Book: The Alchemy of Desire

the alchemy of desire, tarun tejpal

I’ve just finished this book.  I bought it, I believe, in Rishikesh.  But I’m not sure…  there’s a small chance I bought it in Kerala.  Hence the querying post-it on the cover.  Above is the Indian edition; the North American cover looks like this:

A little more hip?  A little more “hot international trade paperback that will make me look cultured and cool when I’m reading it on the bus”?  Perhaps.  I can envision this cover sitting on the “New, Hot Fiction!” table at Chapters.  My copy, however, was most likely purchased at a bookstore in Rishikesh, in early June, while I was on my last trip through India before returning to Canada.  I was with some of my closest friends, and life had never been better.  A quick ballpoint pen drawing from my notebook:

a quick drawing from a pivotal notebook

The reason I doubt that I bought the book in Rishikesh is that it was marked with a bookmark from a store I visited in Kerala, Idiom Books.








The goddess on the front is Saraswati, Hindu goddess of knowledge, music and the arts, and the consort of Brahma.  I think it’s a delightful bookmark – the goddess accompanies you through the pages, turning her wise gaze on you each time you begin or end your reading.  She’s a private witness to what you might be learning, how the pages are changing you.

Idiom was an equally delightful bookstore.  I found it while wandering the alleys of Cochin in the early evening, a nondescript entryway but an absolute treasurehouse within.  Books!  It was always difficult to find books in India.  We teachers would bring them back to the mountain after the holidays, as precious as our few hoarded bottles of wine and shared with as much reverence.  Idiom had a remarkably good selection, and was a shop of great individuality.  It didn’t fall into the mysterious mustiness and over-stocked disarray of the ubiquitous Indian curio store, but also avoided the fluorescent Western-imitation style.  Idiom’s stock had clearly been selected with a literary eye, and I found European classics alongside obscure Indian titles never published in North America.  I purchased a number of books there…  But “The Alchemy of Desire” was not one of them.

Which brings me back, after that long tangent, to the book I’ve just finished reading!  I loved it, but it’s hard to separate how much was the objective quality of the book (is it even possible to measure such a thing?) and how much was my own response.  The book is set in India, largely in a remote hill station.  The descriptions of travelling up from the stifling heat of the plains into the misty, ethereal reaches of the hill station brought me rocketing back to my days in Kodaikanal, and I spent all 518 pages in a state of nostalgic delirium.

It’s a sprawling book, disconnected, hopping back and forth throughout time, exploring the desires of a disparate cast of characters and the desires of a nation.  I wouldn’t give it a Midnight’s Children sort of status, but it did reach across decades, castes, states, and show some of the soul of India.  And of course, it was deeply sexual.  I was reminded of a favourite book that I recently re-read:  The Venetian’s Wife, by Nick Bantock.  That book also delves into the powerful eroticism of Indian mythology and tradition – the sensuality of the art, scenes of voluptuous gods and goddesses, incense and transgression, ritual and quick passion.  Desire.  The Alchemy of Desire pursues the interplay of sex and love through their blossoming, transformation and death.  From irrepressible just-kindled flame, through all-consuming obsession, slow poison, agonizing decline… Tejpal writes about the lack of desire, its devastating illogic, its capricious comings and goings.  But he also celebrates the gift of desire, and its ties to divinity.

“John wrote, All desire and all love are legitimate.  You do not have to desire for a hundred years or love for a hundred for it to be true.  The love of a fleeting moment, the desire of an instant, is as legitimate and true as that of three score and ten years.  Let no one tell you different.  In the moment you are touched by love or desire you are touched by the divine.  In my life I have been so blessed, again and again; and there is no greater blessing I would seek for you, my daughter.  The apocalypse will not come, or it will, but before that we shall have here itself our paradise.  It is only assured to those with the capacity for desire and the gift of love.” (p. 334)

So, a journey.  A 518 page journey through India, my own nostalgia, and the corridors of desire.  What to read next?

Note: I realize that this post has been a collection of tangents, but that’s one of my favourite things about objects: their power to conjure up the stories associated with them.  Just one of the reasons I’ll always like paper books better than e-books.


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