Towards the end of Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as the alien spacecraft is about to make contact with the planet Earth, among the people who have gathered to see the landing is a scientist, played by the talented French film director, François Truffaut. Setting aside his rational scepticism, Truffaut looks at the extravagant sight of the spacecraft with a childlike wonder, visible on his face as his eyebrows widen, eyes go bigger, and the flicker of a smile appears on his awestruck face. Years of reason-based digital logic fade away; innocent amazement replaces that, and he looks as if he is witnessing a miracle.
The fresh-faced nature of that discovery has an older cinematic parallel: Think of young Apu and Durga rushing to the palash field after they hear the sound of the train, looking for the engine both ways, stunned as the train rushes through the Bengali landscape, in Satyajit Ray’s film, Pather Panchali (1955). Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, who wrote the novel, had titled that chapter Achenar Anand, or the delight of the unknown.
In his new novel, Gods without Men, Hari Kunzru seeks to capture that sense of wonder about contact with the unexplainable. Kunzru does not have a personal interest in unidentified flying objects, but he is interested in the people who are fascinated by them. Whether there is life in outer space, and whether the aliens are interested in contacting us interests him less than the certainty with which people believe that is the case.
Creator and canvas: (from left) Kunzru (photo by Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times); and the Mojave Desert in which the author’s new novel is set (photo by Doug Dolde/ Wikimedia Commons).
For his fourth novel, Kunzru takes us to the Mojave Desert in the American West, where a strange formation has attracted all sorts of believers—former scientists, hippies, and, as we discover in this novel, a New York-based hedge fund trader called Jaswinder Matharu and his wife Lisa, an editor—trying to figure out if there is someone else out there, and if so, what it means. Kunzru doesn’t provide an answer, but he creates a majestic, magical canvas filled with memorable characters, all disparate, none likely to meet the other in real life, and yet, through the quirk of coincidences and credible turns of plot, he connects them, weaving a narrative as rich as a Native American quilt.
In the process, he writes what the writer and critic Lisa Appignanesi calls Kunzru’s Great American Novel. The landscape is epic: a military site, a desert, a place where missiles are developed, and where an ancient culture persists; the interest, the supernatural. “The people who were fascinated by the UFOs were also interested in theology and a particular form of spiritualism, as an anxious response to the nuclear world. Humanity has always been interested in aliens,” he says when we meet over coffee on a sunny morning in London. The psychic content, the end-of- civilization quality of the experience interests Kunzru.
Gods without Men: Hamish Hamilton, 384 pages £12.99 (around Rs975.
Born in Britain, Kunzru’s Kashmiri family on his father’s side produced lawyers. Kunzru’s father, an orthopaedic surgeon, came to Britain in the 1960s. He married an Englishwoman; Hari was born in 1969, named after Haribaba, as his grand-uncle, Hridaynath Kunzru (an associate of the freedom fighter Gopal Krishna Gokhale), was known within the family. Kunzru studied the humanities at Oxford, wrote for magazines like Wired, and later The New Yorker, and was named one of Britain’s best young novelists by Granta magazine in 2003. Kunzru’s first novel, The Impressionist (2002), was, as he describes it, “an elbow nudge” to the English in India and the stories it spawned. Transmission (2004) was a comic novel, a satirical take on a software engineer who creates an artificial entity that might devour the computing world. My Revolutions (2007) captured the eternal cyclicality of radicalism, a teleological argument about aggression. Gods without Men, Kunzru says, is about faith, reason, the unknown, and the unexplainable.
The America that Kunzru introduces us to is truly off the beaten track. There is New York, and there are some references to cities on the West Coast, but essentially, this story is about the desert. Kunzru loved the desert, which he travelled through a couple of years ago with friends. He was in America as a fellow at the New York Public Library, working on a book about Akbar and Birbal, getting caught up in the exciting whirl of US presidential elections, when friends suggested he join them for the trip. While travelling through the desert, staying in motels in small towns, the idea of the novel was born. “That landscape connects everything—a single person, the empty space, a civilization,” he says.
Gods without Men begins with a Native American tale about a coyote and its many lives, and quickly moves to the story of an aircraft engineer who has seen visions, and who is obsessed by the sky at night, hoping to contact the planet Venus. He thinks there are signs there, and messages to be deciphered. There is also a miner, who hears sounds in stones. There are Native Americans and émigré Iraqis, who delight in assisting the American army learn how to win hearts and minds in Iraq. The soldiers prepare for their mission in Iraq through simulation, and the Iraqis play hostile natives. There is a British rock star, trying to find meaning in his life, a caricature of drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, sex and fame.
At the centre of the story is a four-year-old boy, an autistic child, managing whom takes a toll on the relationship of the parents, Lisa and Jaz. Lisa is Jewish, and has crossed a cultural barrier in marrying Jaz, just as Jaz has. Kunzru describes the charms and awkwardness of a cross-cultural relationship.
Circumcision is a ritual of great importance for Lisa, because not subjecting her son to it is the denial of Jewish identity; Jaz doesn’t want it, because refusing to submit oneself to that ritual is symbolic of the Sikh-Muslim conflict. Neither is particularly religious; neither likes all the traditions that are part of their heritage. Yet, neither is able to remove his and her self from the ingrained expectations of the community, finding the partner they’ve chosen to make home with to be unreasonable instead. Cross-cultural dynamics have rarely been shown with such empathy in fiction. “People have intimate, sentimental attachments with their culture, and that interests me,” Kunzru says.
But the main story is about the boy, whose needs bring the couple to the desert. Raj is a difficult child to handle, and Lisa has become a full-time mother; Jaz finds the stress-filled life at a hedge fund, and the moral choices it forces upon him, difficult, and they leave for the Mojave Desert. What has also prompted Jaz’s decision to go west is his hunch, that an extremely powerful computer program called Walter that he and his colleagues have developed, has somehow precipitated the crash of the Honduran economy. Trained to identify market inefficiencies and gaps between prices, the program seeks out opportunities for traders, and when traders leave the program on autopilot, it buys and sells commodities, currencies, products and futures with ruthless efficiency, sucking profits, leaving the real economy on the ropes. Walter attempts to model reality and chaos follows. Is it the butterfly in Indonesia flapping its wings that caused the hurricane in New Orleans? Who knows? Is it the program and its determined trades that brought about the global economic chaos? Who knows? Jaz is uncomfortable with that; his boss tells him to enjoy the bonus. Jaz wants time out.
So they reach the desert. But the demanding child brings the couple to breaking point. Lisa leaves them for a night out; the following day, when they attempt reconciliation as they walk away from the stroller, Raj disappears. Kunzru shows how the public mood shifts from sympathy to dislike to horror and hatred for the couple because Lisa and Jaz are not emotive enough (a reference to a similar British story involving the McCanns in Portugal, whose daughter was abducted in 2007 and has not yet been found). “In America you externalize your emotions to show that you possess them,” Kunzru says. Lisa and Jaz don’t. The child is found months later, and nothing really explains how; and Jaz—the man of science, of certainties, of logic—begins to look for hidden meanings and messages.
“If you take faith seriously, you have to follow through how it shapes people’s lives. There are experiences of the unknown and the unknowable. How do people negotiate with them? Through reason? Or faith? Or a bit of both? What do you do when you reach the limit of your ability to explain through only reason, or only faith? How comfortable are you with that?” Kunzru asks.
These are profound questions. They don’t have pat answers. If we knew those, we could claim to be gods. But we are women and men, and sometimes children. That reality will continue to elude us. But that makes our lives more interesting. What would be the point of living it, if we knew all the answers?
Salil Tripathi writes the fortnightly column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org