She is 39. He is 37. Keteki and Ved, the protagonists of Anjali Joseph’s new book, Keeping in Touch, meet at Heathrow Airport. She is returning home to Assam and he is on his way to Bombay. Such a beginning is liable to give an impression of entering the far-too-familiar landscape of a boy-meets-girl-at-airport-they-fall-in-love kind of story, but the terrain is actually less trodden.
Their encounter at the transit zone leads to the unfolding of the uneven yet adventurous journeys of two individuals caught in something of a conundrum. She is engaged in freelance work related to the arts, and travels the world curating exhibitions. He is an investor of sorts whose latest business deals with the revival of a light bulb company in India, once a British-owned firm. The new bulb, called “Everlasting Lucifer” is endowed with an “intelligent” filament that sets it apart from a regular CFL and LED. And, no, Lucifer is not what you might imagine.
Show me the exit
Keeping in Touch is an ode to ordinary lives of people with extraordinary experiences and legitimate expectations. It is fast-paced with cameo appearances zipping in and out of Keteki and Ved’s lives. The reader almost runs the risk of going breathless keeping track of the entries and the exits in the story. It sometimes gets unnerving to keep up with the sub-plots and the terribly tiny tales of people who feature in between Keteki and Ved’s short-spanned but multiple romantic escapades.
This could be the author’s way of testing the patience of her reader, which reminds us, for instance, of what Keteki’s uncle says at one point, while apologising to Ved for being a terrible host. People are in a rush to “go off the stage like in a restoration play”, he says.
That’s exactly how Keeping in Touch progresses. There is a milling crowd of friends and relatives who enter only to exit quickly, so that the main figures in the novel can continue with their fragmented narrative. Why fragmented? Because they are weaving a tapestry in their own time and bittersweet moments of realisation and awakening – bit by bit, thread by thread, either while sitting across from each other or when they are continents apart.
Interestingly, both Keteki and Ved seem to be in a hurry too. Their destinations are sometimes the same and at other times not. When Keteki is in Assam and Ved is in London, both of them wish to be together and when they’re actually in the same room, they want to scoot to the nearest exit. Their hearts are connected like the filament of a bulb, which sparkles and dances when switched on but stays dormant otherwise.
Keteki and Ved are juggling between controlling the steering wheel while driving through the rocky path of their professional lives and operating the switchboard of their on-off relationship. Their story thrives on penultimate scenes, brimming with cliffhanger moments. Just as you’re about to unravel the secret or unfurl the magic, lo and behold, there’s either a surprise entry or a sudden, unpredictable detour.
These errors are correct
Just as the “last-and-final” call at an airport is invariably followed by another, till “last” and “final” lose their meaning or stand redefined, Keeping in Touch also moves through a series of “lasts” and “finals” till you reach the beginning of the road to self-discovery. What starts as a chase ends with the thrill of trial and error. One can’t not try for the fear of an error or failure.
The American philosopher of science and historian Thomas Kuhn in his seminal work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions had raised a pertinent point about investigating the so-called anomaly in a scientific expedition before dismissing it as an error. He said that more often than not, the discarded errors or anomalies lead to a new scientific inquiry, or a new paradigm. An error, therefore, becomes, a gateway to an invention. One of the best things about Keeping in Touch is precisely the recognition of how some errors could be correct.
The characters here are not berated for what might seem to be their callous mistakes. There is no punishment for seemingly bad decisions. However, there is always room for introspection and redemption.
Keteki’s childhood was far from pleasant. Growing up in a dysfunctional family that included a pervert male relative, she began developing trust issues. Exhibiting her vulnerability is a loathsome idea to her, but at the same time, she’s unable to brush away her feelings from her own self. She doesn’t want to fall and hurt herself in love. Ved, on the other hand, with a past of his own, can’t stop thinking about a future with Keteki. Both of them are disguising their true feelings, maybe struggling with them.
There is another character in the book, who leaves without any reason and doesn’t return. Welcomed by Keteki’s uncle into their broken family, Tuku had graduated from being an ordinary housekeeper to a family member. He was like a brother to Keteki, perhaps the only sliver of light and hope that saved her childhood from falling into an abyss of complete darkness. But, just like that, one day Tuku decides to leave behind the very home in which he had spent a lifetime.
There is, of course, grief and a sense of betrayal arising from his sudden departure, but what remains is the overpowering feeling of love and respect for Tuku. This incident is reminiscent of Mrinal Sen’s 1989 film Ek Din Achanak, in which the father goes out for a walk one day and doesn’t return. There are initial whys or hows. All that the characters do eventually is wait and hope for their dear one’s return.
The cinematic quality of Joseph’s storytelling is unmistakable. The interplay of crisp scenes makes the story read like a screenplay. The moody and meandering rivers in Assam, the cheer of festivals, the humdrum factories, the calm and quiet of London exhibition halls, the scenic beauty of the countryside, the jumping feet and clinking of glasses in a noisy pub – everything bears testimony to life, to being alive like the filament bulb that is still, deceptively so.
“You’re used to the shape of strangeness in your place,” says Keteki during an interesting conversation with her friends. This summarises an intent of Keeping in Touch – embrace both the strange and the familiar realities in life, and never lose touch with either.
Ipshita Mitra is the Editor at TERI Press. She is currently enrolled in a PhD programme in Gender and Development Studies at IGNOU, New Delhi. Her Twitter handle is @ipshita77.
Keeping in Touch, Anjali Joseph, Context.