The Pleasure Seekers

By TISHANI DOSHI

Accordingto the Jain religion, the body has five thieves: affection, love, desire,pride, and greed. You might be wondering how you could reasonably protectyourself against the first three without becoming a friendless hermit. Membersof the Patel-Jones family—whose multigenerational stories drive Tishani Doshi’scongenial first novel—share to varying degrees that very same concern. 

The Pleasure Seekers primary pleasure seekers are Babo Patel and SiânJones, who meet in London, in 1968. Their overpowering love upsets their mindsand disturbs their bodies. It causes Babo, a young Indian man, to begin eatingmeat and drinking alcohol, both prohibited by his Jain beliefs. It causes Siân,a young Welsh woman, to abandon her life and follow Babo to Madras, India. Itgives nothing away to say that the pair lives happily ever after, body-thievesbe damned, for this is a novel that privileges characters over plot. Theirlives are seen in a succession of snapshots, quick scenes selected from roughly30 years of material in which tragedies aren’t terribly tragic and the everydayis mostly OK.

Babo and Siân sire twodaughters, Mayuri and Beena, known as Bean. Their shared childhood— related,for better and worse, in unfiltered detail—dominates the book. The “hybrid”family lives near Babo’s parents, ambitious Prem Kumar  and uneducated Trishala; his fat,interchangeable sisters; and his bachelor brother, Chotu, an unfulfilled seekerafter lasting happiness. Sometimes they all visit Babo’s grandmother, Ba, whocan smell people from miles away and whose aphorisms inevitably prove right.

Doshi roots her castmembers in time by linking major events in their lives to major events inIndian history, a conceit that unintentionally trivializes the former. Babo goesto study in England as the Soviets invade the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic,for example, while another character begins suffering the initial pangs ofbreast cancer on the day Indira Gandhi is assassinated via shots to the torso.Salman Rushdie employs this technique too, of course, but his larger-than-lifecharacters are better able to withstand the political and cultural shifts towhich they’ve been lashed and are meant to allegorize.

Doshidisplays more originality in her language than in her symbolism. Anaward-winning poet, as a novelist she demonstrates a winning facility withsimiles. An upset Babo has eyes “like a watercolour version of their usualmetallic grey.” Overcrowded Madras resembles “an adult man insistingon wearing small-boy shorts.” At moments of high emotional drama, theresulting images make an impact, as when, dying, a character takes off “allthe garments of illusion and strap[s] on a girdle of wind.” But for thestrongest of emotions, Doshi offers less exalted metaphors: conflicted about change, Babo longs to return to hisearly days with Siân, with “[n]othing but the single thread of lovebetween them, which had always been enough, more than enough.”

Such feeling, Doshiimplies and Bean believes to the point of rashness, is worth any amount ofdisturbance. Pleasure, in contrast, has milder effects but appears less rarely:in a hug from a great-grandmother, the comfort of ritual, afternoon chats withold friends. This novel gives pleasure as well; although it might not stay withyou forever, at its best The PleasureSeekers helps renew your faith in what affection, love, and desire can do.

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