(By Yashraj Goswami)
In the epigraph of one of his most popular works, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain forewarns the reader: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” I daresay this could have easily been the epigraph of Manish Gaekwad’s debut novel, Lean Days. Don’t be alarmed just yet. This is not to say that there is indeed no motive or plot in the book; instead, to say that you should not pick up this book if these are your only demands. Lean Days breaks past the constraints of plot and character, and yet it gives you that one thing a perceptive reader most ardently desires from a work of art: sublime experience. Manish’s masterful narrative ensures that you don’t feel short-changed even for a moment as you partake in his journey to places scattered along the length and breadth of the Indian Subcontinent.
The opening account is set in Madras (present-day Chennai) where we find the unnamed narrator sitting in a coffee-shop, watching, examining, and desiring. This is what the narrator does for the most part of the book. The peripatetic narrator is an artist, a voyeur (is there ever a solid line between them?). Though an artist, the narrator never assumes false airs of superiority. He is poetic, philosophical, philandering, and mostly irreverent. The narrative is interlaced with lucid and profound reflections spawned by all the gazing and also the ‘gay-zing’. Do not be fooled by the blurb into looking for a coherent narrative arc. The book reads like a recounting of the various disjointed experiences the narrator has had while travelling through the Indian landscape. Each chapter is dedicated to a destination and is named thus. However, the book is not a travelogue, because the destination never seems to be the object of exploration or pursuit. Everything happens in the service of writing. It happens only so that it can be written.
Unlike some of the recent novels which claim to tell the real story of India to Indians, but in fact target the readers with only a New York Times vision of India, Manish’s book shamelessly speaks to the Indian in every reader. Words and phrases like dibiya (a word whose lack of English equivalent I’ve always bemoaned), Mehfil-khana, Proust-wala moment, Lucknow-nawazi are freely used without a care. You feel the urge to hold on to something to steady yourself as Manish’s sentences eddy on the pages and through your mind. But if you do hold on, you will be lavishly rewarded with acuity and beauty.
“Men, outward and overtly heterosexual in their skin– chugging testosterone beer, thumping hirsute fists on table, ho-ho hooting, have, at the slight touch of a woman’s cold palm on their wrist been pacified, akin to being guided into a prostitute’s chamber. If such a dim-eyed man was to be flung flat on a bed, the pleasurable weight of another body sitting astride his hips, slitting his throat– honeyed music would flow from his Adam’s apple, a sweet cadence of exquisite pain. Those men in the throes of angina, wade in the bloodied pool of their Rubicon. Game clenched, hunter in a heart-stopping haze. That is the art of seduction.”
“Sheeba is the swallow that does not leave an open cage. She nestles there, making it home. I should think of her to leave a trail of her faint presence– her wet footprints on the floor vaporizing into the scent of a crushed flower-bud– a fragrance so askew that once should have to rub a nose in the arc of her foot to trace a source; the sweat of her palms fogs brass figurines with a grease of lemon sour scent, her breath perfumes the room across which she hews and heaves, whispers slip into corners, cushioned in delicate, half-spun cobwebs. She slips out before time.”
Not a conventional novel, not a travelogue, and yet laced with personal experience — is it a memoir then? No, for it does not seem fictional. Lean Days may fall in the zone of Auto-fiction: the genre where the writer and the narrator can easily swap places and not much will change. In other words, the narrator is not Manish Gaekwad, but if you were forced to choose a name for him, it would be Manish Gaekwad. Writers like Amit Chaudhuri, Jerry Pinto, Yashodhara Lal have also dabbled in this genre of late. But none of these have put a gay man at the heart of their narratives. Manish does that and boy he does it with such panache.
The book will force you to brush up your French, Urdu, and even English for the ingeniousness of the usage. Manish’s style is verbose, yet you can clearly see imprints of Impressionistic French writers that the narrator claims only to have pretended to read when he was young. The book is admittedly difficult to like, but easy to love. It is, like its narrator, queer. It will take many more books to completely fill the void of LGBTQ representation in Indian Literature. But in that direction, this book is a welcome step. I shall look forward to reading Manish’s next.
(Yashraj Goswami is a writer and teacher. He is working on his first novel.)