Mehr, a love story. But it is not just that. And one wonders, midway, if it is making any sense at all, before finally getting it, perhaps correctly – a story about how love could affect people, transform them, reawaken some, dazzle but still leave many only in despair and ruin a few for life. It is a story of how people decipher love – if one can actually do that.

Siddhartha Gigoo, who won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2015, works out the central theme of love quite steadily without letting the complicated story to ever fall flat. In Mehr, love comes to represent omnipresence, transcendence, even immortality, or where the profane and the sacred meet, as John Donne had put it: “Us canonized for love”.

At the same time, Gigoo underscores, through this story, that the postmodern condition brings with it incredulity toward true love – “The trouble with falling in love is that, unlike death, love kills you every moment...You fall into an abyss of meaninglessness” – or as Jean-Paul Sartre defined it: a “hazardous, painful struggle”. Love begins to be a paradox, distinctly desirable for its passionate emotions, yet foreboding, causing only despair.

Surreal and doomed

Mehr, a Shia woman and social worker from Pakistan, falls in love with Firdaus, who is from Kashmir. Their love story is surreal yet passionate and meant to be doomed, with rivalry, hatred, fanaticism, deception and duty all serving as an impetus. Mehr writes letters to Firdaus, at times cajoling him to meet and at others jabbing at him like an exasperated lover. As this relationship unravels with each letter and a less frequent reply, the enigma about the self plays out for each of them. Mehr, then, comes to define herself in relation to her longing for Firdaus: “Will I live and die loveless?”

Firdaus, on the other hand, yearns to reciprocate but finds himself shackled: “Don’t ask me to come in front of you. It will spoil whatever little chance I have at loving you.” And when the “masks are off”, reality horrifies Mehr: “Your lies were my life...the greatest love story of our times will be someone else’s. You and I will part, not as lovers, but as strangers...This malady will be over soon. It will set me free.” Both Mehr and Firdaus struggle to define their existence, wanting love to be the anchor, but in vain.

That the roots of the self lie in tacit polemics couldn’t be more aptly described than the tenuous overlapping of Firdaus and Major K, with the latter being formally introduced only at end of the novel: “You were not recruited by Major K. You are Major K. Major Sridhar Kaul. Senior Intelligence Operative.” While the two annihilate each other, yet each rises from the ashes of the other and the entanglements of the mind touch another level of ambiguity. Is the unreliable narrator to be blamed? Apparently, the characters of the novel are the Rhizomatic Selves, fluid and entailing a multiplicity of desires and sociological forces. They epitomise the central act of Gigoo’s imagination: a set of varied relationships drawn against the background of India and Pakistan and their histories.

A place of no return

However, it is Ms Mishima who pulls most strongly at the threads of the conundrum that life seems to be. Intriguing and compelling, yet with a streak of innocence, Ms Mishima might for a moment appear secondary to the plot. She is, however, the anchor, perplexingly the centre of reality, considering she is a cat, as Major K puts it: “Yet, you’re the only one who doesn’t judge me or blame me for my desires and doings.”

Keeping introspection and interrogation foundational to Mehr, Gigoo writes about the world of the threshold, where only the liminal, the specious and the illusory are real. The interrelationship between time and space, what the Russian scholar Mikhail Bakhtin refers to as the chronotope, contributes to a greater understanding of the novel. The reader begins to grasp what the characters experience in a certain time period and location – Mehr is born on December 16, 1971, the day Dhaka fell and the Indo-Pak War came to an end, the scapes of Kashmir and Karachi change in consonance with the events of history, be it religious, cultural or even political.

With its rich detail and poetic tone, the narrative presumes nothing. Instead, it spins one around. It embarks on a journey that culminates in a place of no return, presenting a seamless blending of prose, verse, aphorism, essay and even reportage: a polyphonic integration. The novel opens: “Her Last Words – ‘if my end is horrible, then begin my story at the end’ – remind me of a promise I had never thought I would keep...Thus, I begin, not at the beginning, but at the end when I had met her for the first time.”

Mehr is not entirely epistolary, but the correspondence is crucial to the plot and to the development of characters and their perceptions of the world around them, presenting a self-reflexive discourse. This inseparability of form and content, quite cleverly conceived, makes the narrative even more engaging. The inner lives of the characters unfold in the frames of outer positions and locations, the personal is certainly political and yet the political does not overpower the fringes on which the personal feelings and sensibilities are pinned.

A gruelling experience

Can the profundity of love break the boundaries and barriers on the ground? It’s hard to say. “The estranged countries – India and Pakistan – had done strange things to them,” Gigoo writes. “It had made them digress from their destined paths. Who knows if the digressions were essential or not? Ordained or not. Mehr’s love had been incomplete without these digressions...”

Liminality opens up a space of qualms and dilemmas. For a casual reader, however, Mehr is bound to be gruelling. It is hard to comprehend the many layers, dimensions and strands of this love story. The novel has to be read at a slow pace to grasp the direction of the narrative and it takes a lot of insight to comprehend the characters.

Nevertheless, stories about love surely trespass the forbidden realms of the heart and mind to set one free from the shackles of ideologies and dogmas. Heart wrenching and tragic, Mehr is bound to leave readers with a taste of something not terrestrial but unfathomable and sublime.

Mehr: A Love Story, Siddhartha Gigoo, Rupa Publications.