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Alchemy of emotions

Tarun Tejpal's book "The Alchemy of Desire" marks his leap from journalism to literary writing

— Pic. by R. Ragu

"A safe book doesn't excite me": Tarun Tejpal

"WHEN I see a good tree, I'm turned on, I want to hug it," said Tarun Tejpal, whose "The Alchemy of Desire" is marked by the nature lover's ardent gaze upon the Himalayan slopes. The book is awash with sexuality, as noted by Shashi Kumar, Chairman, Asian College of Journalism, in his conversation with the author at the Chennai launch of the debut novel, organised by the British Council, Harper Collins and The Park. The corollary was — will it therefore offend middle class morality? Said Tejpal, "A safe book doesn't excite me. The mandate is to push boundaries. I want to see, and foster new ways of seeing."

Shashi Kumar's generous tributes and gentle queries had the author relaxed and happy. Hailed as the `investigative journalist par excellence', Tejpal declared, "I don't care at all about what journalists say about my book. The best reviewers have drifted out of mass media anyway." However, he thought that every journalist should write a literary novel every year, and all writers do some journalism to get a sense of the world. His own innings in the Indian Express, The Telegraph, India Today, Outlook and Tehelka, had taught him that the leap from journalism to literary writing was a huge one, "by far the best thing I've done in my life, most gratifying in terms of values." It had also fetched those `mythical millions' guaranteed by strategic international marketing to Indian writers in English today.

Translations

Translated versions of the book in Spanish, Italian, French and German are slated for release. But no, not in mother tongue Punjabi.

Tejpal admitted that he was satisfied, "The book's better than I thought it'd be. Looking back, I realise that it helped me survive the difficult times (over the Tehelka-unearthed corruption scandals in national Defence transactions). The book became my reality, everything else was illusion."

Referring to writer O. V. Vijayan who had died that day, Tejpal recalled how he had once asked him if literature had any function left to serve in the TV-Cinema age. Vijayan had replied, "It refines you." The thought seemed to guide Tejpal's own response to the hardest challenge he faced in novel writing. "You're satisfied with journalism. Years roll by.

Suddenly, you want to find an intimate voice to speak of the teeming quality of India. You're cramped by fear. Once I got over that fear, things went well. The right tone came to me, though English is already two degrees removed from India.

I became a boy of 18-19, with purity of purpose, went back to First Things. Can't inhabit that place now." Writer's block? "Never."

The extracts read aloud by the author, his face a ruddy gouache from the bulb below, were enough to show his sensitivity to the word. The language is trimmed and pared to a glow sharp and pungent, flickering with nuances, a-ripple with allusions.

You read the whole book, only to ask — does desire at all get alchemised into anything beyond the physicality that it grasps with consummate ease?

GOWRI RAMNARAYAN

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