Miscellany Books

‘Love and Lust’ review: Some morsels for your bookshelf

Passion, desolation: ‘The Lovers’ by René Magritte.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

An ‘olio’, I believe, is a Spanish-origin stew of meats and vegetables spiced, if you please, with pepper, cloves, nutmeg and saffron. An ‘olio’ is also, as the book’s back cover helpfully tells you, a ‘miscellany’. Having thus established both an Indian connection through the spice route and a connection with the idea of ‘variety’, I settle down to reading with a comfortable sense of accomplishment.

Love and Lust is the fourth book from Aleph’s Olio series, which seeks to present a selection of the best writings on a selected theme, in order to “present India in ways that it has seldom been seen before”. The latter is a slightly over-ambitious claim, seeing that reading all of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is likely to be a vastly deeper dive into India than just one part of one chapter, but the idea behind the series is laudable. Like a master chef’s menu dégustation, the books in this series are a brief tasting exercise of a particular literary theme; in this case, love and lust.

Excellent travel read

Beautifully produced, black jacket embossed with the title in royal blue, with the first page of each piece set in reverse type, the size is perfect for a handbag, making it an excellent travel read in a lazy armchair in some hotel room overlooking oceans or green lawns or whatever people overlook when they are not reading a book for purposes of reviewing it.

‘Love and Lust’ review: Some morsels for your bookshelf

The pieces are mostly excellent, some indifferent, some a bit inexplicable. Following up Amrita Narayanan’s ‘Stolen’ with Ira Trivedi’s ‘Love Revolution’ is like pushing an aroused teenager into a cold shower. The former is a wildly, improbably erotic story that first appeared in A Pleasant Kind of Heavy, with three housemaids and their mistress in a state of constant arousal, while the latter is a long and dry piece about arranged marriages, strewn with statistics and case studies. Maybe the editors did it deliberately?

Another slightly strange inclusion is the extract from Jeet Thayil’s The Book of Chocolate Saints. One imagines it is there because of Goody and Xavier’s failing marriage, but it makes nary an impact as it washes over you in a dispirited, disconnected sort of way.

Fiery women, dry men

Nothing, however, takes away from the perfection of the book’s introduction: Imtiaz Dharker’s poem ‘Objects’. ‘Who needs as much as the naked breast? Lust is aroused by a wrist…’ The path from here to Manto’s ‘Bu’ (translated here as ‘Tang’ rather than ‘Smell’ or ‘Odour’) filled with the languor of a Bombay monsoon and the forbidden lust of rainy afternoons and wet armpits is a beautifully interconnected one.

On the way, we stop briefly to savour an extract from Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which too deals with forbidden love, in this case that most taboo of loves, that between a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy. It reminded me of my own adolescence when mother used to wail, ‘Marry anyone, anyone, but not a Muslim!’ And we used to wonder who else we could scare her with. Thieves? Pickpockets? Here, too, Lata’s mother moans, ‘Never, never, never…. Dirty, violent, cruel, lecherous.’ A litany that now resides unbidden in the nation’s psyche, too late perhaps to unlearn.

Rajinder Singh Bedi’s ‘Laajwanti’ (translated from Urdu by Muhammad Umar Memon) is one of the gems in this book. Set in a frontier village just after Partition, when India and Pakistan are returning the women abducted from both sides, it is the tender, sad love story of Sundar Lal and his abducted wife Laajwanti, of his endless wait, of her return, and of how she transforms in his eyes from Lajju to Lajju Devi.

The book’s strongest asset is its selection of women’s writings. Kamala Das, of course, with ‘A Little Kitten’, but also a magnificent K.R. Meera with ‘The Deepest Blue’ (translated from Malayalam by J. Devika), a rich and intimate depiction of a woman crazed with lust for an ascetic.

Meera’s prose is incandescent: ‘It throbbed in my chest and loins… Piercing, stabbing desire. Desire smouldering, like flecks of flame… I want to bear a child in my womb… The hermit’s sperm; the slut’s ovum. Renunciation and desire, in equal measure.’ Meera’s writing treats female desire in a way that is at once familiar and fierce.

Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, the men falter. Upamanyu Chatterjee’s ‘Desolation, Lust’ is a bit too self-consciously languid and aimless to please entirely; while Amitava Kumar’s ‘The Lovers’ is an all-too common retelling of young men and masturbation and their rather desperate letters to Dr. Watsa. There is no desire here or ardour, only dry men in dry places.

Two historical retellings also feature: Timeri N. Murari’s ‘Taj’ and Ira Mukhoty’s ‘Dildar Begum and a Marriage Proposal’, the former stilted and the latter intriguing, enlivened by details from real memoirs.

Inevitably, of course, tasting platters will have some luscious morsels and some bland and odd bits. What matters is that the book indeed does what it set out to do: it whets the appetite and it looks delicious.

vaishna.r@thehindu.co.in

Love and Lust; By various authors, Aleph Book Company, ₹399


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Printable version | Jun 18, 2021 6:19:54 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/some-morsels-for-your-bookshelf-love-and-lust-reviewed-by-vaishna-roy/article29407767.ece

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