The book revolves around the story of Osip Balakrishnan, a young boy from Kerala’s Thrissur city, with many interconnected stories of people in Osip’s life. Narrated by the protagonist (in first person) and by the author (in third person), the book offers stories happening across time and space, all converging into one. Osip’s story begins with his desperate search for Elizabeth Hill, the English teacher at his boarding school in Kasauli, who Osip is obsessively in love with. Elizabeth has suddenly vanished after their brief romantic intercourse that resulted in her pregnancy and an abortion drive. After traveling from one city to another and across countries over to Oxford, Elizabeth’s hometown, Osip does manage to find her. And yet he does not find her after all.
The novel is dense in content and cosmopolitan in nature, and hence, of interest to a wide range of audiences. The author has done an extraordinary job of summarizing in the book many issues faced by an ordinary Indian citizen aware of their surroundings. There are several characters in the book some of whom never quite make their entry into the scene and yet there they are, adding to the reader’s intrigue. From a social psychological perspective, the novel presents a complex array of rifts and ruptures in relationships depicted by characters engaged in nuptial and non-nuptial arrangements taking an immense toll on them. For instance, Gloria is exhausted at her “small town sacrifices” for a revolutionary husband with a murderous past and her desire “to start living” her life. Maina is devastated and embittered by the apathy of her rebel-genius-intellectual-author husband. Sangita, suffering at the hands of a class and caste-based society, has parted from her own child for prospects of a better future for him. Here Elizabeth comes as an outlier — a free-spirited woman attempting to escape the clutches of custom and commitment. The problem is that there is only a hairline between freedom and estrangement, between surrender and servitude.
Spanning over various time periods and set in different places across continents, laden with historical detail, presenting layered complexities around the stories of “the victims and their victims,” the novel is more than realistic in its many different dimensions — social, psychological, historical, political, and philosophical. Whether it be the effect of the political events on the psychology of a common man, the futility of and frustration against the modern day “cafe activism”, the hypocrisy of the Indian nation in its conflicting responses to internal and external political problems, the overwhelming nature of the deteriorating politics in contemporary India and around the world, the heavy toll of forced migrations and dislocations resulting from wars, the problem of racism in Europe and the after-effects of colonialism, the depiction of the tension in inter-personal relations and individual aspirations, or the daily grind of a common man at meeting basic survival needs.
The book is a chronicle and critique of contemporary India facing communal tension, fighting social taboos, and juggling with political movements challenging its national integrity — an atmosphere where it’s the “hour of the crowd” and personal liberties must succumb to national security. Through Osip’s struggle to become a responsible adult man, it takes a dig at the corrupt and monstrous media enterprises dancing to the tunes of their masters in power where investigating facts is no longer lucrative. Through Anand’s story of an aspiring godman, it gives the reader a tour of the murky market of religion and spirituality mushrooming out of India and expanding its reach beyond borders. In Idris’s struggles at making ends meet, it highlights the complex picture of the inter-faith and inter-group hierarchy in a nation of many faiths and identities. And through Arjun’s story of his trials and tribulations against the allegations of sexual misconduct, it exposes the wickedness of cults, witch-hunts seeking fodder to fuel movements often insensitive to the consequences of missteps and resulting in extreme reactionary responses that could damage lives beyond repair.
Perhaps the illness shared by Osip and his Stalinist grandfather who adopted Osip at an orphanage is both real and metaphorical and so is the unconventional bond between young Elizabeth and old Kris, the estranged brother of the grandfather — triggered by experiences of contact and commune, by shared history, or by the “unique germs of misery” that humans “infected each other with.” The kidnapping of the corpse for a ransom or the murder of a fly at a dinner party and the events surrounding these are symbolic — tragic as well as comic, depicting the meaninglessness of class and ethics in the face of emotion, greed, ritual, reputation, or simply survival.
From an artistic perspective, the book merits applause for its linguistic beauty, lyrical quality, poetic texture, deeply sensitive detail, satirical tone, raw humor, powerful metaphor and philosophical touch as illustrated by a few excerpts I quote below:
“My grandfather and I shared a world where centuries fluctuated and flickered , dull one moment, dazzling the next, but never steady….”
“The flowers looked painted, and brittle, almost as if they were made of paper and stuck to the air. Half above, the stars shredded the sky.”
“… summer dusk [in Delhi] falling like a shutter over the Fort; trees turning deep as caves.”
“…watching news or porn, ‘the two secret and interchangeable career aspirations of the hardworking Indian’”
“There are twenty million people in Bombay. But no one has a face, except the film stars.”
“When everybody is rich and free, the idea of the nation will not count.”
“Have you watched the night sky? …..You should. It’s then that you realize that not everything has to make sense.”
“It takes every man’s past to arrive at this moment. Somebody’s future is our past. We are nomads wandering through time. And in our mind any event from any place can recur, and it becomes us.”
The book is definitely not an easy read. It may feel like the author put too many eggs in one basket, and perhaps that is its strength as well as its weakness. But if you are a thorough reader, it will surely activate your pineal gland.