If pressed, I would say that the best way to describe Karuna Ezara Parikh’s The Heart Asks Pleasure First is “well-intentioned.” It’s an ambitious novel, and the ambitions are all worthy, moral ones. They are also very obviously aware of how worthy and moral they are, which is a slight drawback, but still.
Where does one start with this book? It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly one place where The Heart Asks Pleasure First goes wrong, mainly because it tries to do too many things, and so does them all mediocrely. It is, at heart, a love story; a star-crossed one between two immigrants in Wales, one Indian Hindu and one Pakistani Muslim.
It also refuses to content itself with that alone. This book is absolutely bursting with themes: communalism, racism and Islamophobia, religious extremism, misogyny, family conflicts, language, 9/11 puts in an appearance...the list feels endless.
A mess of messages
Actually, the list itself is not necessarily to blame. It’s a novel, after all, it has the luxury of space to explore them, and many of them are interrelated as well, not to mention relevant and intriguing. The real issue lies in the execution of Parikh’s vision.
A lot of these themes – ideological stances, really, as opposed to questions – end up being dispensed to the reader from a soapbox, through a mouthpiece; most often the protagonist Daya’s mother Asha. To illustrate: there’s a scene, a dinner party thrown by Daya’s liberal parents, which seems to have been written with the sole objective of having Asha explain to the class about Islamophobia in India.
Again, well-intentioned, solidly argued, and the scene itself is otherwise not badly written at all. Still, that absolute lack of subtlety breaks the flow. All the characters, in fact, like to stop and give speeches about right and wrong that are so in-your-face that you’re sure that if this was a movie they’d be staring straight into the camera.
Why, Parikh insists on spoon-feeding not just political messages, but literary ones as well. Towards the end of the novel, for instance, we are treated to an eye-wateringly heavy-handed breakdown of the symbolism behind the characters’ names. Gyan and Asha, and their daughter Daya. Did everybody see that? Yes? You get it, right? Right.
That’s not the only place where the writing falters. There’s a lot of film-like melodrama that isn’t backed up by enough substance (“I have your keys.” / “Oh, Daya. You have my heart.”), like a jar of mayonnaise with no bread or vegetables or anything else. (Heaven help you if you don’t even like mayo very much to begin with, like me.)
There’s a sex scene at some point that reads like a verse by Yo Yo Honey Singh. There’s a lot of lyricism, which works fine most of the time, but trips a little here and there – most memorably when Daya daydreams about how she would like to “eat Aaftaab’s brain”. Because what is romance without cannibalism, at least as a metaphor? (Add that to the list of your ex’s shortcomings. Unless your ex was Armie Hammer.)
What could have worked
There are, of course, several glimmers of potential. Glimpses of what Parikh is capable of, where the book holds your attention, or makes you feel a twinge of something real. A taut moment, an almost-argument, between a Hindu and Muslim character about each other’s religions that sticks in the mind, and not just because it’s perhaps the only moment of real tension in the book. There’s a recurring motif, with collective nouns, that manages poignancy. Wasim is interesting. It’s clear that it could have been a better book.
In fact, that penultimate point merits elaboration. It is obvious that Parikh loves her characters. That’s really the most appropriate word: she writes them lovingly. Not necessarily well, at all times. But with detail, with thought, always with deep investment. This is, for the most part, a strength.
The problem arises where it doesn’t drive the novel so much as override it – although that too might actually have less to do with writing than with organisation. Parikh has this habit of interrupting herself in the middle of her own narration to give you a little biography of one of the other characters. The most egregious example is when we cut abruptly from dramatic, climactic (heh) sex scene between our forbidden lovers to the childhood and tragic backstory of the hero’s roommate. His. Roommate.
And the problem is not the backstory itself! We like Wasim! We care about immigration and intergenerational poverty and being a first-generation college student and all the trials that come with it! But there’s a time and place. This no-warning deep-dive into the love interests’ roommate’s past is immediately followed by a biography of the writer of a collection of poems that one of the characters gifted to another at some point, I don’t know, I wish I was making this up.
The Heart Asks Pleasure First – fitting title, really – cares so much about writing that it forgets entirely about structuring. The result is a novel that is not avant-garde so much as disorganised. One wonders while reading if it might not have worked better as some kind of extended character study.
So many people
Then again, like themes, Parikh is working with too many characters to do justice to them all, including but not limited to Osama bin Laden, who gets a full psych eval (the thesis is that he wasn’t hugged enough as a child, in case you were wondering). A couple of them end up drawing the short straw – such as, for example, the household staff whose arc is so tragic, so trauma-filled, that the rushed way it’s actually told – crammed into a matter of paragraphs – renders it almost comical, and takes away any impact it might have had, or contribution it might have made. The whole thing just comes off as tokenistic.
There are other places where Parikh is clearly trying, through the medium of her characters, to introduce nuance in her politics, criticisms of Western imperialism and hypocrisy, heady stuff like that which is once again fumbled by burying her very valid points in superficial sympathy-mongering and whataboutery. Parikh is strongest when she questions the beliefs of her own protagonists, instead of just having them crusade against the injustices and hypocrisy of the right wing; it’s a pity that examples of the former are so few and far between. Even to readers who agree with her stances even broadly, it’s not very convincing.
Still, that’s just one or two or three characters, and one of those was a terrorist. The majority of the cast absolutely gets the royal treatment, and if that means stream-of-consciousness interrupting storytelling like a bad Spotify ad, then so be it. The structuring issue is further exacerbated, though, by the strange, jerky pacing.
For most of the book Parikh adopts a slow, detailed pace, with descriptions and figures of speech and thoughtful characters, which for the most part is quite pleasant. It flows well and holds the attention effortlessly. But there are times when in this idyllic way we build ourselves up to a certain milestone, or turn in the plot, and then skim over that actual milestone so fast you wonder if you somehow managed to accidentally skip a couple of pages.
It’s as if the narrator suddenly gets bored. It’s inexplicable. It’s frustrating. It gives you whiplash.
It is worth noting that this is Parikh’s first novel, and one that manages nevertheless to showcase her talent. One is intrigued at the prospect of her future work. In short, The Heart Seeks Pleasure First is a novel that has potential, genuinely, and certainly fulfils it to an extent – but ultimately falls a little short of the mark.
The Heart Asks Pleasure First, Karuna Ezara Parikh, Picador India.
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