To View and Be Viewed: Lean Days by Manish Gaekwad

The protagonist of Manish Gaekwad's novel Lean Days announces his desire in the early pages, "In search of love, I want to travel across the country." Lean Days is a stitched, dairy-like archive of these travels.

To View and Be Viewed

Though the novel is told in first-person, the author experiments with ways of seeing. While in Hyderabad, for instance, the protagonist remarks that when one visits another city, one often hopes for a view of the city's prime location from one's hotel-room window. However, sometimes what one gets is "an oblique view of things." This is followed by the question: "What about those who cannot afford an expensive view?"

Here, 'view' does not simply mean "a gabled temple, a monument, a glade of disquieting beauty" but also perspective. While in Madras, the protagonist observes,

The boy-meets-girl scenario in Madras takes place under the smug smile of a benevolent Amma or another unsightly politician watching their every move through giant cut-outs, posters, and hoardings put up around the city.

From a boy-meets-girl scenario, which is clearly a public encounter, the narrative moves into private spaces, such as a party "where the city's small network of gay men will gather to try their luck" or parks "where sex is freely available." It also moves into online spaces of alternate desire, including gay dating apps and instant messengers.

Those who can't afford the public view and being viewed in public, then, occupy these private spaces. Thinking about the Versova Beach in Mumbai, where "heterosexual couples cling to each other for love, sex or as a general safety method to avoid drowning," the protagonist says, 

Why don't we have something like that for us, that feeling of openness more than a place? […] I want us to hold hands with another man and walk the shore like the couples in Versova. 

A Sum of Disjointed Parts

This is Gaekwad’s debut novel and it does read like one. "I spent years staring out of that window, planning to be able to write this today," says the protagonist. Despite the planning, the narrative focus often deviates and the novel lacks a sustained narrative voice. 

It has its moments of genius—such as when the protagonist envisions a meeting between Kafka and Ghalib—but these are simply moments.

A reviewer on Goodreads said that the book satisfies one's wanderlust. Perhaps that's true, but I expected it to do much more with the themes of the city and desire that it is clearly invested in. Perhaps an editorial intervention into the scattered diary-like entries would have made this novel a whole, rather than a sum of disjointed parts.
Lean Days by Manish Gaekwad, published by HarperCollins Publishers India, 2018.

* This book was sent to me for review by the author. The views expressed, however, are entirely my own.

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