Sumana Mukherjee enters the platonic-perfect world that two persons create for themselves.
Back in school, in the time of hormonal rushes and teenage crushes, I remember a friend cutting to the chase in her analysis of affairs of the heart. “There’s a difference,” she’d said, wise beyond her 16 years, “between loving someone and falling in love.” The conversation came back to me — together with the buzz of evening traffic and the whiff of our starched white uniforms — while reading Chaos Theory, Anuvab Pal’s sometimes infuriating, sometimes surprising but always a tender take on the love story, as distinct from the falling-in-love story.
Recalling the 1989 Nora Ephron-scripted rom-com When Harry Met Sally, Mukesh and Sunita meet at their college freshers’ welcome party in 1962 and immediately strike a chord. They quickly prove to be intellectual equals, their sense of humour is a match made in heaven and they end their first evening together dancing to Nat King Cole. Through chapters alternately recorded by the two — a structure that does not always serve the novel well, so similar are the two voices — we follow them over the next 50-odd years of their lives, as they graduate from Delhi University, travel abroad for higher degrees, and then settle down to their tenures in the hallowed halls of American academia. Singly and separately, like the particles referenced in the titular chaos theory, “strongly attracted to one another, (revolving) around each other forever, in a pattern that can never be determined, in random chaos, coming closer or going further apart, without ever actually connecting”.
Except, of course, Mukesh and Sunita connect, and how. Pal has an excellent ear for dialogue and sparks fly off the page every time his protagonists meet, on the steps of the Widener library at Harvard, during the if-it’s-Thursday-it-must-be-Shakespeare set-pieces, even when they introduce each other to their partners of the moment. Taut, sharp, smart, they reverberate with all the energy and electricity of courtship, when a deliberate word or two can decide the course of the evening or of a life. Consider this:
“‘Maybe we should develop the concept of unspoken love under a roof — my roof?’
‘It’s 2am — is that a pick-up line?’ she asked.
Of course it was meant to be. I mean, obviously.
‘Every exit is an entrance to somewhere else,’ I said.”
Only, for Mukesh and Sunita (could the names be more ‘period’?), that exit/entrance leads to a minefield of more of the same. Teachers and readers both, they appreciate the power of language and fear its ability to jolt them out of their cocoon, where their positions are all the more safe for being unstated. So they continue to play with words, saying some things but not the others, always stopping short of pronouncing what is on the top of their minds, what they yearn to hear, till a time comes when they don’t need to articulate it at all.
Eddying around their encounters, life marches on unconcerned, marked by changes in cinema, fashion, music, academics, technology. They get married — to other people — their careers stall or get sidelined, they have babies (or, okay, one does, and only one), there’s a divorce and a stroke as well. None of this touches the platonic-perfect world Mukesh and Sunita create for themselves, perpetually connected to each other by the silent, ongoing conversation in their heads.
If conversations are the high point of Chaos Theory, the rest of the novel, unfortunately, can seem to be mere padding, which makes sense when the author’s note acknowledges that Chaos Theory began life as a play. There are occasional flashes of brilliance, especially in the way in which Pal takes the mickey out of academia, but the ostentatious marking of time (“Pan Am, American Express, Shearson Lehman, Greenwich Village jazz, thin ties, Ronald Reagan, thick moustaches, AIDS...”, you get the drift) on the one hand and the careless disregard for it on the other (a signpost like Lennon’s death is off by a year) are tiresome in a printed text in a way they would not be on stage. Lift Mukesh-Sunita out of their matrix and you have a bittersweet romance that tugs at buried memories and kindles hope for a future with the love of one’s life.