The Remains of the Body: Sexuality’s ambiguous terrain through immigrant scholars’ lives

Saikat Majumdar scans the relationships among Indian immigrants in America, focussing on the oft-neglected bisexual experiences.

Published : Jul 10, 2024 11:00 IST - 4 MINS READ

Bisexuality is the novel’s central drama.

Bisexuality is the novel’s central drama. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStock

Saikat Majumdar is a writer of sexuality. The body and sexuality are everyday terms for academic writers in the humanities. Majumdar, also a professor of English, claims this academic background for his latest novel, The Remains of the Body.

The novel is academic in another sense too for almost all its characters study at fabled schools in Canada and the US: Kaustav, a longstanding PhD candidate in anthropology; his high-school friend from Kolkata and an object of physical and emotional obsession, Avik, from another elite university who now works for a pharmaceutical company; and Sunetra, an accomplished scientist.

The Remains of the Body
By Saikat Majumdar
Vintage Books
Pages: 184
Price: Rs.499

What binds the three characters to each other is sexuality. In its more mainstream association today, sexuality is spoken of as a thing or a quality that we possess. It is then assumed that each of us has a specific “orientation” to this thing from which comes the names for the exclusive enclaves of sexual identity. Majumdar’s novel, partly because it is a campus novel, wants to interest readers in the theoretical conception of sexuality in sexuality studies as the ambiguous terrain of physical relations where truth is only what the body experiences and not what words can capture. His central characters suffer the consequences of not affirming this truth for themselves.

Bisexuality, the central drama

The novel’s present moves between California and Canada. Avik is heterosexual, manly, once athletic, and now an affluent diasporic man, but his sexual life is more of a “boy–man’s”. He is attracted to women but does not know how to be with them or to understand the orientation of their desire and, by implication, his own. He is married to the svelte and sexually assertive Sunetra, who recognises early the boy-man in him and wants to enfold him like a baby. A few years into the marriage, she cannot bear his masculine bluster. Finally, Kaustav, the omniscient narrator’s chosen one, is torn between his unconsummated physical passion for Avik’s irresistible masculinity and his undeniable attraction for the “boyish-girlish” Sunetra, who affects the lives of the two men and from whom she seeks fulfilment of her own sexuality.

Also Read | Holding up a mirror to society on same­-sex desire

The complexity of this sexual triad can be simplified by the term bisexuality. While the academic convictions of the writer may not want us to settle on any one such restrictive identity name, the novel’s pattern of interspersing the heterosexual with the homosexual (depicted in a central passage of lovemaking where the action is “heterosexual” but interlined with “homosexual” fantasies of one of the characters) points towards this much neglected category, which is often ignored even by LGBTQIA+ writers and activists.

The Remains of the Body is an intricately woven narrative that explores the bonds of friendship and intimacy shared by three Indian immigrants as they navigate their lives in North America.

The Remains of the Body is an intricately woven narrative that explores the bonds of friendship and intimacy shared by three Indian immigrants as they navigate their lives in North America. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Bisexuality is the novel’s central drama; it might draw readers who may not otherwise connect with its narrow world of US “grad students” and “postdocs”, the Bengali-speaking diaspora in North America, jaded researchers, and corporate consultants living affluent lives. Once we are done labelling our sexuality according to its desired body parts, what must remain of sexuality is an unsettled (and unsettling) bisexuality, a bisexuality that is not the personal identity of a person, as each of the three characters shows through their actions in the novel. The boys have obvious bisexual moments with one another, but the female protagonist’s bisexuality consists of being sexually drawn simultaneously to her masculine husband and his boyish-girlish friend.

Slippery forms

This central drama of the novel is written in choppy prose, interspersing the lyrical with the banal, and broken into collage-like chapters. One gets the sense that there is something the narrative deliberately does not want to bring together just as the characters do not want to build on the contrary pull of bisexuality. It is not clear whether this is praise or criticism of bisexuality because the characters are too sure of who they are and the past that has made them. They are drawn towards unhappiness (or at least loneliness), and it is implied that their bisexual wishes are somehow responsible for this.

Also Read | Chronicling the early years of LGBTQIA+ movement in India

It may be incorrect to read destinies of fictional characters as a comment on human sexual relations in general, but in its final sentences, the novel invites this possibility: “Human beings were forms etched on water. Shapeless, slippery forms you were stupid enough to love.” This generalises Kaustav’s tortured attraction to the now single Avik, raising it above the conventional encounters of diasporic academics at high-ranking university conferences.

Why must gay or lesbian literature always end in unhappiness was the activist cry of an earlier time. Majumdar’s novel portrays a bisexual conflict that ends in unhappiness. It brings to mind such other works of painful bisexuality as Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World and the more recent Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman. A satisfying, if not happy, bisexuality should become the call for our times.

Shad Naved teaches literature in Delhi.

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