Aleph Book Company
Towards the end of The Lovers by Amitava Kumar, it dawns on us that things have turned out sourly for the protagonist, Kailash. At one point, he writes, “What I resent most deeply is that a whole lifetime of history of being around women, the terrible negotiation of all relationships, and, above all, the unknotting of pleasure because of what happens between people in love and sometimes strangers, has been reduced to one encounter.” It is a deeply-felt observation, made more poignant by the fact that until now — and perhaps even now — we rather liked Kailash. We do not want to judge him, because in him, we see other men we have known, who are looking for love and, perhaps, themselves.
What are the experiences that make us who we are? Right through the book, we have followed Kailash with a certain amount of affection as, at different points in his life, he falls in love with different women, and each of them teaches him a little more about himself and his capacity for love and betrayal. So what if the usual journey through desire, affection and heartbreak is one that he is doomed to repeat with no end in sight? Does his inability to give more of himself, thereby rendering himself more vulnerable, make him a bad human being? What are we to make of the dark incident — the nature of which we can very easily guess but which Kailash, with uncharacteristic squeamishness, refuses to spell out? Was there anything at the beginning of the tale that he tells us, which could have given us a clue? Does it cancel out every good and true thing that Kailash learned through his sentimental education?
Like any book that addresses itself seriously to the question of love, The Lovers offers us no pat answers. Through Kailash’s story, Kumar explores all the gaps in perception and understanding that one must negotiate in love, and all the mismatched expectations and instances of possessiveness and callousness that make the path so frequently perilous. It is a well-told story, punctuated with some genuine laugh-out-loud moments, with Kumar frequently diving into Kailash’s past and bringing up childhood memories, exhibitions he has seen, reports and books he has read or movies he has watched, for our examination. It lends the novel the rather improvised air of a scrapbook, heightened by the author’s use of newspaper clippings, photos of artwork, letters and movie stills, besides the copious use of footnotes that enable further digressions into factoids and obliquely related observations. All of these only serve to emphasise what we glean over the course of the book: that it is impossible to write about love, as a subject, relying only on the three-act template used by most fiction. By deploying many of the devices available to writers of non-fiction, Kumar neatly avoids this problem, and makes the story that much richer and believable — so much so that at times it becomes easy to confuse the writer with his narrator.
This isn’t made any simpler by the knowledge that at least one character in the book, Kailash’s professor Ehsaan Ali, is based on a flesh-and-blood person. Eqbal Ahmad was a political scientist, anti-war activist and writer who taught at various American universities, including Cornell and Illinois. Like his fictional counterpart, Ahmad was born in Bihar and migrated to Pakistan after Partition and through his life, remained a vocal critic of neo-imperialist politics. Kailash’s relationship with Ehsaan, his growing awareness of the world at large and his awakening political consciousness becomes the strand that ties the story to the specific context of “Reagan’s America”.
This context is important, because while the story is chiefly about the relationships that Kailash develops with various women, it is also about about his discovery of and growing love for a country. As he explains in a passage in the early part of the book, Kailash comes from “the land of famines”, and, therefore, displays an overpowering hunger for the many experiences — social, intellectual and romantic — that America offers to him.
One might complain that the women in the story, Jennifer, Nina and Cai-Yan, don’t come to life quite as much as even Ehsaan does. We never, for example, fully see Jennifer as anything more than the stereotype of the older woman who imparts to Kailash his first profound lesson in love. This failure to do more than just evoke the outline of a woman is unforgivable in the story of a heterosexual man’s romantic journey, especially since this journey takes us through the dark side of love and desire, where violence and ego frequently wreak havoc.
Some of the strongest parts of the book, in fact, are the ones in which Kailash harks back to his past, detailing conversations about sexual conquests with his roommates back in India or presenting the image of a lovelorn older cousin waiting for her favourite song to play on the radio or painting a portrait of his unpolished but deeply loving Lotan mamaji. These sections are shot through with a warmth and affection that stay with you long after the book has ended.