Pure fiction (as against formulaic genre writing) is a many-dimensional mirror. In its quest to reveal some aspect of the truth, it also gives glimpses into the writer’s worldview and ideology, their backgrounds, writerly influences, their vision and sometimes into their very soul. As fragile as they are, writers are also brave enough to share their work which reflects them to a great extent. A poet friend once told me many years ago, that she was apprehensive of sharing her poems with her family, lest they read her through the lines. In this context, writers like Alexander McCall Smith, RK Narayan and Eva Ibbotson to name just a few come across as not only good writers but good human beings for their work exudes the human values of kindness, hope, a vision of human nature as being the same everywhere around the world and a tendency to look for the good in everyone and everything. A radiance of positivity pervades their books, which uplifts the reader.
Sometimes I have wondered if the opposite were true. Is it the negativity within the writers themselves that leads them to portray the bullies, bastards and bitches of literary fiction? One often comes across criticism on Nabokov for his portrayal of Humbert Humbert. But as charming as the prose was and as much as it seduced the reader, Lolita was also a meditation on morality, seen through the distorted lens of an unreliable narrator. Nabokov makes it clear that he has no sympathy for HH, whose remorse leads to an attempt at redemption that is far from achieved. Likewise in the novels of Agatha Christie, which are studies in human character, and all of which converge to the defeat of evil and the prevalence of hope for the conventionally good characters. Selfishness, pride, envy, lust, greed and a host of negative emotions have been explored in several major novels like The Magus, The Secret History and Gone Girl, again to name just a few, but the moral voice of the writer comes through implying that they are aware of their character’s fallibilities and do not condone them. Even Katherine Dunne’s brilliant Geek Love with its dark premise and darker characters was at its core a story about family dynamics and filial love.
I was acquainted with a woman since the past few months who writes dark fiction, stories in which the narrative voice seems to endorse the criminal characters, making heroes out of them. She has grown more and more unlikeable since I first met her at an informal writing group which convenes in a little cafe on the weekends. Her face grows openly dark with displeasure when someone else is commended for their work. She hides her successes from those she considers competitors, fearful lest someone else may get something better than what she has, and is quick to make patronising remarks putting down others, sounding as though she were ill-wishing them. Calculative in every conversation, always trying to judge, assess, hit back when there is no need for animosity. I’m very ambitious, she said to me once with an expression similar to the doll in Child’s Play, that it appeared that she would not hesitate to incite someone to crime if it were to profit her in some way. She reminded me of a schoolmate K who at the age of twelve was deliberately mean and spiteful to those of us who got full marks in everything. But such negativity that people try on spew on others only goes back to the senders, three times over.
In academics as much as in creativity, a competitive spirit will hamper the end result while also stunting the soul. Just as a student’s goal should be to comprehend their lessons and score the maximum marks that can be scored without an unhealthy desire to get ahead of everyone else, every writer should know that all writers walk their own individual paths, at their own pace. The world needs all the good books that it can get, and there is always a way for any writer to self-actualise themselves in whatever way they wish to, without having to compare themselves with others and running imaginary races. As a teacher once mentioned in a theatre workshop, competition vanishes in the face of excellence.
I was in the queue at the lunch buffet when the waitress pointed us to the plates placed most inconveniently in the middle. As everyone moved there, the curly haired American lady behind me shoved past casually breaking the queue. She was followed closely by her friend who had been behind her, a pleasantly plump German woman with wavy hair and merry eyes who aggressively cut ahead of me in the queue to grab a plate, in an almost reptilian reflex action. I debated quietly whether to point out that they were breaking the queue, and then did what the head Professor would have done – ignored it. Even though it made the difference of a fraction of a second, the incivility was rather irking and out of place in the setting. And then it struck me that I had never ever seen an English person break a queue. Orderly queues are one of the things that I admire about the English.
At the Cherwell boathouse, I sat on a rough bench facing the river and stared into the green waters. It was a fifteen-minute walk from my college room, a very pleasant walk through a treelined path with the boughs overhead making a wide canopy through which the sunlight fell in cool green beams on the ground. It reminded me of one of my favourite places in literature, the world between worlds in The Chronicles of Narnia, which, as we all know, is one of the most beautiful metaphors for a library.
I had booked a punt through the college site, and then cancelled it at the last minute. One look at the boats and I was glad that I had cancelled it. I would have looked like a fool trying to handle the punt by myself. But I felt a deep sense of peace sitting there watching the ducks float past. The summer crowds, mostly students and locals from their appearance were a jolly lot, floating across the river in laughing groups, the little boats swaying. The background sounds blended into the silence and I sat there in peace, contemplating the last two years and the darkness that had threatened to seep again into my mind in the spring, among other things.
I remember someone’s quote that happiness was a library and a garden. Which is true. But to sit by the banks of a river in silence gives something more valuable than happiness – tranquility. Watching the placid green waters of the Cherwell (which the college warns is infested with water-rats, among other things), I felt an immense sense of peace.
May God protect us both (My Preceptor and me)
May God nourish us both
May we work together uniting our strength for the good of humanity
May our studies be luminous and purposeful
May there be no animosity between us
May there be peace (in the divine), peace (in the environment), peace (within the self)
From the Taittiriya Upanishad.
I think of my Gurus – Mentors, Professors and Teachers who have influenced me, with immense gratitude and respect, when I chant these lines every morning.
I have always loved the spring, and not only because of the usual things that everyone associates with the season. In Chennai, we don’t even have proper spring. The weather is sweltering hot all the year. One can just about make out the pleasant nip in the early morning air change into a warm current as the months move from Jan-Feb into March, and suddenly the summer takes over the city with its blazing warmth. But I used to watch out for the flowers – the golden Indian laburnum, the pale pink powder-puff flowers and my beloved flame of the forest that would cover the city in orange and gold well until July, sometimes even August. Spring to me was special because it heralded the long vacations that started in April, and my birthday. Once upon a time, spring was my favourite season, because it held the promise of everything.
That was before the darkness seeped into my mind. During the years in which I was seriously depressed, I hardly cared about the season – I cared for nothing except leaving the hellhole that was Trivandrum. I don’t look back at those days but when I hear that city mentioned, I just feel immense gratitude that I don’t belong to that place, that I didn’t grow up there and that I would never have to live there again. Because should such a condition were to ever arise, I would die, literally than live in that sick place.
But now, even when I have a tiny place in Chennai that I can call home, I am not immune to the darkness. I realised it this spring – as the flowers commenced to bloom all around the gardens and squares that I pass on the way to the office, I felt my mind wilting until it finally shrunk into itself, and closed out. That cold sorrow which is not born from any particular grief filled me and I began to weep through the evenings. I was in denial for weeks. I had survived depression once, even written a novel about surviving depression – about which I get odd emails every now and then from people who say that it has given them hope. How could I get depressed again? I tried some of the newly sprung portals like your dost which counsel people on mental health issues and found that they were too cold, corporates set up to harvest profits from the many banes of the present age. Finally after crying loudly and uncontrollably from eight in the night to two thirty in the morning, I logged into my University’s nightline help service, and found solace, a kind of peace, which was followed by a few weeks of intense reading of fiction, some old favourites (Nabokov, Spark and Barnes), some authors for the first time (Coover, Barthelme, Barth – where had they been all my life?) and the darkness slowly receded. Perhaps it was also because the spring was gone by then.
Once upon a time, I loved spring like everyone else. Now every year as the season seems to descend upon the earth like blight, I begin to see why Virginia Woolf took her life in springtime.
The AtoZChallenge on favourite authors that I commenced in April 2016 remains incomplete. I had not realised when I started it that it would involve reading a number of new novels, re-reading several old favourites and reflecting upon the times when I had read them first, and musing about how my concept of favourite authors have evolved and changed over the years, especially the past two years. While I will return to the remaining five authors (From the letter V onwards, a half-finished post on Vonnegut awaits in the drafts), I have decided to challenge myself to write a post a day throughout July – about books, the writing life, and of course metafiction. I don’t plan to spend more than fifteen minutes per post.
My first post in this series, on the student life.
‘One who is diligent and unswerving in effort as the Crow,
as focused as the Crane, who sleeps as little as the Dog,
who eats sparingly and who is celibate and shuns worldly thoughts,
These are the five signs of an ideal student.’
In my undergraduate engineering years, I had this verse in Sanskrit pinned on the wall above my bed in the hostel room. I had just survived the first onset of depression which had darkened my life from the age of fifteen and remember very little of those years, except the mist and the mountains covering the college, the wind which sounded like a person – murmuring, howling and sometimes just talking in a monotone that filled the ears as one walked through the large open fields to get from the classrooms to the library, and sitting in the library, filling up books with notes on microelectronics and communication theories. I remember picking at the hostel food and working my way through the nights fuelled by black coffee, Marie biscuits, and a paracetamol tablet every two hours to beat the exam fever. I suppose I met all five of the criteria in the verse for I topped the college. Then I stepped out into the world, landed a great job in a hellhole of a place Trivandrum and fell again into the darkest period of depression for the next seven years – that is another story.
But to return to the verse. Diligence and focus are essential for any student, qualities which are easier to cultivate when social media is deactivated and the internet connection is switched off for good measure. I am an insomniac and have always been averse to material things. However, to eat sparingly – I am not sure if that is good advice. As someone who doesn’t really enjoy food and thinks cooking is a waste of time, when I first started living alone I tried taking small quantities of simple vegetarian food and promptly fell sick for a long period of time before finding out that most of my problems were related to the diet. It is easy to be a student living at home or in a hostel, where everything is taken care of but to study while managing a house and a more than a fulltime job – thousands of people do it rather well, and I found out the hard way that a proper diet is of utmost importance in order to do it.
Sometimes even the ancient sayings need to be tuned for the times.
For a very long period of my life, I read just about everything that I could get my hands on. Even the idea of categorizing some kinds of books that I might rather not read came to me at the age of sixteen, when I moved from the vicinity of carefully chosen home and school libraries into the college hostel. With good intentions of focusing all my time on communication theories and microelectronics, I had refrained from taking any reading material other than my textbooks, and within a few short weeks had started to make surreptitious visits to the arts college library adjoining ours. There I read vast quantities of the classics and there I came across Tender Muse, a poetry collection by Russian poetesses, which – but that is another story.
We were forbidden from borrowing the arts library books, and so on the long weekends in that little town which was surrounded by hills and bordered by misty pathways of coniferous trees, my eyes would seek and find random novels lying about the hostel, which I would seek to borrow from their owners who would always, generously share them. It was there the I was exposed for the first time to ‘commercial’ or ‘popular’ fiction. I read through novels and stories of Jeffrey Archer and wondered why so many swooned over the forgettable page-turners. Shocked by some of the graphic scenes, I threw up my dinner while reading Bloodline. A friend with a penchant for the classics lent me Gone with the Wind, which I enjoyed. But I was not able to get through more than the first five pages of a Mills & Boon novel, coloured paperbacks of which were scattered around the hostel like fallen spring flowers in the wind. The classmate who lent me the book was a connoisseur of the said romances. According to her, reading them cleared her mind and relaxed her. As I was rather prudish, she chose a novel for me from her large collection, a book which according to her was ‘very mild’, ‘no strong scenes’. But the first five pages of that novel were not only devoid of strong scenes, they did not appear to have scenes at all – just three stick figure stereotypes standing on the page, speaking atrocious dialogue. Whatever else it might have been, it was not literature. I returned the book and learned to ignore pulp romances as well as thrillers of most kinds, with the exception of standard science fiction and literary mysteries. My days of reading ‘everything I got my hands on’ were over.
Sometime later, I picked up a book from the British Library intrigued by the premise of a leprechaun switching the minds and bodies of a married couple. I regretted it from the first few paragraphs, on the very first page. The cardboard characters were more unimaginative that those found in a women’s magazine story, the descriptions were tedious, the scenes barely hanging together, the dialogue flat and uninspired. That was the British Library in a boring little coastal town where I was working at the time, and its collections were small but highly selected. It was surprising to find a book of such poor quality on its shelves. I skimmed through the pages and read the author’s note at the end on ‘why he chose to write this drivel’, which was the only statement that rang true in that book. It was the beginning of the realisation that I read fiction to find the truth within it.
Since then, I learnt to fastidiously avoid pulp of any kind, averting my eyes from the rather vulgar looking displays in bookstores and skipping whole sections in libraries, the exception being one ladlit paperback by the chap who unleashed a cottage industry of poorly written English novels in India. An ex-colleague in my previous office urged me to take a look, according to him it was ‘crap, but time-pass crap’. The book reminded me strongly of the first and only Mills & Boon that I had tried to read – with poorly conceived characters, badly written dialogue and a non-existent plot, there was nothing commendable in it but nothing that gave offense either, until I got to the last page and found that the climax bore more than a strong resemblance to that of Life of Pi. The plagiarism has been hinted upon in many other blogs, but it will most likely continue to go unnoticed as it has over these years as despite the millions of copies sold, no one takes these lowbrow novels seriously. For these are but the twenty-first-century versions of dime novels and penny dreadfuls – cheap reading material that is mass produced, consumed like fast food and forgotten soon afterwards, poorly written pulp fiction which is the polar opposite of good literature.
But is every book that calls itself literary fiction really worth reading? Though not exactly in the same league as the pulp paperbacks referenced above, I recently read a book that aspired to, and was categorised as literary fiction for a class on dramatization taught by the author. Despite the striking opening with the main character who wins a reality show and is thereafter lost in a jungle, and a promising premise of nostalgia for old England which is often interesting to readers of English literature across the world, the characters and narrative turned out to be flat and uninspiring. It comes as no surprise that Amazon mentions the book being out of print. This is one of the very few books that I plan to give away as it was really not worth the time spent on it.