‘Like Being Alive Twice’: Dharini Bhaskar’s new novel reflects on how love forces our hand

Recently, after a hearty lunch in a beautiful house, someone said to me that development is good. That is what matters. If someone is delivering it, what use is weighing the moral stakes of their politics? There have been other abundant dining tables, other lovely homes – always the same placation. Perhaps this indifference would have rankled the same at any time, or perhaps we came of age in a particularly poisoned moment.

In Like Being Alive Twice, the dance of everyday life takes place in a similarly development-pilled world, and the messy business of love becomes messier. A mountain town and a moment of tension: the future splits open into the probable and the possible. Facing our protagonist Poppy are two doors: a blue one through which she steps into life as it should be, and a yellow one which leads to an alternate, sort of inverted imagination of it – all spurred by a flash of desire.

Dharini Bhaskar debuted to much critical acclaim with These Our Bodies Possessed by Light. Borrowing its title from Richard Siken’s Scheherazade, the book teased the threads of love and womanhood into interesting knots. Like Being Alive Twice also walks in these footsteps, drawing its title from the poem The Defeated, where Linda Gregg memorably writes of idyll: “Already what I remember most is the happiness of seeing you. Having tea. Falling asleep. Waking up with you there awake in the kitchen. It was like being alive twice.”

The doors taken (and not taken)

The stories these doors lead to run parallel to each other in alternate universes, the paths of the same characters intertwined in complicated ways. Strong-headed and bright, Poppy is an impulsive young woman; as life stretches out ahead of her, childhood observations about her parents’ relationship become tools to calibrate her present and future. The roads she walks on are all shadowed by her mother – a formidable presence, in her style and stature, and tangled in her own webs of wants. Tariq – or Tar, as he is referred to throughout the book – is a writer, sober and charming. Poppy is in love with him, but separately and importantly, she is also in love with his mother, who glides in and out of their lives in mismatched colours and with crystal truths.

Choosing the blue door means a life drizzled over with this magic, but also its colours slowly bleaching out because the world around them is changing. A new dystopian system of points is about to be introduced, one that will govern every action, every decision: where they live, what they do, who they choose as theirs. At the center of this system is a logic of purity and order – interfaith marriage reduces the number of points to your name, as does divorce, or the inability to conceive naturally. On the other hand, praising the government, extolling the virtues of the powerful, or becoming a vigilante of this orthodox moral code are all definite means to add points.

Yana is Poppy’s (only) friend, works in the same office as her, and travels with Poppy and Tar to the mountain town, where the crossroads in the story appear. It is here that they also meet Yuvi, who is affluent and nice; in Poppy’s eyes, he is normalcy manifest – he is not trouble. Behind the yellow door is a marriage with Yuvi who falls into ordinary patterns, his depth not defined by the moral calculus of desires. When Poppy chooses Yuvi, Tar goes to Yana, and in these new directions, they make homes and routines and corners of their own.

Still, in both lives, the temptation of different beckons. In this tiered system, the Baghs are places of respectable residence and require the highest points; naturally, Yuvi claims space there. Next come the Bastis, where lower points correspond to lower standards of living. With Tar, life is either in one of these Bastis, or worse yet, in the worst places to live in this hierarchy: the Mohallas, where the negative point-holders are banished. Sometimes frustrated, other times desperate, Poppy finds herself at thresholds beyond which is the sensation of rush; with its mirages of validation and relief, infidelity entices.

Quantifiable human lives

Of this life of thwarted ambition and persistent hope, Linda Gregg is the patron saint. Her poems are a kind of lamppost for Poppy, in this life and that, finding her in moments of complete serenity, sometimes on the cliffs of indecision, but also when the crest breaks and the waves wash her over.

You could read one as a story of courage, another of cowardice; or think of both as meditations on the way love forces our hand. But it is perhaps read better as a requiem for all that is lost in a world where the experience of human life becomes quantifiable, measured against utility.

Bhaskar’s is a narrative of subtleties: often, in a lingering look, other times in a moment of hesitation, what is communicated dwarfs the need for unwieldy conversation. The understated dialogue serves the novel well, leaving readers with a kind of haze that hangs over this place not so foreign. The author’s descriptive exploration of the characters’ emotional landscapes rushes in to fill the outlines of this roughly sketched world, and all of this is done without adopting despair as style. Bhaskar’s voice is sharp, the contours of her storytelling are tastefully restrained, and coherence between the motivations of characters emerges organically, no matter the choices they finally make.

In places, however, Like Being Alive Twice reads very slowly, some of the scenes unfolding with such deliberate pauses that you can almost feel the effort to emphasise their importance. This is especially evident at points where the effort to build emotional intensity results in staying in the room with characters too long, the fragrance of a feeling turning into an odour.

Despite this, without doubt, this is a novel that looks at the world and its walls thoughtfully. Obliquely but masterfully, it considers what relationship young people of means can have with a politics of meagreness, while continually wondering who we can be to each other in a time trapped in the want for more.

Like Being Alive Twice, Dharini Bhaskar, Penguin India.

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