Some friends of mine started a few days ago a debate on Salman Rushdie’s use of the word alternate, which one of them thought Rushdie perhaps had used to mean alternative. There is no clue as to why my friend had thought in that manner. Rushdie was, in a tribute to Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Gabo), discussing magic realism and in that context had said, “We live in an age of invented, alternate worlds.“ It is difficult from this to imply that by alternate Rushdie had meant alternative. To me it simply meant that, “we live in, besides the world we experience through our senses and consciousness, an alternate world of imagination and reflection. Writers employ magic realism on the assumption that man is capable of suspending belief and imagining, as Haruki Murakami does in one of his novels, a man conversing with a cat.
The Rushdie debate illuminates the several ways readers absorb written contents. This debate awakened in me memories of my love for anything printed. All printed matter fascinated me. I would pick up every newspaper, magazine or pamphlet abandoned in a public place and read a sample of it to consider for further reading. I attended every book fair in my town and bought at least one book. I never borrowed a book. Every book I have with me is what I had bought. When a library advertises a spring-cleaning I am there. Once, I grabbed 16 volumes of Laura Ashley’s Interior Decoration, all hardcover and printed on art paper, for a dollar and sixty cents at such a sale. I now have a personal library big enough for a person of my means.. With the exception of a few books, all the books in my library are short story anthologies. I am impatient with long fiction, a trait I share with Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro.
When I was a law student I had a friend who later became the advocate general of the state and who introduced me to the writings of Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. That’s how I started my reading career. I had read all the plays of Shaw and his Prefaces. I couldn’t get a copy of The Black Girl in Search of God though I had read it more than seventy years ago, long enough to forget everything except the title. I now remember only the characters of Pygmalion and Shaw’s eternal tormentor Lady Astor and his biographer Hesketh Pearson. My classmate in Law College also asked me to read Oscar Wilde. I ordered for a hardcover edition of The Complete Works Of Oscar Wilde from Krishnamoorty & Sons, Madras, for a paltry nine rupees eight annas. It included his only novel Picture of Dorian Gray.
The point here is we cannot decipher the mind of a writer unless, besides reading what he wrote, we simultaneously relay to our mind responses to the several ways in which the writer plays with the plasticity of the word, the basic unit of language. When you get a doubt, stop reading and look up a dictionary or Thesaurus or a grammar book. The other day I came across a phrase “shooting off her mouth” in an Alice Munro story. I asked myself if it shouldn’t be “shooting her mouth off.” Google told me that both were correct.
When we do such nitpicking, the joy of reading suffers; if we don’t end up with an unresolved doubt tormenting us.
During a summer vacation I found my brother-in-law reading A.J.Cronin’s Hatter’s Castle. I found the characterization of the protagonist James Brodie as the most powerful portrait of ego. Brodie could easily kill an adversary with his sarcasm. This prizewinner made me buy every other title of Cronin including the dystopian Green Years. Alas, a new crop pushed writers like Cronin and even Somerset Maugham into oblivion.
The first Maugham book I had read I had found among old books displayed on a footpath for Sunday sale. It was Cakes and Ale, a Penguin issue. I instantly fell in love with Rosie. Then followed Liza of Lambeth and Painted Veil and almost all of his plays. I deliberately avoided The Razor’s Edge for its bulk. His novels enshrine his love of women and of chilling off at beach resorts. The last book I had read of Maugham is Three Novellas.
Among the unsorted books I had read I remember The Afriican Queen by C.S.Forester and Love in Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford. I don’t remember what they are about. To this category belongs Astride Two Worlds by Shashti Brata, The Naked Triangle By Balwant Gargi and a hundred other titles that came my way providentially. To this august club belongs Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and a book of poetry by Soviet poet Yevtushenko. Several books poured into my cubicle because I was the book editor for a decade of a national daily. My love of books borders on the insane.
The sixties saw me reading few books, a period that saw the advent of Indian writers on a big scale. Anita Desai, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Kamala Markandeya, V.S.Naipaul, Gangadhar Gadgil, Manohar Malgonkar and above all the great R.K.Narayan. One reason for the drought of the sixties was the death of my rich father. Another was the measly wages paid to a journalist. Yet I managed to read a few books beginning with Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness, Kamala Markandeya’s Nectar in A Sieve. Other titles that readily occur to me are Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust,
I was seventy-five when what I consider as the Golden Age of my reading began on my arrival in the Uncle Sam territory. Works of three kinds of writers claimed space in my nascent library: Anglo-Saxon, African and American Black and Indian immigrant. And add Nobel Prize-winning scribes. The list is long enough to amount to self-adulation.
Among Indian immigrant authors are Jhumpa Lahiri, Chitra Banerjee, Kiran Desai, suketu Mehta, Raji Reddy, etc.
Generally, every book I had read becomes a new book to me because a week after I don’t remember a word of what I had read. Barring its author’s name or the title. Another book loving friend of mine lives in Chicago with a background of brainstorming with the elite of Indian writing and the main reason for my experiments with writing. I deceive myself, thinking that I had prodded him to use his articulate pen again.