Saturday, February 05, 2011

Tarun Tejpal - The Alchemy of Desire

I have a bit of a connect with Tarun Tejpal.  He worked once at the same newspaper as I do now, both he and his wife.  I have just one memory of him talking to our garrulous telephone operator and laughing.  Much later, after he left Chandigarh, I read some of his articles here and there and liked them.  It was even later, after Tehelka, that he became a household name. Gosh, I thought, its that same thin fellow who used to work in my office.  I knew he had written a book called The Alchemy of Desire.  I read the blurbs, but not the book.  A couple of weeks back, I picked up the book in the library, egged on by a positive recco from a friend.

His book seemed to be autobiographical and began with his Chandigarh phase.  So far so good.  I love Chandigarh and love reading about it.  The mid eighties were a wonderful time, journalistically speaking.  A lot was happening, militancy was on the rise, assassinations and emergencies, and journalism had not yet plumbed the depths it has.  It was fun (ooops, I hope there is no  'g**d phat ke haath me aajati' type around to chastise me).  I mean 'fun' in the adrenaline pumping way, there was so much happening, there was excitement in the air.  However, though Tejpal does include the political happenings of those times, his concern lies elsewhere: his relationship with his wife.  He tells us how crazy he was about her, but alas, he takes a long time telling us this, again and again.  His interest in his wife is deeply carnal, so we are given descriptions of his sex life.  He avoids (prudishly?) the use of names for sexual body parts.  "Engorged, Tumescence, Wetness, Inside" are used liberally in his frequent listings of his legal sexcapades.  It makes for a tedious reading at times, not titillation. I skipped and jumped through these bits and wondered if anything was going to happen at all, or was he going to harp on and on about how he loved sex with his woman.

I nearly gave up reading further.  But then, I stuck with it.  Suddenly things took a turn.  Tejpal finally came to the crux of the matter.  Somewhere along in the story, the young couple came into some money that Tejpal's grandmother left for him.  With this money the happy young couple buys a house high in the hills.  The cottage had been built by an American woman who had married a Nawab during the British Raj.  During renovations to this cottage, they chance upon a locked chest which is filled with diaries written by the woman.  It is while pursuing these detailed diaries that Tejpal finds himself hallucinating about the descriptions of the sex life of the lady, and finds himself unable to 'come up' for his wife.

The story of Catherine is told with the pithiness that all journalists are required to have.  From then on, it turns almost into a thriller, as Tejpal is obssessed with finding out more and more about Catherine and what happened to her.  It makes for a compelling read.  After he attains closure with the Catherine story, he is able to return to his feelings for his wife.  In the last chapter, he goes back to the story of how he met this girl that he loved to distraction all his life, his first and his only love.  Now, without the cumbersome need to list his sexual encounters with his wife, he is much much much better.  The final two chapters of the book are the best that I have read in recent times.  It was worth wading through the first few tedious chapters.

Of course, I loved the references to two of my favorite places in the world, Kasauli and Chandigarh.  Like many Chandigarhians, Tejpal too goes often to Kasauli.  He does make them come alive with his accurate descriptions of the place and people.  Curiously, despite his attempt to write up his wife, she seems like a very flat character, he is to be unable to bring her alive.  It is only in the final chapter that he succeeds in fleshing her out.  

Better scores have to be given to his attempts to write a book.  One of the themes of the book is also how Tejpal tries to write a novel often and fails.  His wrestling with his creative side is also very real.  Also, of course, the political scenario that he has to grapple with.  No marks for this one, because it is something all journalists do.

It could have been a great book, had he edited it a bit better.  The first few chapters could have done with some chopping.  Who should have known this better than a guy who is an editor?


Smita said...

I took ages to finish this book and have reviwed it as well. In fact I just now revisited the review and have realised that I totally agree with your view. It was after the letters come in pic that you get hooked to the book. But U know there was something in this book which kept pulling me back :)

Anonymous said...

Hey Avdi, Nice you are back to reviewing books!

YOSEE said...

A friend's impatience with the book made me avoid this book altogether.

Now, should I pick it up ? I dunno still !

avdi said...

Smita - Yes. It was hard to wade through the well-written but verbose early chapters.

Ashwin - I really need to blog more :(

Yosee - The last few chaps redeem the book, if you have patience.

Abhay Patel said...

nice post. Thank you for sharing.

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Anonymous said...

I think the book kept me reading through.however I do not know what was Tarun motivation.It would be interesting to note what his wife reaction would be.He got married at the age of 21 when Geetan was 19.I know that there were lot of takers for Geetan and Tarun was somewhat skeptical if he will get her.It was a bold step to have written book with descriptions of wife breasts and her organs.He describes climax and sensualities of his partner.The book could have been reduced almost to half it's size.It may be a confession in reading through the book I imagined Geetan all through.

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