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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 52 December 23 & 30, 2023

Review: Subramanian on ’Phantom Lovers: Two Novellas’ by Achala Moulik

Saturday 23 December 2023, by K S Subramanian


Book Review

Phantom Lovers: Two Novellas
by Achala Moulik

Niyogi Books

2023 | 384 Pages
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 8196405332
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-8196405335

The author, a civil servant-scholar, has the gift for writing about human love in the midst of violence and conflict. The volume contains two moving ‘novellas’; one on India titled ‘With Fate Conspire’ and the other on Afghanistan titled Wait!

The author’s Note on the first novella draws from Rabindranath Tagore’s dance drama (Shapmochan or ‘Effacing the Curse’), in which two celestial lovers Madhusri and Saurasen, were banished from heaven by a god’s decree due to a musical lapse. They were sent to earth, where ‘pain is inflicted and pain is received.’. Born as mortals and separated by the god’s curse, they are reunited by the power of human love.

In this story, two mortals-Julian and Radha-find love on earth but are separated by the 1857 war that shook India and made foes of erstwhile friends, and enemies of lovers. They meet again beyond the boundaries of life and death and across strange frontiers of time.

In this unique story, a young British civil servant, Julian Ruthven, is in love with Radha Chowdhury, daughter of a Bengali landlord. Facing family resistance, the lovers, on a stormy night, elope to their imagined paradise. However, the Indian freedom struggle of 1857 intervenes and the hero, informed that his sister was reported killed during the Anti-British violence, joins the war against the Indian forces. His Indian wife Radha, leaves him after writing a moving letter of love. Julian is then shot dead in the violence; Radha’s son was taken by his grandparents to England. Radha herself retires to Shri Chaitanya Ashram in Nabadwip and dies there. Her reincarnated soul also goes there for refuge and becomes Madhusri.

Intriguingly, a century later the phantom love affair between Julian and Radha reappears at the London School of Economics, where Alexander and Madhusri become lovers. They become aware their past lives while purchasing an exquisite engagement ring ‘emerald solitaire’ with the letters in gold J and R for ‘Julian’ and ‘Radha’, representing the lovers of the previous century.

She concludes the novella with ng Quatrain 73 of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat:
ah love/Could thou and I with Fate Conspire/To grasp this Sorry Scheme of Things Entire! Would not we shatter it to bits-and then-remould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!

Tagore recaptured!

The second novella is inspired by the poem ‘Wait!’ by Konstantin Simonov (1915-1979) and devoted to the unending struggle for peace by the people Afghanistan.

From 1975 the Afghan King Zahir Shah was in Rome for an eye surgery when his cousin Mohammed Daoud Khan seized political power in Afghanistan, declared the country a republic with himself as President with Soviet support. The King, not believing in confrontation, formally gives up his royal position and power.

Rustom Ferghani and Ms. Minoti Ray, in the University College, London, who planned idyllic life together were constrained by enormous challenges. The violent coup of April 1978 which changed Afghanistan and the lives and politics of the people. The turbulent story of the lives and struggles of Rustom Ferghani and Minoti Ray come out graphically in the frequent correspondence between the couple in love. They write moving love letters to each other, she from the college hostel in London too he, from his prison cell in Afghanistan. This resembles Kalidasa’s Meghdoot.

Describing the unlikely love affair between Rustom Ferghani an Afghan Muslim and the Indian Hindu Brahmin woman, the author quotes the great Russian poet Pushkin: ‘this is magic indeed. How did it come to us, unsought and undeserved’?

Minoti’s father, a Hindu Brahmin from India, who was opposed to the idea of his daughter marrying an Afghan Muslim, adopts his son Tarun’s advice that that Minoti should meet with his friend Naveen Sen who works for the of the Goldman Sachs Investment Bank in the US. Naveen and Minoti do meet at her apartment in London and like each other. Minoti wishes that Naveen had met her earlier. The author excels in the ty discussion on the subject. But then Minoti is already engaged to Rustom Ferghani an Afghan scholar and teacher she had met earlier.
Rustom is a scholar and lecturer in international law admiring of Indian culture and civilisation. He loves Minoti Rai and is keen to marry her He is willing to wait and allow time for Minoti to complete her studies in international law. He is ready to defy his father who holds d a high position in the Afghan army and keen that his son should get married in the ruling family to advance his own career.

Rustom leaves for Kabul to persuade his parents to approve his desire to marry a Hindu girl from India. He has no interest in politics though he gets drawn into the maelstrom of politics of Afghanistan given his brilliant academic credentials. He believed that the ruler prince Daoud would usher in a new era in the state. He encounters pressure from his father to make a marriage of convenience with the niece of President Daoud’s wife Princess Zubeida. But Rustom would only agree to marry the woman he loves, Ms, Minoti from India.

Fast moving political developments lead to the exit of President Daoud’s government on 28 April 1978.In the course of events Rustom’s father General Ferghani is killed and Rustom himself imprisoned.

Hafizullah Amin a bloodthirsty leader of the ruling People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, becomes President of the country. Rustom wrote to Minoti that the departure of King Zahir Shah had changed the course of their lives and of the people.

The author shows how Soviet intervention makes changes possible in the affairs of the state in Afghanistan.

The author handles with finesse the many surprising twists and turns in the politics of Afghanistan in which Rustom plays a role. The author handles with finesse the complexities in the relations between Rustom and Minoti. After several years of the waiting, they do manage to fulfil their life long desire to get married. Minoti’s parents however are not able to attend the wedding ceremony.

After marriage, Rustom and Minoti are able to live in turbulent Afghanistan working for the welfare of the popular masses.

The author writes with a brilliant touch and her masterly exposition must be admired. The book is grippingly interesting and must be read.

The gifted author was Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India. She has published books on political and cultural history, novels, and a play on Pushkin, Russia’s poet. She received the prestigious Pushkin Medal, 2011 and the Sergei Yesenin Prize, 2013

(Reviewer: KS Subramanian was Director-General of the State Institute of Public Administration and Rural Development in the Northeastern state of Tripura)

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