Realism Books

The lightbulb moment: Debapriya Basu reviews Anjali Joseph’s ‘Keeping in Touch’

Anjali Joseph’s latest novel begins with the familiar premise of strangers meeting in an airport waiting lounge. It also involves a semi-magical lightbulb called the Everlasting Lucifer and references to Phiringoti Devi, the goddess of sparks. There is a connection. The masculine half of the would-be pair is a British “venture capitalist” of Indian origin called Ved Ved. According to the enthusiastic jacket blurb, Ved is “something of a toxic bachelor,” whose latest project is to oversee the production and marketing of the lightbulb. The manufacturing unit of this new challenger of the CFL and LED is in rural Upper Assam, and Ved is on his way to visit the plant.

The other half is Keteki, a smoulderingly beautiful (so it is said) freelance art curator from Guwahati, returning home from an exhibition in London. The novel tells the story of how, in spite of commitment issues on both sides, the lightbulb moment brings them together.

Local flavour

This hip and happening Bollywood formula, perfectly enjoyable in its own terms, is rendered impotent by Joseph’s narrative ambition. The novel seeks to break the pattern without breaking the mould. It is a strange hybrid, and not in a witty intertextual kind of way. It references global high culture at every turn in a bid for sophistication but remains decidedly adolescent in its philosophical moorings. In terms of scope, it weaves drunkenly across months, countries and continents, tossing the narrative all over the place in unfortunate mimicry of Keteki’s desperate flings into random male beds until she finds her Ved.

The scale of the story would be epic if it had a little more style. The reader struggles to keep up with what is going on with whom and when and where. It is also a challenge to keep track of the endless minor characters who parade across the narrative landscape without impact or consequence. If this is slice-of-life fiction one might as well crowd-watch a shopping mall.

There is, of course, the mandatory local flavour. Crisp lessons in the history of Assam are delivered by the locals, including Keteki’s eccentric and widely read uncle who holds the ancestral fort in Jorhat. Tribal unrest threatens to sabotage the Lucifer plant and government corruption casts sinister shadows on the dream of cheap, long-lasting illumination for the great Indian rural public. But Keteki finds her life’s purpose in transferring her curating talents to ethnic entrepreneurship and we have resolution in sight.

There is even some yoga, ashram life and Shankaracharya teachings thrown in for self-knowledge. Adding garnish to the proceedings is the inscrutable Tuku, who comes out of nowhere into Keteki’s family and vanishes into thin air, only to appear again transformed into a T-shirt wearing spiritual metaphor.

Aesthetic limbo

The book attempts The Calcutta Chromosome kind of magic realism but lacks the exuberance and erudition of Amitav Ghosh’s imagination. The real half of Keeping in Touch seems uneasy about the magic half, and the book hangs in a kind of aesthetic limbo. Exacerbating this is the problem of Keteki. She is whimsical or aloof or downright rude with her peers. She is so intent on being emotionally disentangled that it becomes difficult to see why people are regularly smitten by her. We hardly see the joy that supposedly defines Keteki, although the sadness that is said to also define her is very much present. Indeed, for all the globetrotting between London, Oxford, Bombay, Delhi and Guwahati, both our protagonists show us the world in grayscale. Could this be the result of trauma, or is it the ennui of privilege?

While Joseph is competent in a certain kind of fashionable articulation, the language of the book is too flat too often. Deadpan description coupled with deliberately jarring dialogue may be good technique in a screenplay, it does not necessarily work in a novel. And so, despite being full of self-conscious symbolism and thematic networking, the book remains curiously half formed. It seems to be a novel ardently waiting for the film contract to come and make it complete.

Keeping in Touch; Anjali Joseph, Context, ₹599

The reviewer is Assistant Professor, English, at IIT-Guwahati.

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2021 2:13:04 PM |

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