Before we start the book we realise that the author was mentored by Ruskin Bond in his school days — at any rate he browsed through Bond’s library, reading biographies and anything he could lay his hands on. Unforeseen Desires by Anil Chopra is set in Dehradun during the Emergency with Arun, the young medical intern starting out in hospital. In the middle of a bloody operation the surgeon’s interlocking diamond rings go missing and Arun is blamed simply because he is a young man on his own.
In a sense it could be called a coming of age novel except that Arun is far too old for that teen becoming man stuff. He is lucky, in the middle of his quest to find the missing rings; he comes across a sprawling bungalow which houses a Christian missionary named Victoria and her master chef. The chef, an Indian who worked for the Swedish Ambassador’s wife in Delhi, has a knack with the wooden spoon and cuisines both continental and Indian and who understands the psyche of people through the way they eat.
Arun ploughs through the problems of the Emergency — including almost forcible vasectomy — and dilemmas of the heart. Two young women float in and out of his life. The beautiful Sujata who rides a two wheeler and the equally lovely South Indian Trishna who loves him. Victoria soothes him with Scrabble and shared conversations while he decides what to do with his life.
Much of what happens is certainly unforeseen nothing turns out as it is expected to if one goes by the formulae of happy endings. Despite the turbulence of life, Arun has the peaceful backdrop of Dehradun to console him. His descriptions occasionally betray the Ruskin Bond influence because the spaces he describes seem to have an idyllic familiarity to them — including the being chased by bees episode.
Barring Victoria, none of the women are really fleshed out in any depth except for physical description and action. The result is that Arun’s sexual escapades seem rather superficial. Chopra has a neat turn of phrase — as when he describes the air in a sealed biscuit tin newly arrived from England, or the quality of Victoria’s first hello. Certain things perhaps don’t really fit in because the environment asks for a serene story with its church backdrop.
The sudden outbreak of Emergency violence, the undercurrent of a possible dowry death or the grappling in the garden at an engagement ceremony punctuated by the experiences of a young doctor seem to come from another kind of tale. Add to that the trials of life as an immigrant in England separated from all the familiar things. The English, Chopra suggests are reluctant to leave the friendly, chaotic India they know, as Bond was, while Indians are determined to find a better life in foreign shores.
Victoria seems to have found a solution with a most unlikely person. Arun is unsure — he wants a future lined with material assets and global recognition. Some Indians. Chopra hints do return home eventually and there is a beautiful girl waiting.
Anjana Basu is the author of Rhythms of Darkness