The Whatchamacallit of Desire

Tarun Tejpal’s launch was the last event I attended before the mosquitoes got me good, but it was an Event in ALL CAPs, which Jai’s already blogged about. The book–The Alchemy of Desire–has been hugely hyped. I reviewed it for The Indian Express, or at least I think I did: the review came out in the paper this Sunday, but the paper didn’t come out in Delhi because it was Holi. Residents of Nagpur, Jaipur and Jhumritalaiya got to read it, apparently. On reflection, I was very, very kind to the book. Must’ve been pre-malarial euphoria.

The Alchemy of Desire
Tarun J Tejpal
HarperCollins,
Rs 500, 518 pages

Back in 1956, Junichiro Tanizaki wrote The Key, a study of a marriage in deep trouble where the protagonists attempt to bridge the abyss by maintaining diaries. Each one reads the other’s accounts of their most intimate moments; both keep up the fiction that the diaries are really private, off limits. Two decades later, Nagisa Oshima produced In the Realm of the Senses, a controversial ode to the body’s demands and desires: “”In the ecstasy of love the cry is ‘I’m dying.’ But as one becomes older, the cry becomes ‘Kill me now’.”

Both these men recognised the sad truth about sex and desire, often conflated with Newton’s law by schoolboys: what goes up must come down. Their concern was with what lay beyond the surface of the body, with the nature of obsession. Tarun J Tejpal’s first novel recognises the same truth, but flinches from this recognition, seeking a happy ending against all odds. In a cheerfully phallic novel, this is the ultimate phallacy.

There are four stories compressed within the 518 pages of this long, overstretched novel, and Tejpal tells only one with conviction. But that tale is a curiously touching account of the life of a young couple–the narrator and Fizz–as they explore the limits of desire and discover none. The passion in the prose is real as Tejpal lays out the small stumbling steps of courtship, draws the first trials and triumphs of setting up house, invoking a relationship so complete that it needs no outside validation. In an India weighed down by the dark knowledge of Partition, the frank delight these two take in each other’s bodies is the only innocent thing left, their rewriting of history in bed the only true chronicle, their lovers’ nicknames and road journals the only footnotes necessary.

To those who knew Delhi and grew up with a certain kind of Partition story, who remember the trauma that tore Punjab into little pieces before Bluestar, this part of The Alchemy of Desire will be illuminated by familiarity–often over-familiarity, as when Tejpal mines the mundane endlessly. For other readers, Tejpal has the born writer’s instinct for the telling phrase; he will make what they never experienced seem part of the fabric of their memories.

At the bottom of the Sukhna Lake lies the first story that threatens the happiness of the protagonists, an aborted novel, the narrator’s grand attempt at a sweeping saga of Partition that miscarried badly. His attempts to write on an old Brother typewriter with clacking keys initially bring him and his wife even closer together, desire fused with ambition and creativity. When the novel haemorrhages, the wounds inflicted on their relationship are difficult to staunch. As the narrator’s creativity judders and stalls, their marriage goes into a tailspin—if writing is a seat-of-the-pants activity, writer’s block affects the other side, so to speak, and there’s no Viagra yet for impotence in authors.

This is where The Alchemy of Desire could have taken on territory relatively unexplored, where Tejpal could have boldly moved into the realm of what lies beyond the senses. But he invokes a deus-ex-machina; the grandmother whose own Partition history made her disapprove of the narrator’s marriage with a Muslim girl leaves them a legacy, with which they buy a house in the hills. The house comes with a mysterious portrait and a mysterious chest containing mysterious diaries, all of which tell the story of a ghost from the past who is far too literal a device for this reviewer’s taste.

Catherine’s story is supposed to illumine a different kind of appetite, one that moves from mindlessly erotic promiscuity to a warped and magnificent obsession. But in the face of the narrator’s fascination with Catherine, his marriage and the reader’s interest are the first casualties. This shouldn’t happen: Catherine’s tale has the right appurtenances, mixing Paris nightlife with palace intrigue in India, unveiling a forbidden love story between brown and white, with generous doses of skullduggery and murder and even a Harlem interlude thrown in for good measure.

None of the sound and fury and colour can mask the novel’s essential emptiness. The heart of The Alchemy of Desire is the story of the ebbing and resuscitation of desire, but once you move past page 300 or so, you’re all too aware that the novel is on a pacemaker. There is an ending, clinically if not emotionally satisfying; there is a ghostly encounter of the very close kind. That brings us to the fourth story, the one that Tejpal could have written and didn’t write. He’s proved in The Alchemy of Desire that he has a writer’s mind, senses, skills, imagination. In his next book, perhaps he’ll get the phallus of chance, to quote one of his catchphrases, to fit rather better in the hole of history.

8 comments

  1. Brilliant. Incidentally, I’ve abandoned the book after 40-odd pages. It’s something I hate to do usually, and it’s not because I thought it was hideous or anything, but life’s far too short and there’s too much else to read.(In Basel media centre now, drowning in watches. Your review provides succour.)

  2. you’re right. the bit where fizz steps out and catherine steps in is where one starts worrying about fizz and whether or not they’ll get back together. catherine and the meanderings of her life never quite grip you.but i think the last couple of chapters sort of get back on track and the ending was quite delicious.

  3. i used to snigger at your writing in Man’s World in 2000-2002, mostly out of jealousy. but now you’re way too good to be jealous of. should journalists write novels, unless they are Orwell?do critics by default do not write novels?

  4. Just finished some time ago.I thought it was amazing. Each character was thought out and perfectly placed, the tione that captured India and it’s madness just showed the mastery of the author. The novel spanned so much yet it didn’t get lost, it all tied up extremely neatly.I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read!

  5. The book is one of the worst books i have read, everytime i tried to read this book, it created a negative feeling in me, I tried twice and now even the cover haunts me with the negativity. Its a bad bad book…. In plain and simple words

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