Weight Loss, By Upamanyu Chatterjee

Chatterjee loses the plot in this bizarre tale of spirituality and sex
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The Independent Culture

Reading Weight Loss made me sad. I was reminded of Upamanyu Chatterjee's first novel, English, August (1988), which had a cult following among college students in India. The sheer exuberance and irreverence of defiant youth, propelled by a dark, self-flagellating humour, seemed to spill over its pages. It spoke in a lingo that, though somewhat sophomoric, set a benchmark for Indian writing in English.

Chatterjee's writing has gone from being sophomoric to soporific. And this is no balmy prose that gently lulls one to sleep: the violence in this book is so morbid and nerve-racking, the coupling of kinky sex and mystical Hindu philosophy so bizarre, that the reader might want to crash out from sheer exhaustion. Page after page of unbridled libido, in which men, women, children and cattle indiscriminately partner one another, is packaged with references to pre-Christian Indian texts and spiritual teaching tools.

That combination might well manage to put readers off both sex and spirituality for a while (though not India as well, I hope). To this sedating concoction is added the typical baggage one retains from an English public-school education in India: from Shakespeare's Launcelot Gobbo to the odd Beatles riff.

There are celebrated examples of authors writing about sexual oddities with great panache, but Chatterjee's attempt completely lacks aesthetic content. The graphic detailing is so clinical, and presented in such random excess, that there's neither passion nor soul in the sex scenes.

There is a semblance of a story – about Bhola, a highly sexed, overweight 11-year-old boy, whose mission is to curtail all excess fat from his life. Bhola's existence is peopled with bizarre characters: the sadistic tyrant of a games teacher, Anthony; the child-carer Titli, who draws the blood of her charges to sell it; her husband Moti, who doesn't mind sleeping with men for a price but wants to murder them for desiring his wife. Bhola has the hots for more or less every character on two legs, and fornicates with most of them.

Bhola's life, from 11 to 38, is an exercise in shedding what is extraneous – weight, food, chores, relationships and, ultimately, the sap in his veins. The logic is complicated, the turn of events more rapid and confounding than a Quentin Tarantino film, though not as captivatingly slick. Weight Loss is a depressingly thin work, though perhaps not in the way the writer intended.

Penguin, £7.99. Order (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897

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