At its heart, Los Angeleno Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla’s most recent offering The Two Krishnas is a novel about unruly desire. The intensity of the all-consuming forbidden desire between the married Rahul and his younger lover Atif has the potential to destroy everything in its path.
One such early casualty is Rahul’s marriage. His son Ajay notes with bitterness the resemblance between his parents’ house and “an abandoned set, one upon which the drama had already unfolded but which had yet to be dismantled.” Ajay’s mother, the India Currents-reading Pooja, is powerless to control the emotional tsunami that eventually threatens to obliterate her universe.
This is an adults-only book. And, in case it wasn’t already obvious, this book might be offensive to some readers. Dhalla’s attempts to reread the polysemic Indian scriptures from a gay perspective could be seen as sacrilegious. For readers who make it past the first few pages, descriptions of drug-induced experiences of cosmic unity might be cause for mild outrage, though lately I just don’t seem to have a good handle on what outrages people anymore. The Occupy Movement rage, for instance, seems quite comprehensible to me, but the boycott of a film such as Sita Sings the Blues for ostensibly denigrating Indian culture is a bit mystifying. Still, I am pretty sure the book will manage to offend a few people.
My advice is to read it anyway. You might learn interesting facts about the harrowing experience of Indians in Kenya in the 80s. You might even agree that the legislation of morality leads to unintended consequences. Societal stability rests on strong marriages, yet as long as gays are excluded from marriage and forced along paths that society determines for them, the results will be disastrous. This is the main target that Dhalla appears to have in his crosshairs.
Along the way, Dhalla takes the time to snipe at contemporary trends. The popularity of the ancient practice of yoga among Los Angelenos of a certain ilk is one such trend. The term “bobos,” (bourgeois bohemians,) coined by David Brooks, comes to mind for these affluent spiritual seekers. Deepak Chopra makes the list. So does matchmaker.com. To assist with the cultural skewering, the book is populated by several colorful characters. Young Greg Goldstein has embraced Hinduism and the name Parmesh, to the dismay of his parents. Sonali is a busybody aunty character, whose quickie marriage to a visiting NRI might have been the best decision of her life. Some characters are just amusing caricatures—the flaming gay club owner Nuru, the Asian neighbor Nona who can’t drive without rear-ending her car—but they do seem to legitimately belong in a certain Los Angeles neighborhood. Even the blandness of Pooja’s suburban existence is recognizable. If Pooja’s life seems normal and everyone else just seems bizarre, this might not be the book for you.
Poor Pooja Kapoor. She has prayed faithfully to Lord Krishna, and we share her pain when her own husband shows the polygamous tendencies of her favorite deity. That the gopi in question is a man young enough to be her son seems like a particularly cruel blow. She does seem to deserve better. But Ajay is clearly beyond the point where he can turn back. Dhalla ruefully notes: “We can force ourselves to tolerate certain people, to acclimate to a job we detest, and for a while, even rein ourselves in with logic and common sense. But we are truly helpless against the heart and its obdurate desires.”
There is quite a lot to recommend this book. The prose is suffused with Sufi poetry and familiar mythological and Bollywood references, much as the air that the lovers breathe is redolent with tuberoses. Poignant and sensitive, the poetics of this latter-day Ghalib takes us on a heart-stirring journey into the innermost depths of our emotional lives. Yet the difficult themes also force a rethinking of the current political climate that would deny gays the right to live authentic lives. And that is clearly the thought that Dhalla would like to leave us with.
“We Have Enabled This Deception”
As the following interview with author Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla reveals, the narrative of his latest novel, The Two Krishnas, serves as a clear societal warning label on the dangers of legislating morality.
The book is such a joy to read, Ghalib. I was especially delighted to see India Currents mentioned in your book! Could you comment on the politics of unruly desire?
Desire is incapable of hypocrisy. This isn’t just the first line of the novel, it’s also the kernel of The Two Krishnas. We cannot fake desire or dictate to it. Race, religion, age, sexual orientation—all of these are masks to cover the fact that ultimately, we are all the same. These disguises that we may have been born with, and which we continue to don in our hubris to remain different, disintegrate in the face of desire.
Transgressing societal boundaries within which love can be sanctioned, we see the protagonists Rahul and Atif defy a dizzying number of such expectations, not only of monogamous heterosexuality, but of age, religion, even legal status in their adopted homelands. Your thoughts?
Rahul and Atif represent these societal and communal polarities, but soon we realize that despite the differences, they are irresistibly and irrevocably drawn to one another and couldn’t be more alike on the level of the soul. As a writer, I wanted to explore a love story that transcended these oppressive notions, to expose how we are completely helpless and equalized in the face of desire and love. Hindu, Muslim, gay, straight—it doesn’t matter.
Ultimately we all want the same thing—to belong, to love. But in a world where we are unable to get past such differences, where we judge desire as “unruly” just because it’s different from ours; when we deprive others of the right to live honest lives due to societal or religious pressures, we set the stage for deception. We become complicit in the resulting tragedy.
The younger Atif is especially sympathetic. The reader senses his vulnerability as he seeks to fuse into the psyche of the older man, in whom he simultaneously sees both a sacred and paternal presence.
Rahul represents the traditional man who has committed himself to the imprisoning “closet” as many do to appease family, due to personal insecurities about their sexuality, and/or a fear of being rebuked. Atif, on the other hand, is from a younger generation, one that is more sexually progressive, so he dares to stand up for himself, even at the cost of being disowned by his family. In each other, they find what is lacking—Rahul sees in Atif the youth he has sacrificed to live a lie and raise a family, and Atif sees in Rahul the parents that he has lost.
Could you comment on the difference in power between the two men?
When two people connect on such a profound level, beyond mere physical attraction, the balance of power is equal and transcends gender, caste, or creed. Such chemistry between two men has existed in history and literature, but we’ve conveniently masked it as either a metaphor for the love of God or ignored the details altogether.
The characters suffer. Scarred by tragedy and rejection respectively, and seeking fulfillment in each other’s arms, the protagonists embark on a journey that we fear will end badly. Is Rahul being punished for his selfishness in the ending?
Rahul is the dutiful, compliant person in all of us. After mistakenly thinking that he can squash his desires, he has obediently followed the path that family, religion and society have prescribed for him. The tragedy and blessing is that after years of following the plan, he finally encounters the one person that completes him in a way that nobody can, not even his wife, whom he undeniably loves. But this epiphany, the courage to follow his desire, to be his authentic self, has arrived too late. It will cost him everything. Would it have been better for him to never have found his true love and ended his life in a placid but unfulfilled marriage? Or to have finally surrendered to his passion and feel completely realized even though it may destroy others?
Rahul’s punishment and the resulting destruction of his family is the consequence of all of our actions and biases, each and every one of us. The Rahul Kapoors of this world feel it necessary to enter into what society has decided is normal, and shun what is natural to them because they have been brought up to believe that desiring another man is a sin and something to be ashamed of. When we encounter a woman—a sister, an aunt, a girlfriend—who has been devastated because her husband has decided to come out of the closet, it is important to realize that we, as a society, have enabled this deception. By creating a world where we refuse to let others live their lives honestly and have the same privileges, we create the closet and a stage for deception.
For example, consider our time. We have so many problems today—climate change, financial corruption, natural disasters, poverty—and yet we find the time to exercise a moral authority and keep gay people from getting married—a foolish distraction from the real problems. Ultimately, what we have done is create a world in which the Rahul Kapoors have little choice but to follow the prescribed moral plan, to fake their way to fit in, until one day when they can’t do it anymore and others are hurt. Hopefully The Two Krishnas will help us to understand that the more compassionate we are and the better we learn to accept those that are different from us, the better it is for everyone in the end.
Geetika Pathania Jain lives in Cupertino and teaches online media courses for the University of Phoenix. In the last week, she has visited several florists in search of tuberoses.