An Unreliable Ennui

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Pavan K Varma’s debut novel explores some grand themes but fails to enchant, says Tridip Suhrud

Escape into life Pavan K Varma
Escape into life: Pavan K Varma, Photo: Shailendra Pandey

PAVAN VARMA, best known for his work on Mirza Ghalib and the Indian middle class, has sought in his first novel to explore large questions: what do humans do when faced with the possibility of imminent death, and how do we treat the gift that is life? The story is simple: Anand, middle-aged, successful, but not really so, seeks escape in work and alcohol from a marriage bereft of love and desire, a marriage in which even the habit of being with each other gives no comfort. His state is best described as that of prolonged ennui, from which neither the craft of law nor the consuming dislike for his best friend and employer Advaita provides an escape. A possibility of imminent death and the termination of his loveless marriage to Tanu force him into an internal crisis. He comes face-to-face with Buddhism in the form of Bhutan; his hostess Chimmi, who reawakens in him both friendship and desire; and Tara, who comes to embody desire and a return to life and its possibilities of joy.

The novel moves between Delhi, with its ennui, and Bhutan, with its verdant forests, deep, gushing rivers and misty mountains, that are alive with life. The novel seeks to create a dialogue not only between the loneliness of the metropolis and the solitude of mountains, but a deeper one between Hindu and Buddhist thought. No other Indic religion understands dukkha, pain, loss and suffering as deeply as Buddhism does. Varma suggests that this enables Buddhism to provide succour, to heal, to restore one to life and its ananda and joys.

When Loss Is Gain  Pavan K Varma  Rupa  208 pp; Rs 395
When Loss Is Gain Pavan K Varma Rupa 208 pp; Rs 395

It is potentially a grand theme. But Varma’s characters lack the necessary depth to fulfil this expectation. Anand broods. His brooding does not have philosophical depth, but like his life before the death sentence, has utter weariness and discontent. He does not know what to do with a life that has no future, where past ceases to matter and the present is a continuous tense.

And yet, there are parts where the novel rises above the limitations of its character. Ghalib, Amir Khusrau and Bulleh Shah inhabit its pages, as do the monuments of Delhi. The author invokes Drupa Kunley, the Divine Madman of the mountains. His craft as a novelist becomes apparent in these sections. He is alive to the possibilities of these mystical, historical figures, but not to the limitations of his protagonist to be equal to the dialectics that are laid before him.

Perhaps the most memorable character is the ever-so-fleeting presence of Chimmi, who, like the mountains that she loves, is both distant and yet available, present and yet demanding that one seek her out. She, more than Tara, harmonises Anand’s quest. Varma’s prose is clear, unencumbered either by poetry that he so obviously cherishes or the philosophical encounter that he posits. And yet, the novel does not enchant. The lack of enchantment is not due to the play between ennui and meaning; it is in the character of his protagonist. Anand lacks in depth —philosophical and experiential. Not that his quest, longing and eventual self-discovery are implausible. They are entirely plausible. It is the believability of his quest and his journey that makes for the absence of enchantment.

Suhrud is an Ahmedabad-based social scientist

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