The Pleasure Seekers

According to the Jain religion, the body has five thieves: affection, love, desire, pride, and greed. You might be wondering how you could reasonably protect yourself against the first three without becoming a friendless hermit. Members of the Patel-Jones family—whose multigenerational stories drive Tishani Doshi's congenial first novel—share to varying degrees that very same concern. 


The Pleasure Seekers' primary pleasure seekers are Babo Patel and Siân Jones, who meet in London, in 1968. Their overpowering love upsets their minds and disturbs their bodies. It causes Babo, a young Indian man, to begin eating meat and drinking alcohol, both prohibited by his Jain beliefs. It causes Siân, a young Welsh woman, to abandon her life and follow Babo to Madras, India. It gives nothing away to say that the pair lives happily ever after, body-thieves be damned, for this is a novel that privileges characters over plot. Their lives are seen in a succession of snapshots, quick scenes selected from roughly 30 years of material in which tragedies aren't terribly tragic and the everyday is mostly OK.


Babo and Siân sire two daughters, Mayuri and Beena, known as Bean. Their shared childhood— related, for better and worse, in unfiltered detail—dominates the book. The "hybrid" family lives near Babo's parents, ambitious Prem Kumar  and uneducated Trishala; his fat, interchangeable sisters; and his bachelor brother, Chotu, an unfulfilled seeker after lasting happiness. Sometimes they all visit Babo's grandmother, Ba, who can smell people from miles away and whose aphorisms inevitably prove right.


Doshi roots her cast members in time by linking major events in their lives to major events in Indian history, a conceit that unintentionally trivializes the former. Babo goes to study in England as the Soviets invade the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, for example, while another character begins suffering the initial pangs of breast cancer on the day Indira Gandhi is assassinated via shots to the torso. Salman Rushdie employs this technique too, of course, but his larger-than-life characters are better able to withstand the political and cultural shifts to which they've been lashed and are meant to allegorize.


Doshi displays more originality in her language than in her symbolism. An award-winning poet, as a novelist she demonstrates a winning facility with similes. An upset Babo has eyes "like a watercolour version of their usual metallic grey." Overcrowded Madras resembles "an adult man insisting on wearing small-boy shorts." At moments of high emotional drama, the resulting images make an impact, as when, dying, a character takes off "all the garments of illusion and strap[s] on a girdle of wind." But for the strongest of emotions, Doshi offers less  exalted metaphors: conflicted about change, Babo longs to return to his early days with Siân, with "[n]othing but the single thread of love between them, which had always been enough, more than enough."


Such feeling, Doshi implies and Bean believes to the point of rashness, is worth any amount of disturbance. Pleasure, in contrast, has milder effects but appears less rarely: in a hug from a great-grandmother, the comfort of ritual, afternoon chats with old friends. This novel gives pleasure as well; although it might not stay with you forever, at its best The Pleasure Seekers helps renew your faith in what affection, love, and desire can do.

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