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Ships that pass in the night…

Phantom Lovers by Achala Moulik is a compilation of two romance novellas. Both of these tales feature history, politics, and lovers torn asunder. There are wars, battles, interracial romances, and sojourns in London.

The first tale, ‘With Fate Conspire’, begins with a certain Julian Ruthven, part of a well-known and well-connected family. This is the 19th century when India was still under foreign rule. Ruthven’s forebears are proud of this legacy — Julian though has a rather more humane approach to empires and the conquered. Not all that his country does sits well with him, and he is generally more likely to support the ‘natives’ than not. He is an idealist and a pacifist, and would rather see India thrive. Naturally, the East India Company finds him an annoyance.

He frequently shares his thoughts with Dilip Chowdhury, a scion of another illustrious family, this one Indian. It is during one of these meet-ups that he sees Radha for the first time.

Their romance is tumultuous for many reasons. Both Julian and Radha are acutely aware of their unconventional relationship, and tragedy ensues when mutinies and wars for independence break out.

Following that is a leap forward that introduces two new characters who live and study in London. Alexander and Madhushri meet, grow close — and discover a bond. Both of them are drawn to idealism, literature and drama, and often speak in flowery language. And they are, through strange twists in the tale, inextricably linked to Julian and Radha.

The second novella, ‘Wait!’ is again set in London, and two students meet. Rustom is Afghani, Minoti, Indian. They are swiftly drawn to each other, and before long, they are engaged. They dream of a happy future, of nights under the stars, and of introducing each other to their parents. Of course, they expect resistance to their union, but they are willing to deal with it.

And yet the challenges they must face far outweigh anything they could have imagined. Afghanistan is torn apart by a coup in 1978, and both Rustom and Minoti are caught in the chaos one way or the other. Misunderstandings follow, as well as diplomatic encounters, espionage, and a great deal of sorrow for both of them. Although they understand each other very well, there are also customs and traditions that bind both of these characters to their respective cultures. Minoti is expected to be engaged and eventually married to Naveen. The young woman decides to do the unthinkable — she tells Naveen the truth about Rustom and tries to rein in his support. When the coup takes place, tragedy and trauma ensue for both Rustom and Minoti. Both of these novellas are easily readable and have an air of dreamy romance to them despite the challenges these characters face. History and the events of the time are woven into the tales, and while some of those descriptions are dry, they add flavour and character to the stories. All of these characters are keenly involved with the current happenings of their time, be it mutinies, coups, or wars for independence.

As far as characterisations go, these individuals are all well-educated, well-informed, and speak in prose poetry. They refer to ancient texts, plays, poems, and ballads. To that end, they also appear to be archetypes of a certain kind — the idealist, the dreamer, the romantic, the just. They are individuals who are genuine and their romances transcend time. All four, (or six) protagonists have similar thoughts, feelings and emotions, despite their wildly different upbringings.

The descriptions in ‘With Fate Conspire’ and ‘Wait!’ are lyrical. There are moments of sadness, joy, and tragedy, all woven together seamlessly in these novellas. Despite the larger-than-life personas of the protagonists, they are intriguing characters living in difficult times, with a thousand choices to make that almost always shatter their idyll. Their marriages and engagements, while passionate, must suffer tests that threaten to break them at times. Overall, Phantom Lovers does read beautifully.

(Published 16 December 2023, 23:58 IST)

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