Saturday, April 9, 2005

Khushwant Singh
The tehelka of desire
Khushwant Singh

THE first and the loudest bang is on the book jacket. "At last — a brilliantly original novel from India", says the Nobel Laureate Sir Vidia Naipaul. The second, as ear-splitting as the first, are the opening lines by the author Tarun J. Tejpal. "Love is not the greatest glue between two people. Sex is."He elaborates his theme: "the laws of school physics will tell you it is more difficult to pull apart two bodies joined at middle than those connected any where near the top or the bottom." And so it goes on for full 518 pages. It is a long saga of a young couple madly in love and with ravenous appetite for sex which would make a randy goat appear impotent and a nymphomaniac frigid by a comparison with the hero and heroine of The Alchemy of Desire (Harper Collins).

Tarun Tejpal
Tarun Tejpal

Tejpal is Sir Vidia’s most-favoured Indian: he was the only one invited to Sweden to witness the Nobel Prize for Literature being awarded to Naipaul. In his lavishing praise on Tejpal’s first novel, Sir Vidia has dealt a back-hander at other Indian writers who have made their names in the world of English writing: Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy et al.

Tejpal has his own Indian admirers as well. He founded Tehelka and is the pioneer of sting investigative journalism: he exposed large-scale bribery and corruption in the establishment. The establishment hit back and ruined Tehelka. Tejpal became a hero of victims and found new champions to print his weekly journal, the reborn Tehelka. None of this yielded clues to his hidden talent for writing fiction. He started as a small-time reporter in Chandigarh, moved to Delhi to join India Today and then Outlook. He then quit that as well to launch the Tehelka weekly.

The bare bones of the story are of a Punjabi Hindu boy of Chandigarh (narrator) falling in love with a girl named Fiza, nicknamed Fizz (father Muslim, mother Sikh), whose parents have emigrated to Jorhat, Assam. Despite their parents’ disapproval, they get married by Sikh rites. Their courtship before marriage is a blissful affair starting in Chandigarh and the Shivaliks, mainly Kasauli, and continued in Delhi — with more sex thrown in than any I have ever read of in any book.

Search for solitude
April 2, 2005
Making peace with Partition
   March 26, 2005
Making of a leader
 March 19, 2005
Equality check
 March 12, 2005
One man’s belief is another’s shackle
 March 5, 2005
The good, the bad & the ugly
   February 26, 2005
The light of other days
   February 19, 2005
The fiction of Tagore
   February 12, 2005
Gossip is what gossip does
   February 5, 2005
Kingdom of God
   January 29, 2005

The author is left with a large fortune by his grandmother despite her outspoken opposition to the marriage. The couple look for an ideal place where he can write the novels fermenting inside him, and she can run their home and start a family. They find a dilapidated old house in Gethia in the Kumaon hills.

It is a hunted house that was once owned by an American woman Emily, who had married Oxford-educated Syed, eldest son of the Nawab of Jagdevpur. he was a catamite regularly served by his retainers. Emily watched them and then took one of them as her lover. She kept a daily diary. Before she died she had them bound, put in a wooden chest and buried in a remote part of her estate. The author chanced upon them. The muse which had been in him earlier came alive and he reconstructed Emily’s life from beginning to end. In the process, he ruined his own marriage. With some difficulty, he located Emily’s grave covered over with moss and lichen. The epitaph read:

Who can ever hold the essence of fire?

Who can ever know the alchemy of desire?

The Alchemy of Desire is a novel of significance. It puts Tarun Tejpal in the front rank of Indian novelists. However, it is flawed with unnecessary detail and repetition. He is obsessed with the flora and fauna of every place he visits. He cannot resist the temptation to show off by filling whole paragraphs of their names: he is not really involved with them. It is the same with his portrayal of sexual aberrations; they go on ad nauseam without much rhyme and even less reason. He could do with some lessons from his mentor Naipaul who is the master of terse, lucid prose. However, despite these minor shortcomings, I am inclined to agree with Naipaul: Tejpal has turned out a masterpiece. it is a novel that must be read.

Holi gift

This year’s Holi was the chilliest within my living memory. I thanked the weather deities for being kind to aged people like me and saving us from the hullarbaazee which hooligans in our vicinity indulge in on this otherwise joyous festival. As the cliche goes, this time it was a very low-key affair.

Vasundhara Raje Scindia
Vasundhara Raje Scindia 

I have never before received a gift on Holi; I always thought they were meant for Divali, Id, Christmas or the New Year. However, three days before Holi, I received an artistically crafted carton containing pouches of gulaal (coloured powder) of different hues: red, green yellow, blue. It was from the Public Relations Department of the Government of Rajasthan. Having been a PR man myself, I can vouch for their lack of new ideas about anything. It is usually the boss who does the thinking and tells the department to put it into effect. In all probability it is the boss who also draws up a list of names of recipients. I was not wrong. Beneath the pouches of gulaal was a card from Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia wishing me a joyous Holi. In my letter of thanks to her, Itold her that I would smear some of the coloured powder on my grey beard and fantasise her doing so. I also took the liberty of suggesting that a more appropriate Holi gift for a man of my age would be packets of bhang (mari juana), which is de rigueur on this festival. Iawait her response.

Traffic jam

At times when several words are telescoped into one they convey the meaning more effectively than when used separately. One example I can think of is Robert Lavher’s description of congestion on the road: "the rush hour traffic I’d just as soon miss when caraftercarismovinglike this. "I thought of something similar to describe the rush hour in our cities; it is bumpertobumpertobumperwithabump."