When I look back at all the books that have fascinated me through the years, I find a slow but definite change in my taste in literature. There are, no doubt, those evergreen writers – authors at whose altars I shall always kneel in reverence – the foremost among them being William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, O Henry, Saki , Oscar Wilde, Somerset Maugham, Pearl S. Buck…and how can I not mention Charles Dickens! But that apart, I find that whereas in my younger student days I was more fascinated by the British and American writers, and quite overwhelmed by the Russian giants Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov, today it is Indian writing in English which holds me.
The reason, I feel, is that a younger me was more outward looking ….more fascinated by the sights and sounds of the vast world outside my window, and the tales and stories relating to people living in faraway lands. Their unseen landscapes, their strange costumes, their alien tongues, their delectable sounding cuisines caught and held my lively imagination, and soon I could actually believe I knew them all intimately. Hyde Park, the fishing hamlets of Yorkshire, the Unter den Linden, the Bavarian mountains, the Volga, the Red Square and the Kremlin, the bleak and hostile Siberia, the Australian outback, the Malaysian jungles, the Mexican desert ….I felt as if I had been there, that I would actually be able to find my way around those places. Another reason was perhaps, that English having been the medium of instruction during my impatient student years, I found it easier and faster to devour books written in the language, in spite of being able to read and write in a couple of regional languages as well.
All the time, my only idea of India was that gleaned from my history textbooks – the invincible fortresses of the proud Marathas and the fearless Rajputs, their exploits of daring and valour, and the monuments and courts of Akbar and the Mughals.
As I grew older, perhaps with increasing wisdom, (I am being a bit facetious here), a turning inwards perhaps…or perhaps purely because more Indian writers began writing in English, or because by chance I came across more such books, the varied ways of life of our Indian peoples drew my imagination in a similar manner. I began to perceive that the people of my own land too displayed the variety and novelty of lifestyle which had caught my young fancy. There was also, an underlying oneness which I came to appreciate and which I now found fascinating. My first contact with Indian writers were the beguiling chronicles of Swami and his friends in the quaint south Indian town of Malgudi, Jim Corbett’s adventures in the man-eating-tiger-infested Kumaon jungles and Kipling’s heart-warming stories. Later came the translations of Rabindranath Tagore, Lalitambika Antharjanam, Sharat Chandra Chatterji, D.L. Roy, and that fascinating tales-within-tales, The Panchatantra. Then I chanced upon Kamala Markandaya’s Nectar In A Sieve and Some Inner Fury, both of which I devoured with insatiable appetite.
That feeling of oneness
With maturing years, I find that many of the questions which were clamouring for answers in my own life, were actually the selfsame ones which engaged the characters in these books too. I find a deep connect with the quandaries which these characters find themselves in. Let me explain. Meera Bai’s poems drenched in love for her divine paramour are well known to most Indians, and I am no exception. Kiran Nagarkar’s Cuckold lets you peep into the mind of the much maligned Bhojraj aka Maharaj Kumar, husband to Meera Bai. His initial fascination for the enigmatic Meera, turning into frustration, fear, revulsion, then graduating into acceptance, understanding and perhaps finally into the realisation or dawning of a selfsame devotion in himself, is marvellously portrayed. The Mewad of those times and the compulsions of the Rajputs to conform to the heights of valour and bravery that is glorified in innumerable ballads of the region is most vividly and movingly caught. The Maharaj Kumar ponders on the many inexplicable acts of Krishna much like we are wont to do. He is devastated by the sense- less loss of lives that masquerades as Rajput valour and is foiled when he attempts to introduce strategy and guerrilla tactics to diminish the mortality toll of war, the widely held perception being that he lacks the Rajput valour as amply proved by his wife’s cuckolding of him. His final merging with his one-time adversary leaves me deeply satisfied with how this beautifully told tale ends.
Another aspect which has made me such an ardent fan of Indian writing is that I am fascinated by the cultural contexts that I come across here. The anguished introspection of Chitra Divakaruni’s Draupadi, in The Palace of Illusions is searing in its intensity. Sometimes she is overwhelmed with horror at the scale of destruction and destitution that the war has brought about….a war she knows, incited by her desire for revenge. At other times she is overcome with a deep bitterness at how not one of her kinsmen and the illustrious upholders of Dharma come to her assistance when she was brazenly dishonoured in open court. It is impossible not to empathise with this impetuous, fearless and deeply wronged queen. The agonised attempts of Gurucharan Das’ mild-mannered Yudhishthir to conform to Dharma as he perceives it, holds me spellbound. His is a solitary endeavour, for none understand his single minded devotion to that elusive concept Dharma, which is too subtle to be defined by mere words. The chilling metamorphosis of Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice-Candyman can even now raise goose bumps all over me.
The lonely isolated lives of the Kodavas in the sylvan surroundings of the Coorg is most evocatively portrayed by Kaveri Nambisan in her books especially in my favourite, Hills of Angheri. It is because she and Khushwant Singh, Rohinton Mistry, Jhumpa Lahiri and and Anita Nair and others write in English, that today, I have some comprehen- sion of the lives that my fellow Indians live, the terrain (both physical and mental) they inhabit. It is fascinating to know that though we live in different corners of this vast land, speak different languages, wear different costumes, and have perhaps very differing histories, there is an underlying identity in the values, ideas, thoughts and thought process- es to which we all subscribe, no matter the superficial diversity. It is through the books of these writers that I have been able to travel all over India, the busy crowded cities, the far flung villages of rustic India, the lonely mountain hamlets, the coastal fishing towns, and even into her hoary past of kings and warriors and feuds, and to converse with my kinsmen who speak in tongues I cannot comprehend.
The pristine quality of the language they write in, the enthralling imagery….oh, it is altogether a veritable feast!! I would be remiss if I concluded this piece without invoking the innumerable Indian poets and playwrights who graced the English language with their scintillating poetry and captivating plays. Girish Karnad’s plays hold you captive as much on the printed page as when performed on the stage. When speaking of poetry, I must pay my special respects to the inimitable Bengali trio of Rabindranath Tagore, Sarojini Naidu and Harishchandra Chattopadhay, whose amazing poetry is as sweet and mesmerising as the Divine Cowherd’s melodious notes on His flute. They have been on my lips from adolescence onwards…and I sincerely hope the Bard’s magical lines “…. I have tasted the hidden honey of this lotus that expands on the ocean of light……my parting words..” will be the ones I utter with my last breath.
For me these wordsmiths are like the ushers in a theatre who lead you silently by the hand to a comfortable seat in a darkened hall. You settle down luxuriously, to watch the fascinating human drama of what could be parts of your very own life, unfold before you. What more could one ask for!