Book review

‘The Lovers’ mixes fact and fiction like desire and history to create a unique immigrant novel

A story of modern love set in the murky terrain of desire and cultural mishaps, braiding together the pleasures of fiction and non-fiction.

“Oh, he loves her: just as the English loved India and Africa and Ireland; it is the love that is the problem, people treat their lovers badly.”

— Zadie Smith, White Teeth

The epigraph in The Lovers reminded me why epigraphs are written in the first place. They quietly reveal the mood of the book before you even have the chance to read the first paragraph. Kumar has chosen Zadie Smith’s observation on love and its endless torments from White Teeth. The quote is a reference point for how the protagonist himself is going to treat his lovers. This book intertwines love and desire the way it intertwines two literary genres: fiction and non-fiction.

It is the story of a young man’s search for love – or perhaps desire masked as love – in a foreign land. Our protagonist Kailash (aka AK-47 aka 47 as dubbed by his American friends) is an Indian student telling the story of two decades of his life spent in the United States. He weaves his personal narrative into a wider political one.

The story begins with his arrival in “Reagan’s America” in the 1980s. Driven by Kailash’s relationships with his lovers (Jennifer, Nina, Cai Yan) at the university, his urge to touch, feel and engulf all that is desirable, and to shrivel up at the slightest touch of reality, it is a familiar story but a better one. This is a deeply personal immigrant’s tale – a subtle yet powerful demonstration of every exile’s life. Its pages are filled with exiles in the form of revolutionaries, students, adventurers, and those driven away by India’s Partition and communalism: exiles who are migrants and migrants who are exiles. There is no home to go back to.

Mixing it up

The narration, which braids historical and biographical undertakings into the personal is a meditation on the past, and yet carries the turmoil caused by present-day politics. The writing feels strikingly similar to Kumar’s non-fiction – probably by design. He creates prose in a stunning mixing of genres that provokes the reader. It makes you want to know more, to dig beyond the fictitious details and excavate the truth. Kumar traces the geography and history of different cities through memory, senses and language.

“My cousin sighed when a favourite song of hers, from the film Guide, started playing on the radio. If we were lucky, there would be another sound – louder, more insistent, filled with greater yearning than any sound heard all afternoon – the call of the koel hiding in a mango tree. The heat left everyone lethargic, even stoic, but not this koel who was unafraid to make a spectacle of his suffering. No, not just spectacle, he was making a song. Such unabashed glory, such art. … sitting on steps of the library, Jennifer asked me what I missed most about India. That afternoon, I was only imitating the koel.

The next day, she put a simple white card in my mailbox at the bookstore. It had a haiku by the poet Basho.

Even when I am in Kyoto
When I hear the call of the cuckoo
I miss Kyoto

This biography is fictional

A large part of the novel is dedicated to the character of Kailash’s professor and mentor, Ehsaan Ali. Ehsaan’s narrative, inspired by the life of the political scientist and anti-war activist Eqbal Ahmad, is a fascinating exercise in moulding non-fiction into fiction. Like Eqbal, Ehsaan was born in Bihar, moved to Pakistan after Partition, studied in the US and ended up teaching there. In Eqbal Ahmad’s obituary published in The Guardian, Edward Said called him “shrewdest, anti-imperialist analyst of Asia and Africa”.

Like Eqbal, Ehsaan’s character keeps us grounded in the political. Whenever Kailash drifts off into his relationships, Ehsaan jolts him out of that bubble. When Cai Yan, a Chinese immigrant student and Kailash’s lover, prepares to leave for India to work on the Naxalite movement, Kailash decides to go to China for his own research. When he discusses this with Ehsaan, he gets the Urdu couplet from Javed Qureshi’s ghazal Dil jalaane ki baat karte ho as a response to his impulsive thought: “Humko apni khabar nahin yaaron/ Tum zamaane ki baat karte ho (I have no news even of myself, my friends/ And you are demanding a report on the world).”

Kumar’s writing is at its finest when narrating Ehsaan’s stories. Ehsaan’s life serves for intriguing anecdotes throughout the book and also works as an anchor to a narrative that seems to be moving deep into past desires. Ehsaan reminds us through historical annotations and stories from his life that a desire for the past is never inconsequential.

Home and away

Exile is a major leitmotif of the book. “There is no exile for women.” Kumar writes, referring to Assia Djebar’s work. “Women can never escape the customs of the old country that follow them wherever they go.” This is followed by another crucial moment where Ehsaan brings up the idea of “portable homelands”. How do you carry your home with you? The book tells us that there is no respite from an exile.

Migrations are equally painful. The exiled and the immigrant sit down with a glass of wine and engage in myths and fables from home, but there is no homecoming. Desire is where the protagonist takes shelter. He constantly comes back to Patna and Delhi in his narrative, invoking the absence of desire in his life in India.

When this desire takes shape through his relationships with different women, he comes to the conclusion that everything back home is distant now. He narrates stories of Patna to the women he is dating. A monkey enters Lotan Mamaji’s house, finds a gun and hurls it around. People enter the room in a frenzy, worried for the toddler in the crib, but the monkey ends up shooting itself in the head. This story has been a part of Kailash’s narrative and his link to America because the same species of monkeys were sent to America for medical research. The broken families of monkeys are homeless in cities like Delhi where they now wander as the rest of them ended up in America to be experimented upon.

Sexual violence and desire

The thread of Kailash’s relationships with Jennifer, Nina and Cai Yan also constantly evokes the stories about desire taking an ugly turn. Mostly, men get away with their preoccupation with desire and the quest for it. It is the women who pay the cost of that desire.

Kumar uses newspaper clips, literary references, painting, installations, cinema, and history, drawing upon his own experiences detailed in his non-fiction work, to relay this subverted truth about desire. These stories range from an anecdote about Vivan Sundaram’s painting Guddo, which was the artist’s response to the 1972 Mathura rape case, to a story the narrator wrote about a nurse in Kashmir forced to conduct an autopsy of a murdered rape victim and declare her death to be a road accident.

All the stories of sexual violence force us to ask this question: Can the narrator be trusted as the legitimate teller of these stories? But we believe him. We believe his stories. And we turn the pages for anecdotes on Patna and Delhi, and many layers of history that swell up into a symphony orchestra where each story is an instrument. The conductor will leave you baffled towards the grand finale when the music reaches its peak and then slowly mellows. As it leads up to the final moment, the story is not innocent anymore. The pages have been filled with violence projected on humanity throughout history by the state, its agencies and the human race itself.

A trustworthy narrator?

It is at once a story of modern love, the murky terrain of desire and cultural mishaps. The stories of his lovers and the different women he encounters, whether in person or in the pages of history during his archival research, are not mere reminiscences. A slow realisation creeps up – every word in this book has been in the service of a different narrative altogether. You do not know whether to trust the narrator. And despite not knowing, you keep reading, waiting for the narrator to spill the beans. Kumar’s prose challenges every presumption with which one reads a book.

His writing is a sharp blend of fiction, non-fiction, myth-making and history, telling a story that perhaps only Kumar can. There is the narrator as the scholar who yearns to be a writer, the scholar who shifts gears to reporting, the scholar-reporter who eventually becomes a writer – the “in between” writer of an in-between story. The different sections open up slowly, yet enticingly, like a curtain being drawn back to reveal a mirror gradually, but only for us to see that the mirror was stained all along.

At first I wondered: Why all this foreplay? But then I realised that I wanted this foreplay to go on: this desire to capture history, geography, art, music, cinema, literature and biography all in a single stream of consciousness. The prose is amusing, at times filled with explosive hilarity. I marked up all the jokes (political and sexual) so that I can revisit them and remember a few days of the monsoon spent in the company of this book, cheating on my academic work.

Kailash narrates in his head, “I am from the land of famines, Your Honour, and I displayed such hunger, such astonishing greed.” This book is a work of hunger. Observations about personal relationships, immigrant experiences, history, and human nature, driven by his own departure from Patna many years ago, are displayed with hunger in Kumar’s writing. He attempts to capture every inch of an immigrant’s world and encapsulate it in the pages of this book. There is a strange satisfaction in knowing all that Kailash and Kumar have to say.

The Lovers, Amitava Kumar, Aleph Book Company

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

The next Industrial Revolution is here – driven by the digitalization of manufacturing processes

Technologies such as Industry 4.0, IoT, robotics and Big Data analytics are transforming the manufacturing industry in a big way.

The manufacturing industry across the world is seeing major changes, driven by globalization and increasing consumer demand. As per a report by the World Economic Forum and Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Ltd on the future of manufacturing, the ability to innovate at a quicker pace will be the major differentiating factor in the success of companies and countries.

This is substantiated by a PWC research which shows that across industries, the most innovative companies in the manufacturing sector grew 38% (2013 - 2016), about 11% year on year, while the least innovative manufacturers posted only a 10% growth over the same period.

Along with innovation in products, the transformation of manufacturing processes will also be essential for companies to remain competitive and maintain their profitability. This is where digital technologies can act as a potential game changer.

The digitalization of the manufacturing industry involves the integration of digital technologies in manufacturing processes across the value chain. Also referred to as Industry 4.0, digitalization is poised to reshape all aspects of the manufacturing industry and is being hailed as the next Industrial Revolution. Integral to Industry 4.0 is the ‘smart factory’, where devices are inter-connected, and processes are streamlined, thus ensuring greater productivity across the value chain, from design and development, to engineering and manufacturing and finally to service and logistics.

Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, artificial intelligence and Big Data analytics are some of the key technologies powering Industry 4.0. According to a report, Industry 4.0 will prompt manufacturers globally to invest $267 billion in technologies like IoT by 2020. Investments in digitalization can lead to excellent returns. Companies that have implemented digitalization solutions have almost halved their manufacturing cycle time through more efficient use of their production lines. With a single line now able to produce more than double the number of product variants as three lines in the conventional model, end to end digitalization has led to an almost 20% jump in productivity.

Digitalization and the Indian manufacturing industry

The Make in India program aims to increase the contribution of the manufacturing industry to the country’s GDP from 16% to 25% by 2022. India’s manufacturing sector could also potentially touch $1 trillion by 2025. However, to achieve these goals and for the industry to reach its potential, it must overcome the several internal and external obstacles that impede its growth. These include competition from other Asian countries, infrastructural deficiencies and lack of skilled manpower.

There is a common sentiment across big manufacturers that India lacks the eco-system for making sophisticated components. According to FICCI’s report on the readiness of Indian manufacturing to adopt advanced manufacturing trends, only 10% of companies have adopted new technologies for manufacturing, while 80% plan to adopt the same by 2020. This indicates a significant gap between the potential and the reality of India’s manufacturing industry.

The ‘Make in India’ vision of positioning India as a global manufacturing hub requires the industry to adopt innovative technologies. Digitalization can give the Indian industry an impetus to deliver products and services that match global standards, thereby getting access to global markets.

The policy, thus far, has received a favourable response as global tech giants have either set up or are in the process of setting up hi-tech manufacturing plants in India. Siemens, for instance, is helping companies in India gain a competitive advantage by integrating industry-specific software applications that optimise performance across the entire value chain.

The Digital Enterprise is Siemens’ solution portfolio for the digitalization of industries. It comprises of powerful software and future-proof automation solutions for industries and companies of all sizes. For the discrete industries, the Digital Enterprise Suite offers software and hardware solutions to seamlessly integrate and digitalize their entire value chain – including suppliers – from product design to service, all based on one data model. The result of this is a perfect digital copy of the value chain: the digital twin. This enables companies to perform simulation, testing, and optimization in a completely virtual environment.

The process industries benefit from Integrated Engineering to Integrated Operations by utilizing a continuous data model of the entire lifecycle of a plant that helps to increase flexibility and efficiency. Both offerings can be easily customized to meet the individual requirements of each sector and company, like specific simulation software for machines or entire plants.

Siemens has identified projects across industries and plans to upgrade these industries by connecting hardware, software and data. This seamless integration of state-of-the-art digital technologies to provide sustainable growth that benefits everyone is what Siemens calls ‘Ingenuity for Life’.

Case studies for technology-led changes

An example of the implementation of digitalization solutions from Siemens can be seen in the case of pharma major Cipla Ltd’s Kurkumbh factory.

Cipla needed a robust and flexible distributed control system to dispense and manage solvents for the manufacture of its APIs (active pharmaceutical ingredients used in many medicines). As part of the project, Siemens partnered with Cipla to install the DCS-SIMATIC PCS 7 control system and migrate from batch manufacturing to continuous manufacturing. By establishing the first ever flow Chemistry based API production system in India, Siemens has helped Cipla in significantly lowering floor space, time, wastage, energy and utility costs. This has also improved safety and product quality.

In yet another example, technology provided by Siemens helped a cement plant maximise its production capacity. Wonder Cement, a greenfield project set up by RK Marbles in Rajasthan, needed an automated system to improve productivity. Siemens’ solution called CEMAT used actual plant data to make precise predictions for quality parameters which were previously manually entered by operators. As a result, production efficiency was increased and operators were also freed up to work on other critical tasks. Additionally, emissions and energy consumption were lowered – a significant achievement for a typically energy intensive cement plant.

In the case of automobile major, Mahindra & Mahindra, Siemens’ involvement involved digitalizing the whole product development system. Siemens has partnered with the manufacturer to provide a holistic solution across the entire value chain, from design and planning to engineering and execution. This includes design and software solutions for Product Lifecycle Management, Siemens Technology for Powertrain (STP) and Integrated Automation. For Powertrain, the solutions include SINUMERIK, SINAMICS, SIMOTICS and SIMATIC controls and drives, besides CNC and PLC-controlled machines linked via the Profinet interface.

The above solutions helped the company puts its entire product lifecycle on a digital platform. This has led to multi-fold benefits – better time optimization, higher productivity, improved vehicle performance and quicker response to market requirements.

Siemens is using its global expertise to guide Indian industries through their digital transformation. With the right technologies in place, India can see a significant improvement in design and engineering, cutting product development time by as much as 30%. Besides, digital technologies driven by ‘Ingenuity for Life’ can help Indian manufacturers achieve energy efficiency and ensure variety and flexibility in their product offerings while maintaining quality.

Play

The above examples of successful implementation of digitalization are just some of the examples of ‘Ingenuity for Life’ in action. To learn more about Siemens’ push to digitalize India’s manufacturing sector, see here.

This article was produced on behalf of Siemens by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.