Asia,” except for the fact that Upadhyay’s tales are set in Nepal. But despite this criticism, Rao singled out “The Good Shopkeeper” as Upadhyay’s “most successful story.” Writing for the Village Voice , S. Shankar also singled out “The Good Shopkeeper” in this critic’s review of Arresting God in Kathmandu Shankar found this one to be the “best story” in the collection. Shankar states, “The insights into Pramod’s world that Upadhyay offers through his story are subtle and satisfying,” then goes on to praise Upadhyay’s “fine sense of place.”
Writing for Publishers Weekly , Jeff Zaleski praised Upadhyay for his subtleties: “there are no lush descriptions or forays into spirituality” in these short stories, Zaleski writes. Unlike other exotic stories written about lands far from the shorelines of the United States, Zaleski found Upadhyay’s writing refreshing. He found the author’s writing to be assured and anchored in “small yet potent epiphanies.” Alix Wilber, writing for the Seattle Times was not so impressed. The writing is a little too bland for Wilber, who stated that the stories included in the collection Arresting God in Kathmandu are “minimalist in form language.” Although Wilber found Upadhyay’s stories to be interesting and his writing to be “fluent,” the writing was, nonetheless,” too unaccented to be interesting on its own.” Other critics have found more to praise in Upadhyay’s writing. One is Ronny Noor, who reviewed Upadhyay’s collection for World Literature Today . Noor concluded his article with these words: “These beautiful stories . . . are full of tender grace, woven in words that are not only perfectly set like beads in a necklace but also flow smoothly from sentence to flawless sentence without a bump.” Hart is the author of several books. In the following essay, Hart examines the roles of the two female minor characters in Upadhyay’s short story.
Samrat Upadhyay’s short story “The Good Shopkeeper” focuses mainly on the evolution of protagonist Pramod as he sorts through his options upon losing his job. Although the female characters, Pramod’s wife, Radhika, and the unnamed woman with whom Pramod has an affair, are given little space in this story, their significance and their effect upon the protagonist is profound. It might even be true that these two female characters prevent Pramod from being lost in a downward spiraling depression. Radhika appears first of the two female characters in “The Good Shopkeeper.” Although Pramod reprimands her at the opening of the story, it is Radhika who offers the solution to his dilemma, even though it takes the entire length of the story, which covers more than a month, for Pramod to recognize and accept her advice. In the beginning, Pramod accuses Radhika of being too emotional, and he tells her this is why he is reluctant to share information with her. Her emotions, Pramod tells her, are what keep Radhika from thinking clearly. Pramod, of course, believes that he, as an accountant, always thinks in a clear, rational manner. He is, after all, a man who works with numbers all day. What could be more rational than that? Having just lost his job and along with it, his self-image, Pramod invests in thinking clearly as the only way that he is going to successfully work his way through this crisis. And who can argue with that? On his first day of unemployment, he asserts that his own performance is not to blame for his losing his job. He recognizes that his company has run out of money and has no other choice but to let him go. “It is not their fault,” Pramod tells his wife.
In response, Pramod’s wife asks: “So only you should suffer?” This is a reasonable question. In a company that really cares about its employees, could not everyone come together and give up a little, instead of one person having to give up all? Although this idea makes sense, Pramod finds a flaw in his wife’s supposition. He acknowledges that the person who has replaced him on the job is more technically skilled than he is. So in conclusion, it makes more sense (at least economically if not socially) that Pramod is the one who is let go. Then Radhika finds a flaw in Pramod’s argument. She adds that there is one more important factor in Pramod’s release that her husband might have overlooked. The man who has replaced him has more influential social connections than Pramod. Her statement implies that connections matter more than qualifications.
So Radhika’s suggestion prompts Pramod to seek his own connections through his wealthy and influential brother-in-law, Shambhuda. If this connection were to work for Pramod, help would be coming from Radhika’s side of the family, through his wife. But as it turns out, Shambhuda does next to nothing for Pramod. He lifts Pramod’s mood from time to time, telling him that things will get better, but no job prospects ever appear. Even though Shambhuda does not find a new job for Pramod, Radhika is the one who pushes Pramod out the door and into the streets to look for another job. She provides the impetus that Pramod needs. Even her existence along with their child heighten his need to secure an income for their household. When Pramod realizes that finding another job, especially one as prestigious as the one he has just lost, is going to be harder than he realized, he becomes physically ill. The pressure gets to him. He pays his next month’s rent out of savings, but as that month passes by, he must turn to Radhika once again. It is Radhika’s family who lends him and his wife the money to manage their mounting bills. The loan gives them more time, but it also makes Pramod feel belittled. He wants to be a good provider for his family and does not want his wife’s family to think otherwise. But he has no choice. Radhika understands her husband’s disposition and tells him not to worry. “She was still tying to maintain an optimistic attitude,” the narrator informs the readers. But this optimism is something that Pramod “no longer shared.” Slowly but surely, Pramod slips out of his rational mode and plunges deeper into worry and frustration, emotions that contribute to his depression. Now Radhika is the one to think more effectively. She conceives a logical plan that might save them: They should sell the land they own in the south and buy a shop. The money they make from the sale could afford them a well-stocked store that the two of them could work; and with a little bit of luck, they could be back on the road to success. Pramod’s first reaction to this plan is defensive. His ego, in particular, is completely stunned. How in the world could he go from being an accountant at a large corporation to being a small-time shopkeeper? The idea is absurd. “I am an accountant, do you understand? I have worked for many big people,” Pramod snaps at his wife. He later regrets The simplicity of this woman is ridiculous, Pramod thinks. At first, he even feels like laughing at her.
But instead, he follows her home and engages in sexual intercourse with her.” his rash comments to her. But even in a more rational mood, as he lies awake at night, his pride and emotionality still overrule his rational thinking. He comes up with reasons why being a shopkeeper would not work, but none of them is actually viable. He believes that he would have trouble dealing with customers whom he dislikes. He thinks the land they own is worthless. In truth, he is totally humiliated by the whole idea. A shopkeeper is a role that Pramod believes to be below him.
Pramod literally turns his back on his wife as they lie together in bed, and metaphorically he does so by becoming sexually involved with another woman. This woman, identified only as a housemaid, is his respite from having to think. She tells him upon their first meeting that he thinks too much. She sees right through him. From the very first time they meet, she catches him in a lie. She asks where he works. This is a simple question, but it galls Pramod that she immediately touches upon such a sore topic. He tells her he works in an office. She prods on: Is it a holiday, she asks simply, realizing that most office workers would not be spending the morning in the park. She also notices how worried Pramod looks. “In this city I see so many worried people,” she tells Pramod. “They walk around not looking at anyone, always thinking, always worrying. This problem, that problem.” She compares her life, which she classifies as poor, to those who have much more than she does. She says, “For us poor people. Life is what God gives us.”
In other words, she takes what is handed to her and deals with it in the best way she can. Rich people assume they create their circumstances; they worry about protecting what they have and plan or connive how they can get more. By contrast, the housemaid suggests, poor people enjoy life more because they are resigned to their fate. They assume they are not responsible for their circumstances. Ironically their poorer living conditions free them to enjoy the present moment more, whereas rich people are so preoccupied with their wealth, that pleasures slip by unnoticed as they compete for more possessions. The simplicity of this woman is ridiculous, Pramod thinks. At first, he even feels like laughing at her. But instead, he follows her home and engages in sexual intercourse with her. As this woman takes up more and more of his time, Pramod becomes more and more disconnected from his former self. He stops looking for a job and even refuses to go home to his family one night. But one day, after having spent an uncomfortable afternoon with his wife’s family, Pramod goes to see the woman, then senses something has again changed inside of him. He lies down in her bed and instead of being sexually aroused, “he felt like a patient, ready to be anesthetized so that his insides could be removed.”
At this point, Pramod has grown tired of his emotions. He wants to be numb. When he acts out a scene of wanting to fight with everyone who has caused him to wallow in his emotions, the woman asks: “What good will it do . . . to beat up the whole world?” This question throws Pramod off guard. He stops in mid-motion and ponders it. Then he gets up, kisses the woman on the cheek, and tells her that it is time for him to go home. Pramod realizes finally, through the woman’s simple clarity, that he has indeed been wasting time and effort. He has been fighting the wrong battle. Instead of fighting his depressive emotions, he has been fighting all the meaningless situations that have surrounded him since he lost his job. He has taken out his emotions, in other words, on everyone around him. But now it is time to get back on track. And when Pramod realizes this, he goes straight home to the people in his life who hold the most significance. He is gleeful and takes time to notice his child. The story ends much where it began. But at the climax of this story, Pramod is a different man. He has evolved, thanks to the gentle pressures and simple insights of the two female characters of this story.
Joyce Hart, Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 22, Samrat Upadhyay, Published by Gale Group, 2010