Akira Kurosawa says somewhere that to have lived on the earth without having seen a Satyajit Ray movie is to have lived without seeing the sun and the moon. I would use this quite hyperbolic statement for a person who has lived a literate life without reading Cervantes’ masterpiece. I began reading Don Quixote in November 2015 – I finally finished it today! Reading this book was like working on my dissertation’s chapters, most of which I began working on just 2 weeks before the deadline. I had ample time to complete reading this classic novel. But in between, I read several other shorter books and short stories, cleared my viva and got my PhD, got my first peer-reviewed journal article published, presented at two big conferences, wrote book reviews, got a job, shifted my home to another city, and fell in love and got married!
Eventually in November this year, after only finishing about 400 pages of a 932 page book, I decided I will close this novel and get back to it later in life, having not completed it for over a year. However, when it comes to reading novels, there is nothing I detest as much as closing a book without finishing it (the only exception to this rule is James Joyce’s Ulysses – I tried reading it during the 2nd year of my PhD but decided after 30 pages that it was a novel for me when I am 40). So, in the last two weeks, I managed to finish the remainder of the book. Really, reading such a work requires commitment to continuity and discipline. And what a novel! While my general mood is misanthropic, it is works like these that makes one root for human civilization.
Read full essay at Outlook.
“Even with help from my partner, it took me two full days to unpack and arrange my books. While surveying them in the process of writing this article, I couldn’t help but wonder why some books were placed here and not there, why have I purchased the same book twice, why have I not yet opened some books, why have I not yet finished the books I have opened, why are there some books still on the market and not on my shelf… The book collecting passion is not just a “chaos of memories” as Benjamin said; it is also a chaos of the future. Gaps in my bookracks gape at me, demanding to be filled. The last book to be added to my philosophy shelf and thereby filling it was Leszek Kolakowski’s Is God Happy? And now, I need to create more space for future philosophy books without disturbing the order that I have established. Or maybe I will introduce a little anarchy…”
Read the full story at The Aerogram
““Idiots,” you thought. Cinema, college, placements, marriage. Your family seemed to know of nothing more than that. What would your father think? He may have joined them in their chatter. Or he may have kept to himself. Who knows? Idiots, the whole lot of them. Your family, your neighborhood, and the people you saw jogging in the streets outside. Tamil elites, a disgusting rot that has all the vulgarities of a bourgeois class but none of its virtues whatsoever. No sense of culture, no sophistication, no quest for the spectacular. My flat in South Chennai was full of them. Suffocating. Tonight things will change. You got up and moved towards the window that overlooked a fairly broad street lined with trees, buildings and fences. You alone will do it. Still waiting. No call.”
Walking back to the bus stop from Colchester Castle Park, I stumbled on a second-hand bookstore. Bookstores in general pick my curiosity – this one claimed to sell “Rare and Secondhand” books. I had to take a peek.
Exchanging greetings with the person at the desk, a warm old lady who I believe is also manager and owner of the bookstore, I proceeded to browse through the store’s wares. Rare collections indeed! It had books of Dickens that I could not recognize. Works of Dante that I have not encountered on any other shelf before. The finest Greek tragedies of Euripides, Sophocles, Aeschylus and of course, Homer, and Roman epic-poetry of Virgil and Ovid. The plays of Beckett and Ibsen. A breathtaking assortment of the finest English poetry, be it those of the classical romantic tradition of Byron or those in the free verse styles a la Whitman. And yes, the entire works of Shakespeare. (Is not any good book collection incomplete without him?)
I was compelled to buy something.
The bookstore is of two floors, divided into sections according to subject. The collections on history and politics are decent, but can be expanded. I found some pretty interesting books there – ancient social and economic history specialist M.I. Finley’s The Ancient Greeks for two quid, R.H. Barrow’s The Romans for 1.50, JS Mill’s ‘Three Essays’ for 3… and I even bought Robert Service’s Lenin, only because the founder of the USSR was the only big guy in the Marxist-Leninist pantheon on whom I did not have a biography on and because it was being sold for the absurd price of 5 quid. The philosophy section didn’t have much to offer – the only book I found to my liking was Patrick Gardiner’s Kierkegaard, a concise work on the core aspects of the Danish intellectual’s philosophical thought.
The literature section is the star of the store, having an entire room unto itself. The first thing I noticed when I entered the room was the smell. The distinct musty odour that one gets from old or aging books was dominant in the densely packed room. If a bibliophile’s love for old books included the smell they emit, this room was a wet dream. Books collected over 30 years, the manager told me. ‘How could they bear to part with it?’ I thought instinctively. Yes, I have always loathed even lending my books, even to close friends. It would have been a nightmare for me to be on the desk of such a shop and watch on as books such as these are taken away, lost to my touch forever.
When reading a good book, for me at least, physical touch is important – especially if it is a work of philosophy or literature. No greater pleasure than sitting down with an engrossing text that reflects on humankind, with a cup of fine tea, in a pleasant evening, in the company of fresh air, in solitude, in tranquillity. Holding the book, folding pages, leaving notes, scribbling in the margins, underlining, all of these gives the owner an intimacy with not just the content of the book, but its physicality as well. That sort of intimacy is needed when one reads literature or philosophy, which can of course never be experienced while reading a pdf file on a computer screen or on gadgets like kindle, no matter how much they try to make it appear ‘book like’. Those who understand the difference between making love and what Zizek calls “the usual masturbation with a living partner” will understand this difference as well and, I hope, will share my righteous indignation at a friend of mine who told me that he read Crime and Punishment on his laptop.
From the perspective of possessing books as a passion, I categorize book collectors of this age of late modernity in two camps – the faithful and the infidel. The former adhere to certain rules in the manner of receiving and reading a book while the latter are indifferent to the same. Note that these categories are fluid and at times the faithful, are persuaded by circumstances to step into the other camp, even if they do it unwillingly. Isn’t it the case that the pure has the greatest potential to be corrupted? Anyway, the friend of mine who read Dostoevsky on a laptop is, and I would like to believe that others agree, an infidel of a particular type. The uncaring disciple – that is, one who would love to the read the work of a great master but is not concerned about the medium through which the master’s message should reach him.
Similar to the uncaring disciple is the copier. The copier’s case is rather sad. He does not have the resources to get the original copy of the classic or the time to sit in a library to read. But he would not read a classic on a computer screen, because he loves the feel of paper. So, he goes for the next best thing to the original. A photocopy. Again, the difference between a photocopy and the original will not be evident to those but the faithful – the feel of the binding, the cover, and the smell of the original is always lost in a copy. To confess, I have also been guilty of this type of infidelity. I read Goethe’s Faust in photocopy.
The first book that caught my eye as I stepped into the literature section in the bookstore was Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, a brilliant tale of terrible vengeance of an individual who had been treated badly by people and circumstances. It was being sold for 3 pounds! Not far from Dumas was a hardbound early 20th Century copy of Upton Sinclair’s A World to Win. Being familiar with his more famous novel The Jungle and intrigued by the title of this book and its smell of an age that I have only read of in history books, I took it – for a fiver. Near it was the Victorian-age English novelist Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, which was also published in the same period as the former. The novel came out in public posthumously because of the controversial anti-establishment tenor of the prose. Flipping through the pages I found something like a visiting card which contained only a message, but a message that was rather ironical considering the book it was in – “His majesty greatly loveth courageous souls. St. Teresa.”
Browsing the collection, I hopped on from one delightful author to another, from Chesterton to Flaubert, from Somerset Maugham to Solzhenitsyn, Sophocles to Ovid via Virgil, and so, purchasing their classic works for a pittance. And yes, as I reached the Shakespeare section, I took a copy of Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, the latter purely for the paper it was printed on. Shopping for books in a good store or browsing in the library is a pleasure in itself. Not only do you find other books in the area of your interest, you also stumble upon other interesting books that would elicit attraction in the bibliophile – the journey enlightens you as much as the destination. The faithful appreciates the art of book shopping/browsing. Even if he cannot buy all that interests him, he takes in the titles, authors, scrambles through the book, appreciates words and sentences, absorbs the essence; and the memory of the book, its feel, its touch, its soul is locked away in the head of the faithful, subject to recall at a later date.
Yes, there is a feeling of ‘fear and trembling’ that the faithful feel as they leave a library or a bookstore. The pain that the place you are leaving has a lot more than you can fully appreciate, the apprehension that you are missing out on many other hidden treasures, the pang of jealousy that your collection will always be incomplete without the dozens of books that you are leaving behind, the melancholic sensation of a desire unfulfilled. All bibliophiles undergo this feeling every time they step into a place that has a book collection larger than theirs. Umberto Eco, a bibliophile I admire, envy and hope to equal one day (his collection is of over 50000 books. If we were to allot a day in a person’s life for one book, Eco’s life span would be over 135 years!), opined in an interview on diacritics that to him, libraries were paradise but that he kept away from them as they drove him crazy if they ensnared him. Thus, the faithful book collector is always an unsafe browser. Every minute he is in a bookstore, he places great risk not just to his purse, but also to his senses. His eyes wander all over, his mouth goes dry while picking some work he adores but whose price he cannot afford, his heart pulsates being surrounded by objects of his desire, many of which he cannot possess. It can be said that no bibliophile ever leaves a library or a bookstore without a heavy heart, but he accepts this risk before stepping in.
So here’s the other infidel – the safe browser. He has a book in mind about which he has heard of from elsewhere and he is interested in getting that book alone. Years earlier, he would have had no option but to visit a bookstore and search for the object of his pursuit, but now, with the proliferation of online retailers, his purchase is but a few clicks away. What is wrong with this? Simply that you are not exposed to as many other books as you would be in a bookshop or library which, of course, is a risk as mentioned in the above paragraph. The safe browser does not appreciate the delight of that risk and is saved the tensions that the faithful endure. His options, however, are not vast. The best online retailer can at most give you a list of related books that you might be interested in. But only in a library or bookstore can you find non-related books that you would be interested in. The limited options provided online place you in a comfortable box which you will not cross. Pray, do tell me, how many sites are there that would take you from an autobiography of Sartre to the history of medieval South India? A little bookshop in New Delhi did that for me.
All bibliophiles, at some point of time in their lives, do run into a particular breed of philistines – I have been fortunate to have been visited by only one till now. I refer to the ones who drop by on a fine day, look at your book collection and ask you that insipid question “Have you read them all?” I found the apt reply to this question in the following lines
Suffice it to quote the answer which Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the standard question, “And you have read all these books, Monsieur France?” “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sevres china every day?”
That was Walter Benjamin, another admirable bibliophile, citing a bibliophile he admired.
Of the books I purchased, I don’t think I’ll be reading any one fully any time soon. Should time permit, I might try to read The Theban Plays sometime next year. The rest are for much, much later. There is one I will never read fully, CS Lewis’ The Four Loves, an annoying liberal Christian interpretation of love. I’ll probably glimpse through a few pages to remind myself that such annoying opinions and such annoying people exist. I do possess other books, some extraordinarily mundane, in my collection which I will never read. For instance, books like The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Li Zhisui, who was supposedly Mao’s close friend and physician, and The Immortal Contributions of Chairman Mao by Bob Avakian, American Maoist and ‘Chairman’ of Revolutionary Communist Party, two extreme accounts on the same person.
I should state that neither do I have anything against extreme positions nor do I shun books with such positions as useless – I don’t think there is anything called a ‘useless book’. Even right/liberal/left propaganda pamphlets have something to be analyzed and even something as intentionally naive and childish as Harry Potter has implications to be read into. Just that the tediousness of certain texts gets to me, and if I will not read them fully, I might ruffle their pages on occasions to humour myself. Book collecting is a passion, but needn’t always be a serious one.
It requires fidelity though.
All romantics, political or otherwise, should read Rabindranath Tagore. I finished reading a selection of Tagore’s short stories (Oxford) some days back… I should say that they had some of the finest pieces of literature I’ve come across. What a style the man has! I can understand why he was considered a ‘giant’ in his age. Poet, novelist, painter, philosopher, composer, phew! One talented chap!
The beauty of Tagore’s writing lies in its simplicity. In fact it is so simple that it is complex. His short stories read like children’s tales. Yet, they are a reflection of socio-political life in colonial Bengal, the complex realities of identity, class, caste, gender and colonialism. Tagore’s way with words is brilliant. He uses it to the greatest effect to evoke strong emotions in the reader. I loved the way Tagore writes on love, the tragic aspect of his love stories making them all the more appealing. (I think it is a general human perversion that people are more attracted to tragedies than tales of complete joy). Consider the following lines from The Haldar Family:
“The summer breeze still blew, the rain still thrilled the monsoon nights, and the pain of unrequited love wandered weeping through the passages of a desolate heart.”
Can anyone who is/has been in love fail to get stirred by these lines? Also, the manner in which Tagore invokes nature in his stories adds to their beauty. You can actually feel it, the summer breeze, the monsoon rains, the smell of the morning dew, the chill of the night – and you can feel it in tune with your emotions while you are reading the book. That’s what makes a good tale. Not only should it make you feel, it should relate to what you are feeling. Tagore’s stories hit you both hard and soft at the same time.
I really liked the women in Tagore’s stories. His women are full of strength, strength in simplicity and simple complexity. The characters in The Wife’s Letter, Woman Unknown, The Laboratory, The Story of a Mussalmani are not exactly superwomen. But their reaction to circumstances, their refusal to remain passive objects and their little rebellions against the established order are provoking. In fact, even when portrayed as weak and helpless, as in Subha, there is so much strength in the portrayal of their weakness that it moves the strongest heart.
I do have strong differences with Tagore’s political opinions. He is too much of an idealist and jumps into metaphysics often. His invocation of god every now and then gets annoying. Take his views on nationalism. He makes no difference between the nationalism of the oppressor and that of the oppressed, rejecting both. While his criticism of the ‘Indian nation’ is valid in that no Indian nation exists, his relapsing into nostalgia of a glorious past of the Indian civilization borders on the absurd considering that such a glorious past never existed.
However, the thing about Tagore’s views is that they might be erroneous but they are not venomous. Tagore neither claims monopoly over the truth nor performs theatrics if his views are opposed like Mr. MK Gandhi. It can be argued that Tagore’s political views are more suited for discussions in upper middle class tea parties than for revolutionary social change among the masses. This argument can be extended to his literature as well. While that might be true, his views, fluid as they are, aren’t an impediment to social change either. One can say that in his stories Tagore is only hitting out at this or that flaw in the social/political system and not attacking it in toto, but I think he should be spared this criticism for the sheer beauty of the texts and for the fact that many of his stories do kindle strong emotions in a passionate reader – emotions that can be channelised for constructive work.
It is true, just as religion is the opiate of the masses, literature is the opiate of the elites, more exquisite though. Yet, a work of beauty cannot be condemned just because it accessible to a few. That is the nature of beauty – it is exclusive. Then, it is not the literature that has to be berated but rather the masses who have to elevated to the level of critical perception. It is pure philistinism to reject a work of beauty on arguments of relevance or utility. The cultured one appreciates beauty in the form it comes to her/him regardless of its source. Beauty is in perception. Perception. Experience. Feeling. Good literature should be read to perceive its beauty, experience its depth and feel its exotic effect. And this is something people, especially activists, must do. After all, won’t a person who feels better be a better rebel?
Pain, I believe, has to be felt to be realized. There are but a few books that actually evoke pain within us, that sensitize us to suffering of humanity. Island of Blood is one. Authored by veteran journalist Anita Pratap, the book revolves around violent flashpoints in South East Asia, with extensive focus on the conflict in Sri Lanka. It evoked more than pain within me. A feeling of uncontrollable rage against the injustice meted out to the Tamils. This is the kind of book that hits your heart before it hits your head. A person reading this book would see through the farce of the contemporary Indian media with respect to this contentious issue.
It is not surprising that the ‘Nationalist’ media chooses to side with a state committed to genocide than a people fighting for their legitimate rights. After all, it would then pose a question on what their own government is doing in Kashmir. Now, the Indian state wouldn’t really want that, would it? And thus, the media renders the cries for justice mute. Or better, it takes sanctuary in denial. The genocide of Tamils in 1983? It never happened! The Chencholai massacre of children? There weren’t any children there – it was a Tiger base! No, these are not claims of a political fruitcake like Subramaniam Swamy. They can be found in the op-eds of certain ‘respectable’ national dailies. Their opinion on the right of the Tamils to live with dignity is not only one of apathy, it is of contempt. In their desperate attempt to cater to the bourgeois-nationalist elite in the corrupt, free market society of India, they have lost the capacity for humanitarian concern.
Now, Anita Pratap belongs to the rare creed of Indian journalists who have the courage to call a spade a spade. She has minced no words in criticizing the genocidal actions of the Sri Lankan state or the atrocities of the Indian Peace Keeping Force against the Tamils. Though she is also critical of the ‘autocratic’ functioning of the Tamil Tigers, she has expressed her profound admiration for their unwavering commitment to a genuine struggle. Her analysis of the personality of Velupillai Prabhakaran, though short, is insightful and provides the reader an intimate understanding of one of the most brilliant liberation leaders of the era. Objectivity is consistent in the book. A far cry from the jingoist opinions of the ‘Indian mainstream media.’
The crisis involving the Tamil people in Lanka has been going on for decades. It was the discriminatory policies of the Sri Lankan government in the 1950s, followed by repressive measures against the Tamils in the 60’s that led to the blooming of the struggle for an independent state which began to intensify during the 70’s. And the vicious state sponsored genocide of the Tamils in 1983 sealed it. Two nations were at a bloody war, one for its rights and the other for its hegemony. The book brings out the gory details of the war, oft with a personal touch. The empathetic portrayal of the plight of the victims, the anguish of the survivors or the agony of someone who has lost a beloved has been done in a manner that provokes some deep feeling within the reader. A professor once remarked in class that feeling shame over injustice is the biggest revolution. I was revolutionized many times over.
There were quite some narratives which shook me. The tales of raw courage and determination even at the time of pain and unimaginable suffering was something I found out of the ordinary. Had Nietzsche reworked his concept of the Ubermensch, he would have modeled it around the Tigers. They were, by any standards, supermen.
” I once visited a Tiger hospital after a major battle. In one ward there were sixty young women, recuperating from serious wounds. Most had their arms or legs ripped off, some did not have a part of their face, some had craters where there should have been stomachs. But what was even more bizarre was the atmosphere in the ward – it was cheerful. Sixteen-year-old Sumathi, who had lost her right leg in battle, said, ‘All I want is to get an artificial leg so that I can go back to the field. If I stay home, how will we get Eelam?’ ”
Island of Blood, P100