Anatomy of infidelity

The Exiles
By Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla.
HarperCollins. Page 406. Rs 350.

Reviewed by Balwinder Kaur

LOVE makes the world go round. Life and all we experience therein has special significance when shared with the people we love. But the course of love never does run smooth; it is tried and tested at every turn. The Exiles by Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla explores all the dark corners of the human heart, juxtaposing familial love with romantic love and dissecting the anatomy of infidelity. It is an examination of what keeps families together and what tears them apart. The tale unfolds in L.A, Mumbai and Kenya as told by a husband, wife and lover.

The Kapoor family is at a critical juncture, with Rahul and Pooja’s marriage falling apart, a widening gulf of emotional and physical distance between them. Their son Ajay himself observes how "The Kapoor household felt like an abandoned set, one upon which the drama had already unfolded but which had yet to be dismantled". Rahul, despite his professional success, feels like he’s living someone else’s life and is plagued by bitterness and boredom. Pooja’s entire existence revolves around being a good mother and wife. Living a life of quiet desperation, her whole world is rocked when she learns of her husband’s affair with Atif.

Rahul feels Atif saved him from "a future of crippling solitude and unreasonably high expectations". He becomes comfortably numb to his adultery and doesn’t really nurse feelings of self-recrimination. He admits that he feels great love for Pooja but no passion. That is all she is to him, a peculiar mix of the convenient and the inconvenient. Rahul believes that he is more than the sum of his mistakes, but their consequences are inescapable.

Pooja feels utterly alone in America and trapped in her life, declaring, "This is not the life I envisioned ... this is not the family I want." Forced to confront her husband’s infidelity, she is rudderless on a choppy sea in the middle of an emotional storm; tossed high and low she struggles to keep her head above water. Crippled with self-doubt, Pooja wonders what she did to drive Rahul into another man’s arms. She searches for answers in religion, examining texts and ultimately begs for mercy from the Gods in her stone sanctuary.

Atif is a young man who is miserable, for he is sidelined by an uncaring, judgemental society and rejected by his own flesh and blood. He finds the love he yearns for in Rahul. But Atif hates that their relationship is built on lies and that their happiness comes at the price of another’s misery.

The theme of being in exile resonates throughout the book. All three of them are alike in their suffering. Everyone feels utterly disconnected; marooned on his or her own island of loneliness. Residing in a foreign land and adjusting to a different culture further intensify the detachment these chronically lonely characters feel. They are all torn between extremes, choosing between feeling loved and feeling guilty, having to pick forbidden love or familial love. This raises questions regarding the very nature of love. How can you love someone and not know him? How can you care for someone and yet betray him? How can something be just within reach yet so far away?

Dhalla is a skilled storyteller with an astute understanding of human nature. He is adept at conjuring up visuals and creating atmosphere. The story is set in urban L.A but India is everywhere, be it the melodious verses of Hindi music, the delectable desi cuisine or the fervent examination of religious texts. The author quickly entangles the reader in the lives of his protagonists and makes them co-conspirators by sharing their every thought, desire and feeling. It is a tragic tale painstakingly woven and the reader’s heart aches for characters so beautifully broken. The language is sensual and silky like a sparkling ribbon winding around a dusty old box only magnifying the tragic fate of this trio. The story is played out mostly in characters heads resulting in a nearly microscopic examination of the protagonists which makes the book excessively detailed.