Jun 7, 2009

Thoughts on The Alchemy of Desire

If you really think about it - what is that single notion or idea or fact that we can conclusively define as ‘real’ in a world ruled by mirrors, illusions & make belief – it is only kindness & creativity. Both are immeasurably priceless & achingly rare. To read tarun tejpal’s debut novel The Alchemy of Desire (TAOD) is to be reminded of this.

It is powerfully creative & has passages of such beauty & poignancy that one is reminded that indeed, more than beauty or brilliance, it is kindness that makes people or incidents memorable. Take for instance the foll passage where the narrator describes his mood after 2 truck drivers who had hitherto never ventured beyond gethia, a small town near nainital, are completely disoriented at their 1st visit to delhi’s chaotic wonder & decide to escape home in the middle of the night:
“But now I wanted to sit down in the street & cry.
It had to do with the thought of the two of them hurtling back home in the night, furtive & alone. The fineness of their spirit & the meanness of the world. I know how large-hearted they were; and how easily they could be overwhelmed. It was the story of the rural & the tribal everywhere. The tale of all-who-will- be-swiftly-dispossessed. They approach the new world armed with a generosity of spirit – as can only be reaped from working the land. but the modern world has no value for it. They are stranded on the crossroads of history; quickly overrun by the surging traffic of development & growth; stopped by the red light of new fangled laws & economic thesis; impounded by the gendarmes of corporate kings………………………….they are left to play a game the did not choose. With rules they do not know. The world survives by those who have generosity of spirit. But is owned by those who have none.”

In another place, he writes of his mother:
“I could sit & talk to her for hours about her childhood, her college years. The kind of stuff that breaks the heart of most sons if they only stop to listen……Even now, as I write this with everything long over I just have to think of her in pigtails, laughing, flashing her bangles, & a wilderness fills my mind. I have to get up from my desk & go for a walk. Climb up to the waterpoint , gaze at the valley, let the calm seep back into me. I have trained myself to not think of her. Sorrow must not be cultivated. It is a poor lifestyle choice.”

Nowhere else is the reader more aware of the narrators essential humanity, his capacity for unbridled compassion, than in these passages & perhaps that’s why it leaves an indelible impression on us.

This rich, layered & colourful novel was released in 2005, won some funny French award (prix millepages) & most notably was endorsed by Naipul as “ new and brilliantly original novel”. Coming from someone who barely acknowledges half the work being done in the English literary scene today, this is high praise indeed. Now, a little digression regarding my thoughts about the book before I embarked upon it. The past few years have been extremely distressing for me as a reader with me not quite enjoying a huge variety of celebrated & original authors like pamukh, rushdie, murakami, anne enright, to name a few. For someone whose lust for books is as endless as the tejpal’s narrator’s for his effervescent wife Fizz, this spells serious trouble. Just as TAOD begins with the deterioration & gradual demise of a once-upon-a-time passionate, life giving & defining relationship, I have also been beset by doubts, a vague undefined sadness & occasional bouts of self directed anger at my inability to appreciate such wonderful book which everyone else seems to be raving about. I had actually begun to imagine that I’d no longer come across a book that would make me want to mark passages, read out sections to someone close, stroke its spine lovingly like one would a lover’s back, or simply keep it close under the pillow as I slept. Don’t imagine this is neurotic for I have felt thus about umpteen books in the past. I don’t know how to explain this but there’s a gradual feeling of dilution, of being washed away, when one of the most defining loves of your life doesn’t grant u complete satisfaction. It casts doubts on ur selfhood, period. This is exactly what was happening to me as I trudged, over the years, from rushdie to pamukh to murakami & failed to scale the previous highs that I’d known in my affairs with mistry, roth, hardy, greene, updike, ishiguro, among others. And then, I discovered tejpal’s Alchemy.

It’s been a fortnight since I have read the novel & I keep longing to start it afresh knowing fully well I won’t. Nothing can measure up to the thrill of discovering an author novel (u will go on to enjoy immensely) for the first time. Any true bibliophile will tell you how disappointing it always is when u tackle the same book again, imagining in your mind the sudden discovery of several bits of treasure that u missed out the first time. Even when u do discover those treasures, they seem tawdry & trinket-like in the face of the original sea-chest u uncovered the 1st time u read the book. Such is the power of a great book.


onlooker said...

wow!! that was awesome! more so coz,could absolutely relate to it at every level, right from the first thougt to the very last one of trying to reread a once held special book, and the way we tend to fumble along the way.

sneaking that fat book, under your pillow, and then drawing it out, with such an yearning and sometimes trepidation that, equals to very few pleasures in life! :)

about the layers, was thinking how its we a wretched few, who tend to stow away innumerable feelings, memories, associations deep into the nooks and recesses of our 'mind', and then when we have to go through this process of wrenching them out,with pain and agony and a haloed gloom!! :)

loved every bit of it! (ur write up!)

drift wood said...


what can i say? i am getting all misty-eyed at such high praise at an article that is chiefly abt someone else's writing. thanks a bunch. :)