Contained within Manav Kaul’s slim novel of about 200 pages are many stories.

In Under the Night Jasmine, translated from the Hindi by Vaibhav Sharma, narrator-writer Rohit wakes up night after night at 3 am, struggling to write amid the early days of the pandemic. In the story Rohit writes, there is another Rohit who seems to be grappling with being attracted to his teacher – Verma Madam. Narrator-writer Rohit too tells us that he finds himself drawn yet again to a former lover, now married, while also flirting with a new woman. Then there are lizards, a metaphor for intrusive thoughts, that keep appearing.

Kaul’s novel evokes the unreal, unsettling days of the lockdown to ask what happens when we sit still for a moment with our own discomforting thoughts. What truth lies hidden in those thoughts, those things we don’t want to remember, those moments from a life left behind?

Rohit, too, is not facing up to something. Is it hidden in the story Rohit tries to write, or is it in the half-life he leads while not writing?

“I have words…a lot of them actually, and they look great typed on my computer,” he writes. “I even get the aura of the story right, but there’s one lie in the story that makes so much noise in my head that unless I delete everything, I can’t sleep.”

The loneliness of the pandemic

On the face of it, Rohit is a failing, flailing writer with enough personal problems that have been amplified by the pandemic. He has conversations with himself, his father back home in Kashmir and with an imaginary Verma Madam. Reluctantly, he seeks out the company of a few others, if only to fill the emptiness of his life, but then too, he is haunted by glimpses of something that the Rohit in his novel is trying to avoid.

It is an accurate image of how life may have unfolded for many: between phone conversations and being lost in thought while trying to distract oneself with work or something productive to do with all this free time.

Rohit’s prose-like accounts describe an alienated and lonely life in the first year of the pandemic.

“One day flowed into another like the current of a river. It was difficult to tell one day apart from the others. Because each day was the same.”

“It was a beautiful sunset. I pulled out my phone and clicked a picture. When I looked at the photo, it resembled the sunset in front of me, but something was amiss. This sunset lacked an end to its story, its beauty was marred by the pandemic, and it was racked with our internal turmoil. No photograph can capture what’s unfolding at that time. I deleted the photo.”

The year 2020 feels like it was a long time ago but also yesterday. Kaul’s novel is a timely reminder of many surreal, disturbing and long days. On some days, news of the world outside interrupts Rohit’s stream-of-consciousness-like thoughts in lockdown: “I tried to write many times at different points in the day but couldn’t write anything in the face of the migrant crisis.”

The novel too has a still water-like quality, with not too much happening but everything unfolding in Rohit’s mind. It mirrors the pandemic where time seems to have stood still as the world slowly ground to a halt. But on the inside, our minds were racing.

A story within a story

Vaibhav Sharma’s translation brings Kaul’s lyricism into a new language. Sentences flow into each other, much like verses in a poem. Kaul’s writing is also rich with metaphors that link the real and unreal worlds that Rohit seems to be straddling. Slowly, the lines start to blur.

The story Rohit is writing, which appears to be about an adolescent’s infatuation with his Verma Madam, starts to change course. In the real world, Rohit seemingly finds comfort in the arms of another woman, only to be shaken out of his reverie by another familiar vision. The story – far removed from life thus far – becomes gut-wrenchingly real when Rohit finally finishes it.

In the end, Rohit finds himself, as a writer at least, and perhaps even himself – his true self. The intrusive thoughts, or “lizards”, as Rohit puts it, morph into effervescent “butterflies” – free in the wind.

But was Rohit’s story just a story? Or was it actually Rohit’s story?

Under the Night Jasmine, Manav Kaul, translated from the Hindi by Vaibhav Sharma, Penguin India.