Book Review: The Lovers by Amitava Kumar

Book Name: The Lovers

Author: Amitava Kumar

Publisher: Aleph

Rating: 5/5

Book Blurb: The Lovers is about a man in search of a love story. This man, our narrator, is Kailash—a new immigrant, eager to shine. His friends teasingly call him Kalashnikov and sometimes AK-47, even AK. In his account of his years at a university in New York, AK takes us through the bittersweet arc of youth and love. There is discovery and disappointment. There are the brilliant women, Jennifer and Nina and Cai Yan. There is the political texture of campus life and the charismatic professor overseeing these young men and women, Ehsaan Ali (modelled on the real-life Eqbal Ahmad). Manifest in AK’s first years and first loves is the wild enthusiasm of youth, its idealism, chaotic desires and confusions.
A decidedly modern novel that melds story and reportage, anecdote and annotation, picture and text, fragment and essay, The Lovers reminds us of the works of John Berger and Teju Cole. Funny, meditative and shot through with waves of longing, the book explores feelings of discomfort about cultural misunderstandings and the lack of clarity between men and women. At heart though, it is an investigation of love—‘love despite, or in spite of; love beyond and across dividing lines’.

Book Review: I had read a few works by Amitava and to put it bluntly, had found them boring and dull. So I didn’t really have high expectations from The Lovers and the cover didn’t exactly raise my hopes either.  The Lovers has however managed to win me over and I can proudly claim to be an ardent Amitava fan.

The book is a detailed caricature of an immigrant, Kailas who is working on a research project. The first chapter is over sexualized but it is quite normal as nearly all Indian men are sex starved, well, at least not in the metro cities anymore but Amitava is writing about somebody from a small town in Bihar. The protagonist meets a girl Jennifer and falls in love. It is more of a sexual relationship but there is a definite undertone of love that strongly rings out. Like any typical commitment phobic adult at his age, he wants to keep the relationship secret and merely sends a postcard home to a friend saying, “I have eaten cherry.”

The immigrant’s dilemma-as it were to experience some semblance of a sense of belonging, or maybe some sort of validation has been widely documented in many works before but Amitava looks at it from a lover’s point of view. How do you offer hope in an inter-racial relationship when you are not sure if you would be willing to settle in a foreign land? So while the protagonist dreams of a future with his love, he is unsure if he can pull it through.

“I was overcome by a feeling that took root then and has never left me, the feeling that in this place that was someone else’s country, I did not have a place to stand.”

The first relationship ends abruptly because of an unplanned pregnancy. The ending is subtle and in contrast to the earlier whirlwind romance. No explanations are offered however.

“I knew that it wasn’t anything I had said, but instead everything that I had left unsaid.”

The second girl Nina seems like a perfect lover. At least to me, she does. She isn’t demanding and offers solace when he is sick but the relationship is meant to fail. All good love affairs are failed love affairs.

The exile question is tackled in an indirect manner in this novel. Through Ehsaan, the teacher and his works, we find frequent references to the exile question. There are references to the Iraq war and Kissinger. In between classes and teaching assistantship, he finds time for love but is inexperienced in matters of physical intimacy. He turns to help but is disappointed in sex advice that is doled out in the form of articles in magazines. Why is it that it is so difficult to love someone who loves you unconditionally?

Kailash falls in love multiple times but is not able to enjoy a fulfilling relationship, one that can be lasting but it is through his failed relationships that he finds his own love story. The ending is as subtle and abrupt as the beginning which is quite apt since life isn’t all hunky dory as anybody who has loved somebody deeply (and failed) would know.

Amitava has given this book a weird structure and it is difficult to place it in a strict fiction or non-fiction rigid boundary. It is claimed as fiction but it reads like a non-fiction book and a common writer would not be able to pull this off so brilliantly.

So what do I criticise Amitava for? There is very little to criticise here honestly. I cannot criticise the grammar or the text. I cannot even criticise the theme or the structure, I dare not! It works so well for this novel. Oh, I hope The Lovers gets some awards and he can earn a living solely on the basis of this work. He deserves it.

Well, I hate the cover. That is the only thing I don’t like about this book. Amitava should stop doing whatever he is doing with his life and write. The world needs it. I need it. Each one of us reviewers currently bogged down with half baked ideas being marketed as novels deserves an occasional Amitava Kumar to reaffirm his trust in great literature.

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