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The book that lives on and on

The book that lives on and on
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First Published: Fri, Jul 30 2010. 09 03 PM IST
Updated: Fri, Jul 30 2010. 09 03 PM IST
Why don’t you write a book? I have often been asked. It’s a fair enough question considering that everyone and his uncle seem to be writing fiction in today’s India. MBAs, journalists, consultants, psychologists, politicians, professors, lawyers, CEOs, musicians, fashionistas, even my ex-best friend’s husband’s sister—a doctor when I last met her—wrote a book of short stories in 2008. One publisher says she gets 30-40 unsolicited manuscripts every month. These days multiple unknown debut authors elbow Rushdie and Ghosh out of the way in book stores.
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Most of my friends are either published authors or to be published authors (of course the husband has written a book too). I recently figured the reason I haven’t yet written a book is because my dream book is too scary to even attempt to replicate.
In 2012 it will be 100 years since it was published! In other words, it was written the same year the Titanic hit an iceberg and sunk—clearly, both stories have survived the test of time. It’s been adapted multiple times to film and stage including the 1955 hit musical starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron. I wonder if you’ve read it? A spot office survey showed only three members of my team had.
I guess it would classify as a girlie book, it’s told from the perspective of a 17-year-old orphan. It’s also a book you can easily finish on a flight from Delhi to Mumbai, as I did again, earlier this week.
It recently featured on the list of books the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) said would improve reading habits among Indian schoolchildren. The list, which was released at the end of last year, recommended Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs—the book I’m talking about—for students of classes IX and X along with books by more “popular” authors such as Agatha Christie, Ruskin Bond, Oscar Wilde and P.G. Wodehouse.
Scholastic India, which regularly publishes classics, chanced upon CBSE’s list and took the opportunity to publish the book in India in June with the blurb: Recommended by CBSE. I’m not sure that blurb is likely to attract students, who, as a Scholastic rep told me, are not drawn easily to classics except those that star a certain detective called Sherlock Holmes.
I know I read Daddy-Long-Legs long before class IX, although I can’t remember who introduced me to this magical story. The book is essentially a collection of the letters of Jerusha Abbott, a teenager who is suddenly informed that a trustee at her orphanage has decided to send her to college because he believes she can become a writer. In return, she has to ensure she sends him regular reports of her life at college. She has never seen her benefactor, only a fleeting shadow of the man that looked like a “huge, wavering, daddy-long-legs”—hence the title.
When she goes to college she realizes that she’s missed out on a whole slice of life. She has never heard of Jane Eyre or Robinson Crusoe or Holmes or that Shelley is a poet and George Eliot a lady.
Jerusha and me clicked immediately. She’s the kind of girl who gets indignant when she hears a bishop preach that the poor were put on earth in order to keep the rest of us charitable; Wuthering Heights is her favourite book (I have yet to meet a woman who didn’t think Heathcliff was a hottie); she believes all children should have a happy childhood to look back on; likes to think of herself as a Socialist; and discovers, after reading Stevenson, that she has a “terrible wanderthirst”. And then of course there’s the fact that she likes older men.
Yet the book is more than a fun read. When Webster was born in 1876, and even when she published her novel in 1912, all American women didn’t have the right to vote. Her grandmother was an activist who believed in women’s suffrage and that turbulent time is clearly reflected in Jerusha’s letters. In one she tells her benefactor: “The only way I can ever repay you is by turning out a Very Useful Citizen (Are women citizens? I don’t suppose they are.) Anyway, a Very Useful Person.” Another time she writes: “Don’t you think I’d make an admirable voter if I had my rights? This is an awfully wasteful country to throw away such an honest, educated, conscientious, intelligent citizen as I would be.”
So every time I think of writing a book I think of Daddy-Long-Legs. Intense performance anxiety follows. And the book remains unwritten.
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First Published: Fri, Jul 30 2010. 09 03 PM IST