THE GURU OF LOVE

By Samrat Upadhyay

Houghton Mifflin. 290 pp. $23 Suppose you were a married man with a couple of kids, a dead-end job and a nagging suspicion that you somehow got conned into your relationship with your wife? Suppose that your in-laws were rich but obnoxious and always compared you invidiously with your more prosperous brother-in-law? Suppose that your son was always getting sick, and that your daughter -- almost a teenager -- began to look at you with a touch of scorn, because, guess what, you might be turning out to be a failure? Suppose you were too young (in your own eyes, at least) for your vivid, adult life to be almost over?

Well, of course, you'd have an affair with a beautiful girl -- if you could find one -- to cheer yourself up, and you'd cover your feelings of guilt and ridiculousness by playing your sanctimonious husband and strict paterfamilias roles for all they're worth, even though your friends and family will all end up seeing through you like a Depression washcloth in a very cheap hotel. And pretty soon, if you don't play your cards right in this game of double-or-nothing, you're going to end up with nothing. It's an old story, right?

But what if this story were set in Nepal, in the capital city of Katmandu? What if the lovemaking of the married man and his girlfriend were interrupted by a band of irascible, bad-mannered monkeys that steal the girl's sari in a public park? And what if all the unexpected exoticism didn't even matter, because the story, as old, even as cliched, as it is and has been, is still one of the most suspenseful, pity-inspiring narratives we have going in the human race? How will the husband comport himself? How will the wife respond? What's going to happen to the children? Who will "win" this man, his wife or his girlfriend? What will happen to the woman who loses, or will she be the woman who wins in the long run?

Ramchandra teaches math in an undistinguished middle school. He doesn't make enough money. He won't accept help from his in-laws, so he tutors students so they can pass their all-important national exams. Ramchandra's wife, Goma, is chubby and no longer young -- the standard wife of all male fantasies, the old ball-and-chain. We don't see much of Goma at first; she's too busy cooking, cleaning and taking care of the kids. From her husband's point of view, she's the wife, that's it; he's the special person living through the tragedy of a potentially wasted life. Ramchandra is in genuine despair, and even a female reader with an ex-wife's union card can't blame him when he becomes obsessed with Malati, a beautiful girl desperate to pass her exams. For one thing, Malati is a hard-luck kid. She isn't the brightest girl ever to come down the pike; she's already had a baby and lives in the closet at the home of her evil stepmother. Malati craves a decent life for herself and her offspring as much as anyone else in this book.

To say how Samrat Upadhyay's "The Guru of Love" turns out would be to give away the plot, in this case an unforgivable sin. (Many thanks to the dunderhead reviewer at Publishers Weekly who gave it away to me!) The real artistic accomplishment of this impeccable novel is that it allows the reader to watch with aching heart as the wretched, besotted Ramchandra calls in sick to school, blusters emptily to his children, sneaks off to afternoon movies, living through all the sadness inherent in the situation when a man of probity, an "in-law," all of a sudden crosses over to be an "outlaw," breaking rules and lives left, right and center.

The reader -- as well as all of Ramchandra's friends, family and neighbors -- always remains a few steps ahead of this poor guy. You feel Ramchandra's doom before he does. So that when the beautiful Malati loses her sari to those predatory monkeys, your stomach clenches. To revert to Valley-speak for half a sentence -- "It's like, oh, my God! What are they going to do now?"

There are absolutely no villains here, except perhaps for the government elites who strive mightily for power a few miles away. The characters in Ramchandra's world just try to get through their days without destroying themselves or each other; even the odious in-laws have good reasons for their behavior. Economic poverty isn't the only explanation for the adultery here. Humans need to break out of society every once in a while, the author suggests, even as they need desperately to stay in. We all live double lives as in-laws and outlaws; we cheat on our spouses, or call in sick, or don't pay the bills, if we can get away with it. And then we pray to God we'll be saved in spite of all that -- forgiven, let off the hook. The oldest stories are often the most compelling, because we still can't figure out how they end.