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Sunday, February 03, 2008

Zia Mohyeddin column - The day I learned to read books

Zia's prose is articulate, precise, and a pleasure to read. I wish they were collected and brought out in a book form. t

Zia Mohyeddin column

The day I learned to read books

When I won a speech competition, at the age of eleven, I was led to the dais to shake hands with the Chief Guest, who was the Minister of Education at the time. He asked me if I liked reading books. I nodded "What is your favourite book? He asked me. 'Treasure Island', I said. I hadn't, actually, read the book myself, but my father -- and sometimes my elder sister -- had read it out to me on several occasions and I loved the story. He smiled and handed me an envelope which, when I opened it later, contained five one rupee notes. It was cornucopia. That was the day I learned that I must read books.

In my teens, after experiencing unrequited love, Rider Haggard's 'She' became my favourite book (I didn't much care for 'The Return of She') and when my literary taste developed a bit, it was Aldous Huxley. I can't say I truly appreciated him -- my English was a lot weaker at the time -- but I thought 'Eyeless in Gaza' was the profoundest work I had ever read.

Fiction is not something I read systematically. I read Fielding, Thackeray, Jane Austen, and George Eliot, (not in that order) when I was well into my thirties, long after I had read many 20th century novelists, including Par Lagerkvist. And if it hadn't been for a chance encounter with the (divorced) Mrs Terry-Thomas, I might not have read Dickens at all.

A few weeks ago, I received a request from my friend, Aly Khan, to list my five favourite books -- 'literary works', he emphasised. I complied. Now that I think about it, I feel I was a bit hasty. Not because the books I listed are not highly favoured by me, but because there are others I left out which should have been included.

Your favourite book, or song, need not reflect your literary or musical taste. In any case, it is always difficult to pick five or even three of your most cherished movies or songs or books. Whichever you think of first, seems, in retrospect, to have been chosen hastily. One of the books I mentioned in my list was Bob Smith's 'Hamlet's Dresser', a superbly written memoir of a man who survives a terribly troubled childhood by developing a passion for Shakespeare's verse. Without any university education, Smith, the narrator, goes on to gain an uncanny insight into the Bard's melancholy poetry.

The book moved me a lot even on a second reading, but I think would have omitted it today and listed Virginia Woolf's 'Mrs Dalloway' instead. This is a novel about people not being able to connect, and the yearning expectations they carry to their graves. In fiction, the books I cherish are not necessarily those that the critics consider to be great, but the ones that explore the nuances of human relationships and the growing chasm that prevents people from coming close to each other. "There is a door between that cannot be opened."

In case you are wondering what five books I listed, here they are: 'Catcher in the Rye' by J D Salinger; 'Love in The Time of Cholera' by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; 'God of Small Things' by Arundhati Roy; 'Profiles' by Kenneth Tynan. 'Profiles' is the odd man out because it is not a novel, but a collection of marvellously observed studies -- the prose is dazzlingly brilliant -- of writers, actors, directors, musicians etc, many of whom were known to me. I have already talked about 'Hamlet's Dresser.'

Does it mean then that Dostoevsky's 'Brothers Karamazov' and Forster's 'Where Angels Fear to Tread', Dicken's 'Pickwick Papers' and Naipaul's 'A House For Mr Biswas', are no longer my favourite novels? No, its just that the request was made on a Monday and not on a Friday. As far as fiction is concerned, you can have a different list everyday of the week.

Novelists of today, those who belong to the higher echelons of the literary world, seem to ignore the fact that a story is a vital part of the way we understand the world -- or a novel, at any rate. They feel that the reader will be captivated by the labyrinth of deconstruction, which they have craftily created. Any novel that makes a departure from this method is considered to be prosaic and passe.

Two of the stalwarts of literary fiction today are Kazuo Ishiguru and Ben Okri. Both have settled down in England and both have produced works that have received a vast member of plaudits, confirming their position amongst the front rank of novelists. I would be pretending if I didn't confess that I find them to be tiresome, though in the case of Mr. Okri (who won the Booker Prize with his 'Songs of Enchantment') I was aware that I was consuming refined and perceptive prose, but it was taking me nowhere except into more beautiful prose.

I am not suggesting that I only enjoy reading those authors who write stories that can be read from the first page to the last. Sidney Sheldon, who sells in millions, is a smooth story-teller, but not much else. He doesn't open my eyes to anything much; he offers me a good tale which keeps me enthralled at the time, but is soon easily forgotten.

Too many novels today begin with a strong sense of displacement. I don't mind that so long as I am given some explanation and not a mere literary knowingness. The problem with novels of deconstruction is that the writers expect me to weigh all the silences between the lines and I find that my intellect does not rise to such heights.

Please do not misunderstand me. I relish lustrous, perceptive prose. It is one of the greatest assets of Marquez -- some people think he is even better in translation -- but then Marquez is unique in that he never lets go of the thread of his story. Marquez has the ability to imbue the most humdrum and sedate happening with imagination, invention and humour, without ever slackening his grip over his taut and elegant prose.

But if my friend had asked me to give him a list of my five favourite plays, I would have been hard put to oblige. A play, as far as I am concerned, is inextricably linked with its production on the stage. So if I were asked to choose four or five plays that have left a lasting impression on my mind, I would not think of the dramatic works that I have read, but the productions I have seen in different parts of the world -- and I would have no hesitation in putting, on top of the list, Brecht's 'Mother Courage', the Berliner Ensembler presentation, and the Moscow Arts Theatre's offering of Chekhov's 'The Cherry Orchard'. Of these, anon.


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