The Blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine – we DISSENT

Book Review: Amitava Kumar’s ‘The Lovers’

By Suranjana Choudhury

And as we stray further from love/we multiply the words,/words and sentences so long and orderly/ Had we remained together/ we could have become a silence.

– Yehuda Amichai

Amitava Kumar’s latest novel, The lovers, is a narrative in the form of variations. In his note on the novel, the author reveals, “This is a work of fiction as well as non-fiction, an in-between novel by an in-between writer.”  His choice of telling a story or many stories in the book crosses conventional boundaries of genre and style. It challenges many set traditions of writing. In an edited volume on life in small town India after sundown, Day’s End Stories, Kumar has reflected on seemingly ordinary yet interesting Bihari nights in small town India (“Bihari Nights” is the name of his essay). He has explored the known and the unknown past and present of Patna in A Matter of Rats. He is branched out in many directions. In The Lovers, Kumar meanders through excitingly intimate territories of love, longing, and writing. With sensuous yet meditative descriptions of the malleability of the campus life and the tactile explorations of human relationships, the book is suffused with nostalgia and its derivative emotions. It embarks on deeper wanderings into the ever elusive search for love through Kailash’s journey.

In John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Charles Smithson ‘makes himself’ through a certain experience of love. So do many individuals in life and art. Through his relationships with these extraordinary women – Jennifer, Nina, and Cai Yan – Kailash discovers the complexities of love affairs, the unfathomable nature of sexual pleasures, and joys of togetherness. Kailash/Kalashinikov/AK 47/AK, the protagonist of the novel comments on the supreme power of love in forming histories during one of his periodic asides, “This is the juncture where I wish to note, once and for all, that the plot of history advances through the acts of lovers. Oh, the wisdom of love. The superiority of love and its follies.” These rapid authorial interventions throughout the narrative add to the dynamism of the novel. His speculative exercises are not random, accidental digressions. Such fluid and evocative ramblings dispersed across the novel, if collected together, would serve to act as a peripheral text entwined with its main. Kumar’s self-conscious engagement with the conventional mode of storytelling makes his story advance in a unique way. In his very recent article, “I am Ramu”, Amit Chaudhuri, the noted Indian writer, reflects on the various innovative experiments which question the traditional form of the novel He makes a distinction between ironical self-consciousness of postmodernism and self-consciousness found in an essay. Kumar has composed his novel as close to a diary as a novel can get. He deliberately breaks the mimetic spell of his story to summon reader’s attention to the other dimensions of its composition. As he notes, “Your Honour, this is not a parable, of course. I have narrated this auto-story, ha, ha because I was in the car yesterday driving into Saratoga Springs to buy wine.” He then draws upon John Cheever, “I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss – you can’t do it alone.” His intelligent laying bare of the various props of his creation is a playful narrative strategy. It is not merely done to constitute a meta-narrative. The narrative thread is not snapped off despite all the detours he undertakes. Kumar does maintain the sanctity of the story because it is supremely valuable. Before adding the short story, “You Can Get It If You Really Want”, in the culminating stage, he gives an insight into his art:

An account of what is familiar becomes the story of one’s life. It is life. I have always wanted to be in love; all I have managed to do is tell a story. That is not entirely accurate. I’m like the monkey who, crouching in front of a mirror, tries on a hat. He is only imitating his master.

The novel is a tapestry of various texts woven around the lives of the other characters through the teasing, playful voice of the author-narrator. With anecdotes, excerpts from other books, interviews, clandestine letters, overlapping memories, Kumar lucidly builds this very exciting narrative. Interesting individuals from different contours of history emerge as characters in the novel to connect with Kaliash’s present. Their views converse with that of Kailash. He re-examines his take on love, life, and art through these dialogues. His teacher, Professor Ehsaan Ali, a close reconstruction of Professor Eqbal Ahmad, is more real than fictional. His insights, commentaries, and his cerebral versatility reveal the mind of a genius. Ehsaan as Kailash’s mentor holds the narrative strands together more than anyone else does. Kailash’s profound gift for juxtaposing the past and the present turns this book into a remarkable experience. He makes illuminating engagement with certain significant episodes, which shaped the lives of individuals like Laura Cambell, Francil Hull, Agnes Smedley, Virendranath Chattopadhyaya. As a researcher of these lives, letters, and photographs, Kailash re-searches his identity in a land which is not home. The author has also made photographs an integral part of his work. Drawn from various resources and distributed across the pages of the book, these photographs help in recasting the work, which challenges fixed notions of the art of writing novels. Clippings taken from his notebook at various points of time compose the novel as well. These clippings feature as curious and captivating components. If one clipping is taken from a magazine essay by Abraham Verghese, then the other is “a startling statement about the meeting of art and desire” and so on – the range is colossal. These peculiar variations render this narrative enduringly lovable.

Lovers is a deeply felt personal record. On the first page, he refers to his ‘evolution’ and its collaborative association with red-bottomed monkeys at his Lotan Mamaji’s house. Memory and its playful representations are crucially important in understanding AK’s journey. His arrival in America about two decades ago as a university student and his quest for a ‘suitable narrative’ offer him the chance to revisit his childhood spaces and times in wonderful ways. The raw and unbound disclosure of funny yet amorous episodes from his past in Bihar and New Delhi intensifies the layers of his personal attempts at coalescing life and fiction. These episodes prove that such random moments of life are no less rich and strange. During his perpetual endeavours to mingle memories with his immediate present, he frames his desired narrative. As the author notes:

memories translate experience, and when we write about these memories a double translation takes place. This book, too, is an example of this uncertain process. Your Honour, I cannot claim any particular fidelity to facts. This arrangement of memories is my attempt to get what is real.

The arrangement which he refers to here is fluid, it is lyrical. A reader would discover magic in such a creative arrangement.

Bio:
Suranjana Choudhury is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English, North Eastern Hill University, Shillong. Her areas of interest include Narratives on Partition and Displacement, Women Studies, Travel Writings and Translation Studies. Besides her academic writings, she has also contributed to Humanities UndergroundThe StatesmanCafe Dissensus, Coldnoon Travel Poetics, Scroll.in. She may be contacted at suranjanaz@gmail.com

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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘India at 70: The Many Partitions’, edited by Bhaswati Ghosh, author & translator, Canada.

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