Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Mandalas of the 2000s - Chatterjee's Weight Loss


I add here some lines as an afterthough to my notes on Pearl S. Buck's Mandala, although there is not enough time to write about this complex novel properly.

Upamanyu Chatterjee (b.1959) is an established Bengali novelist, who has recently made an international breakthrough with his latest, Weight Loss (2006). When I found this novel, I was overjoyed by the prospect of reading something raw, crude and politically incorrect about Indians' private lives. The little voyeurist in me was expecting more than the cultural anthropologist, who prefers to listen to gossip about servants, updates on marriage arrangements and such everyday chitchat.

Weight Loss didn't betray me, the novel really hit me in the face and challenged my stereotypes about Indians. But I had to force myself through it, it was a truly disturbing book that did not offer any occasions for simple enjoyment, breathing out, or relief. The novel is a walking crisis, a portrait of inner and outer chaos, a constellation of chapters on the verge of breakdown. It is one of the un-sexiest book on sexuality I've ever come across. The meaning is not to titillate, but to tell stories of obsession and compulsion.

The novel follows the youth and adulthood of Bhola, a bisexual middle-class college teacher, whose life is revolving around a servant couple, Moti and Titli, who both become his lovers at different stages. Bhola can only act sexually in the presence of people of lower class/caste; his marriage is doomed, as he cannot be aroused by his wife. He makes life choices arrording to the moves of the couple, finding himself eventually at a New Age Calm Centre, where the couple is working and where people are trying to get rid of their masturbation habits by drawing mandalas:

"You will create and colour you own wheel and make it evolve into a many-tinted pictogram that will depict exactly where you are focussing your time and energy and where you might need to pay more attention. It will help you identify imbalances in your daily life. Do you spend too much time fantasizing? Masturbating? Remember that none of your activities metaphysically is more wasteful." (Chatterjee 2006, 402)

The novel is most successful in portraying the immense gaps in the lives of the rich and poor in India; illiterate servants do work at health retreats charging astronomical sums from Western tourists. Their living conditions do not give them the luxury of a search for "inner life" that the brochures are advertising. I have always been excited and appalled at these new non-material ways of making a living - Chatterjee does a good job by portraying the absurdities of the spiritual marketplace. One is not in the mood for any kind of Dream Yoga meditation, sufi whirling or herbalism after reading this.

If this is a novel about male mid-life crisis, it is definitely different from many Finnish or European ones I've come across. Chatterjee does not invite to identify with any of the characters, but portrays all of them pitilessly, under brightest fluorescent lights. Bhola is fully aware that he is wasting his life, but does not make any efforts to come out of his condition. His best friends are bingeing on drugs, he is bingeing on his sexual compulsions, and every day rolls on accrodingly until the objects of desire start making claims from him.

The point of Weight Loss is not to like it or dislike it, but to put up with some aspects of the world he is narrating. It is an absurd exaggeration of transgressive love lives, not asking from the reader to approve or disapprove them. It does not make moral judgments for or against. Some aspects of the tale are part of our everyday realities across cultures - the story could also be told from a Nordic point of view, in which the gap between the haves and the have-nots might not be as crude, but still it would exist. Chatterjee makes us ask questions about class, status, wealth and sexuality, not only in India, but in any society. The answers very rarely are easy, and not all comedy makes us laugh out loud. There are also other emotional categories than empathy/sympathy. Sometimes ambivalence is the only answer.

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