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Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Lost and Found in The Desert

The unknowable is at the heart of Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men. The author talks about the road trips which gave birth to the book’s splintered stories,and his own position as an outsider.

Written by Nandini Nair | New Delhi | Published: November 13, 2011 1:47:05 am

The unknowable is at the heart of Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men. The author talks about the road trips which gave birth to the book’s splintered stories,and his own position as an outsider.

A man steeped in an alcoholic stupor says,“Whoever brought me here will have to get me home.” Written by Rumi,this is a favourite phrase of author Hari Kunzru. With humour and irreverence,it hints at man’s inscrutable origins and unknowable future,and captures the essence of Gods Without Men (Penguin),Kunzru’s most recent book. But Rumi’s phrase is not wholly explicable,its meaning is always a little beyond grasp. Similarly,Gods Without Men,Kunzru’s fifth book,reads like a financial thriller,an American road trip and an immigrant tale,but one where eras overlap,meanings lapse and threads remain dangling.

While some readers revel in these multiple worlds,parallel storylines and the absence of resolution,others feel abandoned by the author. “I was very interested in writing a book that offered a mystery that was never satisfactorily solved,” he says. The reader is left with crises and silences,often clinging to the edge of a chapter,just as the next one begins. Dissatisfaction and exhilaration follow closely in this work. For Kunzru,a man more prone to the smirk than the smile,“This sense of dissatisfaction is central. That is what it is to be human,” he says,when we meet him for an interview in Delhi.

Kunzru explores what it is to be human in the backdrop of the Mojave desert in the US,famous for its white sands,blazing heat and spindly Joshua trees. Of English and Kashmiri descent,the author has lived largely in Essex and London. He first went to the Mojave desert in 2001 soon after 9/11,when his outgoing flight from Los Angeles was cancelled as the airspace remained closed. Disturbed by the events and stranded in a foreign land,he hired a car and drove to the fittingly named Death Valley. In 2008,he returned to the US for a fellowship at the Cullman Centre,New York. Struggling with shards of different stories,he took up a friend’s offer of a road trip. He soon found himself on dirt tracks and salt flats of the Mojave desert with a New Zealand couple and their baby. In the next two years,he made around eight trips to this “bleak and inhuman landscape where you feel close to some mystery”. At the heart of the book lies the author’s own belief in the mysterious and the permanently unknowable.

Much of the novel was written in hotels and motel rooms across California,Nevada,Arizona and Utah with the aid of noise-cancellation headphones or instrumental music. “I can’t listen to other people’s words when I write,” says Kunzru. He “followed his nose”,chatted to strangers at dive bars and lingered at places others rushed through. He met Harley Davidson gangs of reformed criminals “who called themselves Sons of Jesus or Brother-in-laws of Jesus or something like that”,a man who was carving a mountain to the “glory of God”,and an old drunk who casually told him that he had attached his wife with a noose to the back of a truck and dragged her for half a mile,before he braked. She survived but her face didn’t look the same after. She also found her way into Kunzru’s book with Schmidt,a war veteran with other-worldly interests who does the same to his wife.

The desert’s heat,and the sting of sand and sun sweep through this novel and bleaches its characters. For Kunzru,the book is “essentially about outsiders”,like the Sikh-born New York resident Jaz (Jaswinder Singh) and his Jewish wife Lisa,who find themselves looking for their autistic son in the desert scrubs. Jaz,an MIT graduate and a successful financial analyst at a hedge fund,is a “twice outsider”,according to Kunzru. Short-haired Jaz belongs neither to the guru-sant world of his Sardar family or to his wife’s world of arts and books. Kunzru made the deliberate attempt to tell the story of outsiders as it gave him the permission to write about a land he didn’t belong to and to build on the famous road-trip literature of the country. With the book releasing only in March in the US,he remains slightly apprehensive of how it might be received there. But Annie Proulx (author of Shipping News and the short story Brokeback Mountain)’s review in the Financial Times,which commended Kunzru for his “literary skills”,“historical accuracy” and ability to “write beautifully constructed sentences”,has instilled some hope in the author.

For Kunzru,being in America was his first experience as an immigrant. “Till I went to the US,I wasn’t one,” he says. But his father’s decision to leave India and live in the UK informs his life. He lost a language (Hindi) but gained a new country. “I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t have that going on,” he adds.

Gods Without Men is the quintessential contemporary American novel with its critique of the Wall Street culture,focus on immigrant victories and downfalls,and exploration of paranormal and transcendental callings. “A belief in UFOs is a kind of American religion”,he says,formed at the confluence of space exploration,military installations,eccentric Christianity and some popular poorly-made films. Kunzru first got interested in the world of UFOs as a child through second-hand paperbacks of Erich von Däniken,who wrote bestsellers crediting extra-terrestrials with human achievements. “His books contained dubious knowledge questioning how man could have built the pyramids,for example,” he says,raising an eyebrow. As a child,these claims made him feel that he knew secrets that were privy only to him and opened up a whole new world of possibilities.

Trained as a journalist,Kunzru remains a man of varied interests,ranging from technology to music. He has come out publicly in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Written during the peak of the financial crisis,Gods Without Men makes apparent the flaws in a market system,which makes very few very rich at the cost of many others. “New York is the symbolic centre of capital. It believes in the philosophy of a market that self-corrects. I have never believed in that,” he says.

Having lived in London and New York,Kunzru is now contemplating a move to Berlin. He knows stray German words but looks forward to taking language classes,being an outsider and looking once more for someone to take him home.

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