Excerpt from The Enclave

    by Rohit Manchanda

    Backdrop note

    Maya, the protagonist of The Enclave, leads a freewheeling, spirited life in the Mumbai of the late 2000s, in sharp contrast to her sedate, humdrum existence of a few years ago. After her separation from her husband, with whom she’d been locked in a lacklustre marriage, she had segued – helped along by her friend Krittika – into a modus vivendi of exploration, of sampling. In so doing Maya discovered in herself a previously unsuspected appetite for the experimental relationship, for the company of men.  In this passage Maya and Krittika, who have been reunited after some years, reminisce Maya’s transition from her staid persona into her more footloose avatar of the present.

     

    In the aftermath of her separation she’d slid into a deadened, downbeat phase. Krittika had taken it upon herself to, as she used to put it, ‘rehab’ her, ‘take her out of herself’.
          And, like one stepping from the confines of a cloistered existence into the glories of wide-open sunlit spaces, Maya had been bewitched. By the terrain of this new world, by the people in it. How very different they were than those she’d known thus far. How many more the flavours they came in, how tantalizing the prospects they held out. Votaries of lives lived out on a long, loose leash; largely the sorts of people held in suspicion by the staid of the world – of which brigade she’d herself, in her prior avatar, been an exemplar. Held, at times, in fear too, as posing a menace to the ordered social weave. The sort of long-leash psyche she’d herself morphed into, in relation to, say, Reeta G and her cronies.
          ‘Tied to that Alice look,’ says Krittika, ‘you had Alice’s weakness, too, of being helpless against your curiosity. Once I’d ushered you in you became quite … well, quite the let-me-smell-what-roses-I-can type, as I recall.’
          ‘At the height of it all, yes, I did.’
          ‘There was that wonderful gunfire word you used to say you liked to live by … we lived by … zet something-something wasn’t it?’
          ‘It was,’ says Maya. She recalls it well, as how can she not; it used to be in the way of an anthem. ‘Zetetics.’
          ‘Brilliant word. Such … texture. Never come across it before or since.’
          ‘Well, I knew it only because it figured somewhere or other in my college psychology texts.’
          What a word, Maya seconds Krittika’s thought. Its phonetics suggestive now of a clickety East European vocalization, now of a riff upon a tabla. By the tenets of which she was to place the spirit of inquiry above all else. And, deferring to those tenets, almost directly she’d had a taste of this new world, she’d turned an enthused citizen of it. For she found she’d taken pretty well to it, far better than she’d have thought possible; in not much time, she’d grown naturalized to its ways. She’d stepped gingerly into her new innings, but in some time she’d gotten into her stride, and in some more had flung herself heartily into it.

    There were some pretty startling discoveries waiting to be made, for sure, reminisces Maya, on this terra nova. Through the women, Krittika foremost among them, her eyes had been opened to the kinds of niches they’d chipped out for themselves. How they placed themselves beyond the pale of convention, how they freewheeled to the beat of their own drums. And how they played the field, too. ‘The numbers of such women I came across,’ Maya tells Krittika, ‘was a big surprise. And, in time, an inspiration too. Seeded a sense of possibility in me, sort of.’
          Of offbeat ways of living, Maya reflects. Of hitching one’s wagon to the stars of exploration, inquiry, sampling.
          ‘If it was so hello-world for you with the women,’ says Krittika, ‘what must it have been with the men, I wonder.’ Krittika had witnessed only part of Maya’s evolution; soon after she’d put Maya ‘on the right track’, she’d been posted to Bangalore.
          ‘That side of it, naturally, was even more eye-opening,’ says Maya. ‘Little short of a revelation, I’d say,’ adding that the first revelation was that once she got to know them better than passingly, she found she got on extraordinarily well with the men – quite a few of them. So long, of course, she adds drily, as they weren’t the dour Samit type or other hung-up types.
          ‘What truly astonished me,’ says Maya, ‘was finding out that I got on a good deal better with men than I’d ever gotten on with women, at college or at work.’
          Got on astonishingly well with them … and then there had come to the fore that other valence to it. The great curiosity that had welled up in her, taking her unawares. Bare, unvarnished curiosity, ever mounting, self-regenerative. One that had been tamped down all these years, the fruit – the dead hand – of a constricted upbringing, typical of the space-time she’d grown up in, that of the small-town India of the 1980s. Now, that curiosity could find free play. Many an itch, long suppressed, had called out for a scratch; and hadn’t been denied.
          An effervescent hello sounds at their table. It’s emanated from a fierce-faced woman; Krittika springs up from her seat; they embrace and swap gleeful greetings. ‘Can I have a minute with you?’ the arrival says, all chin and jowls. ‘I have this proposal for you and Iqbal to promote your products around here.’ She joins the table; asking Maya to bear with them for talking shop; she and Krittika proceed to do so.
          Maya, left to herself, muses, dear god, what a fossil I’d have remained had it not been for the men in my latter-day life. For her amours have afforded her not just diversion but edification, too. Thanks to them, there’s been an unprecedented stretching out of her horizons, each of them throwing into the mix some condiment singularly their own. From the parochial she was not long ago, they’ve turned her into a cosmopolitan, if cosmopolitan she can allege herself to be.
          The best of it is, no long-range obligations are expected, or asked for. Nothing gluey about the bonds with any of these alliances of hers; to hark back to schoolroom chemistry, these ties, tenuous and delicate, are greatly more akin to those subtle Van der Waals forces that had enthralled her in the eleventh-standard lessons than to the blunt, sticky covalent bonds of the eighth standard. And it’s for the flimsiness of her attachments with them that they make for Maya the ideal companions.
          A nautical vision, when she’s put in mind of the translation she’s undergone, conjures itself: she sees herself in the light of a Ship of Theseus, her previous avatar unrecognizable from her present one. Every plank and beam, every rivet and chock of her former self as if plucked out and substituted, the whole of her Weltanschauung rejigged.

    The deepest change had been wrought in the realm of the psychological. By and by, these birds of passage had helped uncover that facet of herself which she’d had no idea existed, so heavily stamped down had it been until then: the pleasure-seeker in her. A kind of exhuming it had been, of what had lain buried.
          She’d discovered the sybarite in herself, hitherto pickled in the aspic of orthodoxy. She’d become a convert to the Epicurean postulates laid out by the sage’s apostle, Lucretius, in his De Rerum Natura. Not just in incidental matters of food and drink, but in regard to one’s very raison d’être. The credo of the pleasure principle: that pleasure was the primary natural good, and the only thing good in itself; that the capacity to afford pleasure had to be the touchstone by which the value of anything was to be judged. Further, that the chief source of pleasure lay in self-determination, in living by one’s own lights and being true to one’s impulses.
          Such notions had spoken to her with force, then taken deep hold in her; more and more had she opened herself up to being taken wherever some aleatory current or untrodden path might take her. It was as though she’d discovered a personal lodestar; a step at a time, she’d become a born-again adherent to these maxims, with all the zeal of the born-again.

    Rohit Manchanda spent his childhood in the coalfields of Jharkhand and did his doctorate from the University of Oxford. He is a professor at IIT Bombay where he researches computational neurophysiology and, in a parallel world, writes fiction. His first novel won a Betty Trask Award, was published with the title In the Light of the Black Sun. and is being republished titled A Speck of Coal Dust.  His second novel, A Place in Mind (not yet published), won a Tibor Jones South Asia Prize.  A third novel, The Enclave, is being published simultaneously with A Speck of Coal Dust.  Manchanda’s teaching has won him several awards, including an INSA Teachers Award. He has also authored Monastery, Sanctuary, Laboratory, a history of IIT Bombay, and co-edited an academic monograph, Urinary Bladder Physiology: Computational Insights.

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