A Life Apart, By Neel Mukherjee
As the title to Neel Mukherjee's first novel suggests, this is a story about never quite being a part of the worlds one inhabits.
Having buried both his parents in Calcutta, Ritwik Ghosh arrives in Oxford, a scholarship boy studying English literature, and confronts dislocation and detachment. If this at first seems like familiar territory in the postcolonial novel of displacement, be assured that in Mukherjee's hands, it is a very much more original idea.
A number of things make this impressive debut stand out. Most strikingly, Ritwik is gay and Mukherjee (right) writes wonderfully and wryly about the young man's exploration of everyday gay life. Compulsively cruising the toilets of Oxford, Ritvik "realizes, in slow stages, that his is a type of minority appeal, catering to the 'special interest' group ... because of his nationality, looks, skin colour. He keeps pushing the word "race" away. The mainstream is blond, white, young, slim. Or... that is the desired mainstream."
Ritwik's skin sets him apart from other cruisers, just as his cruising sets him apart from straight student friends. "There are good days and bad days," when trade is brisk or slow, when the cold weather seems to mitigate against the wisdom of hanging out in a toilet, when there is nothing better to do than sit in a cubicle composing essays about the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Mukherjee captures Ritwik's gay life with frankness and exuberance; not since Alan Hollinghurst's The Swimming Pool Library have I been as engaged by an imagining of gay twilight.
Good graffiti can be one of the unexpected pleasures and distractions of cruising, and a playful riff on a famous sonnet by Donne which Ritwik reads on a toilet door – "Batter my arse, three persons at the door" – brings together his queer life and imaginative life. For Ritwik, reading provides ways for him to understand his place in the world. As a child in a deprived, overcrowded and fractious family, Ritwik reads through the Collins Concise Encyclopaedia, "a shield, the talisman against his life at home, the very first stumbling, halting steps to his escape".
As a keen undergraduate, the English classics become a filter through which he comes to understand not only himself but also cultural encounter and difference. Spenser's line about a life "abandoned from my selfe" resonates with Ritwik's own sense of isoation, and similar snatches of literature, from Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Dr Johnson and a host of others, fill out the fabric of his imagination.
When an unsubtle friend asks, "So how do you feel about being a post-colonial subject still studying the imperialists' literature," we realise, through Ritwik, that enagement with culture is more complex, that "it's not quite like that, is it?" As the novel becomes darker and Ritwik's engagement with England more violent, the complexity of entanglements, cultural and otherwise, become apparent.
In some ways, it makes sense that Ritwik is writing his own novel, a novel within the novel. This parallel narrative, which reimagines a female character from a Rabindranath Tagore text, reflects suggestively on history, literary and otherwise. But it lacks the finely rendered details and imaginative reach of Ritwik's own story, which is always deeply engaging and often brilliantly observed.