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Book Review : Pavan. K. Varma

When Loss is Gain

Pavan. K. Varma

Raintree Imprint/Rupa

Pages 205

The jacket cover of Pavan Varma’s new book is beautiful. Like the novel’s protagonist Anand, it makes one long for the mountains. But if only he hadn’t gone there. Let me explain. For some years there has been a keenness amongst writers to be prolific; sadly `When Loss is Gain’ suffers from that need.  Needless to say Varma has proven stamina; half a dozen non-fiction titles(  )including translations of  poets no less than Vajpayee ji, former Prime Minster of India and filmmaker Gulzar. This time he could’ve taken it easy, mulled a bit, and let the talented lawyer Anand take it easy too; why rush him off into the  mountains of Bhutan. Actually  Varma’s  first work of fiction has all the ingredients of a great novel. A truly compelling read—he surprises, nay, stuns with his Albert Camus like observations of human life (remember The Outsider). His  insightful portrayal of Anand’s erstwhile friend, Advaita (Adi), now his boss,  is etched with classic contours. Adi is the social networking face, Anand the backbone and drone of the legal firm.  But from pg 35, maybe even 37, when Anand is examined by Dr. Ashok Khurana,  the gastroenterologist,  and diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the pages begin to pall.

The novel opens with Anand seated in the lobby of Hotel Taj Mansingh, Delhi, unable to attend Adi’s lavish  party after realizing his own denouement at Adi’s skillful hands. How did his rich, spoilt College friend steal his work, his wife Tanu, his peace of mind. How did he, Anand,  end up as a humiliated, marginalized employee of the legal firm he helped build up. Pitted against a man with gargantuan ambition and little talent, Anand becomes a victim of his own lack of self-esteem and was, consequently  devoured. Till he finds the courage to quit and tell Adi he is  not a `good’ man.  But then comes the unnecessary cancer which anyway turns out to be a mistaken dignosis, though his wife Tanu has already left him.  Now given  a new lease of life he decides to move on.  Here Varma, instead of staying with the stunning chemistry between these characters, ensues on a sociological travelogue. In Loss/Gain it is the complexities of Anand’s relationship with Adi that linger and ask to be explored. Why does upper class Adi want what middle-class Anand has—talent, life, and later wife? And why is Anand so lacking in self-esteem—here is a thinking man’s grist for the mill.  

A chance meeting with the Bhutanese Ambassador during a walk in  Humayun’s Tomb, and Anand is off to the Ambassador’s niece Chimi’s B&B. Bhutan’s mysterious waterfalls and thundering skies become the backdrop for romance with Tara, a novitiate at a nunnery between Paro and Thimpu, herself a victim of blighted love.

Yes, you wish Anand had stayed put in Nizamuddin. Or Varma had written two separate books, or maybe just spent another two years pruning this one. But this is a star-struck age where festivals, fairs, branding, impresarios  make writers think of themselves as failures if they are not `sexy’ extensions of the fashionista, and the creation of real art sometimes suffers. They too want the arc lights on them, or else what was their midnight toil about!  Who wants to spend  years polishing a  novel like Jonathan Franzen did (Freedom) just so that it has integrity! Writers feel  compelled to publish or be dammed.

Finally Anand’s new life comes full circle; he returns to Delhi and to law only to find ex- wife Tanu and  Adi have met their comeuppance.  Varma is known for his seminal work on Ghalib. It was a labour of love and passion. The question is; is this?

Manju Kak