A journalist-cum-novelist on a trip through the past
Tarun Tejpal's debut novel, The Alchemy of Desire, begins and ends with the same words – but with a completely different meaning by book's end. Over the course of 518 pages, an unnamed writer takes a roundabout journey that leaves him, on the final page (fittingly, on the last day of the millennium), a changed being.
Divided into five "books" – each named to reflect important concepts in Hinduism – "The Alchemy of Desire" straddles two centuries, three continents, multiple generations, and whole histories that include the personal, philosophical, and political. The underlying story is of a young Indian couple madly in love: the nameless writer/narrator and his vibrant young wife, aptly named Fizz. What they lack in finances, they make up for in an endless devotion, even obsession, with each another.
A journalist by trade, now rather disillusioned, the narrator sets out to write a novel, minutely planning the endeavor in step-by-step increments. Sadly, the result – called "The Inheritors" – finds its end at the bottom of a lake.
Ironically, a literal inheritance – surprisingly, from the narrator's acerbic grandmother who disapproved of the couple's Hindu/Muslim marriage – allows the lovers to buy a crumbling estate high in the Himalayas which they begin to restore.
During the renovation, a mysterious chest filled with almost illegible notebooks is discovered. In spite of warnings from the local villagers that the past should stay locked away, the narrator abandons his own world – not only his own writing, but even his beloved Fizz. He chases the ghostly past in the notebooks, written by Catherine, the estate's original owner, an enigmatic American explorer who travels from Chicago to Paris to end up in the Himalayas married to an exiled homosexual Indian prince. From the leather-bound pages, Catherine beckons the narrator into her tangled life. What the notebooks do not contain the narrator tenaciously discovers on his own, piecing together fractured memories.
"Alchemy" fuses at least three distinct narratives: the writer and Fizz's love story gone awry; the incredible life of the narrator's grandmother, Bibi Lahori, who survived a religiously motivated massacre to become one of the most powerful women in her adopted village; and the exploits of the adventurous/adventuress Catherine.
Tejpal is a journalist renowned in India for having exposed a government bribery scandal. AsiaWeek named him one of "Asia's 50 most powerful communicators," and Businessweek listed him as among "50 leaders at the forefront of change in Asia." He currently heads Telhelka, an online investigative newsmagazine based in New Delhi.
The narrator Tejpal creates may fail at penning "The Great Indian Novel" but he proves himself to be a seductive storyteller. "Alchemy" begins: "Love is not the greatest glue between two people. Sex is" and there is a good bit of explicit sexuality in this story. But beyond the potential for voyeurism, what the story's narrator pursues – and finally achieves – is a transformation, an "alchemy of desire" that ultimately envelopes body, mind, and soul.
• Terry Hong is media arts consultant at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program.