Sunday, December 24, 2006

Review : The Alchemy of Desire

"Love is not the greatest glue between two people. Sex is," says the sardonic, unnamed narrator of "The Alchemy of Desire," as he hurls us into a cautionary tale of sexual desire and time. This is the debut novel of Indian journalist Tarun Tejpal, who is best known for his exposés in Tehelka, a newsweekly he founded and edits in New Delhi.

The crassness of the opening line leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, but delve deeper and the real reasons behind the narrator's erratic behavior begin to emerge. Tejpal uses this beginning to contrast with what he ultimately wants to say.

Much of the first third of the novel describes the narrator's relationship with his spouse, Fizz. The pair leave New Delhi for a remote village in the Himalayas, where the narrator tries to write the Great Indian Novel. Here, an unrealized memory of a long-dead woman, Catherine, stalks him and deprives him of all comfort but one: the slaking of desire.

The protagonist chances upon a trove of 64 notebooks in their new house in the Himalayas. The notebooks elaborate, in raunchy detail, the sexcapades of Catherine and her lover Gaj Singh, who had lived in the same house decades ago. Not only do the words begin to take over the narrator's life, but he is also haunted by Catherine's apparition in dreams. Gradually, Tejpal's hero is taken away from the real world into the nether depths of extreme passion. As he plumbs the illegible writings with feverish intensity, he is forced to stake everything, including ultimately his marital life, at the altar of sexually charged prose.

The next segment, Kama (Desire) shifts the focus to America and Catherine's life story. This is the point where the reader begins to make sense of the novel. Kama tracks Catherine's disgust with her prim American life, her impatience with her mother's Catholic religiosity and the pity she feels for her father's declining years. The distaste that she harbors for her state fuels her journeys through the cities of Europe, her travels interspersed with epistolary exchanges with her parents. Her Paris sojourn is the first turn in the novel's tide. Alluding to Catherine's antipathy for emotionless hedonism, Tejpal reverses the opening assertion of his novel: Desire is a wonderfully promiscuous thing, but when it is trapped in monogamy it cannot survive without love.

Interestingly, these passages mark the guest appearances of Somerset Maugham and Pablo Picasso in the narrative. Also, it is in Paris that Catherine meets her future husband, Mustafa Syed. She is beguiled by the charms of the Jagdevpur prince who "spoke English gently and with a fine sense for its sound." The novel takes her to India where she becomes Syed's wife and melds into a culture she has known all her life but never experienced. Catherine's bewilderment is dissipated by her husband's good advice: Be inscrutable.

After this, however, the novel momentarily slips into a mishmash of desire gone berserk. It is a wonder that it didn't occur to Tejpal, who purportedly knows so much about desire, that too much concupiscence, even in literary form, can move from edgy to bland to downright repulsive. By the time this roar dies down, one has had so much of Catherine's experimentation that one is almost relieved to see her dead.

The novel is again rescued toward the end by the narrator's haunting account of what passions possess us and which of those we cling to for reasons that are never fully known. There's also an exploration of how intense desire survives death to linger, imbuing everything it had once touched with a long-ago glow.

Despite warts, "Alchemy" is engaging because Tejpal binds the reader into a sordid tale of murderous intrigue, which concludes aptly.

The novel is, to use a clichéd phrase, thriller-like in its breathless pace. Tejpal's narrator is the portrait of an artist as the solitary reaper. Reaper of grim destinies and difficult emotions. That alone ensures that readers will connect with him at a deeply personal level.

No comments: