“An honorable human relationship—that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’—is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other,” wrote American poet and essayist Adrienne Rich.
The publicity material for Anjali Joseph’s subtle, sophisticated fourth novel says her story is about “a long-distance relationship” between a woman who can’t commit and a man who won’t, but Joseph’s own description of it in an interview as a “love story of sorts” is more fitting. This is not an easy, enveloping romance—it is prickly, uncomfortable. It is the delicate and terrifying process that Rich is referring to.
By the end, the protagonists, Ved and Keteki, are still circling each other, like weary hawks, as they have for most of the book, with one occasionally charging in, only to find the other pulling away, in a process that is as inexplicable to the reader as it probably is to the character. But they are still transformed by their powerful feelings for each other, that persist despite fear, avoidance, and emotional difficulty.
Keteki is from Assam, a freelancer in the art world. Ved is of Indian origin, but from the United Kingdom—he works, for much of the novel, as a venture capitalist. They meet in that most liminal of all spaces—an airport, and their lives begin to intersect, with Ved in pursuit of an affectionate but detached Keteki, only to turn away when she feels ready to turn towards him.
Joseph’s other description of her book involved the hope that “it’ll have its funny moments.” In this, she is successful; the story is wickedly funny in many places.
In one memorable instance, while Keteki is sexting Ved, real life intervenes in incongruous ways, disrupting the imagined intimacy that must be conjured up to sustain long-distance desire: “She’d been standing next to a vegetable stall on the edge of the market, typing something about how she was going down on Ved and sucking his hard cock when she’d looked down to see a goat munching cabbage leaves near her foot.”
One imagines that Joseph named her second protagonist, Ved Ved (that is his full name), with the same tongue-in-cheek humour. Ved is absolutely unable to handle his strong and quick attachment to Keteki, but mostly makes a go of being consistent in registering his serious interest in making a life with her.
In this he wavers a few times, and spectacularly. Ved ultimately ends up, like Joseph, living in Guwahati and learning Assamese. He’s at his annoying worst when telling an ex-classmate and lover—a woman—to “calm down” and not be “aggressive.” But he often finds and grapples with great moments of vulnerability when in the throes of his feelings for Keteki.
There’s a tremendous sense of place here, though not in the ways that seek to pin one place down. Joseph is clearly fascinated by the folk tales and cultural history of Assam, but equally conjures up mythic time in a memorable chapter in rural England, where an Irish musician declaims about the significance of folk music, and the world shifts and changes around Keteki as she talks to at least four different characters who appear only once in the novel.
Joseph is particularly good at evoking these visceral experiences, of being displaced from one’s own context and thrown into another, of meeting other people in other places, and of the life crackling in those fleeting encounters that animates the spirit. She does this in unassuming, clear prose: “‘Momos! Cried everyone. The glistening dumplings were filled with pork and onion. Ved ate one, and became aware that he’d drunk a lot on an empty stomach.”
Joseph is equally capable of lush, gorgeous visions that strike the reader suddenly, arresting, like the sight of ordinary beauty. After Keteki returns from being with a lover whom she loves but isn’t in love with, the reader experiences the golden morning with her: “The light was like nowhere else, as though filtered: an illustration of what light meant.”
The novel is at its most successful and moving when probing the foundation of the relationship between Keteki and Ved—their own relationships with themselves. Keteki, abandoned by wilful parents as a child and sent away to boarding school, a survivor of sexual abuse by an uncle, moves inwards by slow degrees.
Ved, too, learns to confront himself—and in moments of intimacy with Keteki is struck by the grief that facing oneself for the first time can bring. After cuddling with Keteki, he feels “… a blurring of despair at the idea of the person he might have been, cuddled into slumber from babyhood.”
Joseph is not the kind of writer who moves from one page of escalating action to another. Her writing illuminates the mundane and mysterious pace of life, the long and slow parts before major transformations that propel characters into greater self-awareness, or awareness of the world. As a storyteller this is as close to realism as she can get, and yet the lightest touch of the speculative animates the narrative.
It comes in the form of the patron goddess of the romance between Keteki and Ved—Phiringoti Devi, or the Goddess of Sparks, worshipped at the factory which makes Everlasting Lucifer, a bulb in which Ved’s company is investing. It is in places like this that Joseph’s Assam comes alive, rather in the long swathes of dialogue in which Ved is introduced to Assam when he is a visitor. Any place, especially one as old as Assam, defies easy explanations. In a conversation with Joy Mama, her uncle, Keteki says as much. It is elsewhere—in the quality of light, stories about the goddesses’ influence, or in the presence of a furry orange cat in an old house – that the story becomes quietly vivid.
Keteki and Ved can be frustrating for the reader for the ways in which they emerge from and retreat into their shells. But they don’t exist to be liked or cheered on. They will be viscerally understood by most people who have done the terrifying thing despite themselves, and fallen in love.
Shreya Ila Anasuya is a writer and researcher based in Kolkata.