Sunday, February 9, 2014

Lesson learned

It's a popular opinion that modern Indian/Indian-origin writers of the literary type are over-hyped. It definitely doesn't help that they are forever in the limelight, be it for writing controversial stuff (Rushdie and his Satanic Verses) or parading presumptuous opinions. I mean, between Naipaul's condescending views on women writers and Roy's pseudo-activism, it's little surprise that theirs is a hated breed. So like many others, I too was irked and decided that these folks thrive mostly on shock value. Seeing the most illustrious awards in literature stamped on every self-respecting Indian writer's books only made me more skeptical. (Secretly, it also made me somewhat intimidated, impressed and a bit proud; but it's easier to cover up a jumble of contradicting feelings than God forbid admit to being wrong!)

Did I mention that I hadn't read a single piece by any of them before coming to this half-baked conclusion? Yep, talk about being presumptuous. But as it turned out, my reading style became increasingly eclectic in the past one or two years, and at some point I ventured to sample their work - for proving my untested theories if nothing else. What little I've read has made me realize I couldn't have been more wrong! This bookworm now stands corrected, humbled and suitably ashamed for having been a prejudiced ignoramus. But in exchange for such mortifying self-discoveries, I've had some truly enriching experiences and am dying to share my recommendations!

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
"What came for them? Not death. Just the end of living."

This, will make you experience pain. Physical. Tangible. Pain. I'm being literal, and not a bit afraid to be called over-sentimental. The God of Small Things, set in a small town in Kerala, is about two twins - Rahel and Esthappen - and their mother Ammu. It's about loneliness, living with mind-numbing guilt, and what happens when societal boundaries are crossed. It is supposedly semi-autobiographical to an unknown extent. I don't find that very surprising, as it may very well be impossible otherwise to write a story so hauntingly melancholic and raw. Roy takes you one step ahead of feeling for the characters; you will be dropped into their heads and left to feel your way around the chaos that is released in their lives. It is one of those rare works that will stay with you in fragments, ages after you've read the shocking yet oddly befitting ending. 

Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Salman Rushdie
"'Happy endings must come at the end of something,' the Walrus pointed out. 'If they happen in the middle of a story, or an adventure, or the like, all they do is cheer things up for a while.'"

If you ever need a primer to Rushdie, or even Indian writers in general, let this be it. Like The Hobbit, Haroun and the Sea of Stories is a children's book by a master storyteller, and that makes it universally appealing. It's also really endearing that Rushdie wrote it with his son in mind. Inspired by Arabian Nights and the Indian Kathasaritsagara, it's about Haroun going off on a quest to Kahani - Earth's second moon - to stop his father's story stream from being turned off, and his part in the war against Khattam-shud, enemy of speech and King of the Land of Chup (silence), who is poisoning the Sea of Stories. On the surface it's a fantastic work of magical realism with water genies and floating gardeners and what not - quite delightful as is! But with clever use of allegory, Rushdie adds layers of inside meaning on freedom of speech and the pitfalls of intolerance. Coming on the heels of the Satanic Verses controversy and attempted attacks on his life, it's a class act of defiance and a must-read.

P.S.: Coming up - Naipaul and Lahiri!