Carnal Knowledge

Photo: Michael Kraus

Do you love the way your ancestors did? Imraan Coovadia certainly thinks so. “We love, irrevocably, with our grandparents’ hearts,” he writes in The Wedding, the story of the hilarious and ultimately poignant courtship and early marriage of Ismet Nassin, a young Bombay entrepreneur, and his very reluctant bride, Khateja Haveri. The long-suffering Ismet and the vindaloo-spicy Khateja (a man-hating village beauty) are the grandparents of the novel’s narrator. You’re told in the book’s first pages that their story, a subcontinental Taming of the Shrew, will explain the romantically hopeful narrator’s own emotional history. If Coovadia never really brings the story back to his narrator’s love life at the end of the book, it’s easy enough to forgive him: Ismet’s struggles to achieve domestic bliss are so entertaining that you’d be distracted, too.

His troubles begin in the novel’s first sentence: “Four score and seven years ago my grandfather looked out of the window of his train and saw the most beautiful woman in the world.” The obsessive love that blossoms from that first fateful glance leads Ismet on an emotional and social roller-coaster ride. The novel careers from the shack of Khateja’s father (who is only too happy to rid himself of his waspish daughter) to a disastrous honeymoon trip in Hyderabad (“I hope you are not thinking to mitigate me,” the still-virgin Khateja warns Ismet when he woos her with bread, cakes, biscuits, chocolate, and ginger ale). Coovadia then shows you the couple’s nightmarish attempt at setting up house in Bombay with Ismet’s perennially put-upon mother, and finally travels to South Africa, where Ismet takes a job partly because he dreams of success, but more because he hopes that the “aboriginal forge Africa would throw them ever more tightly into each another’s arms.”

You likely will melt long before Khateja does. There are few genres as difficult to bring off as the comic novel of manners, which requires as much compassionate restraint as it does wicked humor: You have to feel for the characters even as you giggle at them indulgently. It’s probably easy enough for an author of Indian descent to poke sly fun at the idiosyncrasies of his forebears’ spoken English (“What were they thinking? Card-sleevery afoot?”). Less easy and more gratifying is the way Coovadia navigates between a glitteringly amusing tone and something softer, something that often verges on the tender. The latter is particularly evident when the narrator pulls back from the tale of Ismet and Khateja to talk more broadly about India, that “nation of sufferers, suffering under the seven fates and the glaucomal countenance of destiny.”

Indeed, you get the sense, as you make your way through The Wedding, that the novel could be an allegory: Ismet and his fantasies of domestic bliss and entrepreneurial triumph are the sweet representative of pre-partition India, dreaming of freedom; the ever-bitter Khateja – a one-woman version of the “squabbling fiefdoms and hostile tribes quarreling over the land” about which Ismet despairs – is the symbol of harsh historical reality.

This subtle but persistent political theme is well served by the author’s tart humor, as is the fairy-tale romance. When one of Ismet’s neighbors in Durban names his newborn daughter Lady Mountbatten Soolal, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Such razor-sharp irony (Lady Mountbatten’s brother is called Disraeli) is far more effective and far truer to Coovadia’s strengths as a comic writer than the strained coda that brings the story up to 1992. Not to the narrator’s love life, as you’d expect, but to some heavy-handed references to modern Indian and African history.

The real ending of Coovadia’s novel comes long before the narrator finds himself talking politics with an Indian cabbie in New York City. It takes the form – as all comedic endings must – of a consummation and a wedding. It’s a mark of Coovadia’s slyness that while the consummation is the long-awaited one between Ismet and Khateja, the wedding is in fact between Ismet and a mild-mannered second wife. However dreamy he may be, he’s more of a realist than you may have guessed. Coovadia’s debut is pretty dreamy, too; readers should hope for more to come from this real talent.

No wedding was ever consummated without the subject of David M. Friedman’s new book. A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis has its own kind of sly humor, starting with the way the book looks: It’s a good deal longer and thinner than the norm. Friedman, a former reporter for Newsday and a contributor to such testosterone-driven publications as Esquire and GQ, eschews easy laughs. Instead, he delivers substance and wit, ranging confidently over a huge amount of material with just the right tongue-in-cheek distance from a topic that has, as he demonstrates, too often been a matter of life and death throughout much of human history. The book opens with a vivid account of the burning of a German witch who’d been accused of having “knowledge of the Devil’s penis” – which was, apparently, “as cold as a piece of ice.”

Friedman’s aim is to “make intellectual and emotional sense of man’s relationship with his defining organ”; that his chapters bear names like “The Battering Ram,” “The Measuring Stick,” and “The Punctureproof Balloon” suggests what may be at the heart of that relationship: power, authority, competence. Anxieties about these crucial ingredients of man’s self-image through the ages are evident in the impressive array of material the author assembles here. There are analyses of “the Roman penis” versus “the Christian penis,” black penises versus white penises, and consultations with authorities ranging from Saint Augustine to Freud to “today’s erection entrepreneurs.” (To his credit, Friedman is skeptical about man’s latest chemically based endeavors to control his member, “replacing the finicky original with a more reliable model.”)

A Mind of Its Own does indeed have a very widely read mind of its own: I can’t think of the last time I read a book where “Tertullian” and “testicles” (to say nothing of “Shere Hite” and “Adolf Hitler”) rub up against each other in the index. Friedman’s ability to move between highbrow and low, erudite and everyday, will make his book an ideal vehicle for breaking down the barriers to talking (or just thinking) about something that remains, even today, stubbornly unmentionable in public. I, for one, was deeply gratified to make the acquaintance of the Dutch painter Maerten van Heemskerck’s Man of Sorrows, which shows, as Friedman delicately puts it, “the resurrected Jesus with a tumescent penis.” And some of us thought we had a hard time walking to the bathroom when we got up.

The Wedding
By Imraan Coovadia
Picador; 280 pages; $23.
A Mind of Its Own:
A Cultural History of the Penis

By David M. Friedman
Free Press; 358 pages; $26

Carnal Knowledge