Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Guru of Love

With The Love Guru has taken over over search engine rankings, Samrat Upadhyay 's The Guru of Love manages to pull up only a couple of matches on page one. Clearly Guru Maurice Pitka is drowning his meeker Nepali counterpart Ramchandra - the hero of Upadhyay's book. Ironically, the online search fate of this book matches if off-line one when you consider the quality of Upadhyay's work compared to that of other sub-continental writers in the context of fame and recognition it has brought them.

As I read The Guru of Love I could not help remembering Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss and of course the Booker that came in its wake. For any sub-continental readers there are many parallels between Darjeeling (Desai) and Kathmandu (
Upadhyay ) where these stories are set. The pace at which the plot unfolds is comparable as well. Both are good story-tellers with a lucid prose style. What Pankaj Mishra says of Desai's book can apply almost verbatim to Upadhyay's :

"The Inheritance of Loss" may strike many readers as offering an unrelentingly bitter view. But then, as Orhan Pamuk wrote soon after 9/11, people in the West are "scarcely aware of this overwhelming feeling of humiliation that is experienced by most of the world's population," which "neither magical realistic novels that endow poverty and foolishness with charm nor the exoticism of popular travel literature manages to fathom." This is the invisible emotional reality Desai uncovers as she describes the lives of people fated to experience modern life as a continuous affront to their notions of order, dignity and justice. We do not need to agree with this vision in order to marvel at Desai's artistic power in expressing it.

The difference is that unlike Desai's Biju,
Upadhyay's Ramchandra is not fundamentally (and unrelentingly) bitter. Instead, his ability to dream a silver lining around his miserable existence is what leads him into an extra-marital affair with his twenty one year old math student, Malati. He seems to believe that he can keep his two worlds from colliding. His wife does the unthinkable, when she brings in Malati to live in their apartment and leaves her bedroom to her husband and his lover. The characters suffer from the dichotomy between their desires, social mores and political upheaval around them.

While there is enough in and around their lives to be bitter about,
Upadhyay's characters are like so many drops of water on a lily pad of circumstance. They seem to have an inner strength that allows they to stay true to their individuality and follow their heart amid life situations that test them beyond break point. In The Guru of Love, Upadhyay takes the mundane and often dreary to create a charming story. As a reader you are pleasant surprised by the what he is able to make out of the humble ingredients that go into it.

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