Rarely has a foreigner immersed himself in Indian tradition with as much gusto as the University of Hawaii’s lee Siegel. Siegel, a professor of Indian religious at the University who has written serious scholarly books on Indian street magicians and folk dancers, has produced and exceptionally learned and yet extraordinary funny first novel that some Indian publisher absolutely must reprint without delay.
The first thing you will notice about Love in a Dad Language – if you are the kind of boringly disciplined reader who starts at the beginning and flips past the title page – is that the book has five dedications. The first id from Siegel himself, its author, whose literary debut this so improbably is. Then come dedications from Vatsyayana, the ancient Hindu sage who authored the classic treatise on love, the Kama Sutra; Leopard Roth, the fictional professor of linguistics whose attempt at a new translation of the Kama Sutra forms the crore of this novel; Pralayananga Lilaraja, a medieval scholar and commentator on the work; and finally Anang Saighal, the Indo Jewish graduate student and sometime Stephanian who was has put the entire volume together, and who dedicates it to the other four. So even before you reach the Table of Contents, you know you are in for an unusual read.
As you delve further, you will realise that love in a Dead Language keeps getting more inventive. The reader is supposed to be holding in his hands Roth’s desultory attempts at translating the Kama Sutra, together with his own commentary. But the “commentary” is in fact not a gloss on the text but an autobiographical account of the professor’s obsession with (and seduction of) an Indo-American student. Lalita Gupta. (None of the names is accidentally chosen: Roth evokes the American author of the sex-obsessed Portnoy’s Complaint, and Lalita is an allusion to Lolita, which is not the only tribute to the writer Vladimir Nabokov in this novel). These two texts – the Kama Sutra and Roth’s confessional commentary on it – are complemented by scholarly comments from Pralayananga, and extensive footnotes, many also autobiographical, by Saighal. It is Saighal, the student, who completes the narrative after Roth is disgraced for sexual harassment and murdered by an unknown assailant who strikes the libidinous professor on the head with Monier-Williams’ massive Sanskrit-English dictionary.
The structure of the novel is wonderfully preposterous, but this is not all: the books is interspersed with extracts of screen plays of Hollywood B-movies about India, posters for Mira Nair’s film Kama Sutra, a term paper complete with teacher’s notations, pages from a comic book version of the Kama Sutra, screens from a CD-ROM, and even a board-game.If all of this isn’t clever enough, three quarters of the way through the book you are obliged to turn it upside down, since one chapter is printed that way, deliberately and in red. The publishers of this master work deserve a prize of some sort for their creative collaboration in Siegel’s methodical madness.
With Love in a Dead Language, Siegel has taken the post-modern novel to a sort of post-post-modern stage. I would love to see what literary scholars make of a work that so assiduously deconstructs itself at every opportunity. If the author’s inventiveness is limit less, so is his felicity with language. Siegel masters a dazzling variety of styles and voices: the learned academic, the gauche campus student newspaper, the mediocre student, the semi-literate jock. Siegel can write credible Victorian prose, parodic Hinglish and contemporary American slang with equal aplomb, and in one place manages to imitate four different literary styles in one side-splitting footnote. He gets his Indian details largely right, albeit from the perspective of an American visitor who clearly knows and loves our country (though one cannot, alas, study Latin at St Stephen’s – a college that may be elitist but is not that elitist!). Love in a Dead Language is a virtuoso feat, a work of brilliance and originally that is both intellectually stimulating and hysterically funny.
The final joke is a hilarious bibliography that looks more convincing than many a real one. I was so reluctant to put the book that I found myself trawling the index for jokes. I think there are a couple embedded there, inserted with a straight face by a scholar who has soared above the limitations of scholarship to give us a work that will delight anyone who cares about love, India, or the pleasures of language.