Friday, May 10, 2013

Forgotten Book: The Last Labyrinth by Arun Joshi

Relationships are often complex, holding the men and women involved in a vortex of emotions. Som Bhaskar, the protagonist of Arun Joshi's prize-winning novel The Last Labyrinth, seems to have it all: a beautiful, sensible wife; two adorable children; education at the world’s finest universities; an industrial empire; millions in the bank; every conceivable luxury…and yet. And yet, Bhaskar hankers for more. An insatiable hunger for more drives him. He tries to satiate it by ruthlessly crushing competition, taking over more companies, getting into affairs, and yet the cry resounds in his ears: I want. I want. I want. I want....



And then he meets Anuradha. Wife of business-man Aftab Rai, whose business Bhaskar is about to take over, Anuradha in Bhaskar's eyes is like a tall, handsome, ruined monument. Obsolete, he thinks she is. And yet, she gets into his blood. He thinks that if he is able to possess her, he'll be able to get her out of his system. The affair does happen but instead of being ejected, Anuradha becomes an obsession, a drug he cannot live without. His marriage falls apart, his business starts suffering loses, his well-wishers caution him against Anuradha and yet he cannot let her go..... And Aftab Rai's business does not get taken over. A maze of truths, half-truths, and lies holds the protagonists in its web.

If the summary makes it sound like a cheap thriller, the book is certainly not that. Strongly reminiscent of Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, the book lingers with one. There are certain haunting passages like the one in   the dargah of Hazrat Nizammudin Aulia where the transience of wealth and power is discussed, or the Lal Haveli with its blue room, its sarcophagus, and its labyrinth, or the circular chamber of the temple high up on the hills where secrets unfold. And how often in books do you come across Begum Akhtar's singing?




I had heard a lot about Arun Joshi who is considered one of India's foremost literary figures but had never read him. But after reading this book I am convinced of his mastery. This extract (read somewhere) had gripped me like nothing else and put this book on my wishlist:

Why is the sea so grey here? It is blue down in Goa and bluer still on the coast of Ceylon. They have a city by her name over there. Anuradhapura. A city of ruins. I was sent there once by my father - to negotiate deals. I tried to know the prices of things, the structure of discounts. They only talked of Nirvana and that other visitor, the Royal Bhikku, Mahinda, Ashoka's messanger, and how when he spoke in King Tissa's Court the Emperor wept. So did the courtiers. The Sakyamuni, the Tathagata, still lived among them, I was told, which meant some one had beat me to the contract. I couldn't care less. I drank all the way back thinking of what I had read on a board beside a spiky monument. 'There are beings who perish through not knowing the Dhamma' said the battered board. 'Go Ye forth, O Bhikkus, and proclaim the Dhamma. There will be some who will understand....' Flying past Madurai I thought yes, there must be some, somewhere, who understood. But where? And giving up, I drank all the more. At Santa Cruz, amidst the din of the customs, my father said, "You should not have drunk so much. What after all is a contract?"

"It is not the contract, " I said.

"What is it then?"

I told him.

He put his hand on my shoulder and looked into my eyes, his face flushed with emotion and embarrassment. A week later he was dead, of a heart attack, between four and five in the morning, according to K.

I was twenty five and a millionaire.

If you like books with philosophical questions about life, the purpose of this world, and the unrelenting yearning to find something meaningful than go for this book. And even if not, than go for this book for certain evocative passages that will linger long in your memory.

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First Line: Above all, I have a score to settle.

Title: The Last Labyrinth

Author: Arun Joshi

Publication Details: ND: Vision Books, 1981.

First Published: 1981

Pages: 224

Trivia: The novel won the Sahitya Akademi award in the Best Novel in English category.

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Having recently been republished, the book is easily available on the Net. I borrowed it from the College Library [ 823.93 AJ ].



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Submitted for the following challenges: 52 Books in 52 Weeks, 2013 Mystery/ Crime, Classics Reading, Let Me Count the Ways, New Authors, South Asian, Wishlist.

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Entry for Friday's Forgotten Books.

6 comments:

  1. This doesn't seem like my kind of book, Neer. But I still enjoyed your review. I love your enthusiasm because it makes me realize yet again, that there are many different types of stories, of writers, of worlds created - enough to suit readers of every stripe.

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    1. Yes Yvette, it'd be a bland world indeed if we all had the same taste. :) I don't really go for much philosophical stuff (some of it is down right posing) but this one I really enjoyed. And also it had a very Indian flavour which I don't see very often in English writing in India.

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  2. Well reviewed, Neer. I wouldn't mind reading this book partly because of the plot and partly because it's by an Indian. Haven't read too many novels by Indian authors.

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    1. Thank you so much Prashant. Do read the book. I'd love to read your reaction to it as I really liked it.

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  3. Sounds great Neer - a completely new author for me so thanks very much for the reccommendation.

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    1. It is a definitely a book that stays with you. glad you liked the review. Hope you are able to get a copy of it as I'd love to read your reaction to it. It has an Indian touch but deals with a universal question.

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