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In turn-of-the-millennium India, a penniless would-be writer halts work on his novel only to feed his ceaseless desire for his beautiful wife. Then a chance occurrence moves the lovers to a sprawling old house in a mist-shrouded spur of the lower Himalayas, where a set of diaries written by a glamorous American adventuress is uncovered during renovations. Her words irresistibly draw the writer away from his beloved, thrusting him through the hole of history into another world and time, revealing dark secrets and ...
In turn-of-the-millennium India, a penniless would-be writer halts work on his novel only to feed his ceaseless desire for his beautiful wife. Then a chance occurrence moves the lovers to a sprawling old house in a mist-shrouded spur of the lower Himalayas, where a set of diaries written by a glamorous American adventuress is uncovered during renovations. Her words irresistibly draw the writer away from his beloved, thrusting him through the hole of history into another world and time, revealing dark secrets and overturning all certainties.
Inventive, playful, heartbreaking, brimming with ideas and memorable characters, The Alchemy of Desire is a major literary work by one of the most significant new voices of a generation.
A Morning Chill
Love is not the greatest glue between two people. Sex is.
The laws of school physics will tell you it is more diffcult to prise apart two bodies joined at the middle than those connected anywhere near the top or the bottom.
I was still madly in love with her when I left her but the desire had died, and not all the years of sharing and caring and discovering and journeying could keep me from fleeing.
Perhaps I recall it wrong.
Strictly speaking I did not leave. Fizz did.
But the truth is she did--as always--what I wanted her to, what I willed her to. And I did what I did because by then my body had turned against hers; and anyone who has stretched and plumbed both mind and body will tell you the body, with its many nagging needs, is the true engine of life. The mind merely steers a path for it, or consoles it with high-sounding homilies when there is no path to be found.
The ravings of the puritans and the moralists are the anguished cries of those whose bodies have failed to fnd the road to bliss. When I see clergy--Hindu, Muslim, Christian--rail against the instincts of the body, I see men who are lost and angry and frustrated. Unable to locate the glories of the body, unable to locate the path to surpassing joy, they are resolved to confuse all other journeymen. Those who fail to fndtheir sexual synapse set our mind and body at war against each other.
I agree there are the truly spiritual, just as there is the one-horned rhino, but they are few and far between and easily identifable. For the rest of us, the body is the temple.
The truth is godhead is tangible.
Smellable. Tasteable. Penetrable.
The morning I woke up and felt no urge to slide down her body and inhale her musk I knew I was in trouble.
As always, we were sleeping in the small room overlooking the Jeolikote valley, on the pinewood beds hammered into being in a day by Bideshi Lal's scrawny young boys. Fading yellow chir planks. Straight lines. Not one flourish. Hard, fundamental, with absolutely no give. After years of sleeping on beds of string and plywood, we loved the sense of solidity these beds exuded. Lying on them, we felt less like urban flakes. Our bed was a single piece--what the carpenters called a kuveen bed, a bed-and-a-half. We would have preferred a king bed, with more space for roll, but the room was tiny and since we always slept close, bodies touching, anything more than a bed was redundant.
As every morning, the yellow curtains were drawn and the evenness of frst light sat gently over the room. Only in the mountains, with all the windows open in the morning's frst hour of sunless light, can you get this condition where the light within and without is exactly the same, and there is the perfect tranquillity of a fsh-bowl when the fsh do not move.
The world is cast in one colour. It is both fluid and frozen.
On the discolouring gnarled oak outside the window, the crested white-cheeked bulbuls were starting to dart about, still low on chatter. I sat half-propped on a broken pillow against the rough stone wall and looked out the bank of big windows at the wavy mountain opposite. A fresh skin of light green was beginning to grow where a landslide had raked an ugly gash two years before. When you looked at it through the heavy Minolta binoculars--focusing tediously with slow turns of the fngers--it had the ugliness of the new.
Ferns, grass, saplings were pushing out their frst shallow claims. No layers, no depth. Like new buildings and new furniture and new clothes and new lovers; waiting for time, history, travail to etch them with worth. But the new skin allowed you to look at the mountain without flinching. Last year the open gash had drawn and repelled the gaze like the exposed wound on a beggar. Two seasons of drumming rain had worked their ministrations.
Without shifting my eyes I could take in the strings of grey woodsmoke curling from the floor of the valley like wiggly lines in a child's drawing of a mountainscape. And by shifting my head only slightly I could see Fizz asleep in her usual foetal position, curled away from me.
She wore only a round-necked T-shirt with a green slogan about saving trees etched in a sharp Helvetica typeface at the back. The image under the type was of a jagged designer tree morphing into a skull. One of those clever graphic things. The slogan declared: Kill a Tree, Kill a Man. Sometimes, when I rode her in slow frenzy and the shirt collapsed around her dipped shoulders, the words would begin to blur until all I could read was Kill Kill. It was an exhortation to run amok, and it added something to the moment.
The shirt was now scrunched up under her breasts, and by raising the thick blue quilt we shared, I could see the generous curve of her body. The wide flaring from the narrow waist, the fullest part of her, always capable of arousing me in an instant.
I looked at it for a long time, tenting up the quilt with my left hand. She did not wake. She was accustomed to me voyeuring on her all hours of the day and night. Like a dog that ceases to hear the footfalls of familiar servants, her skin had ceased to prickle at my staring. In fact there were occasions when I had in the pit of the night engaged with her body in all kinds of ways and she had not woken, not known of it the next morning. It spooked her each time I told her, the knowledge that she had been a participant in something she had no awareness of.
Excerpted from The Alchemy of Desire by Tarun Tejpal Copyright © 2007 by Tarun Tejpal. Excerpted by permission.
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Set against the brilliantly drawn backdrop of India at the turn of the millennium, The Alchemy of Desire tells the story of a young couple, penniless but gloriously in love. Obsessed with each other, they move from a small town to the big city, where the man, who dreams of being a writer, works feverishly on a novel, stopping only to feed his ceaseless desire for his beautiful wife.
A chance occurrence allows the lovers to abandon the city for a remote region in the lower Himalayas and move into a sprawling old house. At first they pursue their deep physical need with a reckless intensity. But during renovations of the house, they unearth a set of diaries written by the original inhabitant—a glamorous American adventuress—and the narrator finds himself irresistibly drawn away from his wife and thrust into another world and time. As his life and love fall apart, he slowly begins to uncover the dark secrets at the heart of her story—until the shocking truth is finally laid bare.
Questions for Discussion
1. How integral is the setting of The Alchemy of Desire to the novel? To what extent does the country of India function as a character of sorts in this book?
2. How would you describe the narrator's relationship with his wife, Fizz, in their early years together, and how does their renovation of First Things, their home in the Himalayas, contribute later on in their marriage to the dramatic change in their feelings about each other?
3. How does the narrator use his writing and storytelling to heighten erotic tension between him and Fizz, and what does this behavior reveal abouthim as a husband, lover, and artist?
4. What is the significance of the narrator's asking Fizz to destroy his novel, The Inheritors, and to what extent does writer's block seem to define his experience as an artist?
5. The Alchemy of Desire describes countless sexual encounters between and among characters. Of the many scenes of passion depicted, which did you find most memorable and why?
6. "The stories lovers tell each other are tales about themselves, their past, their future, their uniqueness, their inevitability, their invincibility." To what extent is this statement true in the context of the narrator's aborted novels and his relationship with his wife, Fizz?
7. How does the discovery of Catherine's journals change the course of the narrator's life, and why do you think these documents have such a powerful effect on him?
8. Catherine's torrid encounters with her lover Gaj Singh and her ghostly apparitions to the narrator suggest her as a force of nature. What do you think accounts for her magical powers?
9. Why does the narrator become obsessed with learning the true story behind Catherine's death, and what does his encounter with Geitha Gramercy reveal about his quest for truth?
10. How do you interpret the open-ended ending of The Alchemy of Desire? Is the novel the narrator's masterwork?
Posted June 6, 2011
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