I’d like to imagine R Raj Rao as an Indian Trocchi, scornful of the staidness, the conventionality of so much Indian writing in English, the self-congratulatory upper middle-class bleating of our literary establishment. For a time it looked as if he might be that figure, an Indian Genet who would bring queer identity, the objectification of young working class men, an entire homosexual subculture of cruising spots and anonymous public sex into the mainstream. Six of his poems, Waspish and closely observed, inspired Bomgay (1996), the late Riyad Vinci Wadia’s short film, often described as India’s first gay film. His first novel, The Boyfriend, was unashamed, a study of love via the toilets of Churchgate station. Rao was also a productive academic, a professor of English at Pune University, introducing a course on LGBT literature in 2007, one of the first in the country, and an activist described by colleagues as an ‘icon’. ‘Raj’, Amit Chaudhuri writes in a blurb that appears on the cover of Rao’s third and most recent novel, Lady Lolita’s Lover, is ‘an excellent writer. The literary landscape would be poorer without him.’
With such a build-up, the reader is entitled to expect an author at the heart of his powers, a ‘maverick’, to borrow again from Chaudhuri, bringing us truth and beauty from a hitherto unilluminated corner of Indian life. The title of the novel, a mashup of DH Lawrence and Vladimir Nabokov, suggests Rao doesn’t lack confidence. The Boyfriend had the advantage of freshness, of a new voice saying new things. Yudi, the novel’s protagonist, a freelance journalist, acknowledges, if only to himself, that ‘some of his stories earned him more than the going rate because they were offbeat enough to titillate the repressed middle class reader.’ Épater le bourgeois is a venerable literary tactic, a necessary means to shake the reader from complacent torpor, to confront him with his prejudices, to challenge convention. But the thing about shock is that by the third time round, its effects wear thin.
The Boyfriend, for the bourgeois reader was an introduction to a world, its mores and cultural codes. Yudi, like his creator, was an ideal guide, a protean figure moving fluidly between worlds, between languages and registers, able to pass both in gay nightclubs and in mainstream settings. Sandesh, the titular lover in Rao’s new novel, is a small town boy duped into stealing his father’s life savings. He flees to Mumbai where he does a menial job delivering DVDs. In this job, he meets the tall, fair, lissom Lolita, a Bengali transplant whose husband is in the merchant navy, leaving her alone in their high-rise apartment for as long as an entire year. Lolita, in a reversal of roles from Nabokov’s celebrated novel of sexual obsession, is twice her 15-year-old lover’s age. Her husband, when he eventually finds out, gathers some goons and beats Sandesh to the point where he needs lakhs worth of reconstructive surgery. This is followed by a trial where Lolita and her husband are found guilty of various offences but punished with little more than a fine. Meanwhile, Sandesh has begun a long-term affair with his much older male lawyer. Eventually, Sandesh, Lolita and her husband do violently cross paths again after much implausible manipulation.
Rao’s plot is absurd, a potboiler disguised with literary non sequiturs. He quotes other authors compulsively, relying, for instance, on Arundhati Roy to itemise Sandesh’s injuries. It is sadly typical of Lady Lolita’s Lover. As the title suggests, Rao hopes it’s enough to gesture at other writers and rely on the reader to wring meaning and draw connections from their reading of those works rather than the novel at hand. Rao is unwilling to ask moral questions of his characters, to follow the implications of exploitative relationships, of the rich fetishising the poor or the old fetishising the young, of malleable sexual identities, of violence. The result is a novel that’s thoughtless and slapdash.