Discovering a new author can feel a lot like making a new friend. In both cases, there is energy and excitement, and the lure of conversations about familiar ideas told through novel narratives. But, most importantly, there is the tantalising prospect of knowing another individual, of probing at their soul and gradually unravelling all its contents.
This process of authorial unravelling has, in recent years, witnessed an astonishing acceleration in the domain of Indian prose in English. Following the heady iconoclasm of the likes of Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, and Arundhati Roy towards the close of the last century, Indians writing novels in what is usually their second or third language are no longer an exception; in fact, in the realms of modern fiction, they are fast becoming the norm.
Whether it is the understated intensity of Jhumpa Lahiri, the intricate conscientiousness of Amitav Ghosh, or the sensational mass appeal of Chetan Bhagat, the horizons of Indians penning stories without the need to justify the vagaries of a nation, let alone a civilisation, to the imagination of the West, have expanded enormously. This has, quite inevitably, also led to a lot of mediocre literature, a price usually compensated for each time one finds not mediocrity, but magic, emanating from a fresh source.
The Last Gift, the latest work of emerging novelist Shrutidhora P Mohor, is one such source of magic. Writing under the pseudonym of Mohor, the author Prothoma Rai Chaudhuri is a senior professor of political science at Kolkata’s St. Xavier’s College, and has already published seven books, several of which she completed once her academic burdens eased somewhat during the first few months of the COVID-19 lockdown.
Reading Mohor, one always gets the impression that she has inhabited every crevice in the lives of her characters. Her narration, at once imbued with moral sympathy and yet, in a unique way, non-judgemental, glides and lilts, shifting through life in all its compelling greyness.
The Last Gift, like most of Mohor’s stories, is a tale of two hearts, but one that believes in exploration over resolution, in navigating the intimate space of romance that resembles neither a balloon nor a bubble, but the tassels of a scarf hanging loose in the air of love.
Here is a love story – between Bappaditya Morena, a celebrated literary stalwart, and Mayurakshi Gupta, his admirer and mentee – that strays far from the hackneyed twists and turns of stock page-turners. Mohor does not write with the intention of keeping readers on the edge of their seats, but with the goal of making them shuffle in their chairs at the perception of love’s ambivalence and ambiguity.
The plot in The Last Gift does not unfold with the comfort of chronology. There are no done-to-death flashbacks either. Rather, there is a constant displacement between a perilous past, a paradoxical present, and a feverish future, at once combining conjecture, event, and reflection. It is, in a quasi-postmodern way, a brilliant example of nested storytelling, wherein readers are swept away by the undertow of the subplots but anchored eventually by the arc of the main narrative that allows the action to scatter, without letting it sink.
Mayurakshi is the catalyst of the story, the one who sets things in motion, as her reverence for her ‘master’ blends into a stronger, more desperate yearning. With her self-deprecatory streak curiously balanced by her resilience to withstand the mini-crises that constitute the slog of everyday reality, Mayurakshi recalls SRC, the enigmatic protagonist of Mohor’s semi-autobiographical debut novel, The Unknown Script. Like SRC, Mayurakshi is an outsider who nonetheless learns how to make her presence felt in circles not designed for her kind of personality. She also shows a rare and remarkable poise in reconciling, for the most part, her longing for Bappaditya with the duties of her marriage, which makes her, if one can ever be, an honest adulterer.
Bappaditya is married, too, but his interest in Mayurakshi initially seems to stem purely from an aesthetic acknowledgement of her intellect and incipient craft. Bappaditya is, undoubtedly, motivated to make Mayurakshi a superior artist, but perhaps succeeds more resoundingly, though inadvertently, in making her existence more complex.
The fact that membership of the Seromon community (a fictionalised group of people bearing a stark resemblance to many a real life minority) underscores Bappaditya’s existence only makes it harder for Mayurakshi to truly understand her Muse, and this lack of understanding, often brought about by a profusion of communication, is what forms the tragic core of the second half of the book, one that culminates in a glowing tribute that makes the entire story possible.
Mohor, in a fashion typical of Thomas Hardy at his best, places more emphasis on setting and character, rather than on plot, despite the fact that this book contains an idiosyncratic sense of structure. There are numerous purple passages of wonderful dexterity, depictions of nature (particularly in connection to Daman) that are bound to generate a wistful smile, and dialogue that is laced with wit and humour- gentle yet glorious.
When Bappaditya and Mayurakshi lie star-gazing or begin to dovetail their passion for one another with their passion for music and literature, the novel elevates itself to the representation of a higher consciousness – a state of being where one reads for the sheer pleasure of reading.
As opposed to Mohor’s Twenty Three Summers or The Long Line of Hope, both of which politicise love through the prism of conflict in Kashmir, The Last Gift does not indulge in overt political commentary or satire of any sort. If the political asserts itself in The Last Gift, it does so by demonstrating how power differs from authority (especially with reference to Bappaditya) and how the incentives for kickstarting a relationship are often as amorphous as those responsible for terminating it.
Ultimately, what makes The Last Gift a must-read and a sublime discovery is its ability to weave its net of emotions so thoroughly that one can be comprehensively entrapped irrespective of where one begins. The book is structured in such a way that no matter which chapter one picks up, one cannot fail but arrive at the crucible of the novel, the perpetual struggle between desire and destiny.
One can read the novel as it is printed, sequentially, from the first page to the last. And yet, if the converse is carried out, and the book is read from end to beginning, there emerges no depletion of comprehension, only an appreciation for Mohor’s immense and immersive talents.
Given her prolific appetite and evolution as a litterateur as well as her steadily growing audience, The Last Gift is unlikely to be Mohor’s magnum opus. Instead, it is far more likely to be another stepping stone in a journey that exemplifies how far Indian writing in English has come, and how much farther it still promises to go.
Priyam Marik is a post-graduate student of journalism at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom.
Disclosure: The author of the reviewed book, Prothoma Rai Chaudhuri, taught Priyam Marik briefly during his undergraduate studies.