“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.
Impulsively, I decided to do the AtoZ blogging challenge for April on the theme of favourite authors. I know it is a little late, but better late than never, as in everything else, there will be double and triple posts to make up for the lost time.
The theme is favourite authors. I will revisit their work, re-reading favourite paragraphs and post a few thoughts on what they mean to me.
A real book is not one that we read, but one that reads us.
Wystan Hugh Auden
As a self taught reader of poetry, I had not chanced upon many poems of W.H.Auden except a few of the most famous ones in anthologies, when I began to come across frequent references to his poetry in the novels of Alexander McCall Smith, a writer whom I admire greatly for the warmth of humanity that shines through his work. Inspired by Professor McCall Smith’s frequent references to Auden’s life and poetry through the reflections of philosopher Isabel Dalhousie in the Sunday Philosophy Club series, I turned to the poet’s collected works and was surprised to find that the more I read of Auden’s poems, the more I found that his voice had very similar overtones to that of McCall Smith. There is the finesse of craft, the excellence of technique in multiple verse forms, the rich allusiveness to literature, culture, art, science and society. The gentle humour, the empathy with the fragility of the human condition, the sparkling wit which complements the wisdom within his words and above all, the sense of kindness that pervades his lines which seem to reach out to all of humanity.
A few quotes from the poet who evoked tenderness in ‘Lay your sleeping head, my love’, heart-wrenching pathos in ‘Miss Gee’ and ‘Funeral Blues’ and echoes a reader’s feelings in his poet’s tribute ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’.
On loving kindness.
“How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.”
W.H.Auden (The More Loving One)
Incidentally, the above lines describe the attitude of many of McCall Smith’s characters. Isabel Dalhousie personifies this view most of the time, as does Barbara Ragg from The Corduroy Mansions series, in a scene where she breaks up with the mean and selfish Oedipus Snark during a weekend getaway with him and as she leaves, pays the bill for both of them.
“I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.”
W.H.Auden (As I Walked Out One Evening)
“Not to be born is the best for man
The second best is a formal order
The dance’s pattern, dance while you can.
Dance, dance, for the figure is easy
The tune is catching and will not stop
Dance till the stars come down from the rafters
Dance, dance, dance till you drop.”
W.H.Auden (Death’s Echo)
Or simply, a poet who seems to have enjoyed his work, and had a lot of fun writing delightful verse like this one.
When it comes, will it come without warning
Just as I’m picking my nose?
Will it knock on my door in the morning,
Or tread in the bus on my toes?
Will it come like a change in the weather?
Will its greeting be courteous or rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?
O tell me the truth about love.
W.H.Auden (O tell me the truth about love)
Describing Auden’s poetry transcending the human experience into that on a higher plane, Professor McCall Smith says in his book ‘What W.H.Auden Can Do for You‘ that “There are plenty of poets, especially those given to the writing of confessional verse, who are ready to tell us about their particular experience of love. We listen sympathetically, and may indeed be touched or inspired by their insights. But few poets transcend the personal when talking about love. They are talking, really, about how they felt when they were in love; Auden digs far deeper than that. He talks about love and flesh as it can be experienced by all of us – he transcends the specific experience in a particular place and time, to get to the heart of what we are.”
As a serious reader of both these authors, I feel that the above words apply equally to both of their work.
My interview in Techgoss, in conversation with writer and journalist Suneetha Balakrishnan
Chennai techie Indu Muralidharan graduated in Electronics and Communication Engineering at University of Madras and worked in a software product development MNC in Trivandrum and Tokyo before returning to hometown as Senior eCommerce Project Manager in a UK based company. Her word-prowess shows in her debut novel ‘Reengineers’, a coming of age novel with existential overtones.
Indu shares a birthday with noted Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov, used to write a column on life in Technopark in the New Indian Express and was a semi-finalist at the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2008. She is also an avid bibliophile and keen to improve her writing techniques by conscious study. Here’s our conversation.
Techgoss (TG): Could you give us an intro?
Indu Muralidharan (IM): I grew up in Madras as Chennai was called in the nineties, in a very interesting time just before the advent of the internet. I graduated in Electronics and Communication Engineering from the University of Madras and worked in a software product development MNC in Trivandrum for a few years, was posted in Tokyo for about a year in between. Now I am back in my hometown Chennai where I work as Senior eCommerce Project Manager in a UK based company.
TG: Tell us about Reengineers. The premise is very interesting. How did the book happen? What brought the plot to you? How much time did you take to write this?
IM: When I first started writing, I found myself gravitating to the path of writers who have explored and stretched the boundary lines between fiction and reality. I rejoiced every time I reread Muriel Spark’s novels about literary protagonists whose narrative interweaves between fiction and reality in the world of the book while being cognizant at the same time of the reality of the reader’s world outside it. Thus inspired, I wrote ‘The Reengineers’ which blends the metafiction genre with young adult coming-of-age fiction through the premise of a character who writes the story of his author.
In her wonderful book ‘Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life’, Anne Lamott wrote about ‘shitty first drafts’ of books which then become more and more and refined with each revision. As I wrote The Reengineers, I discovered that not only manuscripts but ideas too could go through shitty first, second, third and perhaps several draft versions before they take on a solid shape.
The Reengineers grew from a set of disjoint ideas and a few pages of early stories. A few years ago, I wrote a bunch of short stories about a young man called Siddharth who lived with his sister in the remote town of Conchpore. I thought about developing this into a full-length collection of stories called the chronicles of Siddharth. But I found that I hardly knew anything about Siddharth, except that he was very unhappy and wanted nothing more than to get away from Conchpore and his dysfunctional family.
Sometime later, I was writing random paragraphs about three teenagers from Madras in the early nineties who had been displaced into another time and space in a fictional world. I wrote many drafts of the story of these three kids. Somewhere along the way, they met Siddharth and that was the catalyst for the story, which turned into this book.
TG: You were a finalist at the Amazon Breakthrough Award, tell us about the experience. Have you been appreciated likewise at any other podiums?
IM: I was a semi-finalist at the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2008. I finished the first draft of The Reengineers just in time to enter the contest and was surprised and delighted to be chosen as a semifinalist. The semi-finalist’s prize was a review from Publisher’s Weekly which was encouraging, as was the feedback from readers who reviewed the book’s excerpt on Amazon.com. I had wonderful, productive interactions with fellow writers on the Amazon forum, discussing various aspects of writing, editing and publishing. I learnt a great deal from the experience.
I also received some very good constructive criticism from published authors, which made me look at my manuscript objectively and gave me an understanding of where it needed improvement. Based on this feedback, I set about reading a number of books on writing to study the basics of the craft (Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ and James N. Frey’s wonderful ‘damn good novel’ series were especially helpful) and rewrote the novel a couple of times before I eventually got the contract with HarperCollins.
TG: What else have you written?
IM: I have been writing since I was five years old. For a long time my writing was influenced by whatever I happened to be reading during the period. I remember writing my first novel at ten, and another at twelve, and two more when I was in college. I started writing seriously when I started working. I wrote a series of features in the Life Positive magazine, on spirituality in corporate life, management, folk art, travel and lesser-known spiritual masters. For a short while, I wrote a column on life in Technopark in the New Indian Express. My poems, book reviews and short stories have been published in a few magazines and literary journals. However after I wrote my first novel, I realized that I wanted to focus on the form of the novel.
TG: What or Who do you read? You have an active blog where you do book reviews. Tell us about that too.
IM: To quote Yann Martel, the greatness of literature is that in reading about fictional others, we end up reading about ourselves, a self-examination that makes us wiser and existentially thicker. For years, this has been my credo as a reader.
I have too many favourite authors, to list just a few – Muriel Spark, who is one of my greatest influences in writing. I adore her as a writer and as a remarkable woman who knew that her priority in life was her art, and celebrated her life as an artist in her work. Vladimir Nabokov, with whom I share a birthday. Though I was a precocious reader as a child, I stayed away from Lolita for many years due to the disturbing premise. But when I finally read it, I loved it so much that I carried the book with me everywhere for a few days, overwhelmed by the beauty of the prose. I greatly admire Julian Barnes and every once in a while, re-read almost everything he has published (Flaubert’s Parrot is on my top ten of favourite books of all time). Likewise J.D. Salinger, whose four books have been an important presence in my life since my teens.
I see myself as a humanist rather than a feminist but I greatly admire and respect the work of Fay Weldon. Nick Hornby, almost everything he has published (High Fidelity and Juliet, Naked are special favourites). Jeffrey Eugenides, each of whose books are by themselves a study in the craft of writing. Barbara Kingsolver, especially The Bean Trees which is one gem of a debut novel. Alexander McCall Smith is a special favourite – Besides the delightful Von Igelfeld novels, I absolutely love his Scotland Street and Sunday Philosophy Club series of books. Reading his Corduroy Mansions online on The Telegraph online was like being back in the days of Dickens’ serial novels, with the added advantage of interactions with fellow readers and sometimes the author himself on the web page.
Other writers I admire include Amy Tan, Yoko Ogawa, Kate Atkinson, Karen Russell, Julie Otsuka, Diane Setter field, Susanna Clarke, I could go on and on. If I like an author’s work, I try to read everything they have written and I tend to re-read favourite books multiple times.
Metafiction and YA are among my pet genres: Jorges Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, Carlos Ruis Zafon, Jonathan Stroud, Alan Bradley (The Flavia de Luce novels), John Green, Neil Gaiman among others. (I adored Stroud’s Lockwood series). I have learnt much about the writing process from Nathan Bransford’s blog and I enjoyed his Jacob Wonderbar novels.
As a technology enthusiast and literature lover, I absolutely loved Robin Sloan’s ‘Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour-Bookstore’. In this context, I greatly enjoyed Vikram Chandra’s ‘Mirrored Mind: My Life in Letters and Code’.
The coming of age novel with existential overtones is a favourite subgenre, I think The Reengineers falls in this category. Novels I love in this genre include Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of being a wallflower, Ned Vizzini’s It’s kind of a funny story and the wonderful ‘The Elegance of the hedgehog’ by Muriel Barbery.
Among Indian authors, Ruskin Bond, R K Narayan (but of course), A K Ramanujan, Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Anita Desai, Kiran Desai, Lavanya Sankaran, Kalpana Swaminathan, Rupa Bajwa, Chandrahas Choudhury (Arzee the Dwarf as well as his literary blog), Jerry Pinto, translations from Bengali literature by Arunava Sinha… once again a very long list. Srividya Natarajan’s ‘No Onions nor Garlic’ is an all-time favourite novel, one that I have gifted to several people. I wish she wrote more.
I enjoy reviewing books, diving deep into the various dimensions of the plot, the premise and the characters. I have not been very active on the blog and social media since last November as the edit of The Reengineers and writing my second novel had taken over all my time after office hours. I am slowly resuming blogging now.
TG: What’s your writing schedule?
IM: I spend two hours every weekday morning, writing or studying creative writing textbooks. On weekends, it is anywhere between four to ten hours, depending on my day job which sometimes spills into the weekends (no complaints for I love my day job and it is common enough in the IT industry to work long hours).
My day job in software complements my writing. I find that the precision, problem solving skills and out-of-the-box-thinking needed to create business solutions and project plans, and the mandate to meet tight deadlines, actually nurtures my creativity and gives me the discipline to pursue my writing and studies after office hours.
TG: What is your dream book, the one that hope to write some day?
IM: There are just too many great books that I admire for various reasons, which have reached out to me in different ways, and there is no way I can choose any one of them alone as a dream book.
I am constantly working to evolve my writing voice into one that is both literary and accessible, and I hope I am able to realise that better in each of my succeeding books. In the writing process, I find that all my thoughts are focused on whatever book I am working on at present, which makes my second novel my current dream book.
TG: What’s next?
IM: I see fiction as a teacher and a guide, as a source of strength and nourishment for the mind. Several books have helped me face and overcome setbacks and challenges, raise relevant questions on my life and find my own answers. Towards understanding this aspect of fiction better, I wrote my second novel, which is currently a draft in revision and am working on a third. I am excited about these books, both of which are about the energy that one finds in books and the healing power of fiction.
Come December, and I wonder once again if The Telegraph will publish the next series of Corduroy Mansions, the delightful serial novel by Alexander McCall Smith. Most of his books leave one wanting to read more, and Corduroy Mansions three was no exception. I wrote this review soon after reading the last chapter of book three which was published online, a chapter a day, in 2010.
“Follow your heart. It’s the only thing to do…the only advice that I think should be taken seriously – taken as unconditionally true – is this: follow your heart. I know it sounds trite, but it’s the only thing to do. Because at the end of the day your heart will stop beating and it will be too late to regret that you didn’t go where it prompted you to go.”
~ Alexander McCall Smith, Corduroy Mansions Book Three
There were many wonderful moments in the book (mild spoilers ahead) such as Eddie’s finding work that he finally enjoys, Barbara’s hilarious conversation with the Yeti, Terence’s decision to visit India armed with good karma in lieu of a visa and best of all, the transformation of the creepy Oedipus which was at the same time hilarious and thought-provoking.
The concluding chapter left too many questions open and hanging unresolved. William has always thought of Marcia as a good friend and nothing more. It was hard to believe that his feelings for her changed when she revealed that she read Iris Murdoch. It would have been nicer to see him with someone like Berthea who is his equal in intellect and sensitivity. Maggie’s declaration of love for William came as a shock and a surprise, and William acted just as one would have expected that decent, kind gentleman to do. I almost expected that the conspiracy in the title referred to a conspiracy between Maggie and Marcia, to get William to finally propose to the latter. The sub-plot with Freddie de la hay lost and Freddie found again did not really gel into the rest of the plot, but then scenes involving Freddie are so poignant and full of joy.
Caroline seems to have finally found her soulmate in Ronald. In spite of their smug, interfering mothers, it is wonderful that they have got together. I wish that they get to cook risotto together for a lifetime. Will Caroline patch up with James as a friend? James was an interesting character in his own way. As sad and strange as Hugh’s backstory was, it was sadder that it has affected his relationship with Barbara. Will they get together again?
One did not really miss Dee with her obsession on colonic irrigation, or Jo. But it would have been good to see more of Jenny, the Yeti, Basil, Berthea’s biography of Snark and a reformed Eddie working hard at his new job.
Above all I missed the verse that usually concludes the Scotland Street and Corduroy Mansions books, but the good Professor more than made it up with this marvellous vignette of Scotland Street.
I have said it before and I say it again, I sincerely hope that Professor McCall Smith gets the Nobel prizes for literature and peace. The world needs more of his books that make one aware of the fragility, the little weaknesses, the strengths, the joys and the pains, the agony and the ecstasy of being human. Books that help one see the rest of humanity in a clearer light, that help us all to understand each other a little better. Books that help one to retain the faith that goodness, decency and morality will continue to prevail in the world. That there is still hope for the world.
Though I love almost every book of fiction by Alexander McCall Smith, I like his Von Igelfeld stories best and after that, the many views of life on Scotland Street. Omar Khayyam defined his paradise as a jug of wine and his lady by his side. Someone else wanted a certain newspaper and a cup of tea. Or it might have been filter coffee. I forget which writer said that, and whether he had mentioned coffee or tea. For me it is hot chocolate, good music and a Scotland Street book on a quiet evening at the end of a hard day’s work. That is one kind of paradise.
The poets were not always right. In spite of what Rupert Brooke said, there is a lot of comfort to be had in the wise.
Coming soon! The Re-engineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality
Dystopian novels often read like predictions for the not so distant future. Quite often, their predictions do come true with time – The ruthless teenagers of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, the omnipresent eye of Big Brother in 1984 by George Orwell and the vacuous society of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 are no longer confined to the pages of fiction. One can only hope that the worlds of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go among others remain firmly within the pages of books. I have read too many good reviews of Cormac McKathy’s The Road but as the reviews indicate a storyline that is too disturbing, it remains on my list of books to be read and I don’t see myself reading it anytime soon. In fiction as in real life, like most people I prefer good triumphing over evil and people getting rewards and comebacks according to their actions, good or bad.
This is perhaps one of the reasons why Alexander McCall Smith’s books (though they are firmly set in the real world and are none of them remotely dystopian) are so hugely popular. It is reassuring to read that the law of Karma applies even in this age of Kali.
Unlike the books mentioned above, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is a rather light read for a dystopian novel. It is set in a distant future in which the United States has turned into twelve districts ruled by a group of power hungry, debauched people ruling from district 1 who change their faces almost everyday through cosmetic surgery and live decadent lives, while the poorer citizens of the outer districts barely manage to scrape a living. One of the highlights of the government’s activities is a yearly event in which children from the twelve districts compete in a bizarre reality show that is broadcasted live across the country. The losers of the game literally lose their lives. The winner survives and is supported by the state for the rest of their life.
Sixteen year old Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12, the poorest district and supports her depressed Mother and fragile little sister by hunting. When her sister is chosen to take part in the hunger games, Katniss volunteers to go instead of her. Her male counterpart from District 12 is Peeta Mellark, her schoolmate who has a crush on her and had once surreptitiously saved her and her family from the verge of starvation. The rest of the story follows Katniss’s adventures as she witnesses her competitors kill each other, gets to kills one or two of them herself and strikes up a unlikely friendship with Peeta as they progress towards the grand finale.
Perhaps as it was written with a teenage audience in mind, Katniss’s gruesome escapades come across not as a dark, disturbing story of a world gone horribly wrong, but rather like an animated computer game. There are no shades of grey here. The characters are either good or evil in a straightforward manner. Incidents that ought to evoke sympathy such as the death of a character and mercy-kiling of another turn out to be flat and one-dimensional. There are too many coincidences and too much serendipity in the way Katniss gets the things that she needs to survive at about just the right time. However, the lack of depth does not deter one from enjoying the novel which has an interesting plot, is well written and keeps the reader hooked until the last page.
The Hunger Games is a popular best seller and the film adaptation has been a hit. But it is unlikely to be placed among other great literary dystopian classics which are mirrors to real life and the world.
“Most problems could be diminished by the drinking of tea and the thinking through of things that could be done while the tea was being drunk. And even if that did not resolve the 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 by Alexander McCall Smith
I couldn’t agree more with Mma Ramotswe.
Book Riot’s take on the best moms in literature.
Should Molly Weasely write a parenting book? She is hardly the perfect mother to her biological children – yelling at them very often and embarrassing them in public. She is far too intense to be likeable, like Mrs. Bennett, Bessie Glass and some of the Tiger mothers in Amy Tan’s novels. Among the other literary mamas mentioned here and elsewhere, Mrs. March is too cloying. Mrs. Murry from A Wrinkle in Time is too perfect. Mrs. Mahesh Kapoor from A Suitable Boy is too much of a doormat to her family, while Mrs. Rupa Mehra from the same book is one interfering bossy woman whom one would hardly care to meet in real life.
It is easier to list the worst moms in literature – Brenda Last, Irene Pollock, Charlotte Haze…
Some of my favourites – Jack’s mother from Room by Emma Donoghue, Em from Em and The Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto and the delightful Bernadette Fox from Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. One of the best mother characters in fiction is Taylor Greer in The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven, a feisty woman who is an affectionate and caring mother to her adopted daughter Turtle.
This quote below from The Bean Trees shows how Taylor turned out to be a good mother. It is thanks to her own mother Alice, a single woman from a working class background who raised her daughter to become a smart young woman brimming with confidence and self respect.
“There were two things about Mama. One is she always expected the best out of me. And the other is that then no matter what I did, whatever I came home with, she acted like it was the moon I had just hung up in the sky and plugged in all the stars. Like I was that good.”
~ Barbara Kingsolver, The Bean Trees
Which sounds similar to the maternal Aibileen reassuring the child Mae Mobley,
“You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”
~ Kathryn Stockett, The Help
Literature (and the real world) could do with more Moms like Alice and Aibileen.
A note of thanks to Alexander McCall Smith.
Dear Professor McCall Smith,
Your books have provided me with a tremendous amount of pleasure with good stories, wise observations and insights into the subtle nuances of human character, interesting anecdotes and facts about art, literature, history, science, philosophy and life. They have reassured me more than once that goodness and decency is natural to most human beings. They have often restored my faith in the world. Thank you for that.
Above all, I thank you for being such a wonderful role model. Like a traveller looking at the stars above, as I walk towards my writing career, I am grateful to have your example to look up to as a guiding light.
Thank you, Sir.