For the first two days after the announcement of the lockdown, I was steeped in anxiety. Apprehension about what might happen to humankind engulfed me and set my mind adrift, not allowing me to do anything. But I couldn’t stay that way, after all. So, to help pass this time of crisis, I picked four books and kept them on my table. It’s with them that I spend my days. These are: Kuruntokai—a work of classical Tamil literature in which vibrant language, intense emotion and the wisdom of experience are inherent, and not even one of its 400 poems is below par. It’s an anthology that belongs to the corpus of Sangam literature. Reading a few of these poems, which yield ever-newer meanings no matter how often I have read them, puts me in a pleasant state of mind. Another work of classical literature that I like to reread is Thirukkural. It is a book that is imbued with the miracle of words combining with one another and touching many different layers of meaning. I read Thirukkural with the aim of refining my diction by assimilating the power of its language.
The third book is En Charithiram (My History), the autobiography of U. Ve. Swaminatha Iyer, a scholar who enabled the publication of classical Tamil literature in print. It’s a book that I have read with great pleasure in my younger days. In recent years, I have been reading it from a research perspective. Like a sugarcane, every part of this book contains the taste of sweetness.
The next book is my novel, Mathorubagan (translated into English as One-Part Woman). I read this novel now and again with a certain detachment, trying to find the answer to a riddle: where the aspect that hurts others is hidden. I have changed names of the towns and villages and removed names of castes and communities. Yet I am not satisfied. There is something else latent in the book that plays hide-and-seek with me. I am rereading it now in the hope that at least this time of the coronavirus might finally bring this game of hide-and-seek to an end.
How often, while at Delhi," wrote Aldous Huxley in the 1930s, “I thought of Proust and wished that he might have known the place and its inhabitants." I read Proust’s great book in two sittings of three months each, spread out over five years. To me, there can be no better companion for quarantine than In Search Of Lost Time. For one, at 4,215 pages, it’s long. Two, it’s difficult. Three, it’s six books under the banner of one. And four, it’s utterly unspeakably exhaustingly delightful. What one needs in conditions resembling those of an internment—dare I say it, a desert island—is something that is at once taxing (and Proust is hard) but that is simultaneously not a duty, not a chore. The “search" is just that: It’s gossip buried under layer after layer of hard diamantine rock, seven miles beneath the surface of the earth. You need all your best energies to unpack sentences with dependent clauses the size of paragraphs, so don’t get sick. But, on my word, in your white gloves, you will hold one of the funniest, most joyous books ever written. And who could be better company in quarantine than a competitive hypochondriac!
Never hopeless, never despairing
I have been here before. Sort of. When pregnant with my first baby, I developed complications and was advised strict bed rest for three weeks. Then, as now, I lived in a flat in London with my husband, who was away at work all day. Isolated, apprehensive, back then I didn’t have WhatsApp, social media and Netflix. So I did what I had always done, I turned to books for companionship.
I read two novels in that time—Anna Karenina and A Fine Balance. Stunning novels of course, but as I realized three long weeks later, not ideal reading for one whose spirit needed bolstering. However “improving", however “redemptive", this time round I am steering clear of bleak novels. I am focusing now on literature that offers solace and hope.
And I can’t find anything more inspiring than Saaray Sukhan Hamaaray, the collected works of Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Faiz wrote many of his finest poems in exile or in jail, alone, imperilled, troubled, and yet never hopeless, never despairing. His faith in humanity never falters, his vision for a better, more just world never dims. His imagery is exquisite, his words tender, and yet they are imbued with courage and resilience. In these days of uncertainty and fear, I couldn’t ask for a more uplifting companion than Saaray Sukhan Hamaaray.
Music, high and low
Musharraf Ali Farooqi
The criteria for choosing one book with which to sequester oneself could be modelled on those entering into an exclusive relationship. The book has to be agreeable, free of false airs, playful, elegant, accessible and full of the promise of continuous discovery. The narrative in such a book must range from high to low idiom, and must afford pleasure on repeated possession. It should be comforting in moments when you need soothing, and complex and vibrant enough to not let you slip into boredom. Such a book could occupy your mind and senses to the exclusion of other things, and its companionship could teach you much about yourself.
Tilism-e-Hoshruba (The Land And Tilism Of Hoshruba) is for me such an unparalleled text. Unlike the Shahnama, it is not monotonous in its high idiom, nor serially vulgar in its expression like the Alif Laila; it mixes both high and low music because it was designed to entertain both high and low assemblies of men. It had many authors, but like many gods of a pantheon, even when they disagreed and clashed with one another, they strove towards a common purpose; almost as if an image was before them that bid them to fashion their creative natures to its purpose.
The emperor of metaphors
If I were to pick one book, I would go with one in Kannada, the language that is closest to my heart. It would be the Mahabharat. Even in Kannada, there are several versions of this text—one written in the 10th century, another in the 15th century, for instance. Both are great works, but I would go with the latter, which is written by a poet called Kumara Vyasa. It runs for 700-800 pages, so it is long, and with every read it reveals new meanings and layers. One can, in any case, spend a lifetime reading and rereading the Mahabharat. Kumara Vyasa, who is called roopakachakravarthi or the emperor of metaphors, was a great poet. One example from his work: As the messengers come bearing the news of Abhimanyu’s death, before conveying it to the Pandavas, they take away their weapons and keep them away to prevent them from harming themselves.
As told to Somak Ghoshal.
A guide to the universe
There is a huge good-natured book on my shelf that I want to believe contains snide remarks about people who will say that they want to be quarantined with some literary classic that they claim they will “reread", which is usually an euphemism for reading a literary canon properly for the first time.
But it is unlikely that this book would pass such snide remarks, though ideally it should. After all it is called The Road To Reality: A Complete Guide To The Laws Of The Universe. It is by Roger Penrose. The book is over a thousand pages and it promises to educate me about broad areas of science. I read a few pages from the book now and then. I know I will read it entirely one day but a quarantine, with some serious prognosis, will help.
Familiar anger, funny tirades
Do you remember the father in English, August? He is a governor and reads The Gita and Marcus Aurelius. I was young when I read English, August for the first time and the mention of Marcus Aurelius, the few quotations in the novel, led me to invest this Roman name with wisdom and grace. So, my first answer to your question would be a book like the ones the governor reads. Except. Except. Except that I happened to read Marcus Aurelius later on and was unmoved. I realize that you might want him or The Gita during a quarantine to bolster your sense of supreme detachment and indifference to the vagaries of fate. But, no. I would prefer to read English, August instead. Or, better still, a more recent work that pillories the ineptness, the vile stupidity, and worse, the bad faith, of our rulers. When I awoke this morning, I saw the images of migrant workers with their families returning, or trying to return, home to their villages from cities like Delhi and Mumbai. Why have these people been left so confused and defenceless? Why is there only infinite chaos and infinite suffering instead of compassion or intelligent planning? A video on Twitter shows policemen and other volunteers unleashing their wrath on the carts of the vegetable vendors. I am assaulted by rage here but what I wouldn’t give, if I were reduced to isolation, to read a book like English, August, combining this familiar anger with the funniest tirades and the witt
Ihave already started re-reading Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait Of A Great Mughal by Parvati Sharma, published by Juggernaut Books. Former Juggernaut editor R. Sivapriya sent it to me as I had told her once that it is my dream to write a novel set in the Mughal era. After working closely with Parvati on a book prize jury recently, I was planning to go back to it, and a few days ago, while reading in the newspapers about the criticism against the government of Kerala for not closing the alcohol shops, I was reminded of one sentence from the book—that “Salim’s lifelong passion wasn’t Anarkali , but alcohol". Suddenly, I felt an urge to relish stories from that period. It is a well-researched and well-written book, and truly inspiring to any fiction writer.
With inputs from Shrabonti Bagchi.
Part poetry, part aphorism
It is a strange time to be asked this question—as we are all in the middle of a lockdown. Under normal circumstances, whenever this (hypothetical) question has been asked to me, I have always answered that my one book to take with me during a quarantine would be Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. There’s something about being indefinitely moored in one place—and having the radical possibility to imagine other lands, other places that have enormous appeal. However, I do not know if it is age, motherhood, or the self-isolation getting to me, but in the past couple of days, I have thought a lot about what it means for me to be Tamil, to feel Tamil, to preserve that part of my identity even as I write in English, and as I wrangle with the displacement of living far away. So, if there is one book that I would take with me when I am quarantined, it would be the Thirukkural, which is part poetry, part aphorism. I tend to look at time spent alone as time for reflection, and having something so precious and profound by my side will help me find an anchor.
No time to read
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar
In the midst of screening the migrant population coming to our area (from various cities where they work) in my capacity as deputy superintendent of the sub-divisional hospital in Chandil, Jharkhand, it’s a crazy, busy time for me. Right now I am mostly reading medical material on covid-19, including those issued by the Union government. I just finished reading the guidelines on home quarantine issued by the Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme. I was trying to finish reading Mukta Sathe’s novel, A Patchwork Family, and Jahnavi Barua’s novel, Undertow, but I could not. I cannot write much about books because I just don’t have the time. I can, however, recommend two books: White As Milk And Rice: Stories Of India’s Isolated Tribes by Nidhi Dugar Kundalia, and The Rickshaw Reveries by Ipshita Nath. As for the ones I would like to read in quarantine: The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, The Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, the entire Asterix collection and the entire Tintin collection.
Leading naturally to Don Quixote
Iam reading Thomas Mann’s profound and gorgeous The Holy Sinner, which is set in the Middle Ages and based on a medieval German verse epic about Gregorius, who was born from an incestuous relationship and himself, unknowingly, fell in love with and married his mother. I am amazed by how convincingly a 20th century post-war novel can evoke the Age of Chivalry and the hold of Christian values on Europe but above all this is a novel about writing novels and telling stories. The narrator, an Irish monk, reflects often on his own powers and limitations as “the spirit of storytelling", and his views on, and feelings for, the characters.
I am also reading Numair Atif Choudhury’s Babu Bangladesh!, which is driven by so much feeling for the politically benighted country, it is tragic in its very conception. I just finished Enchanted Frontiers, a marvellously cheerful memoir by the legendary Indian Civil Service officer Nari Rustomji, on his time in the North-East in the 1940s and 1950s. It was published in 1971 and while it would be easy to dismiss as quaint the Nehruvian values Rustomji sets so much store by, in fact that outlook was so much more mature, sympathetic and intelligent and, most of all, sensitive to beauty, than anything one would find among politicians and bureaucrats today.
The Holy Sinner leads naturally to Don Quixote. So many books lead naturally to Don Quixote, but I still haven’t read it. So I suppose if I had to choose one book to be quarantined with, it would be this. On the whole, I am reading more than usual in this time of strange quiet and utter helplessness.
Initially, I thought I would go for something like the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, perfect dark fantasy for these covid-19 times, but decided instead to address one of the craters in my reading list—the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector (I know, I know, lucky me, so much to look forward to). Elizabeth Bishop thought she was better than Borges, which is enough of a motivation for me, so I would choose The Complete Stories, translated by Katrina Dodson, described in a review as “consistently delirious" (sound familiar?) and I will also be cheeky and ask for a backup book—Benjamin Moser’s Why This World: A Biography Of Clarice Lispector , because I am interested in the way real life sidles up against fiction, and I understand Lispector and her characters have always been close. There seems to be something cult-like about Lispector’s following, so I am eager to find out for myself what it’s all about. From the details I have been able to scrounge up about her on the internet—“looks like Marlene Dietrich but writes like Virginia Woolf," stinging letter writer (“This Switzerland is a cemetery of sensations"), also her first husband called her “Goddess Clarice"—I am pretty sure I am going to be smitten. Plus, she’s a fellow Sagittarian.
Compiled by Somak Ghoshal
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