A Dalliance with Destiny is an ambitious book that goes wide, but unfortunately, not deep enough. It meanders aimlessly, much like the protagonist, making it a slow and laborious read.
Milan Gansham is a fourth-generation South African of Indian origin who is ‘angst-ridden about his roots’. Having experienced racism, bigotry and heartbreak in his home country and disillusioned with life there, he embarks on a trip to India to find answers. Answers to questions that he does not have yet.
The book "spans a century across South Africa and India" as per the blurb and it starts in 1910 with a poverty-stricken Jagat Thakur being forced to leave his village and immigrate to South Africa as an enlisted labourer. However, his story ends quite abruptly, and not much is said about the following two generations, leaving the reader with some unanswered questions.
Later in the novel, when Milan searches for his ancestral villages in India, one would have expected a poignant moment connecting his past and present. Instead, all you get is a highly implausible sequence of events that only serves to reinforce Milan's saviour complex.
The three sections of the book, though part of the same story seem disconnected from each other. He explores Bombay's red-light district, travels to the Osho ashram in Pune expecting unrestricted sex there, and attends drug-fueled parties on Goa's beaches before starting his journey to the Ganga's source. This is as though he wants to be done with his vices before embarking on the spiritual part of the trip which takes him to Varanasi and later to Kashmir and Rishikesh, but his vices continue to follow him.
In Calcutta, he finds himself in the unlikely company of academics where he meets Dr Aparna John. He immediately moves in with her for a whirlwind affair because she ‘satisfies his intellect’. Later he meets the ‘chaste’ Maya, who hesitates to even kiss him. She, being the opposite of the sexually available Aparna and the other ‘goris’ and the ‘desperate desi girls who were afraid after hitting thirty’ that he was used to so long, he finally falls in love.
While Milan himself is a victim of racism and bigotry in his country, he exhibits the same tendencies himself with a huge dose of misogyny to boot. He has major insecurities about his caste and despite how self-deprecating they may appear to be, his casteist comments range from repulsive to shockingly offensive.
Milan’s trip to India is set in 2010, but even for that period, the narration seems to be dated and full of stereotypes and cliches. There are taxi drivers with ‘ghetto moustaches’ who play Dum maaro dum in their taxis and a tiresome running joke throughout the book about how all taxi drivers are named Raju.
Even the movie references seem to be from another era. Milan visits Jalsa, the house of ‘the angry young man’ hoping to meet him, but is informed that the star ‘has gone to Madras for a shoot’.
He also is extremely patronising about ‘Indian English’ and there is an incident where he uses a crude Hindi euphemism assuming that the pharmacist will not understand the word ‘condom’. There is an overdose of crass sexual references that pepper the entire book which could have been toned down.
Even the supposedly intelligent discussions where he talks about Pythagoras stealing his theorem from Baudhanya or the Taj Mahal being built on top of a temple seem to be inspired by old Internet forwards that have done several rounds over the years. He even mentions how he does not want India to be controlled by "an ex-barmaid" or that it will be "taken over by Italians.” Such done-to-death political comebacks that flooded social media during the period of the story seem quite out of place when reading the book in the present.
There is a bit too much detail when it comes to describing anything Indian since the book appears to have been written keeping non-Indian readers in mind. A reader familiar with such events tends to skip or skim through those portions. However, several incidents also give you the impression that the author is unfamiliar with life in India. For example, while travelling in a second-class AC train compartment, Milan and his friend share a berth in order to save money. Or when he pays a driver for a tour company a bribe of one lakh rupees and assumes that this is the driver’s monthly salary. There are also several incidents where people immediately identify and treat Milan as a firang which seems quite far-fetched, given that he is of ‘pure’ Indian descent.
The book is neither an easy read nor a page-turner. It is a work that may be read over several weeks or months because there is no overarching plot or even characters that you become invested in. There are certain passages that will interest those with a spiritual or philosophical bent, particularly Milan's interactions with the Swami in Varanasi. The vocabulary is rich and does not seem pretentious, but the book could have done with more editing to make it crisper and more relatable.
Anamika A is an IT professional based out of Coonoor
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