When Loss is Gain
Pavan K Varma
Rs 395 pp 208
Pavan K Varmas When Loss is Gain could just as easily be made into a Hollywood movie as a Bollywood one. His first work of fiction has all the ingredients that suit both: high drama, a limited dose of sex, human frailty, betrayal, redemption and exotic settings. The story revolves around Anand, a Delhi lawyer working for his best friend Advaitas law firm.
With success comes the expected descent into drink, alienation from his wife Tanu and the revelation that he has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, with only a few months to live. Now comes the tearjerker. Tanu, whom he has neglected, leaves him for Advaita whose success has been through riding on the coat tails of his immensely successful father. But the diagnosis turns out to be wrong, Anand does not have cancer after all.
This, as it would most of us, makes him dwell on the meaning of life and the hankering for material things. After a chance meeting with the Bhutanese ambassador in Delhi, he sets off for a remote mountain retreat in Bhutan where his host Chimi nurses him back to some form of mental equilibrium. While there, he meets the mysterious Tara, who is also trying to find herself in these mystic mountains.
Their bitter-sweet romance follows, and Varma comes into his own in the descriptions of this isolated land where even the cliffs are said to be alive and benign spirits haunt the landscape that Varma comes into his own. In many ways, the novel seems a tribute to the incredible beauty and majestic exclusivity of the land where he is now the Indian ambassador. His love for this country, where people are inherently non-violent, comes out in the second half of the book as Anand struggles with the dilemma of coming back to the life he has left or staying forever away from the city.
Meanwhile, retribution comes to the several, somewhat uni-dimensional, people who had harmed him. Varmas narrative, otherwise lucid, is spoiled by introducing too many couplets from Bulle Shah to Ghalib to Basavanna, which detract rather than add to the poignancy of his story. Clearly a throwback to his erudition in philosophy and spirituality, it appears out of place here.
The charming book has many messages. That it is fraught with danger to lose oneself in the rat race. That to dramatically change ones course of life offers one undreamt of yet meaningful revelations. That from extreme despair can come extreme understanding of the human condition.
Nowhere does Varma try to overwhelm the reader with over-the-top language. To me, the real hero of the story is Bhutan which seems to possess the power to heal broken souls. It is in this place of dark and haunting beauty that we, along with the protagonist, learn that it is best not to rail against destiny but to move on. Does Anand's journey have a happy ending? Well, youll have to read When Loss is Gain to find out.