“I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows that he cannot say to her “I love you madly”, because he knows that she knows (and that she knows he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still there is a solution. He can say “As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly”. At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly it is no longer possible to talk innocently, he will nevertheless say what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her in an age of lost innocence.”
― Umberto Eco
Throughout this series of AtoZChallenge posts, I have chosen authors who are not just favourites but also those whose complete oeuvre I have read through, as far as possible. Eco is an exception. Of his work I have read only two novels, a few essays, and the celebrated How to write a thesis. Yet he is more of an inspiration than many others, being one of the quintessential writers of pure metafiction, a writer who celebrated the written word throughout his work, a writer for writers.
“We live for books. A sweet mission in this world dominated by disorder and decay.”
― Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
I was instantly hooked by The Name of the Rose when I read it a few years ago. It was unlike anything I had ever read before – a murder mystery set in the library of a monastery with layers of philosophy, discussions on theology, celebration of books and libraries, historical descriptions, and above all, the constant allusion that “books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told“. It was one of my first conscious introductions to metafiction and turning the pages, I was spellbound. It is a book that I look forward to re-read someday.
“Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library … was then the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds”
Umberto Eco, The Name of The Rose
“…a book is a fragile creature…the librarian protects them not only against mankind but also against nature, and devotes his life to this war with the forces of oblivion, the enemy of truth.”
― Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, the story of antiquarian book dealer Yambo who suffers amnesia after a stroke and tries to reconstruct his memory sentence by sentence, page by page, from the books, newspapers, and magazines of his childhood is a bibliophile’s delight. The illustrations of these books in miniature within the pages make it an exceptionally beautiful book, literally and otherwise.
“But the purpose of a story is to teach and to please at once, and what it teaches is how to recognize the snares of the world.”
Reading Eco’s novels is hard work, which nevertheless yields great rewards in terms of comprehending complicated plots, interpreting allusions and the joy of figuring out the many strands of meaning within the narrative. I have all his books on my TBR list, to be picked up at some time in the future when I can spend hours and days focusing on each book, reading for the pure delight of reveling in erudite essays and metafiction.
In contrast to Eco’s novels, How to write a thesis is a solid, lucid, if slightly dated textbook on the purpose and process of choosing a subject, setting the boundaries of research, conducting research, taking notes and presenting the thesis with proper references and bibliography. The narrative of the text with its examples rooted in Italian academia and the occasional dashes of humour transports the reader to Eco’s classroom.
As he was an honorary fellow of my college, I had very much hoped to attend Professor Eco’s actual lecture someday. and was saddened to hear about his passing in Feb 2016. Now I look forward to reading and learning from the rest of his acclaimed body of work.
‘the world is not a place but the vastness of the soul. And the soul is nothing more than love, limitless, endless, all that moves us toward knowing what is true.’
― Amy Tan, The Hundred Secret Senses
Amy Tan is well known for her novels about mother-daughter relationships. I had not read about this when I first picked up The Hundred Secret Senses a few years ago and so did not have a preconceived notion of what to expect from the book. However, I was so enchanted when I finished it that I ordered all her other novels the very next day, and read through them in the next few weeks with a great deal of pleasure. I remember writing a short review stating that THSS reminded me all over again as to why some of us call literature our religion.
‘I know what love is. It’s a trick on the brain, the adrenal glands releasing endorphins. It floods the cells that transmit worry and better sense, drowns them with biochemical bliss. You can know all these things about love, yet it remains irresistible, as beguiling as the floating arms of long sleep.’
The Hundred Secret Senses
The Hundred Secret senses remains my favourite novel by Tan. A compelling book that pulls the reader in from the very first page, it narrates the story of Olivia and her Chinese born half sister Kwan who has yin eyes that help her to see ghosts. Olivia is half affectionate, half condescending to Kwan – she tolerates her endless questions and finds her stories about
ghosts and past lives mildly entertaining. But when Olivia, her estranged husband Simon and Kwan take a trip to Kwan’s village in China and get lost while exploring the ruins outside the village, the real stories connecting Olivia and Kwan across lifetimes are revealed in a chain of events from the past and the present that culminate in a gripping, haunting climax. The reader comes away with the feeling of having used a hundred secret senses to assimilate the ideas and stories within the novel.
“It was a distorted form of inverse logic: If hopes never come true, then hope for what you don’t want.”
The Hundred Secret Senses
Said to be among the most popular of her books, The Joy Luck Club interconnects stories of four Chinese women immigrants in San Francisco and their struggles to keep their culture and their stories alive in their children. I found it less compelling than Tan’s full-length novels. As in most of her other work, the position of women in Chinese society of that period and intense mother-daughter relationships of tiger mothers who wield absolute control over their daughters are some of the major themes that go into building the plot structure.
“’Now you see,’ said the turtle, drifting back into the pond, ‘why it is useless to cry. Your tears do not wash away your sorrows. They feed someone else’s joy. And that is why you must learn to swallow your own tears.’”
― Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club
The Bonesetter’s Daughter returns to the mother-daughter theme across generations and evokes the importance of names and the need to preserve stories, and the significance of writing and its links to memory, between the characters of Ruth Young, her widowed mother LuLing and LuLing’s mysterious past with Precious Auntie. One can almost imagine the ink flowing from the author’s pen in a ceaseless stream as the stories flow back and forth across the present and the past, connecting a contemporary narrative with fragments of history, of the characters as well as the period. The Kitchen God’s Wife is a similar novel but one which I found difficult to read for the graphic scenes and extreme situations of abuse and domestic violence.
“That is the problem with modern ink from a bottle. You do not have to think. You simply write what is swimming on the top of your brain. And the top is nothing but pond scum, dead leaves, and mosquito spawn. But when you push an inkstick along an inkstone, you take the first step to cleansing your mind and your heart. You push and you ask yourself, What are my intentions? What is in my heart that matches my mind?”
― Amy Tan, The Bonesetter’s Daughter
Saving Fish from Drowning is perhaps my least favourite among the lot. Though it had an intriguing opening and setting of the literal adventure of a jungle trek as well as an omniscient ghostly narrator, the novel somehow did not quite hold together, maybe due to the large number of characters whose voices kept jarring against each other. Likewise I did not enjoy The Valley of Amazement, both the story as well as its premise of a courtesan in Shanghai in the beginning of the twentieth century. It is painful and disturbing to read about the blatant commodification of women, in any period.
“I wanted to capture what language ability tests could never reveal: her intent, her passion, her imagery, the rhythms of her speech and the nature of her thoughts.”
― Amy Tan, The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life
My favourite of all among Tan’s books is her memoir The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life which provides a fascinating glimpse into her early life as the child of Chinese immigrants in the United States, her love of literature and growth as a writer.
“In the hands of a different reader, the same story can be a different story.”
― Amy Tan, The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life
Tan’s novels are page-turners which hold layers of wisdom between their lines. They belong to that elusive genre that many authors spend a lifetime trying to reach – of literary fiction that is equally accessible to readers and critics. I deeply admire her as a writer.
Many of my favourite authors have surnames starting with S, not even considering The Bard, who of course, is so much more than just a favourite author. I was halfway through a post on Shaw when I decided to write one instead, on Vikram Seth whose poetry was a great influence during a period of my life, albeit a past life, once upon a time.
One of the many pleasures of reading is to find the echoes of a beloved writer’s voice subtly reflected in another. Like how Hamlet’s soliloquy finds a response in Seth’s ‘Switching off’. I enjoyed writing a response to both the bards through the voice of one of my characters in an early version of The Reengineers.
While Hamlet dreads ‘The undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveller returns’, Seth’s poetic narrator has no such fears for he ‘To one who knows this life is all there is’ and yet chooses to live in the hope of happiness, for objective curiosity and out of filial attachments. (Mappings)
“Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain”
John Keats, From Ode to a Nightingale
“To cease upon
The midnight under the live-oak
Seems too derisory a joke.
The bottle lies on the ground.
He sleeps. His sleep is sound.”
Vikram Seth, From Ceasing Upon Midnight
Which is better, to cease upon the midnight, or to raise a toast to the moon and fall asleep, laughing at the joke called life? Seth’s translation of Heinrich Heine perhaps has the best answer – “Sleep is good, death is better; but of course, the best thing would to have never been born at all.”.
“All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love,
No hand to left or right,
An emptiness above–
Know that you aren’t alone.
The whole world shares your tears,
Some for two nights or one,
And some for all your years.”
― Vikram Seth
These lines evoke R.K. Narayan’s quote, “A profound unmitigated loneliness is the only truth of life”, and are characteristic of Seth’s early poetry that is poignant, reflective and elegant. I must have read his collected poems (Mappings, The Humble Administrator’s Garden, All You Who Sleep Tonight and Three Chinese Poets (Translations from Du Fu, Li Bai and Wang Wei) about twenty times, if not more, during a period of my life which was literally darkened by depression. Above all, I read and re-read the book that many consider as his magnum opus – The Golden Gate.
It is not easy to write about depression even after being cured for years, less easier still to read about the condition when one is depressed. Trying to connect with writing on the subject, I had sought out Sylvia Plath’s poetry, The Bell Jar, The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark, Girl Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen…their words only rattled my mind that had been rendered fragile and trembling in the darkness. But The Golden Gate saved my life. A few pages into the book and I was laughing aloud for the first time in years. The humour had less to do with it, than relief in the knowledge that everyone shared the feeling of loneliness, universal truth of life. I had very little in common with the protagonists in the book but could relate to their ambitions, idealism, dreams, despair, disillusionment and especially their sense of alienation. I clung tightly to the book as I cried myself to sleep during several of those long, dark years.The verse was a source of comfort, solace, even fleeting moments of happiness.
On his other work, I loved From Heaven Lake and found parts of A Suitable Boy a joy to read. An Equal Music was rather too sentimental (I kept wanting to give the character Michael two tight slaps and ask him to get a life) and Two Lives really needed an editor. The Rivered Earth was so disappointing that it put me off from reading Summer Requiem. I am not even sure if I will pre-order A Suitable Girl. But I remain grateful for what The Golden Gate once did for me, so much that I dedicated my first novel The Reengineers to the poet who wrote it.
A related excerpt from The Reengineers in which I pay my respects:
“The darkness had almost got me for good one weekend. I drove to the library in a daze. Wandering uneasily between bookshelves, I pulled out a small book that caught my eye. Songs of the Bulbul by A. Chatterjee. It was a handsome book, dark blue and edged with shining gold. I had read rave reviews about it along with excerpts when I was a precocious ten-year-old in a Madras school. The book made me feel safe and warm as I held it, for it held the memories of a time when everything had been right in my world. When I now
think of the moment I opened the book and turned to the first page, lo, my mind floods with light. For the next few days, the bulbul carried me on its wings, whispering to me though its songs that I was not alone in my sorrow.
There had been other books that affected me. I had shrunk back from the darkness that leapt out at me from the yellowing pages of The Driver’s Seat. Sylvia Plath’s poems terrified me so much that it was years after I was out of the bell jar before I dared to open it. Chatterjee, on the other hand, acknowledged the darkness and even made fun of it. It was apparent from his verse that he had been touched by depression. Yet, instead of allowing it to take over his life, he opened the windows and asked it to find its way out.
Undaunted by depression, he sang odes to the simple pleasures of life…His gentle songs were irresistible concoctions of life, art, nature, love, laughter and a tinge of pain, verse which had the power of claiming the reader as its own. To read him was like having someone listen to you while walking by your side. For years I held on to A. Chatterjee’s poems as a lifeline. I even had a crush on him for a while.”
I didn’t realise how far I had moved away from the past until last Hilary term when I chose to do a critique of The Golden Gate. I found myself nodding wholeheartedly as my Professor explained how the rhymes in the sonnets were was rather clumsy and how the verse was far clunkier than, for example, Byron. My avant-garde poet classmates had strong views on the book – ‘It was horrible!’ ‘Hated it!’ they said, cheerfully. I surprised myself by agreeing with some, if not all of their critique. For now, I see the book as it is. But I remain grateful for the verse and to the poet who along with many others inspired, consoled, energized and sustained me with words through those years of literal and metaphorical exile.
This series of posts which I began mid-April last year has taken so long but I am determined to finish the series before end of March and do a proper challenge in April, doing a post per day.
“Books choose their authors; the act of creation is not entirely a rational and conscious one.”
Growing up in India in the eighties and early nineties, I remember that the literary columns of most newspapers and magazines would often focus on two names as the ‘big two’ in Indian writing in English – Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth. While Seth’s writing (his early poems, The Golden Gate, A Suitable Boy and From Heaven Lake) in gentle, formal prose is nostalgic both in terms of form and content and flows like a river, Rushdie’s rich voice with its many layers of allusions, inter-textuality and effervescent wordplay cascades through the pages like a waterfall, challenging and at times, tending to overpower the reader.
“It may be argued that the past is a country from which we have all emigrated, that its loss is part of our common humanity.”
― Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991
I started reading Rushdie with Imaginary Homelands, a fascinating collection of essays that include literary criticism of his contemporary writers (Gunter Grass, Marquez, Calvino, Vonnegut and Barnes among others), travelogues, memoir, reflections on the literary life, colonialism, racism, religion and empire, and his personal definition of what home means, and what it means to be an exile.
“The word ‘translation’ comes, etymologically, from the Latin for ‘bearing across’. Having been borne across the world, we are translated men. It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately to the notion that something can also be gained.”
― Imaginary Homelands
“He knew what he knew: that the real world was full of magic, so magical worlds could easily be real.”
― Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories
The meta-fictional fable Haroun and The Sea of Stories was my first introduction to his fiction – a book that remains one of my favourites to this day. It can be read at various levels, as a metaphysical fable about the power of fiction, as a political satire on the storyteller’s freedom of expression or simply as an entertaining young adult story based on the hero’s journey.
“I have always thought that these two ways of talking, one is the fantastic, the fable, the fairy tale, and the other being history, the scholarly study of what happened, I think they’re both amazing ways to understand human nature.”
I next read Midnight’s Children and was mesmerised by the book which won the Booker and the Booker of the Booker prizes. I remember the days passing like a delirious, gripping dream while I was reading this masterpiece of a novel. The pages turned as though by themselves, compelling me to keep watching as places and characters came alive through the words, and projected the story, scene by scene, sharply on my mind. The actual movie version which I saw last year left me underwhelmed. In spite of the character names and events, the film seemed to bear no trace of that magnificent novel.
“Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems – but as you approach the present, it inevitably seems more and more incredible.”
“A book is a version of the world. If you do not like it, ignore it; or offer your own version in return.”
Shame, East, West, Shalimar the Clown and The Enchantress of Florence were good but nowhere as great, while Fury, The Ground Beneath Her Feet and The Moor’s Last Sigh were lesser literary siblings of the illustrious Midnight’s Children.
Luka and the Fire of Life was a beautifully written sequel to Haroun. However, Luka’s story did not quite touch the peaks scaled by his elder brother’s tale.
“There are places in the world where nothing ever happens, and Time stops moving altogether. There are those of us who go on being seventeen years old all our life, and never grow up. There are others who are miserable old wretches, maybe sixty or seventy years old, from the day they are born. We know that when we fall in love, Time ceases to exist, and we also know that Time can repeat itself, so that you can be stuck in one day for the whole of your life.”
Luke and The Fire of Life
I read Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights with a great deal of pleasure, a book which I am looking forward to re-read later this year along with The Golden House , and look forward to reading many more books from this master author, who remains at the top among the world’s greatest contemporary writers.
AtoZChallenge# on Favourite Authors: Q is being held, as I am yet to read an author with the surname Q.
A story-flake instead.
“You can read this if you like,” I handed her the file that had taken me a decade to compile. It consisted of printouts from various times and places so far away that they appeared to be scenes not from the past but from other lifetimes, the paper fresh towards the beginning and fading and yellowing within. At the end of certain stories, I had randomly added a few lines by hand, when I had revisited it after years. I had filed away these memories for no other reason except that they might go into a story someday, a story that I was yet to begin to write. But right then it was all I could think of keeping her distracted. I may not be able to dissuade her from her life decisions, but there was no way I was going to let her pop those pills while she was in my house. I sat down next to her and opened my laptop, resolving to drag the conversation through the night as in our college days. Come daybreak and I would send her safely away.
“You should write a book about this, Purna. Really. Everyone likes to read about marriages, so much nicer than all that heavy stuff about spirituality and philosophy,” she said as she turned through the pages slowly at first and then hurriedly. I was rewarded by the way the darkness on her face melted as she turned the pages, and was replaced with an innocent greed for gossip as her eyes pierced the lines, filing away bits and pieces in her own mind.
The Robotics Lecturer
An unpleasant surprise. The encounter with the robotics lecturer could be summed up in three words. He had a name, of course, a commonplace name. Call him Ramesh, Suresh, Naresh or Rajesh for he could have been any of them, yet another twenty-six-year-old Madras boy of his generation. I refer to him as the robotics lecturer, for his profession alone distinguished him from the stereotype that he was in every other way. I was repelled by the way he sat at our dining table, full-sleeved shirt buttoned to the collar, oily hair combed carefully over balding pate, wearing baggy trousers that barely hid a slight paunch and the smug expression of the ‘ideal boy’ as pictured in primary school textbooks.
His mother pushed a plate of cashew nuts to his side, and periodically gestured him to eat, her growing boy. She was dressed in what seemed to be her wedding sari, an antique Banaras silk in deep indigo with a silver border, and outdated jewelry that must have fit her once, but now squeezed her plump neck and wrists, creating small bulges of powdered flesh on either side of the dull gold.
The only thing that must be more tedious than making social conversation at a bride viewing, is to listen to it. I strained to keep my eyes from glazing or worse, dozing over while the fathers pontificated loudly about how marriages were the union of two families and not two individuals, and the mothers talked in artificially refined tones about the rising prices of gold and the difficulty of getting good maids in present times.
“Purna loves to keep a tidy home. Last week she cleaned the rooms and even cleared the cobwebs off the ceiling when the maid was on leave,” my mother simpered. I was glad she did not say that I had personally prepared each of the snacks on the table with my own hands, a statement which would have been both a falsehood and a cliché.
The woman in indigo silk inclined a gracious double chin towards me. I noticed that she had extended her eyeliner to make two short lines at an angle of thirty degrees on either side of her eyes. The fish-eye style must have been popular in her college days. Come to think of it, she was carefully and stylishly dressed from head to toe, except that her style was about thirty years old.
“Our maid stays with us. She has been with us for fifteen years, wants to retire now,” she gave a tinkling laugh. “I’ve promised to let her go, as soon as my daughter-in-law comes home,” she said to my mother, looking at me significantly while uttering the last part of the sentence. The look caused an unpleasant fluttering sensation in my stomach.
Thunderous laughter from the fathers and uncles shook the carved wooden partition which separated the dining and living rooms. I wondered if men employed loud laughter as a tactic to announce their powerfulness. Good girls were not supposed to laugh aloud, my parents had said while shushing my schoolgirl’s laughter a hundred times, driving me to forget the skill for the rest of my student years. When I started to work, the first thing I bought was a little library with which I built a wall around me, and within the safety of those paper walls I had taught myself to laugh once again. There was plenty to laugh about life, like the comedy that was playing out around me now. This occasion was likely to change the rest of my life but no one seemed to care about what I thought of the whole setup. I had returned from the office that evening, tired to the bone, to face this, and me an independent Indian woman in the twenty-first century. It was amusing, in a way.
“I suppose we should let the children talk now,” someone said and soon I found myself sitting next to the robotics guy on the garden bench.
“So, what are your hobbies?” He asked me after looking around for a few minutes, just when my eyes began to close again.
I had hardly expected an original question from him, but that clichéd opening line killed any possibility that might have grown from that conversation. Stifling a yawn I began to tell him politely about the books that I loved and the poetry group that I was running at the British Library, while he listened with a polite, interested face. As I talked, scenes of life with him played out in my mind. Sitting there, hardly an hour after I first met him, I could predict every single thing that he would say, and do. I could even imagine what and how, he would think. Some people conform so much to convention that they remain unaware sometimes until the end that they have morphed into stereotypes, and live their parents’ lives all over again.
I declined him because I did not dare to risk any chance of happiness that I might finally find in the future, if I moved away from the plodding, painful path upon which most people around me seemed so contented to walk.
In retrospect, he was a good man, kind-hearted, a gentleman. I could see that from the way he lowered his eyes respectfully from time to time, from the mild tone of his voice, and the intelligence that exuded from his few questions, except the first one. More than a decade later during which I continued to work and read and write and wonder about life and occasionally meet more unsuitable boys while he acquired a doctorate in robotics and a wife and two children, just once or twice I was to wonder if I had done the right thing by refusing him right away. For with time I found that not all clichés are bad. Like springtime and sunshine, the silence of the night, like the beauty of changing seasons, and the sight of stars in the sky. Even life is a cliché when you look at it.
The Silicon Valley Architect
The chief impression that I retained of the unusual encounter with the Silicon Valley architect (SVA) was the sense of entitlement that came through from him and every one of his family members. While a display of arrogance from the groom’s side is one of the many accepted traditions of a Tamil Brahmin wedding, SVA’s family took this attitude to new heights. For one thing, he refused to fly to Madras for a face to face meeting. He was too busy with work and can come only for the engagement, his parents said at first, and later that he could only come for the wedding, if and when it was finalized.
They lived in a palatial bungalow in a prime Adyar locality, set within an acre wide garden of flowers that was tended by two gardeners. The house had been originally built for some top officer of the British Raj, and was later bought by his great-grandfather, the Diwan Bahadur ___ from whom one of the famous streets of Madras takes its name. His family flaunted their riches of every kind, most of all they were rich in extended family and friends. He was the youngest of four children, three of whom were married into equally wealthy and powerful families, whose members were well known within the state, the country and some, even internationally. When they heard of the proposal, some of our relatives murmured with a sour look that they could afford to be arrogant, having condescended to an alliance with the likes of us.
But it was his horoscope that charmed my parents. Nine out of ten celestial aspects match perfectly, the astrologer had claimed, comparing the planets that stood around his horoscope with those of mine. It was a rare occurrence. This marriage, he said, if it happens, will be most auspicious and favourable. Why the element of doubt, my parents asked him worriedly. Because this marriage is likely to take place only if the boy and girl actually see each other, he said enigmatically. My parents sighed with relief. Of course they would see each other, they mused, how could a wedding in 2004 happen without the bride and groom having seen each other? But as much as I like to say that all astrologers are old frauds, he was right. I never saw SVA, even though I was engaged to him for about one hour, the longest hour of my life.
By then, I had grown used to unannounced bride viewings. On returning from office and finding SVA’s family descended in droves upon the living room, I reluctantly dressed in a sari and went out to meet them. Parents, sister and husband, brothers and their wives, a flock of children, and a few aunts and uncles, everyone except the man himself were present. The subtle elegance which masked the richness of their clothing, the perfect creases in their handloom silk-cotton saris and dhotis, and the sober sparkle in the diamonds upon them, all of which exuded a formidable aura. The excitement in their voices filled the room with a pulsating energy that overwhelmed the strong fragrance of several kinds of expensive perfumes, which was making my eyes water and my head throb in the combined, cloying odour.
The younger children clambered over me, calling me Purna Auntie and prattling about their SVA Uncle. I calmed myself by silently reciting sonnets from the book that I happened to be reading those days. I imagined that it was all part of a story, and I was watching a scene unfold before me. Someday I thought, I would write with great joy about these characters, including the apathetic cow who watched indulgently as her four-year-old devil caught my sari pallu smearing it with the remains of a ghee-soaked sweet from his greasy paw, her husband who looked like a politician satirised in a cartoon strip come alive and perhaps, even the mysterious scion of this genteel circus who trusted them enough to let them choose his wife.
The sounds of mantras came from the living room. I peeped and caught a priest squatting on the carpet. “On such and such epoch and era of time, to the South of the Meru mountains in the land of Bharat, in the spring season of the such and such month and day (a number of archaic names were mentioned in between all of which went over my head), it is decided by the elders that the immortal youth SVA and the auspicious maiden Purna are to be united in matrimony on …” Too shocked to process what he said next, I managed to walk into my room without screaming aloud. My mother followed me.
“How could you -?” I had intended to whisper, but I could not suppress the shrill cry that escaped my throat, which was lost in the buzz of multiple conversations that filled the house.
“We thought it was better to formalise the engagement so that the alliance does not slip away. Such respectable people, so elite, so wealthy. Imagine, you will be part of one of the best Madras families!”
“But I haven’t even seen him!”
“Purna, Purna! Where is the girl, let us have the couple talk!” A loud voice came from somewhere, as though on cue.
My mother refused to meet my eyes as she shoved me into the living room. The coffee table was weighed down with the ceremonial silver trays of fruit, flowers, and coconuts, along with baskets of exotic fruit (lychees, assorted berries, peaches) and boxes of imported chocolate.
“He is on the line. Here” his elder sister thrust her mobile phone into my hands. There was sudden silence in the room as everyone’s eyes turned to me, even the kids were staring.
“Speak!” my mother hissed.
“Hello?” I managed to say into the phone. Someone giggled.
“How are you Purna?” Filled with rage, I was ready to hate. But it was a friendly voice at the other end.
I muttered my way through conventional answers. The twenty-odd people in the room resumed their conversations and I suddenly found myself alone in the crowd, speaking with someone I had never seen but who was no longer supposed to be a stranger.
“You look very pretty in the brick red sari,” he said.
“In the photograph.”
When had they sent that to him?
“How is the Madras weather?” He persisted with banalities that go into kindling and stretching a conversation. He talked easily, with the poise and assurance of someone who was confident of being heard. He talked about life in the Silicon Valley, the healthiness of Japanese cuisine, his remarkable work-life balance. All the while, I felt nothing but a dull sense of having been betrayed.
“Do you have any questions for me? Tell me, are you excited about moving here?”
“I just read this book about Silicon Valley yuppies,” I said suddenly warming up to the conversation.
“Not impressed,” he responded cheerfully. “I only read magazines on flights, and the odd business book.”
That did it for me. “I did not say that to impress you. I have no intention of impressing you,” I shot back, “I am not impressed with you either,” I handed the phone to his sister and retreated to my room. I did not walk away in a huff, or slam the door, but the coldness in my tone was enough to cast an immediate chill upon the rest of the room. Half an hour later when I came out, they had all gone, having politely decided to revoke and hold the engagement plans until he was able to come down later, a euphemism for canceling the alliance. I was pleased to find that they had taken their baskets and boxes with them.
My parents glared and turned away when they saw me for the next few days. Thus marooned, I washed up on the shores of the British Library where I discovered the oeuvre of Hrishikesh Datta and his twenty-four novels about life in a little coastal town. It was from then on that those books with their gentle plots and lifelike characters portrayed with clever wit and kind wisdom, became my companions, my friends and family, a virtual home.
Much later still, my parents found out why SVA’s family insisted that he did not come before the wedding. Nothing serious or sensational like a secret prior marriage or live-in girlfriend, he just happened to be an ugly man who had been engaged twice earlier and rejected by the girls both times, once they saw his face. Fourth time lucky, he got married within a few months from that evening. Years later, I saw his face for the first time on my Facebook feed, cast there by some cyber acquaintance who had tagged or liked his photograph. I did not find his features too repulsive, but his eyes were bland, commonplace like his conversation and the expression on his face was of mere animal warmth devoid of intelligent thought, an expression that was mirrored in the face of the child in his hands. I shuddered at the sight. It had been a narrow escape.
“If you don’t turn your life into a story, you just become a part of someone else’s story”
Monstrous Regiment was my first introduction to Discworld and the books of Terry Pratchett. It was just the kind of book that I like to read, a novel which contained a well-structured plot, a good story, a relatable main character, complex and memorable side characters, a fast pace that kept the pages turning as though by themselves and a narrative that satirised society and was chockful of philosophical insights that made one
want to pause, and reflect. It was storytelling at its best.
“The presence of those seeking the truth is infinitely to be preferred to the presence of those who think they’ve found it.”
― Terry Pratchett, Monstrous Regiment
I still remember the pleasure that the novel brought me when I read it for the first time, an experience that would repeat each time I took up a new book by Pratchett.
“Stories of imagination tend to upset those without one.”
― Terry Pratchett
The responses to a controversial article in The Guardian questioning Pratchett’s literary merit raise some interesting insights into the question about what constitutes pure literature. Some of the articles that I enjoyed reading in this context:
In the above article, Annie Coral Demosthenous analyses the complexity of Pratchett’s prose, referring to the delightful wordplay that is characteristic of his novels and his absolute command over language and style which allows him to effectively break the rules of punctuation, much like what Joyce does in the last chapter of Ulysses, so that ‘a multitude of episodic narratives fit together like scenes in a film, jumping between characters, location and time without losing the narrative thread’. She mentions how his work transcends genre fiction as it ‘does not reproduce genre stereotypes’ and rather ‘he sets them up to be deconstructed’, as Austen does with the gothic novel when she satirized it in Northanger Abbey.
“In theory it was, around now, Literature. Susan hated Literature. She’d much prefer to read a good book.”
― Terry Pratchett, Soul Music
Again, genre-based books require very little effort on the part of the reader while Pratchett’s novels demand thought and focus from the reader. If anything, the language, allusions, satire, philosophy and humour are so rich in these books that they merit re-reading.
“Wen considered the nature of time and understood that the universe is, instant by instant, re-created anew. Therefore, he understood, there is, in truth, no Past, only a memory of the Past. Blink your eyes, and the world you see next did not exist when you closed them. Therefore, he said, the only appropriate state of the mind is surprise. The only appropriate state of the heart is joy. The sky you see now, you have never seen before. The perfect moment is now. Be glad of it.”
― Terry Pratchett, Thief of Time
I have only read a handful of the delightful Discworld novels. Some of them are among my favourite books of all time, all of them are highly entertaining and thought-provoking, and I will certainly be reading more from this favourite author.
“Words have always had the power to change the world.”
― Terry Pratchett
“…The pages and pages of complex, impenetrable calculations might have contained the secrets of the universe, copied out of God’s notebook. In my imagination, I saw the creator of the universe sitting in some distant corner of the sky, weaving a pattern of delicate lace so fine that that even the faintest light would shine through it. …all we ask is to be able to re-create the pattern, weave it again with numbers, somehow, in our own language; to make the tiniest fragment our own, to bring it back to heart.”
― Yōko Ogawa, The Housekeeper and the Professor
Reflecting on The Housekeeper and The Professor recalls the above paragraph. It is a book that unravels like fine lace that bears intricate patterns of human experience. A gentle story about a maths professor whose memory lasts exactly for eighty minutes before it resets itself, the housekeeper who comes to work and care for him and her ten-year-old son and the friendship that forms between this unlikely group of people, the book examines the nature of memory and celebrates mathematics and friendship.
“I was impressed by the delicate weaving of the numbers. No matter how carefully you unraveled a thread, a single moment of inattention could leave you stranded, with no clue what to do next. In all his years of study, the Professor had managed to glimpse several pieces of the lace. I could only hope that some part of him remembered the exquisite pattern.”
― Yōko Ogawa, The Housekeeper and the Professor
The unusual relationship between the three main characters is realistic and devoid of sentiment and melodrama. For a book that spends many pages describing number theory and mathematical formulae, the prose is tender, subtle and poetic.The Japanese title ‘The Professor’s Beloved Equation‘ suits the novel whose plot structure is balanced with the precision of an elegant mathematical equation.
“Numbers were also his way of reaching out to the world. They were safe, a source of comfort.”
― Yōko Ogawa, The Housekeeper and the Professor
The Diving Pool by the same author is a collection of three novellas which take the reader into the murky depths of warped human minds. The characters in these stories are lonely, deranged individuals who give in to their sadistic urges to torture and harm the innocent, for no particular reason except as an outlet for their frustrations. The prose is sharp, the descriptions vivid and keeps the reader turning the pages in spite of the disturbing material. It was hard to believe that the same writer wrote Hotel Iris – a novel about a seventeen-year-old girl living in a seaside town and her relationship with an old man with sadomasochistic tendencies. An extremely dark book, I had to abandon it halfway through. In Revenge, her collection of eleven linked stories, Ogawa returns to the dark recesses of the human mind that she explores in the diving pool. Both the characters and incidents in these stories echo Murakami in the loneliness of the characters, the surreal situations that they face and their actions. Again like Murakami, the beauty of the prose narrated in the first person point of view in each of the eleven stories keeps the reader on the page. The metafictional device of interlinking the stories and the heavy symbolism takes this collection to a different level.
Some of Ogawa’s work raises the question about what makes great literature: is it the style, the language (remembering that these are very good translations from the original by Stephen Snyder), the dexterity with which the novelist builds the plots, the innovativeness that goes into the making of unforgettable characters? Or is it how a book makes the reader feel in the end? I read a number of novels this year that are celebrated as literary classics, but which presented such a depressing view of the world without a clear hope for redemption in the end, that I was not sure if I wanted to rate them five stars for the writing or one star as for the view they presented of the world.
For as a reader of serious literary fiction, I want to read stories that spell out that there is much good in this world, and that there is hope. As it is done in The Housekeeper and The Professor, a favourite book that alone makes its author too, a favourite.
“The faint aroma of gum and calico that hangs about a library is as the fragrance of incense to me. I think the most beautiful sight is the gilt-edged backs of a row of books on a shelf. The alley between two well-stocked shelves in a hall fills me with the same delight as passing through a silent avenue of trees. The colour of a binding-cloth and its smooth texture gives me the same pleasure as touching a flower on its stalk. A good library hall has an atmosphere which elates. I have seen one or two University Libraries that have the same atmosphere as a chapel, with large windows, great trees outside, and glass doors sliding on noiseless hinges.”
What do I write about an author who is referred to as a favourite by several of my favourite authors? As celebrated as he was as one of the greatest Indian writers and as a pioneering voice in Indian writing in English along with Raja Rao and Mulk Raj Anand, Narayan’s books were more than just a part of my library. They were a part of my life while growing up, a sentiment that is commonly expressed by most of his readers. Narayan’s fiction is like the music of MS Subbulakshmi and the poetry of Subramaniya Bharati, which transcend the boundaries of art and flow and seep into the lives of those who experience it.
The first novel by Narayan that I read was Mr.Sampath which opens with a description of Market Road in Malgudi, and proceeds to give the reader a set of delightfully complicated instructions on how to reach Kabir Lane which was home to the Truth Printing Works, from where the writer Srinivas published his magazine ‘The Banner’. Since then I have walked several times through the many streets of Malgudi, wandered through its shady groves, strolled by the banks of the Sarayu river, taken trips to the hills and forests outside the town, and sat on the verandahs and ‘pyols’ outside the houses and watched his characters live. I still go there occasionally, and every time it feels like home.
“Whom next shall I meet in Malgudi? That is the thought that comes to me when I close a novel of Mr Narayan’s. I do not wait for another novel. I wait to go out of my door into those loved and shabby streets and see with excitement and a certainty of pleasure a stranger approaching, past the bank, the cinema, the haircutting saloon, a stranger who will greet me I know with some unexpected and revealing phrase that will open a door on to yet another human existence.”
— Graham Greene
When I started working and building a library of my own, one of my first purchases was a complete collection of Narayan’s work, most of them inexpensive paperbacks from his press Indian Thought Publications. More than ten years later, the books which have been read more than a few times are still in excellent condition. The paper has not faded, nor a single page has come loose from the simple binding. The physical copies of the books have endured, like the author’s writing.
Readers who pick up Narayan for the first time often start with what is called his coming-of-age trilogy which showcases three protagonists who embody a single character’s consciousness as he begins life as the innocent schoolboy Swaminathan in Swami and Friends, experiences first love and heartbreak as the college student Chandran in The Bachelor of Arts, and enjoys domestic bliss followed by personal tragedy and acceptance as The English Teacher Krishna, who is alleged to be a close self-portrait of the novelist. On venturing beyond these three novels which contain semi-autobiographical elements and are set in the comfortable upper-class milieu to which the author belonged, one is exposed to a number of weird, wacky characters from various sections of society, who merge effortlessly into the vibrant chaos that is the town of Malgudi.
The Financial Expert Margayya, The Vendor or Sweets Jagan, the taxidermist Vasu in The Maneater of Malgudi and the garrulous Talkative Man are drawn out to perfection in the respective novels. But the characters who appear in the Malgudi short stories are no less perfect – a fraud astrologer, a street food hawker, a musician who is exploited by her husband, loyal nannies who bond with the children they look after, treacherous workers, men who contemplate turning forty, misers who worship crisp bundles of currency notes, old men reminiscing about their past which appear to them as far away as past lives, postmen who become like family to the people to whom they deliver mail, a friendly dog which runs away with a burglar…Malgudi is a complete world in itself, every character and situation invoking mixed emotions of reflections on life, pathos, empathy, and laughter.
Though his stories were set in the conventional surroundings of small-town twentieth century India, Narayan portrayed the inner strength of women in many of his female characters. Savitri of The Dark Room retires to her room each time when faced with the harshness and ultimately infidelity of her male-chauvinistic husband. She does an make an attempt to escape from her oppressive situation, which was a bold step for a woman who lived in that period (the novel was first published in 1938).
In Mr.Sampath, Srinivas’ wife is a traditional woman who hesitates to eat outside the house or go out to the market by herself. Yet, she does not suffer being ordered about by her husband, who respects her for it. Likewise, Rosie in The Guide, Daisy in The Painter of Signs and Bharati in Waiting for The Mahatma, display streaks of independence and their determination in their pursuits of art, social work, and national service respectively gives strong shades to their characters.
Many are the writers who regard Narayan as a Guru, solely by reading through his oeuvre and I consider myself to be one among them. Reading is the first lesson towards becoming a writer and Narayan is one among the author’s authors, who allowed their readers to step right into the book’s world and become confident of walking in and out of the pages of a book. In one of his many essays on the writing life, Narayan mentions how a critic once asked him if he wasn’t prudish when it came to writing about sex. He says that he replied, “Not exactly prudish, only I take the hint. When a couple, even if they happen to be characters in my own novel, want privacy, I leave the room; surely you wouldn’t expect one, at such moments, to sit on the edge of their bed and take notes?”
This is something I have emulated in my own writing. Most of my characters are far more interested in other things than love and romance, but if they need privacy I would rather leave them to it. I respect my characters too much to invade their intimacies. Perhaps an attitude imbibed from reading Narayan.
“And that, in a sense, is the real nature of this great novelist’s achievement: the portrayal of the world and its great themes through the depiction of the minutiae of life. Narayan does not start with a generalization, with a theory; he lets his characters demonstrate to us, through their very ordinary thoughts and actions, what it is to be human. And to do this he stands in the crowded streets, in the houses, in the workplaces, listening to the things that people say, the small things, the poignant things, the laughable things; listening and taking notes.”
Alexander McCall Smith
“You become a writer by writing. It is a yoga.”
He was one of the greatest yogis, ever.
I have often mentioned on this blog about my admiration for Alexander McCall Smith’s writing. Three shelves in my home library are packed with the author’s books, the sight of which always cheers me up. The mellow blue, green and orange covers and the cheerful designs by Iain McIntosh (who is to McCall Smith what Quentin Blake was to Roald Dahl)
complement the wise, witty and gentle tone of writing.
Professor McCall Smith is most popular for the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency novels which appear rather simplistic, and evoke values of kindness and humanity besides dispensing dollops of practical advice such as,
“Most problems could be diminished by the drinking of tea and the thinking through of things that could be done while tea was being drunk. And even if that did not solve problems, at least it could put them off for a little while, which we sometimes needed to do, we really did.”
Blue Shoes and Happiness
The Sunday Philosophy Club books are more contemplative, and perhaps a tad unrealistic when compared to the other serial novels of the author. Philosopher Isabel Dalhousie lives a charmed life cushioned by inherited wealth, with a much younger husband, young son, and housekeeper who believes in psychic phenomena. She reflects serenely on various questions pertaining to ethics and morality as she goes about solving mysteries interlinked with classical art in one way or the other. Like most of McCall Smith’s protagonists, Isabel is essentially a kind woman who looks out for her fellow human beings even if it means interfering where she does not have to get involved. But she does it with a great deal of elegance and courtesy. More than anything else, the chronicles of Isabel Dalhousie evoke nostalgia for a charming old world that must have existed once upon a time.
“Isabel had firm views on moral proximity and the obligations it created … If one encounters the need for another, because of who one happens to be, or where one happens to find oneself, and one is in a position to help, then one should do so. It was as simple as that.”
Friends, Lovers, Chocolate
The Scotland Street books paint pictures of modern life through a handful of sharply drawn out characters. The child prodigy Bertie, his mother – the insufferable and Irene, the sharp anthropologist Domenica, the painter Angus Lordie and his gold-toothed dog Cyril, Big Lou – an intelligent and well-read woman who runs a coffee bar, Matthew and Elspeth and their triplets, the genial Duke of Johannesburg and even the narcissistic Bruce come alive through each book of the series, which flow in a lucid stream of events. There is no plot to this series, just a sequence of events both small and big that highlight the lives of the above characters, and others. These books are slices of life that hold within them a great deal of interesting information, anecdotes, insights and commentary into life and the world.
“Do I shock you? I think I do. That’s the problem these days – nobody speaks their mind. No, don’t smile. They really don’t. We’ve been browbeaten into conformity by all sorts of people who tell us what we can and cannot say. Haven’t you noticed it? The tyranny of political correctness. Don’t pass any judgement on anything. Don’t open your trap in
case you offend somebody or other.”
The World According to Bertie
I had greatly enjoyed the Corduroy Mansions series which has been on a long hiatus since the third installment. The characters who lived in and around Corduroy Mansions had been left at significant turning points in their stories, and it would be interesting to find out what happens to each of them.
My favourite among Professor McCall Smith’s work remains the adventures of Professor Dr Dr Moritz-Maria Von Igelfeld. A series of novellas which are funny and thought-provoking, these are great satires on academic life.
“He had been thinking of how landscape moulds a language. It was impossible to imagine these hills giving forth anything but the soft syllables of Irish, just as only certain forms of German could be spoken on the high crags of Europe; or Dutch in the muddy, guttural, phlegmish lowlands.”
Portuguese Irregular Verbs
“students had a way of creating a great deal of extra work and were, in general, the bane of a professor’s life. That was why so few German professors saw any students; it was regrettable, but necessary if one’s time was to be protected from unacceptable encroachments.”
The 2 1/2 Pillars of Wisdom
To me, Professor McCall Smith is the epitome of a successful author who consistently produces high-quality fiction which is both literary and accessible and is equally popular with both critics and readers.
“You can make anything by writing.”
Clive Staples Lewis
One of the many things that make Oxford magical is its association with writers. Though St.Giles’ street is now a familiar place, every time I pass in front of the Eagle and Child pub, I still find myself thinking of its legendary association with Lewis and Tolkien, and how the writers would meet there on Tuesdays to discuss their work.
“What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.”
C.S.Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew
The most memorable scene in all the books of Narnia, to me, remains the journey to the world between worlds which is described in The Magician’s Nephew. More than one reviewer of The Reengineers has mentioned that the scene in which Chinmay and friends find their way into Conchpore reminds them of the wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia. There are any number of fantasy stories in which the characters find a portal to a different world. However the most subtle of these portals is perhaps the world between worlds. A cool, green place where one can almost hear the silence, a place covered with shady trees and full of magical pools, each of which takes one to a different world. It is the perfect metaphor for a library. The scene in The Reengineers was very subtly inspired by this idea, as Chinmay and friends open a door in Uncle RK’s library and find themselves in the old library of the Seeker’s School. When they return, it is from the new library and back to Uncle RK’s study. I had included a paragraph describing as much in Chapter two which was cut out in an early edit, as my editor felt that the transition between the fictional worlds came through clearly and did not need to be spelled out.
“In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”
C. S. Lewis
I still feel the same way whenever I enter a library and sit down in its silence. Be it the British Library, the Old Bodleian or the smaller libraries of my college, or my own little library at home, all of them are equally magical worlds between worlds. Where silence seeps through the mind and calms it down, preparing it for fresh new adventures within the pages. This idea is the greatest gift that I received from Lewis’s writing.
“We read to know we are not alone.”
C. S. Lewis