‘The Two Krishnas’ by Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla

If the point of a writer’s biographical note is to make it sound like the writer is busy, then Los Angeles-based Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla’s biography certainly does the trick. The Two Krishnas (Magnus Books)  is Dhalla’s sophomore outing as a novelist, and in 2008 he apparently wrote, produced and co-directed a “major motion picture” version of his debut. Dhalla is also a “passionate activist.” By this I suppose we can infer that some activists, while they are active, are not, in fact, passionate. In any case, Dhalla, his note tells us, “co-founded the South Asian program at the Pacific Asian Aids [sic] Intervention Team and is one of the founding members of Satrang, a support group for LGBT and questioning South Asians.”

Dhalla’s ambition is also apparent in The Two Krishnas. The narrative is based on the myth of Parvati, who, because the mythic love of her mythic life is off somewhere seeking enlightenment, takes matters into her own hands, rubbing herself with scented oil to magically create a son! Similarly, Pooja, one of The Two Krisnhas’ central characters, so single-handedly and so over-protectively raises her temperamental and homophobic son that she succeeds in further alienating her already emotionally stunted workaholic of a husband, who, it turns out, is really off somewhere finding out he’s…gay! And thus the omniscient narrator of The Two Krishnas places the act of coming out on a spiritual level with enlightenment—indeed, a nice, ambitious way to structure a novel. It is also a vehicle by which Dallah brings together East and West, incorporating references from the many cultures and religious beliefs he’s inherited. Over the course of some 300 pages, these references range from Bollywood to The Exorcist, from Buddha to the Koran, and from Gaskell and Austen to Rumi and a ghazal by Faiz. More than 200 pages into the narrative, Dhalla even makes an ambitious leap in settings, moving the narrative from California to Kenya. It’s a daring move, one that gives the The Two Krishnas historical sweep, and Dhalla handles it just as expertly as he does the novel’s numerous subplots and large cast of supporting characters, many of whom turn out not be as shallow or materialistic as the author first satirizes them.

Still, I couldn’t help but wish the young novelist had spent more time with the manuscript. Because just as often as his impressive vocabulary will force you to sit up and take notice of its breadth, one of his many pedestrian turns of phrase will cause you to slump back down in ennui, in sad and bitter disappointment. In one scene, for instance, we are forced to read that Pooja “still burned” for her estranged husband, that she still “simmered with desire” for him. And just as often as the narrator’s voice is wry and ironic, telling us that “The more time we save, the more of it we need,” it is pretentious and overly sincere. “Self-acceptance,” it tells us, “[is] a prerequisite to tolerance from others.” The problem is of course that the latter is drawn not from the fresh language of literature but from the staid language of the support group.

In the end, The Two Krishnas reaches a melodramatic and predictable, if admittedly compelling climax. This may make it a better movie for the masses than as subtle novel of art and manners in the tradition of E.M. Forster, Michael Cunningham or Alan Hollinghurst, three writers Dhalla clearly wants to emulate, and which he no doubt could—if only, perhaps, he weren’t so damn busy.

The Two Krishnas
by Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla
Magnus Books
Paperback, 9781936833009, 360pp.
September 2011