Kolkata. Gangtok. Darjeeling. Ashim Basnet’s ‘The Eyes’ straddles these three diverse urban landscapes as easily as he himself bestrides the genre leap from short stories to his first novel. A self-professed ‘engineer by profession and a writer by passion’, that this latest book, which he completed during the ongoing pandemic, impressed head honchos at Ukiyoto Publishing, Canada is telling of his skills as an exciting new writing talent from this side of the Himalayas.

This book is ostensibly a love story told through the voices of the two protagonists, Maya from Gangtok and Kaushik from Kolkata. Their love story unfolds like a slow but taut pirouette through their alternating narratives that are linked together by yes, the eyes.

But ‘The Eyes’ is so much more than just the love story it purports to be. It is a love story on a very intrinsic level, but it is as much a coming-of-age story as it is a campus caper and an ode to life itself. It has many subtle underlying layers that the reader has to consciously peel back to savour its quintessence in full.

The story is set against the backdrop of two campuses – an engineering college and a medical college-in Kolkata, but it is the University of Life that holds centerstage. Maya is a quiet, pragmatic and simple girl from Gangtok who makes the inevitable journey to the educational Mecca of Kolkata to become a doctor. Kaushik from Ballygunge is touted to be a ‘wastrel of a boy with a rich daddy’ but in hindsight, this stereotype does him injustice. Kaushik is the flag bearer of so many doomed young adults in India who have to toe the line and become the engineers they do not want to be only because their fathers demand it and their obtuse decree is law. Somewhere on Kolkata’s iconic Park Street, the two literally bump into each other, and they fall- on each other. Their eyes lock, and they fall – for each other.

Ashim Basnet’s prose has a quiet assurance and almost lyrical grace as he takes the reader fluidly through the separate journeys of Maya and Kaushik as they embrace the challenges of life on their respective campuses while never quite losing sight of each other in their minds. He deftly weaves in elements of his own life experiences while growing up in and studying in Gangtok, Darjeeling and Kolkata and captures the souls of these places with an innate intimacy that can only come from easy familiarity. He peoples his pages with some pretty entertaining other characters headlining the phalanx of which is the inimical, irreverent and irrepressible one and only Dubu- Dubu for Dubious- Gurung. Dubu is the roomie and best friend who introduces Kaushik to the wonders of Nirvana in a puff as well as the three P’s – Proxy, Past and Parcha- needed to survive engineering college. Bella from Bolpur is Maya’s roommate and best friend, a large girl with a heart to match and who speaks less English but eats more food. Both sets of parents- Damber and Manu, Maya’s Nepalese parents, and Debasis and Murmer, Kaushik’s Bengali parents- are foils for each other and reflect the quirks of their cultures. There is the most incongruously named aunt Shanti who is the antithesis of her name and always creates a ruckus whenever she makes an entry. Priyanka, Dubu’s sister, is cool, confident and passionately clear what and who she wants. Joydeep, Kaushik’s brother, chooses to conform and mould himself and his life to please their father but encourages his younger brother to pursue his dream.And then there is the intrepid and generous hunter Apo.

There are other minor characters all fleshed out with their own quirks, and the unnamed but ubiquitous pavement dwellers and rickshaw pullers of Kolkata along with the gaily caparisoned yaks at Tsomgo add their own skeins to the tapestry of the engaging narrative.

There is so much wry humour in ‘The Eyes’ from the source of the curiously abundant chicken in the messy rooms of the engineering college to the Kundali-reading Pandit who has a massive, sanctimonious struggle with overactive salivary glands reacting to forbidden food. But the piece de resistance of the book remains the little nuggets of wisdom and bits of philosophy that Ashim Basnet regularly slips into his story into quiet sangfroid. Sample some:

A person was like a blank canvas when born. Gradually, family, friends, society, culture, splash their colours on our canvas.’

We are all the same underneath, just human.’

Seeing your parents happy with each other is a gift. It makes you feel safe and secure.’            

Yeah…the mountains always make you feel small and insignificant. I guess that is why people here are more humble.’

Their first meeting on Park Street was calamitous at best; Maya and Kaushik meet once again at 12,000 feet. The two, who have never quite forgotten each other, find themselves drawn toward each other like dazed automations on a snow-covered stage the Universe has conspired to put together against the meditative backdrop of the sacred Tsomgo lake. How can you fall in love with a person in only one-or two- chance encounters where you learn nothing more than each other’s names but experience a pull as undeniable as gravity itself?

How does one attempt to review a book and not give away its ending? Especially a story by Ashim Basnet, who has arguably established his credentials as a writer with shades of a brilliance evocative of O’Henry in his endings? This is a love story, but this is not your typical love story. It delves into the concept of soul love vs karmic partners. Your soulmate is someone you have known from several lifetimes over and instantly feel a connection with – you feel a love that is both so safe and familiar and yet so chaotic because it is something so compelling you have never felt before. But not all soulmates are your karmic partners, people you love and settle with, raise children with, and argue with. Are Maya and Kaushik soulmates or karmic partners or soulmates and karmic partners? I sign off here, sphinxlike.

Ashim Basnet’s ‘The Eyes’ is available online at Amazon and will soon be here at Gangtok’s very own Rachna Bookshop.

The writer is a Senior Researcher at the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, Gangtok

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