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.
“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.
As an avid reader of literary fiction who was brought up on the genre and reads it for pleasure, I find it disturbing when literary novels are not given the respect that they deserve. I still cringe when I remember a mid-list writer-politician’s article criticizing R K Narayan’s books in The Hindu about two weeks after that venerable author had passed on. I was equally upset on seeing the modified book display in a British Library when romance novels by a certain author were placed right next to the novels of Muriel Spark. It was distasteful to see those pulp paperbacks sharing the same shelf with those perfect novels by Dame Spark.
It was with the same feeling that I read some of the reviews on Karan Bajaj’s book ‘Johnny Gone Down’, in which the author has been compared for some obscure reason to a certain actress who is famous for her item numbers. I thought that the comparison was not justified, not only as it does not make sense to compare books with dances. It is just that both of Bajaj’s books are well-written literary novels that do not merit such an absurd comparison.
I started Johnny Gone Down with the high expectations set by Bajaj’s debut novel Keep off the Grass, which was a fine coming of age book about a young man’s search for the meaning of life. In his second book, Bajaj continues to explore the same questions that have carried heroes on their respective journeys from perhaps the beginning of all literature. Pulling the readers into its pages from the very first chapter in which the unconventional one-armed protagonist goes to play a game of Russian Roulette, Johnny Gone Down has a much broader canvas and takes the reader through a series of diverse and fantastic locations, times and experiences along with its protagonist Nikhil aka Johnny who starts out as an MIT student all set to conquer the world and in a sequence of unexpected events, metamorphoses into a genocide survivor, a Buddhist monk, a drug lord’s accountant and a software tycoon among other avatars before he reaches the end of his gruesome journey.
I read The Homecoming by Bernhard Schlink around the same time that I read Johnny Gone Down and was struck by how the journey of the protagonist in both novels bore a resemblance to the adventures of Ulysses. Johnny also reminds one of a number of classic heroes in literature, those who stand by the brink and observe with stoic detachment as life happens to them and around them – characters such as Evelyn Waugh’s Paul Pennyfeather, Murakami’s Toru Watanabe and Hari Kunzru’s unforgettable Impressionist, Pran Nath Razdan who goes through a similar set of transformations of the self in his quest for identity.
The book is well written in strong, gripping prose and though the violence was too explicit in some places as to be disturbing, it flows smoothly taking the reader with it through the extraordinary lives of its hero as he is tossed from one world to the other, encountering ruthless soldiers, hardened mafia members, compassionate monks, clichéd gold-hearted thugs, beautiful women, wretched refugees and struggling entrepreneurs among others, building up monasteries, business empires and virtual universes, only to abandon them all and start afresh each time, until he reaches the end of his journey, both literally and symbolically as he realizes the interconnection between the patterns making the patchwork quilt of his life.
I took a long time in finishing the book as I found some parts too violent and disturbing, and was unable to continue reading. I enjoyed the humor that came through even in some of the darkest chapters and the philosophical observations of Nikhil in each of his avatars made the book all the more worth reading. I especially liked Nikhil’s discussions with his employer Philip on building a virtual universe on the internet.
I did have a quibble about the characterization of the protagonist. Nikhil seems so detached from life itself most of the time that there seems to be a wall between him and the reader. One never knows whether it is altruism, heroism or merely apathy that prompts Nikhil to save his friend’s life, an action that marks the beginning of his blood curdling adventures. Hesse’s Siddhartha too, went through several stages and transformations in his life, but Siddhartha had an innocence and a vulnerability about him, that made him easy to relate to. And so did Samrat, the likeable hero of Keep off the Grass, to whom it was easy to relate to and understand.
Nikhil on the other hand comes across as a stoic superhero – decent, selfless, contemplative, detached and at the same time empathetic to his fellow beings. Yet his real self remains an enigma throughout the book, coming through only in rare instances like his interactions with his wife, his longing for his son, and his final burst of triumph that Johnny had finally gone down for good. Still, this trait is understandable as most protagonists of the classic books in Johnny’s genre are likewise detached from their surroundings, and also to some extent from their readers. It is as though the authors had imagined them into being that way.
It is also surprising that some reviewers have compared this book to the lowbrow pulp fiction being mass published today. All kinds of books have their own audiences and while perception of what makes good literature is relative, it remains that books like these can be definitely classified as literary fiction. These are well-written books addressing some of the most important questions that constitute the bulk of all literature.
That they happen to be readable cannot imply that they can be called light reads, and it is distasteful to make comparisons between such good books and garish item numbers.
Coming soon! The Re-engineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality
I was appalled to read about women novelists being moved out of the novelists category in Wikipedia.
There are several attributes of a book that determine its quality and worth such as the premise, the depth of the ideas presented, the worldview depicted through the book, the beauty of the prose, the plot structure, the readability, the uniqueness of the characters, the personal and social concerns if any that are addressed in the book, the relevance of the book to present times, the impact that it has on the readers among others.
As a reader and as a writer, I am concerned with these and other similar parameters of a book, and not the author’s personal traits, not the least of which is the author’s gender.
It sounds superfluous to say that the gender of a person is irrelevant to their work and their achievements. It is something that I have always tried to avoid. On my first day at work, I resented being labelled as a ‘lady engineer’ and later being called a ‘woman manager’. I have refused invitations to conferences of ‘women writers’.
As a child I had two role models, my aunt who was the vice chancellor of a prestigious medical university and a cousin who had escalated up the corporate ladder in a New York firm to become vice president before he was thirty. I admired the aura of success that surrounded these two people like a halo and the confidence that radiated from their words and actions. I took it for granted that their gender had nothing to do with their achievements which were the results of hard work and ambition. As an engineering student, for a while I believed the professors who said that exemplary performance was enough for a person to rise high in any field.
The illusions began to dissolve when I read a feature in the IEEE magazine in which many successful senior women engineers spoke candidly about the obstacles that they had to overcome in order to obtain an engineering education at a time when their family expected them to run a home and bake cookies, and about their struggles to transcend the glass ceiling that covered their workplace. Almost all the case studies in the article conveyed the same message – Successful women had to struggle much more than their male peers to get ahead in the race. I remember one of them quoting to the effect that in order to be successful in engineering, a man needs to take it up as a career whereas a woman needs to see it as a crusade. Now it seems that the statement holds good not just for engineering but every other field, including literature.
As much as one would like to believe that the quality of literature transcends gender, it is a fact that discrimination against women writers has always been there, everywhere. It led Mary Ann Evans to write as George Eliot and it is perhaps why J K Rowling chose to use her initials rather than her first name on her books. Almost every article on Indian English literature mentions R K Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao as being among the early pioneers of the field and inevitably go on to talk about Seth and Rushdie but few bother to mention the veteran writer Anita Desai.
Most women can relate to Virginia Woolf’s meditations in ‘A Room of One’s Own’ in which she talks about the status of women as “Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history”. Lines that would sound completely familiar to any Indian woman who has grown up in a society where women are theoretically revered as goddesses and openly discriminated against in real life. At the same time, notwithstanding such crude antics like the wikipedia categorisation of women novelists, things are slowly but surely changing for the better.
Focusing on any negative aspect of the world would only serve to amplify it and make it worse. While being aware of the discrimination against women that has prevailed for centuries, I choose to believe that we are on our way to a society where human beings are treated with dignity and respect, irrespective of any of their attributes be it gender, race, religion, nationality or sexual orientation. It is only a question of time as attitudes slowly change for the better across society.
I just checked wikipedia again and found that new sub categories of American and British ‘men novelists’ have been introduced, in addition to ‘women novelists’. Ridiculous, to say the least. What purpose does this gender segregation serve, other than provide statistical information on how many novelists of a particular nationality were men and how many were women?
The author Shashi Deshpande answered this question in the voice of reason when she asked, “Is Literature a public toilet that we need to have signboards Saying ‘Men’ And ‘Women’?”