The unpredictable nature of human intimacy

The novel looks into human desire. It is complex. Like shapeless water, it can take on the shape of whatever vehicle it is carried in.

The unpredictable nature of human intimacy

The Remains of the Body

This is not the first book in which writer and academic Saikat Majumdar has looked at what he likes to call “non-normative” relationships between two human beings, irrespective of gender.

Even if there is fluidity in this concept, how it really plays out in our real lives is the subject of his various books that deal with, among other subjects, sexuality, homelands, religion and race in an immediate environment, which could be Kolkata, Delhi, or North America. More recently, his time spent at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study as a fellow pushed this, his latest novel, The Remains of the Body, to the finishing line. Something that is not easy at all. He acknowledges: ‘It has been a year of flight and mooring, through the burnt-orange twilight of the haunting South African sky, which will never leave my dreams.’ It provoked and disciplined him.

Available in hardcover, this book is more of a novella (the cover reminds one of Picasso’s cubic painting The Kiss) and reads quick of two men, one married but whose marriage is already crumbling, who meet again to perhaps get another stab at rekindling the sparks of their childhood and adolescent years spent together as they discovered their bodies and each other. This theme of natural attraction with the same sex is also the theme of one of his earlier novels, The Scent of God, where two boys are drawn to each other, as it often happens in a same-sex boarding school, usually monastic.


Two male friends, one married but with the marriage breaking, resurfaced in North America as seasoned professionals. They negotiate their own lives through academia and research in a country in which immigrants try to fit in but often feel sad and isolated. This is not always because of the quietness and sterile surroundings, but due to traces of racial tension beneath the surface. At the weekend parties in well-appointed homes where goat curry and wine are abundantly served, the body I feel becomes the metaphor for home.

There is bonding between not just two but three friends, as desire is like “secret coils of energy. Unfurled, they could light a flame in the water.”

The novel looks into human desire. It is complex. Like shapeless water, it can take on the shape of whatever vehicle it is carried in. Round, square, or triangle—whatever happens in the novel can happen in life, but circumstances vary. The smaller details are against the larger picture of what the daily grind of living is and the stoicism we choose to suppress it with.

In a novel, the writer can give wings to the story to fly so that the reader can re-imagine it in the best ways possible, and that is the beauty of this piece of work. The prose is evocative and reflects the war that often takes place in the theatre of our minds, when not spilling over in terms of crisis. The book compels us to look at the unpredictable nature of human desire, intimacy and passion while they last (in our bodies) in kinder and more humane ways. The role of the opposite sex is no less here, and it entwines in ways that the author wishes to surprise us with.

Is it love, or is it the body? And can the two be segmented? These are questions raised, but there is a deep bonding between the two individuals that remains. It may not always be overtly sexual, but a certain erotic charge in our relationships, whoever it may be with, is what makes life beautiful, if not painful.

Excerpts from an interview with the author who launched The Remains of the Body in Kolkata recently.

Q1. You have positioned your book in the LGBTQIA+ genre. Can we expect more from you in this category?

As a novelist, I don’t think I have much control over what I write about. Compelling moments and questions take hold of you and demand that you make novels of them. But I feel that disruptive forms of desire, including forbidden ones, have become a primal imaginative force for me. That is how I understand queerness—any desire that lies outside socially normative reproductive activity but also beyond the binary of gay and straight. Transgressive desire is a narrative energy of its own, as nothing pushes narrative like unfulfillment; such desires rarely come to fruition. Sometimes, they can be destructive, in small and large ways, and that destruction, too, is artistically fascinating. Their moments of happiness are also tiny acts of rebellion, almost always transient. I have the stirrings of a similar narrative, but it’s too early for me to even fully imagine it. But it feels like it will require me to return to Calcutta, the original milieu of my fiction.

Q2. Who are some of the Indian writers who have already dealt with this? Any favourite international writers?

The obvious names in Indian English writing are Vikram Seth and Hoshang Merchant in poetry and essays; R. Raja Rao, Sandip Roy and Hansda Sowvendra Sekhar in fiction; Akhil Katyal in poetry; and Ruth Vanita in poetry and fiction. But there are writers in the Indian languages who have dealt with more subterranean forms of desire, sometimes radically and clearly queer, but often more grey and undefined. Niladri Chatterjee has been translating the queer fiction of Bengali writers like Krishnagopal Mullick and Shibram Chakraborty. But there are stories of strange and unclassifiable tremors, such as Saadat Hasan Manto’s story Peerun or the moment in U.R. Ananthamurthy’s story A Horse for the Sun, where a man gets a head massage from an old friend, a man who is seen as a village idiot.

Of international writers, my classic favourites are those by writers such as D.H. Lawrence and Vladimir Nabokov. I also enjoyed the Irish writer Sally Rooney’s first two novels and the work of the Māori writer Witi Ihimaera.

Q3. How much of you is in the book?

All fiction, as P.D. James had said, is autobiographical, and all autobiographies are lies. In other words, all fiction has something of the author in them. But it’s hard to say what of the author. A limb, a memory, a wisp of laughter, a belief, a question? It’s unpredictable. Factual things, like places are easy—I write about places I’ve known myself. Otherwise, I cannot make them come alive. As for characters, it’s more complicated. Many Indians may recognise the kind of chaddi-buddy friendship Avik and Kaustav share in the novel. Kaustav’s question—why doesn’t the intensely physical dimension of this friendship become erotic?—might be a twist in that tale. I have asked myself that question: Why are we not pansexual? Why is it that all of us don’t get attracted to multiple genders? But it’s a question that has come to me intellectually, though in an intensely personal way. But for Kaustav, this is not just an intellectual question; it is a bodily one too. The embodiment of an intellectual question is the fiction that I’ve tried to shape.


The Remains of the Body

By Saikat Majumdar

Vintage Books, 2024

184 pages, Rs 499/