Book Review: When Loss is Gain by Pavan K. Varma

Set in contemporary India and Bhutan, the novel commences with Bulle Shah’s verse:

“A lifetime wasted in trying to win

Now lose, O faquir,

Half a grain the price of winning

A diamond the art of losing”

providing a glimpse into the author’s philosophy, explored in much detail in latter half of the book. Anand, a budding lawyer exhibits the life of a modern man who driven by ambition, power and money is fixated with the sterile politics of his workplace and his waning role in the power structure of his best friend’s legal firm. Blinded by ambition, he fails to fathom his crumbling relationship with his wife, Tanu; and his best friend’s affair with his wife. But once, diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and a few months to live, he begins to contemplate the transcendental nature of life and awakens to breathe in the beauty all around him “It was dusk now. For a moment the sun paused on the horizon, and then quietly disappeared into the womb of the night. It struck me how I had never noticed these things before.”

The life half lived

Acting as the author’s mouthpiece, Anand surveys the futility of modern man’s endeavor to be a part of the rat race. Condemned to death sentence, he laments the life half – lived, misplaced priorities, fluttering away of precious gift of life bestowed upon him, “I’d had the gift of life, and I had treated it so utterly, utterly shabbily…The sheer waste of it all and no time left to make amends…The seasons came and went, but each day for me had the same monochrome tone to it, grey with worry and angst and the drudgery of routine, with never a moment for madness or abandon, every source of joy – offered without reason or a price tag – stubbornly shut out of it as if of no consequence…the lost opportunities, the foolish choices, the wrong priorities, and the possibilities of happiness never tapped.”

Ridiculing mankind’s arrogance and their irrelevance in larger scheme of things, he discerns “one person in one part of one town of one country of one planet that did not amount to even a speck against the immeasurable vastness of the cosmos; and yet, each of us took our lives so seriously, as though we were the very fulcrum of the universe.”

The Second Chance and a new beginning

Granted with reprieve, the doctor informs Anand about the inaccuracy of the initial diagnosis and that he is cancer-free. Absorbing life with new vigor, captivated by ‘marvel of a new life, of being born again’, he resolves to set right his errors. Unexpectedly, an unknown property materializes which was ‘bought as an investment, but never visited’ along with savings which provides enough for Anand to lead a simple life till his death. Siding fate with Anand, the narrator topples the affluence of Advaita to an extent where Advaita’s beseeches Anand to join him as a partner in his law firm. Juxtaposing Anand’s upsurge with Advaita’s and Tanu’s ruination, the author rips apart the house of cards inhabited by them, so much so, Tanu relinquishes the world in quest of spirituality and peace while Anand finds peace and bliss and builds a new life with Tara.

Retreating to the Himalayan nation, Anand contemplates about spending his life as a recluse; when Chimi bridging a gap between spiritual and physical world thrusts him towards a fuller life and postulates the central tenet of the book, “Wade into life, Anand. Celebrate it in all its aspects. Don’t build walls around yourself. Explode the barriers around you…Don’t just sit on the bank of the river. Take a plunge in its icy cold waters. Then you will live fully this life which is God’s gift to you.” Debating the dialectics of Buddhism voiced by Tara and Hinduism represented by Chimi, of complete renunciation and accepting desire as “one aspect of the glorious canvas of life, a source of joy to be celebrated and not confined as not confined as something dirty to the dark corners of our minds’, Anand embraces a balanced worldview of Hinduism where ‘dharma, artha and kama must be pursued in proportion and not in exclusion”. Denigrating nunnery, Karma tries to dissuade Tara of becoming one, “Escape my little nun, escape! Let the floods wash away all your useless knowledge so you can laugh like me.”

Bridging conflicting philosophies

Bringing these conflicting worldviews to a close, the author champions Hinduism and in rapid although abrupt and dramatic turn of events, Tara abdicates nunnery and gets married to Anand. Tara, ultimately discerns ‘Sorrow was a reality that would not go away, and joy was a possibility that must not only be grasped but celebrated’ and returns to Delhi with Anand to live a balanced life.

Championing harmony between sorrow and joy, physical and spiritual; the novel is fraught with a loose structure and the author seems to philosophize excessively in some parts of the book which swerve the reader’s attention.

The abrupt and hasty culmination of events seems forceful to shove the novel towards a happy ending where everything represented by Anand is endorsed and comeuppance seems to visit those who have forsaken Anand.

The author primarily concerned with espousing the philosophy of Hinduism compromises with the story and the structure of the book; however, the novel is a good read for those interested in philosophy.

Title: When Loss is Gain

Author: Pavan K. Varma

Publisher: Rupa Publication

Pages: 208

Genre: Philosophy

Rating: 3/5

Buy it from: Amazon Flipkart

About the Author

Pawan K. Varma studied history at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, and took a degree in law from Delhi University. A member of the Indian Foreign Service, he has been press secretary to the president of India, the official spokesman of the Foreign Office as well as the director general of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. His assignments abroad include mission to the United Nations, in London where he was director of the Nehru Centre, and as India’s high commissioner in Cyprus. He is at present India’s ambassador to Bhutan.

Pawan K. Verma is the author of several acclaimed and bestselling books, among them Ghalib: The Man, The Times Krishna: The Playful Divine; The Great Indian Middle Class; Being Indian: The Truth about why the 21st century will be India’s and Becoming Indian: The Unfinished Revolution of Culture and Identity. He has also translated into English the poetry of Gulzar, Kaifi Azmi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. When Loss Is Gain is his first work of fiction. (Courtesy: Flipkart)

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