When Mumbai dinner party conversations turn to the contemporary state of Indian literature today, most often it is lamented. “Where is the great Indian novel today?” participants often ask, disappointed with the recent commercialisation and popularisation of the novel form. Indeed, despite the new crops of prize-winning fiction, it is hard to find one recent novel that represents a contemporary paragon equal in status to the heavy hitters of the 1980s and 90s.

But from the perspective of literary history, “greatness” is a term that should be looked at with nuance. A literary work is often considered great because it reflects contemporary readerly needs – an expression of a zeitgeist. Many novels are not recognised in their time, and are deemed great only later, when the debris of history has cleared. Those works might look odd and manifestly ungreat from the perspective of their contemporary readers.

Fragmented storytelling

Moreover, if new cultural movements are emergent, if a zeitgeist itself is in the throes of transformation, a “great novel” might not be the form in which to capture contemporary reality at all. The emergence of partial and fragmentary forms like the graphic novel, reality television and collaborative web projects like the recently launched Agents of Ishq speak to the strong desire by today’s writers to experiment with new forms to represent an as-yet unformed contemporary reality.

R Raj Rao’s Lady Lolita’s Lover would likely be one of those works seen to signal the death of the great Indian novel. It has received some negative reviews, in part because of the high expectations set out by the author’s poetry and his 2003 novel The Boyfriend, which is considered one of India’s first gay novels. The Boyfriend offers a portrait of a queer Mumbai, in which the features of the city that have become its almost-clichéd icons – Churchgate Station, Azad Maidan, and the local trains – are presented as transitory sites of queer desire.

The story, set in the aftermath of the Bombay riots but before the city was renamed Mumbai, refuses the typical narrative of the loss of India’s cosmopolitan culture. It offers instead, from a queer perspective, a story of inter-class and inter-caste love outside the heteronormative construct of the secular nation, a construct which transcends the watershed date of 1992-3. It presents not only queer identity as an unacknowledged subjectivity, but queer love as an alternative to the various disillusioned accounts of the Indian contemporary.

Its flawed protagonist, Yudi, with his own caste and class prejudices, his occasional misogyny, and his simultaneous objectification of and desire for the working-class male body, allows the novel to refuse the liberal piety – cosmopolitan, secular, and critical of caste – so intrinsic to the Indian English novel since the 1980s.

Referencing other texts

From the perspective of The Boyfriend, Lady Lolita’s Lover might seem like a version 2.0, with more of the same, but with less focus and intensity: there is a long heterosexual affair that precedes the gay relationship, the perspective shifts among characters rather than centering on one protagonist, and the queer spaces extend beyond Mumbai to Goa. But this loss of focus allows Lady Lolita’s Lover to experiment with a form of literary illegibility that actively refuses the kind of greatness so long sought by discerning readers of the Indian novel in English.

The story is somewhat haphazard and built on coincidences, the characters are hard to relate to, the ending is surprisingly utopic, and moreover, it seems scattered with references and citations whose significance is not always clear. Is this pastiche, cut-and-paste type of writing another symptom of the death of the Indian novel in English? Or might it signal an alternative future for contemporary Indian literature?

The excess of references certainly seems to refuse interpretation. The title, for instance, is a combination of two canonical western texts, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and of course Nabokov’s Lolita. The transgressive, cross-class sex with an underage lover explains the two individual references, but not why they are combined into one slightly unwieldy alliterative phrase.

In the second half, when Sandesh moves in with the wealthy queer lawyer Jeevan Reddy, he learns about the gay movement mostly through quotations from other texts. In an attempt to teach Sandesh about the problems faced by gay marriage advocates, for instance, Reddy quotes three extended passages from Ruth Vanita’s Love’s Rite, which, we read, “JR regarded as more significant than the New Testament.” Reddy also quotes a line from Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy, which the narrator then explains:

“Lolita belongs to bourgeois society too. Most people marry their own kind.”

The criminal lawyer, with a fondness for reading, quoted this last line from a gay novel by a Sri Lankan writer that he had been reading.

But perhaps the strangest “reference” comes earlier in the novel, when Rao quotes two extended passages from Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things to describe the extent to which Sandesh is injured in a fight with his lover’s husband and his hired goons:

Sandesh tried to scram, but the watchmen and the sailor pounced on him like a tiger pounces on a jackal.

If Lolita turned to page 310 of The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, one of the books that decorated her bookshelves which won the Booker Prize in 1997, as that was the year independent India celebrated its fiftieth birthday, the following passage, hyperbolically, would apply to her lover who represented to her the forces of liberation.

“His skull was fractured in three places. His nose and both his cheekbones were smashed, leaving his face pulpy, undefined.

The blow to his mouth has split open his upper lip and broken six teeth, three of which were embedded in his lower lip, hideously inverting his beautiful smile. Four of his ribs were splintered, one had pierced his left lung, which was what made him bleed from his mouth. The blood on his breath bright red. Fresh. Frothy. His lower intestine was ruptured and haemorrhaged, the blood collected in his abdominal cavity. His spine was damaged in two places, the concussion had paralysed his right arm and resulted in a loss of control over his bladder and rectum. Both his kneecaps were shattered.”

Deconstructing, not integrating

Understandably, reviewers have been “bewildered” by this and the following passages, but instead of reading them as the author’s failure, we might read them as provocations on the form as a whole. Might the long quotes signal an aesthetic choice: a pointed sacrifice of “greatness” (with all its concomitant traits: originality, freshness, evocative description) for the sake of something else – of representing a contemporary experience on the edges of the novel’s conventional, secular, liberal sensibility?

The queer novel radically juxtaposes disgust and desire, pleasure and squalor, love and debasement, and clarity about one’s identity and uncertainty about what the future will hold. Readers of Rao’s fiction are asked to participate in these ambivalences, occasionally being disgusted by what they read and occasionally being moved by it, as a means of transcending the heteronormative premise of what constitutes beauty, love and desire in the first place.

The Indian English novel thus becomes an object of ambivalence. In a scene in The Boyfriend when Yudi’s mother is visiting him, she looks through his bookshelves for something to read, and finds Midnight’s Children and In An Antique Land, two novels “that lulled her to sleep… (Her definition of good was Gone With the Wind).” In Lady Lolita’s Lover, a heated discussion among members of the ARSE (Association for the Rights of the Sexually Exploited) group about Section 377 leads to a debate around Vikram Seth:

He then proceeded to inform his compatriots that famous men like Amartya Sen and Vikram Seth were signatories to the [anti-377] petition.

On hearing this, Ismail, who taught English literature and had a collection of poems to his credit called Vignettes from the Vineyard, said that Vikram Seth was a hypocrite. “Why didn’t he take a stand earlier?” he asked. “Why does he write fluff like A Suitable Boy?... Vikram Seth hankers after a mainstream readership and foreign publishers… He is squeamish about being cast into the ghetto. A man like that can never do for gay literature what the poet Namdeo Dhasal has done for Dalit literature.”

Both scenes disavow the Indian English novel for its irrelevance to contemporary readers and social concerns, for its lack of “edge,” while also demonstrating an almost fetishistic obsession with it. They suggest that despite its attempt to write something new, Lady Lolita’s Lover is, in its own way, handcuffed to history.

But history does not sit so well in the particular drawing rooms described by Rao. In this scene, Yudi is waiting for his mother to leave so that he can resume his sexual activity since she cannot accept that he is gay; his domestic space is thus one of both desire and duplicity, into which these “great” novels fit only imperfectly. From this perspective, the long quotes from Roy reflect not an exhaustion of Rao’s authorial capacity, but of the Indian novel itself, now wrenched from its context and, like newspaper stuffing in a moving box, reborn as filler, as something entirely different from its intended use altogether. In this gesture, the very premise of literary greatness can be considered anew.

Lady Lolita’s Lover suggests that a queering of the Indian novel in English requires not just a novel with queer themes, but a queering of the novel form itself, so that originality, irony, violence and liberal secularism themselves might be refracted through a queer lens. By turning the sanctified pages of great literature into pure citation, the novel contests literary greatness via an aesthetic of pastiche. Here, violent, debasing sex can coexist with idyllic love and melodrama with gritty naturalism. This is not the great Indian novel in English, but its deconstruction – which ironically can be the site from which the form can be reborn for the contemporary age.