Author Soumya Bhattacharya’s latest —Thirteen Kinds of Love – explores the dynamics of love and loss, and the attempts people make to stitch together what has been torn apart.
We live in a society that has unconsciously created rules for something as sacred and natural as love. There are endless habits and customs that many couples maintain, but fortunately, every love is different. Author Soumya Bhattacharya’s Thirteen Kinds of Love is an intricate mesh of relationships and lives. It is about loving and losing, about trying to redeem oneself, about attempts to remake and refashion what has been torn asunder. “If the book has one central idea, it is surely that of love, the many forms that love takes, and all the forces that oppose it. Is this a collection of linked narratives? Is it a novel? The reader should decide. As Ernst Lubitsch said, ‘it is the artist’s job to suggest 2+2. Let the audience say 4 — or otherwise,” says the author of five books of fiction, non-fiction and memoir.
A child wonders if his parents’ sour relationship has parallels to the lives of the infected baby pigeons he cares for. A man muses on desire brought out by love versus that brought out by lust. A couple reveals why they are growing apart. The lives of these people are woven in a story about love, loss, and redemption. Thirteen Kinds Of Love is bound to touch you, with its tender and evocative story. It follows the fortunes of several families living and working in an apartment block in Mumbai. It could have been set in any city, but the author chose to set it in Mumbai. He says, “I used to live in a similar apartment block in Mumbai for many years. I was living there when I started writing the book. Instead of a single main protagonist, and a single narrative arc, we have here several arcs, several protagonists, several heroes and heroines advancing throughout.”
Each chapter can be read as a standalone narrative. Yet, as the reader proceeds, they discover that these chapters are an intricate mesh: a bit-part character in one takes centre stage in another; the consequences of someone’s action in one has a bearing on someone else’s fate in another. “Each of the narratives is understood more fully in the context of the previous or subsequent narratives,” he feels.
The book proceeds by ellipses and suggestions. Some of the action occurs off stage and, the reader, coming across a reference in a subsequent chapter, infers what has happened. In this manner, the reader is drawn into the narrative, and becomes an active participant.
The book is not written from the perspective of a couple. The story is told from the point of view of a man, woman or child. “There are two sections, however, in which a husband and wife narrate the same sequence of events, each from his or her point of view. How each remembers the same set of events, as in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, is strikingly different,” says the author.
The germ of the idea of the book came from an image, he says. “I used to stand on the balcony of my Mumbai apartment and look out at the similar, neighbouring apartment blocks. I would see lights glowing in the apartments and would think of the lives of those who inhabited those buildings. The many stories contained within those walls. And once I had the characters for the book, I had to make the necessary connections between them to allow the narrative to take them on their journeys.”
Asking novelists how much of their life is in their books is lame. Quoting writer, Penelope Lively, he says, “If I actually lift somebody out of life and put him or her in the book it won’t work. But I’m using bits of people, an arm or a leg, and bits of myself as well, bits of my own behaviour or reactions.”
The author was keen to explore the idea of absences in our lives. A couple of deaths occur in Thirteen Kinds of Love. There are estrangements, instances of people moving away from their loved ones. I was preoccupied about the void such things leave in our lives, be it because of death or departure that leads to a lack of physical proximity between two people who love each other. “I wanted to examine how people deal with those disorienting absences. The book concerns itself with various kinds of love — between father and son; father and daughter; husband and wife; husband and deceased wife; and so on. During the course of the narrative, love endures, it dwindles, it is resuscitated, it is also thwarted. Besides, the title is a nod to Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, the title of a book by Richard Yates, one of my favourite writers,” he says.
This is not the sort of book that requires one to go out and do a lot of legwork. “When I have finished a book and it has just been published, I tend to be pretty pleased with all of it. All the self-doubt and the self-loathing come during the process of writing it. It is hard to pick out a favourite part. But I have a particular fondness for the jokes and the hat tips,” he says.