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What they said about
THE ALCHEMY OF DESIRE

‘At last - a new and brilliantly original novel from India.’
— V S Naipaul

‘The Alchemy of Desire puts Tarun in the front rank of Indian novelists. I am inclined to agree with Naipaul: his book is a masterpiece.’
— Khushwant Singh

‘One of the most attractive Indian writers in English of his generation, he writes with a great deal of raw energy, inventively employing images which are at once sad, haunting, horrendously comic and beautiful.’
— Times Literary Supplement


IN MAIL TODAY

A big-theme novel on the violence of our times

In his second novel, Tarun Tejpal brings together the India that lives in the cities and one that survives in villages. Pillage, violence and torture link his two Indias - Suresh Menon

EARLY IN the book – and once towards the end too – there is the sentence: “The world is what it is.” This is not so much a nod to V. S. Naipaul (who began A Bend in the River with precisely those words), but a hint that this is not a prescriptive book. It does not contain solutions. It is a book of acceptance. The first time, that line refers to broken love affairs when “she too understood, like cops and doctors do, that the world is what it is, ephemeral, uneven, to be squarely dealt with, and not to be conjured out of weak romantic novels. But few seemed to possess the gift of leaving the room while the laughter was still in the air and the spirits high. For the most, everyone seemed to be committed to creating a heap of debris before walking away from it.”

The protagonist, an investigative journalist, might have been speaking of the bigger picture as revealed later on. This is a world where assassinations are all in a day’s work, where those with power rearrange reality, where the guilty are as clueless as the innocent, where the symbolism of the sphincter muscle is all-pervading. The journalist wakes up one morning to see on television (‘breaking news’) that he is the target of an assassination bid, and that five would-be assassins have been arrested. He is then given police protection round the clock.

His lover Sara says he is suffering from “the illusion of normalcy”, and that “the worst horrors take place around us while we go happily about our everyday lives”. What she does not tell him, and he has to find out for himself is that you can use an upheaval to reconnect with family and normalcy.

This is the season for discovering the Real India – a quest that Aravind Adiga and Vikas Swarup both undertook with remarkable lack of imagination and remarkable success – as if it is a single entity outside the everyday life of “those who curse in Hindi with an accent.”

Tejpal’s quest has taken him deeper, his language is sharper and he has brought together the India that lives in the cities and the one that survives in villages. Surprisingly, they resemble each other. What is commonplace in one – the rape, pillage, torture, casual violence stems from the self-deception, compromise, greed that is routine in the other. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins has written somewhere that “Sorrow’s springs are the same.” So are the springs of violence, Tejpal seems to be saying.

THE REAL divide is not along lines of class or caste, but in spirit. Thus, the leader of the assassins is noted for his “courage, loyalty and asceticism”. This evenhandedness serves the novel well, for the protagonist is neither heroic enough nor villainous enough to be attractive. If he garners the reader’s sympathy it is because he is like most of us, with just the right mix of heroism and villainy to be normal. The assassins are far more interesting, far more complex and far more committed even if morally, there is little to choose between the good guys and the bad guys.

Sara takes lovers, quotes Auden and listens to the life stories of the assassins. The two Indias exist comfortably within her. Or perhaps this is an oversimplification. After all, it is only Indians who are obsessed by the Real India. Tejpal uses the theme while avoiding the cliché.

The narrative swings between the journalist’s own somewhat insipid life and the stories of his five assassins – Chaaku, Kabir M, Kaaliya, Chini, and Hathoda Tyagi – who have emerged from a system where rape is a weapon of mass destruction, where the sensitive learn to stick knives into or hammer the brains out of those who cross their paths, and where forgiveness comes with the successful murder or with settling of scores.

Tejpal’s skill lies teasing out the ambiguity of guilt, and the uncertainty of victimhood. What lifts the novel above the ordinary is the confusion in the minds of the killers who, like the characters in a Beckett play, have no idea why they have been chosen for the task, whom they are beholden to or indeed what they are waiting for.

The absurdity of the great emotions – love, hatred, passion, patriotism – is delineated with a sure touch, and it is the underlying humour of the human situations that gives the novel its power.

The generation of Vikram Seth, Rushdie, Amitava Ghosh, Rohinton Mistry, Arundhati Roy is still writing and at the top of its form. But the literary equivalent of the cricketing question, “Who after the Fab Four?” continues to be asked with the same frequency.

No clear answers have emerged yet. One problem has been a reluctance of the writers to attempt the big themes, to take on difficult subjects and wring out narratives. Tejpal’s second novel is not perfect; better editing would have flattened out some of the over-written, over descriptive prose. But by taking on a big theme and finding in it a commentary on India – neither dark nor shining, but merely a world that is what it is – Tejpal has staked a claim to being taken more seriously than most others.

This is a book of multiple roads to brutality, of multiple explanations for the central event (or non-event). Policemen, crooks, village elders, journalists, venture capitalists, businessmen, lawyers, street children, whores – no one escapes Tejpal’s sharp pen which he sometimes uses like a caricaturist, at other times like a poet.

“The world is what it is,” wrote Naipaul, “men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”

Tejpal stands that cynicism on its head. It is the men who are nothing who often display the qualities of humanism and understanding that separate us from the animals. Or indeed from the politicians and policemen who can be animals in human form. .

 


India Unedited
Tejpal rewrites the idea of victimhood in a country where the deceptions of power know no bounds
- S. Prasannarajan
The Ripper of Accepted Notions
In his second novel, Tarun Tejpal brings together the India that lives in the cities and one that survives in villages. Pillage, violence and torture link his two Indias.
- Binoo K. John
A Big-theme Novel on the Violence of our Times
- Suresh Menon
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