| City of distances
The Brainfever Bird By I. Allan Sealy, Picador, Rs 425
Lev Repin, the hero of I. Allan Sealy’s new novel, The Brainfever Bird, is an out-of-work scientist in a post-Cold War Russia, “where physicists wash windows and engineers drive trams”. Adding to the general gloom of a cold St Petersburg is the fact that Lev’s expertise lay in biological weapons (in today’s parlance, maybe weapons of mass destruction, and hence an expertise not to be proud of), for which there is no clientele in his country now. And so, he heads for India, hoping to find a buyer in its ministry of defence.
Here are several pointers which make it possible to place the novel in a specific time-frame — two years in the latter half of the Nineties. (In fact, the years can be exactly pinpointed from the reference to a meteor shower). But Sealy does not allow the reader the comfort of familiarity. For all the allusions to the effect of perestroika, the news-channel revolution in India and the upmarket enclaves in Delhi, the universe of The Brainfever Bird is essentially timeless.
Once Lev reaches Delhi, he is robbed and barely manages to make his way to a cheap hotel in the old city. His lodging problems are solved more easily than are most tourists’, because Lev soon meets Maya, the puppet-making daughter of the chief commissioner of police (is there any such post in the Indian police service'). Maya is independent, frivolous and twenty years younger than the 45-year-old, married Lev. But that is not a problem either, as Maya falls hopelessly in love with Lev. Morgan Fitch, the Channel X newscaster with his famous pout, completes the triangle without complicating the equations because he has grown up loving Russia and adoring its authors and poets.
If Maya and Lev were to live happily ever after, the novel would lose its raison d’etre. The reader too is made to feel the ephemeral quality of their love. It is there in the lines by Anna Akhmatova that Lev reads out to Maya from one of Morgan’s collections: “We shall not drink from the same glass/ Neither water, nor sweet wine,/ We shall not kiss of a morning early/ Nor glance through the window at evening time.”
This is the old trope of distance, of the unbridgeable gulf between two countries, two cities. Lev sees “in a flash the whole distance between Petersburg and Delhi, every mountain and river and plain made simultaneously visible. The vision fades.” But the parting unfolds like a thriller. Maya is attacked by a virus, at the height of the plague scare in Delhi. While this causes a temporary separation, which only brings Lev and Maya closer to each other, Lev’s secret-service past catches up with him, making him realize that the city is no longer safe for him. He is tailed constantly, and even watches a gruesome death visit his shadower. But on the day he is to leave for Russia, he is attacked and acid thrown on him. Maya and Morgan rush to the hospital, only to find Lev gone. Maya has Lev’s daughter, and Morgan meets Lev a few years later in St Petersburg. Then Morgan, too, is killed, and Lev and Maya carry on with their solitary lives — Lev’s wife has left him by then — in Petersburg and Jakarta respectively.
Sealy’s prose evocatively blends the political and the private. The people Lev meets in Delhi — Laiq the barber, the malishwallah, the shoepolish boy — remind one of Salman Rushdie’s characters in Midnight’s Children. What makes The Brainfever Bird a novel to remember is that it does not lend itself easily to any categories like the Indo-Anglian novel, although it takes up some of the most familiar themes and ideas.
The Brainfever Bird is a deeply melancholic story, as all good love stories are. Only Maya’s puppets survive the tale with the wisdom which only puppets have in a world gone awry.