He is the narrator and the narrative. Tejpal, certainly, is playing bold, breaking out of the received wisdom of the Indian novel in English, and this freedom of a first novelist is as frenetic as its pace, as elastic as its boundaries, and, refreshingly, least self-conscious.
As lover and storyteller, the narrator of The Alchemy of Desire reaches out to the last recesses of pleasure and fear, and loses himself in the whirl of antique passions. He, a journalist, is steeped in Kafka and Joyce, Pound and other poetic profundities. He is also a struggling writer, his generational saga reaching nowhere.
The story defies his old Brother typewriter. They move from the limiting Chandigarh to Delhi and he takes up a job as a subeditor, the man of words, but it doesn't take long for him to flee the newsroom and the "Brotherhood of Gleaming Glansmen". The Alchemy takes wings when the couple buy a house in the hills, a house with its own history of desire, dark and haunting.
It is his inheritance; it is his private salvation moment; it marks the redundancy of Fizz. The story of Catherine, the earlier resident, becomes a novel within the novel, stretching from Chicago to Paris to the nawab's court in Jagdevpur and, finally, to the house in the hills. The narrator intrudes into her story by chance, gets entangled in it by choice, and still wants to be her redeemer.
The Alchemy of Desire by Tarun Tejpal
His own story, though thin in plot, is indebted to Catherine's story,no matter how exaggerated it is by time. Tejpal captures the secret lives of the hills in intimate details, and their custodians, scattered across pages, carry within them stories worth living for.
This novel, set in the last decades of the 20th century, with an ancestry going back to Partition, comes to a close on the millennium eve, and has its own share of political angst, naivety and cynicism in one liners, and, in the end, they are unattached dissent, leaving no mark on the narrative. You had to find your story. Tejpal has found his, with a panache seldom seen in first novels-in grand strokes.
In the end, you have nothing but a story to gain, and this one, in its eroticism and excitement of ideas, heralds an arrival. The laws of school physics will tell you it is more difficult to prise apart two bodies joined at the middle than those connected anywhere near the top or the bottom I was still madly in love with her when I left her but the desire had died, and not all the years of sharing and caring and discovering and journeying could keep me from fleeing.
Perhaps I recall it wrong. Strictly speaking I did not leave. Fizz did.
But the truth is she did-as always-what I wanted her to, what I willed her to. And I did what I did because by then my body had turned against hers; and anyone who has stretched and plumbed both mind and body will tell you the body, with its many nagging needs, is the true engine of life.
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The mind merely steers a path for it, or consoles it with high sounding homilies when there is no path to be found. The ravings of the puritans and the moralists are the anguished cries of those whose bodies have failed to find the road to bliss.
When I see clergy-Hindu, Muslim, Christian- rail against the instincts of the body, I see men who are lost and angry and frustrated. Unable to locate the glories of the body, unable to locate the path to surpassing joy, they are resolved to confuse all other journeymen. Those who fail to find their sexual synapse set out mind and body at war against each other. I agree there are the truly spiritual, just as there is the one horned rhino, but they are few and far between and easily identifiable.
For the rest of us, the body is the temple. The truth is godhead is intangible.
by Tarun Tejpal
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