The Lovers and the Leavers by Abeer Y. Hoque, 4th Estate, Rs 499
Romance is not my favourite genre of books. I do enjoy funny romantic books, such as those by Georgette Heyer. I have nothing against romance as a second or third track in a novel about other things. But a book written for the sake of romance alone makes me want to throw up.
So it’s fortunate that though The Lovers and the Leavers by Abeer Y. Hoque is about love, it most definitely is not a romantic novel. In fact, it isn’t a novel at all, but a series of short stories, each centred on a character that features as a secondary or tertiary character earlier or later, reflecting the web of life in the most extraordinary way.
There are so many stories. Komola works as a live-in maid and cook in a wealthy Dhaka household. She was widowed once, had a daughter who died, a beloved sister who may have been trafficked to India, is now the second wife of a man who makes her laugh, but is not certain where she stands in his life.
She meets Nita, her employer’s friend, who was divorced after her husband had an affair, moved to the States with her daughter Ila, and is now moving back to Bangladesh again.
Ila, who was once somewhat ambivalent about her sexuality, is friends with Rox, a Bangladeshi American who has broken up with Arul, an Indian Hindu she had met in college, and is now inexplicably attracted to a much younger man — a boy in fact, but one whom she knows will climb walls with her at midnight.
Rox is friends with Raza, a Bangladeshi American who has had nothing to do with the Bangladeshi American community at all in his life. Because his mother married and divorced an American and because his sister was a junkie, the respectable people of the Bangladeshi American community will have nothing to do with them.
Then there’s sensitive little Alo, who appears only once in the book, but whose family you meet here and there. And Gabriel, a Tamilian in Spain, more Spanish than he ever could be Indian. And Modhu, the woman who had an affair with Ila’s father. And Oyon, the man who has an affair with Ila before she marries his brother Tahsin. And Pilar, and July, and Dokkhin people, people everywhere, a mad mix of NRDs (non-resident desis) and locals, all connected even if they don’t know it.
I found The Lovers and the Leavers an extraordinary book. Extraordinary for two reasons. The first is the way the book is presented. These are stories, yes, but they get their power also from poetry and photographs, both apposite and used to open every story. One story in particular, titled "Now Go", is half poetry and half prose, and like the characters in it, you can’t have one without the other. Yet, like the characters involved in it, the two halves do not make a whole.
But the second reason I find The Lovers and the Leavers extraordinary is the more significant because, read at a single stretch rather than at different times, these stories show us what we all know, but seldom remember: that we are the heroes only of our own lives. And that the people around us, however close to or distanced we are from them, are the heroes of their own lives. And that no one can ever truly be the centre of another person’s life.
Sounds sad? Well, reality is not known for being joyous. But having said that, The Lovers and the Leavers is not a melancholic book. It’s simply about love: love within families, love with another, fleeting love, lasting love, unrequited love, inexplicable love, un-understandable love, dying love love in every human way.
It all comes through the characters, of course, who are the kind of people every single upper middle class person in the subcontinent knows. There’s the elegant, elite, desi-gone-to-phoren. The elegant, elite, desi-at-home. The not-so-elite desi born in a foreign land, fully at home neither there nor in the native place and hence a cosmopolitan citizen of the world.
There’s the rural person working as a servant in a big city, a person in her own right, but never seen as such by her employer. These people are all known to us, the readers of English language newspapers in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. And so the book engenders a strange kind of complicity in the reader. Like the author, you’re exploring the lives of your friends.
But then, perhaps like the author, perhaps not, perhaps only because of your state of mind and emotions at the time you read these stories, you learn that much as you explore, you’ll never know what takes place in another person’s heart. Yes, we are all lovers in our various ways. But we are all leavers too, pushed back endlessly by a force that makes every human being a solitary soul.
Kushalrani Gulab is a freelance editor and writer who dreams of being a sanyasi by the sea