A well-written, clever, insightful novel, but leaves one with a sense of dissatisfaction.
Yes, but was it good for you, too, dear Reader? In this highly readable slice of hothouse-flower-life that is the brown man in an icy-white country, you may have been left wanting more. From the excellent title, cover design and opening sentence, you are primed to sample another world, not so far removed that you cannot see how it permeates all our worlds today, but halfway through you’re grappling with a sense of dissatisfaction. There’s a great deal of titillation, to be sure, but the expected fireworks? Not so much.
It’s the story about two products of the subcontinent (really, Pakistan, India, what’s the difference?) sharing a flat with a Muslim man, messing about with the local girls, drinking, pontificating, and doing something desultory in the area of education; one his PhD, the other teaching English. Sounds like any college dorm but this, the narrator hints, is something more. The man they are rooming with is a likely terrorist and what they learn about love from the local girls tells them something about themselves.
When it’s a question of tackling prejudice, everyone is guilty. You’d think only Westerners see terrorists in anyone with a beard, dark skin or, god help the Sikhs, a turban. But our two brown boys end up judging their Muslim landlord with as much alacrity as any buzz-cut right-winger (as clichéd as turban terrorists). As for their lessons in love, we learn there really is such a thing as being too perfect, which of course is good to know. (This may stem from the fact that we come from a region that has a disorderly charm all its own; are we prejudiced against perfection?)
You have to like the character of Ravi who invokes Plato, Gandhi and Marx when categorising women, thinks that “anyone who invests in relationships is heading for bankruptcy”, that the term ‘bastard’ by which the two friends affectionately address each other is apt because they went to a missionary school and there is “no greater term of honour” in a place that reveres immaculate conception.
Ravi should be writing a dissertation on relationships, actually. He patiently explains how if the Muslim Mr Eng Lit would only present himself as fighting a losing battle with his Faith, racked with “confusion” and anger”, he would be more likely to score. Ravi instinctively understands that lovers thrive on drama. Unfortunately, it’s that same penchant in himself that proves to be his undoing. Laughably, Mr Eng Lit terms Ravi’s insatiable curiosity “the aunts in Ravi”, and although his ‘wisdom of the ages’ can sound juvenile, the reader certainly doesn’t expect him to be perfect.
When Ravi falls in love with Lena, who’s a bit, er, retentive, he soon begins to doubt his feelings because she’s beautiful, loving, respectful, interested — but, alas, too controlled. She very possibly likes the missionary position.
Too-literal dream sequences
Mr Eng Lit, on the other hand, doesn’t want to be madly in love, opting instead for “sane attraction”. He sounds like a shark, ruthless in mating methods along with everything else, but it’s a ‘lesson’ he learns along the way.
Sometimes the way is superfluous. The dream sequences in the book are too literal, and you’re tempted to skip them: A restaurant seating symbolising the segregation of white and black; an airport as a crossroads where you’re left wondering which direction to take.
I also saw the denouement between the neighbour Claus and his wife coming almost from the minute they are introduced. Although I did not see the resounding words, which pounced and caught me by the throat: Last line, page 91.
But soon after I was gasping for more. I wanted to hear the dialogues that denoted the passing of that first flush of love/lust to the point where Ravi searches for (and where you search, you will find) faults to use as a lever and extricate himself from Lena. He’s the sort of man all women meet at some point; the kind who cannot accept his good fortune and who is at heart emotionally bone-lazy.
I wanted more scenes where the boys meet Danish girls, what an opportunity to see and hear and feel the differences between them, but even where a drunken fight is poised to break out, we are left with a fizzling of passion. I wanted to experience the meetings between Karim Bhai and his Muslim brothers and sisters, where I could understand, or not, their well of angst.
With the little red flags that Khair strews around, wondering for instance if Ravi, wherever he is now, can even ride his beloved bike, I was expecting someone to either be beating their heads against prison bars or at the very least die in a spectacularly senseless fashion.
None of these expectations are met. Not even the ‘terrorist’ suffers at the hands of an uncomprehending police force. Not one of the lovers stabs the other. Ravi tamely returns to the subcontinent after all his big talk. Mr Eng Lit surrenders to a love life that is as exciting as shopping for groceries.
The last line of the book packs more of a punch. We have too little of worth within us, it prophecies. But the survival of the human species has hinged on the fact that we often transcend what is within us.
This is a well-written, clever, insightful novel, but some of us are much more demanding than either Ravi or Mr Eng Lit could handle.
How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position; Tabish Khair, Fourth Estate, Rs.450.