Review by Eleanor Margolies
Anjali Joseph opens her novel in the executive lounge at Heathrow, with a man appraising the physical features of the woman sitting beside him, as if daring us to think that this is going to be a holiday romance, all champagne and shiny surfaces. It’s an opening that flirts with the reader’s expectations as the two central characters, Ved and Keteki, begin their flirtation. ‘Don’t look’, Ved tells himself. But the book is suffused with something deeper, like the cup of Assam tea he drinks the following day in Mumbai: ‘fermentation, sweat, armpits, reality’. Meanwhile Keteki seems to offer Ved a key to her character in explaining that she’s named after the Indian cuckoo: ‘It leaves its babies in other birds’ nests, and it looks and tries to sound like a bird of prey so other birds leave it alone.’
As their paths continue to cross, the novel moves back and forth between England and India, lingering in Keteki’s home state of Assam – in its largest city, Guwahati, and in the northern city of Jorhat, where her uncle lives in a tranquil, book-lined house.
As this wise, hospitable uncle says, Ved and Keteki share a ‘quality of not being quite at home’. Ved moved with his parents as a child of six from India to west London: ‘brought up vegetarian, but I eat everything’. Keteki went to boarding school at seven, studied in England, and now works as a freelance curator. When she travels to the state of Mizoram, bordering Myanmar, she feels ‘almost a foreigner’. Ved is definitely a foreigner in her world; he’s left bewildered by a ‘classic Guwahati night out’ – ‘a group of friends standing around one or two cars and drinking all evening’. The following day, tired and hungover, he struggles to stay awake during a long exposition of Assam’s history and culture, delivered between meals and shots of Bhutanese whisky by the boss of a remote light bulb factory.
The factory produces the desirable, slightly mysterious ‘Everlasting Lucifer’, a new bulb with the warmth of an old-fashioned incandescent – one that doesn’t distort colour. Before long, by coincidence, Keteki is engaged to work on a design exhibition featuring the bulb. The story of the Lucifer introduces a filament of poetry that runs through the novel, a flickering between things everlasting and dissolving, between the unspoken and the frankly revealed.
Trying to understand what’s happening with Ved, Keteki tells a London friend that she identifies with an Assamese folk figure called Teton Tamuli: ‘He’s continually trying to con other people, but often ends up doing things that turn out worse for him’. She explains that she wants to change her own approach to life, to find a new straightforwardness: ‘it’s just that I normally avoid getting anywhere near as close as this to any kind of –’. Forming a relationship is not straightforward for either Keteki or Ved. Some episodes in the lives of these professionals in their late thirties recall the adventures of Leela, the twenty-something graduate who navigates love and loss in Paris, London and Bombay in Joseph’s 2012 novel Another Country. (And in fact, Leela herself turns up in these pages, twenty or so years older, and now a novelist.) Ved returns to his Cambridge college for a reunion; Keteki goes with Oxford friends to a dreamlike Suffolk pub filled with the possibility of new encounters. For them both, these episodes filled with incidental characters seem to belong to a no-longer living past; they are steps backwards that are, in some way, required to move forward.
Early in the novel, Keteki calls Ved on his smartphone. He snatches it up. ‘For a second or two there was silence, as when, in the past, a trunk call was connected.’ Keeping in Touch captures a series of flickering, glitching connections, and suggests that attention – that of the writer, the reader, the lover – can make them last.