Friday, 10 February 2012
Book Review: “When Loss Is Gain” by Pavan K. Varma
Well-known non-fiction writer Pavan Varma has produced his first work of fiction which deals with important and interesting issues such as the meaning of life and the age-old human dilemma between enjoying life to its fullest and making sacrifices for the sake of spiritual and material gain. As one may expect, Varma’s prose is always elegant and beautiful, with dollops of fine verse in between, in the form of quotes from a range of poets and writers such as Kalidasa, Ghalib, Nida Fazli, Amir Khusro, Bulle Shah, Zauq (the poet and tutor of Bahadur Shah Zafar), Jagjit Singh, Basavanna etc.
The story itself is rather simple and relies on themes such as marital infidelity and desertion, which are as old as mankind. Anand is a lawyer working in a law firm run by Adi, his friend from college. Adi has everything, the right background, charm and money – and a young son, though Adi is divorced. Anand plays second fiddle to Adi and gets paid for it. Very shortly after the reader gets used to the relationship between Adi, Anand and Tanu, Varma rocks the boat. Anand and his wife Tanu are unhappy since they haven’t been able to have a child. Adi turns nasty, doesn’t give Anand his due, Tanu turns unsupportive and Anand rightly suspects Tanu of having an affair with Adi. When one thought things couldn’t get worse, Anand is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given just a few months to live. Tanu confesses to a dying Anand of her affair and tells him that she plans to marry Adi. It helps that Adi has a son from his first marriage.
Just as one starts to wonder how the story can go on for more than a few more pages, Varma jolts everything once more. It turns out that Anand did not have pancreatic cancer, it was something else, which can be cured with an operation. Anand gets a fresh lease of life and he goes off to Bhutan where he meets the beautiful and enigmatic Tara, a recluse from India, who is trying to become a Buddhist nun. After some desperate wooing and pursuit, Tara and Anand get hitched and turn to Delhi to lead a contended life.
Though I really enjoyed reading this novel, though the story skipped along lightly on the wings of Varma’s delightful writing and I read the 206-page book in a single sitting of around 3 hours, I didn’t like many things about the story. Some of my dislike stems from the fact that I like some amount of detailing and more importantly, hate it when the loose ends aren’t tied up. We are told that Anand is a lawyer whose clients ask him if their cases are likely to be successful. From this one may gather than Anand is a litigator, one who appears in court, rather than a corporate lawyer who drafts agreements for clients. However, not once do we see Anand go to court. Rather we are told that he spends all his time behind a desk. Yes, Varma does tell us that Anand does all the background work for Adi to steal his glory. However, even Adi doesn’t seem to spend much time in court. In any event, even the junior-most lawyer in a firm of litigating lawyers is bound to spend some time in court, seeking adjournments and making minor appearances. After Anand survives the cancer scare, he is offered a better job by a rival law firm, as a “Senior Vice President” in charge of International Clients. I’ve never heard of any law firm in Delhi or Mumbai or London or New York or anywhere else in the world which has such a designation. Law firms have Partners and below them are Associates. Varma is a career diplomat, but he holds a law degree. Even if he never practiced law, he could have made a couple of phone calls to any of his former law school classmates and done some basic research into how law firms are organised before writing this book. Did Varma think that because he was writing fiction (for the first time) he could dispense with research altogether?
There is no mention of any divorce proceeding, even after it is clear that Anand isn’t going to die. But when Anand goes to Bhutan, there seems to be no obstacle to pairing up with Tara in a simple Bhutanese ceremony.
We are told that Adi’s wife got custody of their son Arpit when Adi got divorced, but when Tanu has an affair with Adi, Arpit is conveniently brought back. In fact, the opportunity to be a mother to Arpit is one of the attractions for Tanu to marry Adi.
Anand had a tough childhood, with his father dying when he was eleven and his widowed mother struggling to put him through school and college. We are told his mother died just before he graduated, presumably with a law degree. In another place, we are told his mother died before Anand turned nineteen. In India, one doesn’t graduate with a law degree before the age of twenty two. Twenty three, if one gets the law degree as three-year second bachelors’. How can a writer with a law degree make such basic errors?
Despite, having had such a poor childhood and not really making it big as a lawyer, when Anand decides to stop working and live off his savings, there miraculously appears a property he had ‘bought as an investment, but never visited’. When the savings are tallied, there is enough for Adi to lead a simple, but comfortable life till his death. Of course, towards the end of the novel, after Anand marries Tara, he does accept a job which requires him to work four days a week, as a consultant, at twice the salary he got from Adi. I do wish Varma had explained where one can get such a job in Delhi or elsewhere in India. I personally know of atleast a couple of hundred lawyers who would jump at the chance!
The tables are stacked in favour of Anand from Page one. Adi is built up to be an ogre, a man who has to be disliked by every reader. Tanu too is shown to be insensitive and there is an air of comeuppance when at the fag-end of the novel Tanu makes a re-entry, having paid for all her sins. Adi too comes to a nasty end. Everything comes easily to Anand once he has decided to change his rules for living and enjoying life. One morning while pottering around Humayun’s tomb, he runs into the Bhutanese ambassador Kinley Namgyel (incidentally one Major General Vestop Namgyel happens to be the Bhutanese ambassador to India) who suggests that he take a holiday in Bhutan. For good measure, the ambassador, playing the role of ambassador to the extreme, takes Anand’s card and fixes for Anand to stay with the ambassador’s niece Chimi who has one of the oldest traditional homes in Bhutan, at a place called Wangsisina, which she runs as a guesthouse. Chimi is conveniently divorced and pretty and plays the perfect host, trying her best to cheer up Anand, taking him to town to party and sleeping with him for one night only, after which they become very good friends, agree they are not in love and Anand is left free to pursue Tara.
All of this brings me to an interesting question. Is a fiction writer entitled to play fast and loose with facts and reality in order to convey a particular point or to push an agenda? I should think No. In any event, When Loss is Gain did not convince me to quit my job and live off my savings for the rest of my life or at least try and get a job which pays less but has more comfortable working hours.
Let me not go on in this vein, this book doesn’t deserve it. One of the best things about When Loss is Gain is how Anand wins over Tara. In this game, Anand doesn’t have it easy and he is forced to fight very hard. There is melodrama and some stereotypical mating moves – Tara actually loves Anand but she is so determined to become a nun that she pretends otherwise - but on the whole, Varma does this bit pretty well. Particularly good are the dialogues between Anand and Tara debating the meaning of life, whether it makes sense to enjoy life or if a Spartan life of penance and suffering is more worthwhile. Also excellently written is the explanation (which may not make sense if examined by a nitpicker like me) as to how the doctors who diagnosed Anand with terminal cancer got it so wrong – no, they did not mix up reports, it is a much more nuanced explanation. Please do read this book to find out for yourselves.