"Culture is the widening of the mind and of the spirit. "
~ Jawaharlal Nehru

Love in a Dead Language ~ Lee Siegel

Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta reviews Lee Siegel's deligthfully humorous modern novel that is 100 pages too long.
Publisher: Harper-Collins, India
Price: Rs. 250/- pp 375.

The book has an impossibly long title: Love in a Dead Language, a romance by Lee Siegel, being the Kamasutra of Guru Vatsyayana Mallanaga as translated and interpreted by Professor Leopold Roth, with a foreword and annotation by Anang Saighal, following the commentary of Pandit Pralayananga Lilaraja. Whew! The title says it all about the several participants who created this multi-layered enterprise. Take a deep breath, because now the dedications begin. "To Bridget...who taught me how not to be Leopold Roth in love" - this is Lee Siegel's dedication. But there are other players in this farcical story, and they, too, want to dedicate their efforts to their various muses: Vatsyayana Mallanaga to Auddalaki; Leopold Roth to his Lalita, and so on.

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And then there are the sections of the book; there is even a Prolegomenon. The chapter headings are wickedly provocative, from "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" all the way to "The Come-on", "The Move", "The Kill". For good measure, there is a blank page (translation), and there is a black page (commentary). If there is a section entitled "Wives and Mistresses", there is another entitled "Mistresses and Wives" - only, it's printed in red ink, and upside-down. There are quotations, asides, commentaries, footnotes to commentaries, clarifications, newspaper cuttings, poorly-written pieces from the student papers, and even a torn-up letter pieced together.

There are two narrators: one, Vatsyayana Mallanaga, Indian philosopher-pedagogue known for his Kamasutra; the other, Leopold Roth, American Indologist, linguist, and translator-interpreter of the Kamasutra. To add to this, we have interpretation and commentary by Pralayananga Lilaraja, "Hindu intellectual ornament to the Moghul court", and Anang Saighal, Indian-American doctoral candidate and witty, often vicious annotator. Love is the theme, preoccupation, and grand obsession of the work, built around Professor Roth's dangerous attraction to the lovely Indian-American student, Lalita Gupta. Roth, son of movie stars, studied first at Berkeley and thereafter at Oxford, where he met the woman he would marry, Sophia White. Both took up academic positions at Western University in California. Even as Roth was suspended from teaching in fall 1997 as a consequence of his relationship with Lalita, his wife demanded a separation. Mysteriously, during the Christmas vacation, he was found dead in his office, apparently the result of being struck with a large book, the heavy Monier-Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary (1899; reprint, Oxford 1945). "Dead Language Professor", says the student paper in a telling headline.

This is the background of the work: but the story in the inside pages is a tale of lust, love, obsession and a comically dangerous liaison. Lalita, American-born and out of touch with her Indian roots, has been persuaded by her NRI parents to take Roth's course for the experience of Indian culture. Roth is immediately obsessed, a Humbert to a Lolita; and manages, through a series of devious means, to take Lalita on a trip to India, leaving her basketball-playing boyfriend Leroy behind. What happens in India is the real story being unfolded by the annotator Anang Saighal, and through him, by Roth.

And who is Lee Siegel, you ask, in this complicated story? He's also a fringe player in the tale: he was a friend of Roth's at the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford, but Roth liked to write dismissively, even scathingly of Siegel's work.

All the ingredients of a densely packed, hilariously funny, globally and historically allusive, post-modern academic novel, are here: western midlife crisis, exoticism, intellectualism, pompous prose, pseud's corners, campus romances, faculty politics, even an Indo-American Right wing, the mental health problems of immigrants, and an American-Born Confused Desi. The problem, of course, is that for me, the book was at least a hundred pages too long. An exhaustingly funny read, and there are parts where you might laugh out loud; but stretched out beyond a manageable length. Nevertheless, it's a must-read for its humour, its exuberance and its endless ability to surprise. Love in a Dead Language is not only a raunchy romp through the hallowed halls of academia, but also through the corridors of contemporary angst.

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