March 30, 2020
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Love’s Labour Misspent

This is a book worth reading—once.

Love’s Labour Misspent
Prophet Of Love
By Farrukh Dhondy
HarperCollins India | Pages: 314 | Rs. 299

This novel ends with a letter to Farrukh Dhondy, narrator, from his aunts in Pune after he has sent them his articles on the Prophet of Love: “Our dear nephew, we are so proud of you. You have such a great command of the English language.”

There is the bone that sticks in my throat. For one who has been a professional writer for over thirty years, and who, moreover, once set up Lawrence Durrell as his icon, Dhondy’s language is remarkably clumsy. I have now read his last two books in quick succession, and he does not so much write a novel as blunder along seeking the truth--which, as a character in this book points out, need not be the same as the facts. Yet, he does move towards the truth, and for that I can forgive much, including the ungainliness of his gait. Odysseus had a limp too, and see what he did.

Dhondy is a London journalist back in Pune exploring the phenomenon of Bhagwan Saket—a thinly disguised Rajneesh. (I’m told the use of Dhondy’s own name in his last two books—London Company [2012] and this—is new for him.) He tells his story straight—how he gains entry to the ashram under the improbable name of ‘Hiram P. Ingleburger Jr’, how he meets a ‘dissident’ called Diamond and through her other such, besides his own boyhood friend and neighbour Praful. He describes Pune, and his aunts’ house, with affection tempered by anxiety for its future, exactly as I would.

On page 42 there is a switch so sudden it throws you off-balance. The narrative is taken up by a monk in a Himalayan ashram, one Chandrika, and this section tells the story of the young ‘Saket’. It goes on until page 110, and thereafter, Farrukh and the monk exchange the baton at intervals. This is a strange way of telling a story, but no stranger than the style.

For one who has 30 years’ experience, and who once set up Lawrence Durrell as an icon, Dhondy’s language is clumsy.

Saket is an engaging scamp, and ret­ains his innocence despite all the murky deeds of his chief assistants, who actually run things. The reunion of Saket and Chandrika is touching, but Dhondy’s business is not to touch. He is always brutal; except that he, too, displays a touching innocence in his belief in ‘western’ ideals: “I think I’ve been in a place where truth means that the words correspond to something material out there, an object, a process—you know, nouns, verbs, what you are saying is any damn thing goes here.”

This book was published in this subversive age of Assange and Snowden; can Dhondy really believe that?

Dhondy’s Saket is in some ways a tool of his assistants. Dhondy seems to be finding excuses for him, and the end bears that out. If Saket is guilty, we are all innocent; if Saket is innocent, what then?

The secondary characters in this book are beautifully drawn: Diamond, Praful, the aunts, the sidekicks at the ashram. But this book is also a betrayal of characters. Dhondy has the uncanny ability to sum up in a few words what people are, and what people are about: “If they thought they were a civilisation apart, one that succeeded materialism and superseded the nonsense of Hindu mysticism, then they could arrogantly parade as the chosen”.

This is a book worth reading—once.

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