In spite of its title, Amitava Kumar's latest offering, The Lovers, is really about a young man in search of himself, which may sound like a dreadful cliché, except that most platitudes in real life tend to have more than a ring of truth.
In this case, the nature of the quest places the book within a specific genre, described by the rather mouthful German term Bildungsroman or a novel that traces the life, especially the emotional evolution, of the hero, who usually happens to be a melancholy young man looking for love and is, in the end, redeemed by the grace of self-knowledge.
The term is often used to describe a hoary tradition of fiction writing, featuring great novels like Goethe's autobiographical The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) and Flaubert's Sentimental Education (1869), both of which describe the plight of young men in love — hopelessly, abjectly, obsessively. Their journey from the fuzzy aura of lovesickness to the cold daylight of self-awareness (via heartbreak) is a psychological template that has survived into the 21st century, having internalised the ironic bleakness of European post-modernity along the way. Kumar's protagonist Kailash is also cast in the same mould as such romantic heroes, except that the accident of his birth places him in a league much apart from these literary ancestors.
Born and raised in small-town Bihar, Kailash goes to university in a big city in the US, where he is promptly rechristened Kalashnikov, shortened to AK-47, before being assigned the diminutive AK, which, perhaps not coincidentally, also happens to denote the initials of Kumar's own name.
Away from familiar bearings, AK finds himself drawn into a series of amorous adventures with women, who, in turn, initiate him into the rituals of American life. Into these cycles of casual encounters, some of which ripen into frenzied intensity but end in abrupt betrayals each time, is woven the story of Ehsaan Ali, a maverick scholar, who becomes AK's mentor in more senses than one.
Inspired by the late Eqbal Ahmad, a Pakistani-origin academic known for his fiercely anti-imperialist politics, Ehsaan is not only an intellectual guide for AK, but also a spiritual nurturer, "a man...without a nation", who understands the anxieties of exile just as keenly as his newly-arrived student. With his large-hearted empathy and generous disposition, Ehsaan also reminds us of Saul Bellow's Ravelstein (the star of the novel by the same name), based on another real-life character, Allan Bloom, famous philosopher and teacher, most notably at the University of Chicago.
Away from familiar bearings, AK finds himself drawn into a series of amorous adventures with women, who, in turn, initiate him into the rituals of American life
In Ehsaan's classes, listening to other foreign students speak of their experiences and reading the books recommended by him, AK becomes aware of his predicament. Haunted by a feeling of being "insufficiently authentic", he says, "I knew in my heart that I was closer to a family of peasants than I was to a couple of intellectuals sitting in a restaurant in New York".
Yet, for AK, exile doesn't paint the world in black and white — a rose-tinted nostalgia for home versus cold alienation in the adopted country — as in most assembly-line immigrant fiction. Rather, the real terror of exile reveals itself in the knowledge that there isn't any home to go back to and none to settle into either. The memory of all that he has left behind — a drunken, philandering uncle, an evening when his sister was nearly molested in a suburban town, a freaky anecdote about a monkey that killed itself instead of AK's infant cousin — seems to create only ripples of wistfulness within him, not immense waves of longing.
Between negotiating bittersweet cultural confusions, AK is compelled to confront his inherent biases and personal failings by the women who pass through his life. If the mature Jennifer leaves him feeling he has failed "in the way one knows one has failed in a dream", the lustful but enigmatic Nina arouses a streak of patriarchal possessiveness. Then there is diffident Cai Yan, interested in studying rural revolutions in India, who provokes AK to push against the limits of his circumstances.
Between negotiating bittersweet cultural misunderstandings, AK is compelled to confront his inherent biases and personal failings by the women who pass through his life
While the warmth of bodies and entanglements of desire nourish his life, AK's emotional axis is completed by the books he reads — about lonely Indian soldiers writing letters home from the war front many decades before AK's own displacement, for instance. Even when it comes to writing his own book, AK turns to Agnes Smedley, an American writer and secret agent with a tempestuous life, for his role model. But, ultimately, it's his "relationship to sex and loneliness" (to borrow a phrase AK uses in another context) that becomes the centripetal force holding all the fragments of his story together.
Kumar's style is reflective and unapologetically allusive to the titans of literary fiction — AK draws up a formidable reading list for himself on p. 221, for instance. And yet, in spite of such gravitas, there are moments of levity as well — even in the (mildly disruptive) paraphernalia of footnotes, more like asides really, in AK's ironic bursts of apologia, seeking to absolve himself for blundering his way through life, as well as in the embedding of photographs (after WG Sebald) to illuminate the text.
The Lovers, by no means, is easy to read. It is not structurally flawless, nor is it interested in traditional forms of storytelling. Taking off on a tangent from one strand in the plot, in directions you can scarcely imagine, it spins several yarns deftly. In such egregious leaps, there is the excitement of landing on the unknown — and a sense of gratification in finding seemingly disparate threads coming together in the end.
The Lovers, by Amitava Kumar, is published by Aleph Book Company, Hardback, ₹599.
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