THIS IS A FIRST NOVEL WHICH RECENTLY WON the Crossword Book Award, India’s biggest prize for fiction. Essentially, it is a tragic coming of age story; after the death of his parents, a naive bookish young man leaves modern day Calcutta for Cambridge University and then eventually for London where he comes to a bad end. What makes this all a bit more interesting is that our young hero, Ritwik, is not only homosexual but quickly develops a taste for sex with strangers in public toilets. He likes the danger, supposedly, ‘the adrenaline rush as he steps down the wet stairs to the underworld.’
Being the gentle intellectual he is, Ritwik has moments when he wonders why he is driven to spend hours spying from his toilet cubicle instead of being at home reading Prometheus Unbound. While the novel may shy away from describing the origin and growth of Ritwik’s sexuality, a strong connection is made between the character’s taste for risky sex and the figure of his dominating mother. She was a bit tough on him it seems, she used to kick and punch him, beat him up with various cooking implements and one time she ‘lifted him clean off the floor and flung him, as one would a rag doll or a bag of rubbish, to one corner of the room… then threw him again in the opposite direction.’
Significantly, the book begins with Ritwik performing the Hindu ritual of mukhagni on his mother, the fire to face cleansing ritual, which he had refused to perform on his father. Even after her death she follows him to Cambridge, her ghost appearing in his student room, muttering obscene threats. The past cannot be escaped by getting on an airplane. Lost between two cultures, the book attempts to explore the relationship between desire and shame and the purifying dream of violence. This is interesting territory, more than is found between the pages of many new novels, but A Life Apart has bigger ambitions.
Poor Ritwik in his loneliness has taken to writing a novel about a woman called Miss Gilby who we are told is a side character in a story by the father-figure of Bengali literature, Rabindranath Tagore. Ritwik’s attempt to assimilate himself into British culture is counterpoised by the story of this Miss Gilby and her growth to political consciousness in the events leading up to the British partition of Raj Bengal in the early 1900s. Placing these two narratives side by side leaves the reader vainly trying to make a comparison between them, between Ritwik sucking dick in a Cambridge toilet and Miss Gilby coming to terms with the notion of atmaski or the revolutionary boycott of English goods. Both characters seem to reach some kind of cathartic insight at the hands of a violent gang.
Ritwik moves down to London to take care of an elderly woman in exchange for a free room. Money becomes the obsession now. He realises he can earn some cash from his guilty desires and starts to pimp himself on ‘Meat Mile’ behind King’s Cross. Of course, he is beaten up, nearly raped and threatened with a splash of acid in the face in a scene which takes us back to the mukhagni ritual again, and the ‘branding’ of his mother’s face with a ‘burning faggot.’ Broke, and an illegal now that his visa has expired, Ritwik enters the world of the black market, the paperless refugees. He waits at dawn with the shadow people for the trucks to take them to work on building sites and the industrial farms beyond the city. London is an infernal machine powered by this secret exploitative economy in case you didn’t know. However, before we get too deep, Ritwik needs a rest—his body can’t take the physical labour—and so out he goes pimping again and, as luck would have it, he runs into a wealthy Arab, Zafar. Poor Ritwik, he can’t enjoy his good fortune until he figures out why the mysterious and protective Zafar thinks only of his own brief pleasure and what the man actually does for a living, where the filthy lucre comes from. The answer to this question is what propels Ritwik on one last excursion into the dark rituals of King’s Cross.
Mukherjee is nervous of letting the action speak for itself. The sex trade, oil money, the arms trade, the plight of refugees, child abuse in different cultures, a history of Pakistani corner shops, the Raj, colonial education, climate change—the novel is cluttered with short bland lectures on these and many other topical issues. In one way, these nicely reasonable expositions function like little snacks of fact and information to feed the reader a sense of satisfaction. In another way, they act as a disguise, an awkward concealment of the real story of Ritwik behind a display of pseudo-learning.
The story of Ritwik may have been meant to be his journey to a higher political consciousness, and to take the reader along with him. The problem is the character of Ritwik is sacrificed to the author’s self-conscious theorising. The writing never rises above shallow and mildly poetic descriptions of the character’s bloodless anxieties as he drifts pathetically towards his unnecessary doom. Ritwik is merely an empty cipher to allow the writer to display his moral concern for the social issues of the day —which would be fine if the author had anything new to say about them. The simple story of a guilt-ridden young man failing to escape from the poverty and violence of the past is badly dolled up in a lot of feel-good moralising which the author, a London-based literary critic, might have lifted straight from the pages of the Guardian or the Telegraph on a good day.