The Alchemy of Desire: A Review.

Writing about a movie you’ve watched is always easier than writing about a novel you’ve read. Several people might disagree with me but a novel spends much more time with us. A movie review is done without much difficulty because the analysis tends to be very scientific, very straightforward and hardly ever subjective. But we tend to become biased with the novels we have read. They are like people to us. With every page we turn, we discover the novel a little more and become more prejudiced towards it. We never know our movies as well as we know our novels. And thus, writing about a novel is akin to talking about a dear old friend – you can never be completely detached from the conversation.
For me, ending a good novel is like parting with a friend. There is a sense of elation that you met the friend, but you also feel a deep sense of void because your meeting has ended. Such is the euphoria of reading a good novel. It starts with an unfamiliar visual schema in your mind and ends with a fully formed lump of intense emotion in your throat.
Reading Tarun Tejpal’s The Alchemy of Desire was one such experience. Tejpal, who is a renowned journalist and the editor of the infamous magazine, Tehelka, has surely created a lot of sensation with this book. I remember I had stared at it suspiciously in the bookstore, and had bought it on a whim. But once I began reading it, I could not put it down and when I finally finished reading it, the magnificence of the plot hung over me like an apparition for days on end.
While most Indian authors lack the precision and meticulousness of language that is associated with novel-writing, and often create characters and do not justice to them, Tejpal’s writing is phenomenal. The characterization is perfect; the plot, though a little obscure in parts, is flawless; the language is extremely lucid. The book is, in fact, five hundred and eighteen pages of pure poesy.
Tejpal divides the book into five parts that are essentially the elements of human existence– Prema (Love), Karma (Work), Artha (Money), Kama (Desire) and Satya (Truth). The story revolves around an unnamed protagonist, his wife, Fizz (Fiza) and their attempts to comprehend the magic that desire is. The protagonist is a writer, like Tejpal himself, and is struggling to write a novel but in vain. In these futile attempts, he finds solace in his desire for his wife. However, the object of his desire soon changes when he discovers that the house they are living in holds some deep secrets, and he loses his sense of love and compassion in trying to unearth the history of the house. In his obsession to know the truth, he loses the only thing he ever possessed – his desire.
Some would believe Tejpal sees himself in the protagonist and does justice to him because he leaves him unnamed. He does not even describe the protagonist. The only thing that shapes this character is his immense passion for his wife and later, for the truth. Readers will know the character through the philosophy of desire, and will hate him, sympathize with him and fall in love with him only by virtue of his desire.
The story is a masterpiece. It moves back and forth in time, and Tejpal’s perfectionism shows in the way he describes the locales of Garhmukteshwar, Moradabad, Rampur, Bilaspur, Rudrapur, Haldwani, Kathgodam, Jeolikote, Gethia where the story takes form. Tejpal is so meticulous that he even knows the local flora and fauna of the places and uses them in a way that they become a very integral part of the plot. Moreover, he even uses his novel to spell out his own political and social beliefs (through his characters, of course), and he uses his timeline to depict his immense knowledge of history – from the extant times, he takes a leap decades back to colonial India and then leaps forward to the days of the Partition. Sometimes he digresses so much that the average reader is forced to think that Tejpal’s journalist self has overpowered his facet as a novelist. Of course, these digressions make the novel a lucid but lengthy one. It is at these times that a reader might put the book down, but in time, he shall reach the part where the protagonist has uncovered the secrets of the house and, is at peace with himself.
What makes the novel what it is, and probably made it win the France’s Le Prix Mille Pages for Best Foreign Literary Fiction, is how Tejpal uses the element of eroticism. Most authors will play it safe by either using a euphemism for sex or by keeping the eroticism at the fringes of the novel, but Tejpal, being the ‘Tehelka’ man, believes in being bold and ambitious. He treats passion as he would treat one of his characters. In fact, he both begins and ends the story with the love versus lust debate. His characters are very Fredudian – they believe in worshipping their desire. Desire shapes their existence and helps them grow as human beings. And it is desire that cripples them and brings them down. In such a situation where desire is not just an ingredient in the story but is the story itself, it is easy to go overboard with the plot but Tejpal does not. The book is not vulgar in any circumstance.
Tejpal has hit the jackpot with his very first novel. Bold, engaging, with beautiful imagery and impeccable prose, the book has a lovely vagueness that you are bound to like.

Deya Bhattacharya

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