Like religious leaders, top writers also have their shrines and sanctums. World writers started coming to India rather late. The Sign-and-Sell Syndrome, where the reader meets his favourite writer and the writer is assured of a decent spurt in sales, leaves everyone--- including the bookseller and publisher--- satisfied. It grew as publishing began to flex its muscles in the subcontinent, and settled down in earnest when India became a literary destination.
Earlier, the British Council or USIS might fly a big writer down, with talks and events, and if the starved reader was lucky, even a workshop. I met William Golding, the crusty Nobel Prize winner, R. K. Narayan whom I’d never expected to find in a local bookshop signing books, and Han Suin, author of Love Is A Many Splendored Thing. But these were few and far between; they weren’t orchestrated, they just happened.
Packaged publishing and event management have made superstars of writers. Last week, the audience waiting in Landmark for Jeffrey Archer got so restless they embarrassed a fair-skinned local gentleman by applauding wildly as he walked in, mistaking him for the great Archer. I sat breathing in the excitement. I like Archer’s short stories, especially his early ones, though I never finished his novels.
As an MP, he’d strongly advised “cleansing” the London streets of its brown population. And now here he was! A schoolmaster regulating an admiring classroom. With a powerful sense of humour and a studied style of speaking, he virtually mesmerised his “semi-intelligent” (his words) audience. Standing in the long patient queue to get your book signed, you felt you were on pilgrimage. Past the assistants and security, you almost expected to hear the famous Tirupati admonition “Jerukandi, jerukandi!” as you caught the briefest glimpse of the deity and walked away in wonder.
Faces of Love
Some startling faces of love rise up from our remembrance of books. Here are three novels that grab you by the heart, showing love in spate, caught at different angles.
The first narrates how love, an everyday fact of the heart, found in the little things of life, can transcend life itself. In R. K. Narayan’s The English Teacher, protagonist Krishna’s love for Susila is so much part of his life that it doesn’t even stand out. But her death shatters him, and she encompasses his life. Narayan with his customary simplicity of words and emotion brings to us the remarkable power of love. Finally, having given up everything, Krishna turns to spiritualism to seek his love beyond the boundaries of life. The novel resonates all the more because it is virtually a slice of the author’s own life.
Taking the concept further is Nobel Prize-winner Patrick White’s Voss. Voss is a German out on a foolhardy pan-Australian journey. After he leaves, the love between him and Laura blossoms through mostly unread letters and a telepathic marriage of minds. Their spiritual strength conquers all odds, vanquishing distance and difficulty. Social misfits, they find solace in each other’s absence. Raging Nature, social tensions and the uncertainty of their ever coming together mark this slow, sad, poetic novel.
Bristling with rough realism is Sophie’s Choice. Here, the heart triumphs through all the cruelties and insecurities of man. Set against seething memories of the Holocaust and the inhuman choices its victims had to make, William Styron’s novel shows up the simple love of its narrator Stingo for Sophie who is already in a violent relationship with a psychotic lover. Love is volatile--- gentle through the trappings of violence, and devastating through the silence of unhappy memories.
Yet another face of love, strong and doomed.
My first published book was for children, the story of an early freedom fighter from Kerala. Later, I wrote stories and poems in anthologies, and discovered the excitement of writing for children. One story had some interesting characters, and my publisher wanted me to use them in a novel. Thus was born Devil’s Garden--- built around a myth, it had an enchanted forest, monsters, enemies from the British era, a jolly ancient ghost, a young hero and his curious friends. I closeted myself in a resort during a Kerala monsoon and discovered a new world along with my characters. Several young readers (and adults) reported that the book took them on a voyage of discovery.
Writing for children is--- and isn’t--- different from writing for adults. Children are sharp and fresh; they have great curiosity and are easily bored. You must feel every word you write in order to share your experience. But don’t talk down to them as adults tend to do with children. Look them in the eye, and be straight with them. I played between fantasy and real life, and even the fantasy was written with fine attention to detail and logic. Yes, fantasy has its own inner logic, and if you slip, your young reader will catch you out.
Recently, I was called to help launch a book “for kids by kids” (in fact, that is its title). Reading the book, I realised how creative children can be. Their experiences are fresh and current; not just products of memory. They are observant and descriptive. Stretching their arms, they can touch futuristic technology at one end and traditional grandmother’s tales at the other. This is the time of their sharpest creativity. It’s probably time they put aside other people’s books for a moment and wrote their own!
It’s interesting to dig into the background of our religions, the splendorous spread of stories and legends.
Take, for instance, Buddhism. The Buddha is believed to have been the culmination of numerous incarnations. He was born again and again as the Bodhisattva before his enlightenment. These incarnations feature in the Jataka Tales, which have enchanted readers since the 3rd century B.C.
Ancient civilisations propagated culture and values through stories. Travelling storytellers known as Jataka bhanakas travelled to every corner of the land, carrying messages of kindness, compassion, generosity, non-violence, self-sacrifice, charity and the need to abjure greed. The Buddha himself is said to have narrated the Jataka stories to his disciples, explaining karma and rebirth, and teaching them moral values.
Recently writing a script in connection with the Ajanta caves, I was reintroduced to the fabulous paintings on their walls that illustrate the Jataka Tales. Though not all tales are covered, and many were wiped out by the forces of nature through centuries, the remaining murals take us on a fascinating journey. The Buddha (as the Bodhisattva) is the protagonist, supremely intelligent, wise and compassionate, acting out the ten virtues (paramita). In some stories he takes on a human form; in others he is a celestial, or a bird or beast.
For example, in Hamsa Jataka, he’s a magnificent golden swan in the celestial Manasa lake, who’s ensnared by a king’s trapper. The Bodhisattva’s faithful minister insists on remaining with him though he himself hasn’t been caught, and they both end up at the royal court. The king, impressed by the minister’s loyalty and the Master’s wisdom, lets them go.
In the Mahakapi Jataka, he’s a monkey king whose tree by the Ganges is attacked by the ruler of the land because of its luscious fruits. He allows his mates to escape, using his own body as a bridge for them to cross the river and flee. As they trample on him in their desperation, he’s bruised and broken, losing consciousness. The king is impressed. “They’re your subjects, after all; you should have escaped first!” he tells him later. The monkey king smiles: “I can serve only those I rule.” But those are his last words, and he succumbs to his wounds.
In a third story, the Bodhisattva is born as Vidhura Pandita, minister of the Kuru king. Here again, he’s wise and compassionate. He settles a dispute among four powerful kings, forgives those who sought to harm him, and discourses on the value and meaning of life.
We find these stories in comics, story books and collections--- a treasure-house for those who love evocative tales.
Mind Your Head
A technical or How-To book is generally driven by its subject. It’s refreshing to find one that’s an exciting read as well. ZeNLP: The Power To Succeed by Murli Menon hooks you from the start, regardless of the degree of your rationality.
I read it some years ago. The author is a born convincer. His writing is straightforward, lucid and quietly powerful. Within the space of this short book he offers several historical, scriptural and practical assurances to base his thesis upon.
The author, driving home after a New Year bash, was hit by a truck. He suffered brain haemorrhage, paralysing the left side of his body. Anyone else would have spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair--- or worse, vegetablised. But Murli Menon had undergone training in Neuro Linguistic Programming (ZeNLP) and practised Zen meditation regularly.
He survived, miraculously achieving complete rehabilitation.
“In the last nine years,” he writes, “I have not had a single epileptic attack due to my immense faith in the power of the human mind.” His experience, he claims, “has empowered many other unfortunate victims of fate to overcome their disabilities---”
Interludes in the book show the often amusing interactions between Zen masters and their disciples. Lacing practical wisdom from ancient Hindu scriptures with modern management techniques, he develops individualised formulas for self-improvement and higher living. A holistic, healthy life-style is a must. A practitioner must avoid all artificial stimulants and should be a vegan (avoiding even eggs and milk products).
It’s all in the head. The system utilises the latent power of the “unconscious” brain, programming the mind and setting goals. The power of Nature (whose elements are present within all of us) assists the generative process.
It’s a good read, and promises riches if you decide to travel its path.
The Literary Bridge
It may have been coincidence, but one thing kept cropping up recently--- the need for translations. Mini Krishnan, responsible for a range of translated books, theatre-person P. C. Ramakrishna, working to showcase Indian drama, and a gentleman who told me during an interactive session that he’d translated Jeffrey Archer--- within the space of a month, they all reiterated my own concern for genuine, widespread translations.
We enjoy so many books, not realising we couldn’t have read them without a translator. Take a random popular list: War & Peace, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Alchemist, The Three Musketeers. Take our own writers: Tagore, Bharati, Basheer and Premchand; or later examples like T. Janakiraman, Indira Goswami and Shivram Karanth. They would have remained unreachable to a wider audience without translations.
We desperately need more translations. Every corner of our country hides literary treasures that need to be uncovered.
We need accurate translations. And accurate doesn’t mean “literal”--- the soul of the original has to be conveyed in the new language. Translators should not only be proficient in both languages, they should also be creative in their own right.
Behind his/her mask, the translator is very often a tortured soul. Imagine the plight of this poor lost person whose only aim is to convey great literature to readers like us. The writer gets the credit, of course--- in every language! No one imagines the dark, lonely moments the translator spends grappling with words, ideas and reasons, seeking exact equivalents and moods. Needing reassurance, he irritates the writer (if available) with persistent doubts. He mostly works alone, braving critics who line up later with grouses.
The translator just can’t win—he’s either invisible or at fault! Even though he’s the only available bridge to reach great works of art. But who remembers bridges?
Short & Swift
I have a nephew, Rama Varma, who’s an acclaimed musician and a hungry reader. Some years ago, he developed a healthy habit of bringing me books that pleased him. His selections were anything but conventional. For two years, I was exposed to many worlds, some eccentric, some emotional, some luscious, some literary. I remember being especially bowled over by two writers, Iranian and French.
But the greatest surprise was when he introduced me to an Indian writer then based in Delhi. Her short story collection was called Barefoot and Pregnant. To say the book amazed me would be to understate my reaction. With humour and probing insight she went in and out of places where writers generally shudder to go. Does a mother publicly admit she’s fed up with the “joys” of motherhood? Do you make a transsexual your protagonist and dare to explore her feelings? Do you mesh and crush language to get its juices out? Dazed, I wrote about the writer, hailing her as one of the emerging women writers who’d go far. That was my introduction to Shinie Antony.
Later, I met her when I was asked to release her novel in Chennai. To complete the circle, my nephew was also present. That evening I got a signed copy of her second collection, Planet Polygamous. Reading it, I realised how accurately precognitive I’d been!
In her third collection, Séance On A Sunday Afternoon, Shinie’s at it again. If there’s a literary equivalent to the minimalist artist, it is she. She manages startling nuances with a juxtaposition, twist or unusual usage. Her characters reach the edge of expected behaviour only to slew into a slew of surprises. With few words she swiftly forges resonant implications. Satiated, the reader waits for more from her. (Though, unfortunately, my nephew has since lost his good habit.)