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

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