Rest in peace, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, really

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Death often catches you unguarded – I’m not talking about the people who die because I think (unless the death happens due to murder or accident) they have an inkling beforehand – I’m talking about people who are left behind. There I was worrying about what article to write, where should I send another pitch and where I should do a follow-up, which single-page websites I should set up for Steve, how to spend some time with my daughter, and then suddenly, I saw this message on my Twitter timeline “R.I.P Garcia”.

Which Garcia? I thought. It can’t be THAT Garcia. It took me some time and a quick search on the Internet to find that Gabriel Garcia Marquez is dead.

While looking at his picture on my computer monitor my daughter came in my room, looked at the photo and asked, “Who is he?”

When I tried to tell her, I couldn’t. I realised I was choking. I rapidly swallowed the lump that was rising in my throat and blinked my eyes to hold back my tears and then explained to her that he was my favourite living writer and he just died so I’m feeling very sad. When I told her how old he was, she tenderly touched my shoulder and said, “That’s all right, old people die, even I will die when I grow old.”

It hit me how fast time flies. Many years ago I had taken a resolve that I would meet him in person someday, and then forgot about that resolve, and now, he is dead. With every passing day, with every passing week, with every passing month, life goes by and then one day you realise, there were so many things that you wanted to do, and you just got distracted by the world around you.

Love in the Time of Cholera was accidentally left behind by my cousin who was visiting us from Canada. I remember she was one day pointing at the book and telling me that if I read books, I must read that one but sadly, she said, she had to take it back.

English books those days were not easily available especially when I couldn’t physically scour through various bookshops and had to solely depend on my mother and other people to visit bookshops for me and then use their own discretion. So my exposure was the British classics of Charles Dickens and Emily Brontë types, or Russian books that you would get in the book fair at Pragati Maidan. Love in the Time of Cholera with explicit sex was a totally new experience for me, especially the protagonist Florentino Ariza having wild sex with his teenage niece at the ripe old age of 75 (if I’m not forgetting). But then, only Garcia could pull off a love affair that spanned decades while remaining, sort of unrequited.

“I have waited for this opportunity for more than half a century, to repeat to you once again my vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love.”

You can’t imagine how many nights I must had spent trying to think how Fermina Daza looked.

Whether one agrees with the inherent value system represented in the book (and in his other books), the extraordinary writing style made a deep impression on me and I desperately wanted to read more from him. I’m pretty sure that my best writing (literary, not professional) came under his influence. I don’t remember how I came across One Hundred Years of Solitude but this is a book that I have read thrice, although, initially I didn’t want to read it because, what sort of book would it be that starts with an execution?

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

Those days – the time between the college and trying to set up my own business – I had no concept of magical realism. I realised that his characters existed in the realms of reality and unreality and there were many things happening in his books that you couldn’t pinpoint weather they were real worldly or supernatural. As a young boy he spent lots of time with his grandmother and she used to tell him all sorts of fantastical tales and many of her characters were a mix of real and unreal.

Later I found many writers, including Salman Rushdie adopted magical realism to create captivating narratives.

My wife often says that it’s very easy to create unreal characters and then weave stories around them and it is very difficult to weave stories on real-life characters. For some time I had started believing that because I had forgotten how Garcia wrote. I think when you write well, you just write well, it doesn’t matter if you are writing stories around surrealistic characters or some rickshaw puller dying of hunger.

That was the way he wrote. I have read a few Nobel prize winning writers and I firmly believe that in contemporary times Gabriel Garcia Marquez was the most deserving. He never wrote to receive awards and you can clearly see that in his writings. Even if he wrote one word, it genuinely came from him and not from some aspiration to prove something. That was his strength.

His death has given me a small jolt today. In the flurry of everyday activities you begin to believe that life is infinite. While growing old, somehow you forget that your idols are also getting old. People whom you would like to meet one day are also getting old and if you don’t hurry, they may die before you meet them.

You saw lots of turbulence Gabriel Garcia Marquez, physical, intellectual, emotional and worldly. Rest in peace. Thanks for enriching our lives with your beautiful words. Thanks for making solitude charming. You have left the world richer.

The fundamental difference between Wendy Doniger and Joe D’Cruz censorship

Cruz Doniger

A couple of months ago Penguin India decided to pulp all the copies of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus. The contents of the book were deemed highly contentious by some people and a person named Dina Nath Batra had challenged the book in the court and in order to avoid legal complications the publishing house decided to pulp all the copies of the book. Clearly the multinational publishing house couldn’t stand behind the book confidently.

Another publishing company Navayana who is known to publish Dalit works has decided not to publish the Sahitya Akademi awardee Joe D’Cruz’s English version of the Tamil novel “Aazhi Soozh Ulagu” (Ocean Ringed World) because of the writer’s open support for Narendra Modi.

The readers of this blog will note that while highly objecting to the contents of The Hindus I have never recommended the banning of the book or pulping it. My recommendation was to counter it with another book or with another paper. This is how works of art, works of intellect must be met with if you don’t agree. Or you can simply ignore it hoping that not many people read it.

Navayana and the person who did the English translation haven’t rejected the book for its content, in fact they say that the content is superb and well-researched. Their problem is the writer’s support for Narendra Modi. This is how the English translator V. Geetha justifies the publisher’s stand:

“I was terribly distressed when I read Joe D’Cruz’s statement of support for Modi. He is entitled to his political opinion, but I don’t want to be associated with anyone or anything linked to Modi. We can’t forget Gujarat 2002-no one must be allowed to, either. I still stand by his novel, which I think is a fantastic saga of fisher life, and I am sorry Joe has decided to trade his considerable gifts as a novelist for a politics that is fascist and dangerous. I have, therefore, decided to withdraw my translation.”

I think she’s making a fair statement (not the “fascist and dangerous” part because here she is simply propagating divisiveness). You don’t want to associate with a person you don’t agree with. This is a highly polarised political atmosphere and the stakes are quite high on different ends of the spectrum. Extreme reactions are bound to happen. But that’s a different issue.

People who were trying to put the plight of both the authors in the same box are missing a big point. Wendy’s problem was intellectual dishonesty, Joe’s problem is his political stand. You may not agree with me, but the sole purpose of Wendy’s book was to denigrate the Hindu religion in every possible way. Her personal biases and agendas had percolated her work.

In Joe’s case he is not spreading his propaganda through his work. He is simply telling the story of the fishermen who live on the coastal areas of Tamil Nadu. It is a story that in no way propagates a particular religious or political philosophy. Whatever might be the author’s political views he has not allowed his views to eclipse his intellectual articulation, which, sadly, Wendy allowed. By not publishing his book, the publisher is not harming Joe (there are plenty of publishers available these days and besides, you can always publish on your own), the publisher is harming the story and worse, the publisher is harming the seafaring community whose story can reach a wider audience with an English translation.

Perhaps they were planning to recruit an ideological author into their fold and when they realised that just because the author is writing about an issue they can relate to it doesn’t mean that politically they stand on the same line, they got jittery.

You will actually be able to consume books

Book Capsules

Recently I came across an article (I’ve lost the link) that talked about the near-future possibility of you being able to “swallow” information, such as books, theories, research papers, and even stories and novels, as pills and capsules, instead of having to go through them page by page.

It may seem quite far-fetched at this moment, but in terms of biology there is nothing extraordinary in this possibility. Brain, after all, stores information by arranging and rearranging brain cells and imprinting electro-magnetic impulses. There are already hellucinogenic drugs that can alter out perception of reality. What if the information can be sent through our blood streams instead of using sensory inputs? Artificial limbs can already tell whether the fingers are touching different temperature and different sensations. People can reach orgasm via cyber sex. This is not the issue.

I’m just wondering, do we read books for the experience, or get the information into our brains? Is knowledge just about knowing, or is it a collection of our physical and emotional expepriences that we go through while acquiring that knowledge?

The article said you will be able to learn a language by popping a capsule or you will be able to read War and Peace by simply taking a pill. This basically means that along with printed and digital versions, you may also get “capsule” versions of the books.

Of course people have different notions of what an experience is. More and more people are preferring digital books (Kindle, Nook, Play Books) despite the fact we all miss that feel of holding an actual book, feeling and smelling its pages. You can carry an entire library in your palm and I’m pretty sure within the foreseable future the concept of visiting libraries and scouring through books is going to be a thing of the past and in fact, we may no longer have the book shelves in our homes and offices. This is natural, evolutionary process, whether we like it or not.

People read books for two reasons: to entertain themselves, and to educate or inform themselves. You can’t entertain yourself by suddenly coming to know of the contents of an entertaining book. Suddenly knowing Mcbeth isn’t the same as reading its lines individually, halting for thinking, engaging in mental debate and feeling the anguish of the characters. The Mcbeth capsule may simply reveal the story to you, it even may make it easier to recall certain pessages and dialogs, but it doesn’t make you a part of the story, which is why we normally read stories. We develop an empathy, or an aversion towards characters and circumstances when we need a novel or a play, that won’t be there is we simply swallow it.

Do the writers you read influence how you write?

I once read somewhere – and I don’t know whether it’s true or not – that the renowned writer Vikram Seth never reads lest he gets influenced by the other writers’ writing style. On the other hand, in his autobiographical book Salman Rushdie says that he has always been a voracious reader.

To an extent I do agree that you tend to write like writers you like. There was a time I was really influenced by writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Charles Dickens and Dostoevsky. Back in those days there wasn’t much choice available. There was no, no, and to be frank I didn’t even have much money to buy books. So most of the books I read were either given to me as gifts, or lent to me by friends and relatives or I got them issued from some library, mostly the British Council. So it was mostly the classics, and that’s how I wrote in my initial days. Obviously the writing was constrained, full of long, antiquated words and I spent more time trying to imitate my favourite writers than actually telling stories.

Letting yourself be influenced by your favourite writers isn’t as bad as it may seem when much stress is put on being unique. If writing like a particular writer gets your literary juices flowing, then why not? Actors acquire the demeanour of their favourite actors (have you ever noticed the similarity between Amitabh Bachchan, Dilip Kumar and Al Pacino? Even Gregory Peck and Dev Anand?). Singers imitate other singers. Even painters imitate the painters who influence them. Remember that initially it’s not important whether you’re copying somebody’s style or you’re creating your own style, what matters is how much you write. Many writers don’t succeed because they don’t write much. And eventually, as you keep on writing, you begin to find your own voice.


Khushwant Singh passes away

Khushwant Singh

We weren’t married yet when Alka (my wife) and I had a big argument over Khushwant Singh. I had just completed his autobiography Truth, Love and a Little Malice and I was quite smitten by the author, less by his writing prowess and more by his wild lifestyle – something in the way he had lived his life appealed to me a lot according to my frame of mind at that time. But at that time I also had a big crush on Arundhati Roy, you can easily make out how I used to think during those days.

My future wife on the other hand found them quite disgusting, with his attitude towards women and general morality. In the heat of the argument she said that he was not better than a thief, and if I liked him, I too were not better than a thief. If I remember, we didn’t speak for some time.

Before the age of the Internet we got plenty of time to read. My father used to get The Hindustan Times and there I used to come across Khushwant Singh’s regular column called With Malice Towards One and All with a cartoon of him sitting in a lightbulb. I remember I used to enjoy reading the column but I guess it didn’t make much of an impact on the preference of my newspaper when, when it had stopped mattering to my father which newspaper we got, I switched over to, first, The Indian Express, and then later on to The Pioneer. Not even once I missed the column and in fact, I recall reading it when one of my Facebook friends yesterday posted the title of the column as a tribute to the diseased author.

The first story I read of Khushwant Singh was The Portrait of a Lady, a short story that was in my English course book in eleventh class. One of my favorite stories in the compilation.

My wife is quite well read so obviously she knew more about Khushwant Singh than I did. She knew how he constantly had extramarital affairs and how he treated women around him. She knew how he took advantage of people and whatever plum postings that he had landed were basically the result of the various contacts and the ass licking he had done. Even in the autobiography he had mentioned his various affairs and how his wife was always in distress due to that and then how when she almost left him, he grew depressed and visited the Bangla Saheb Gurudwara to pray which, now I understand, is blatantly hypocritical. I didn’t know that he was a big Congress stooge, he was very close to the Gandhi family and he was among the few editors who openly supported the emergency Indira Gandhi imposed on the country. He always made sure that powerful people knew him and liked him.

This, I don’t particularly hold against him. I started disliking him when I found him to be in the same category of people I normally don’t respect – people who are secular not because they believe in secularism, but just in order to pander to a particular, I would call profitable, ideology. Khushwant Singh belongs to a band of intellectuals who have an illogically soft spot for Pakistan in general, and Muslims in particular. Now, before you throw up and call me names, I have nothing against Muslims and I consider them as much a part of India as a person from any other religion. That is not the point. I am among those who believe that the real problem in India is that we pay too much attention to which person belongs to which religion. People like Khushwant Singh constantly try to instill fear among Muslims against Hindus and keep the cauldrons of mutual suspicion boiling. Even if there is a problem, and even if the Muslims are at fault, they will always blame the Hindus. Not because they actually think that the Hindus are at fault, it’s just that since the Muslims are in minority and the vote bank suits their political masters, they should be given a longer rope compared to the majority community. Many of the country’s problems originate from exactly this mentality.

Then I came across this text by him, on none other than Arun Shourie:

“I stopped associating with Arun Shourie. I read of his rise to eminence as a cabinet minister and a member of the BJP’s think-tank. His book on Dr B.R. Ambedkar offended Dalits. He was roughed up by them while presiding over a meeting in Mumbai. Being hurt himself he wanted to hurt other people.

“He has taken every opportunity to display his disadvantaged son in his wheel chair. I feel very sorry for him but no longer admire him.”

Arun Shourie normally takes his son, Aditya, to various ceremonies and functions because one, he completely adores his son, and two, he takes him along because he wants to share every proud moment with his son. If people like Khushwant Singh cannot see a family with a disabled person beyond the disability, it is not the problem of the family, but the person judging them. Whatever political opinion Arun Shourie has and whatever acrimonious feelings Khushwant Singh may have developed because of that, it doesn’t mean that Arun Shourie’s sons disability has impacted his political views. This made me realise that he was not just an opportunist but he was also cheap person. Good that he never had a disabled son or a disabled daughter because he would have been a terrible father.

So as a writer I don’t have any problem with him, and in fact he wrote quite well, and more than that, he was consistent. No matter how screwed up his value system was, at the core of his heart he was a writer.

Then in the later years I found that his father, Shobha Singh, was responsible for the persecution of Sardar Bhagat Singh by testifying that he actually saw the young revolutionary throwing the bomb whereas from his position or from the timings it was not possible that he could have seen Bhagat Singh. Why hold this against Khushwant Singh? Well, knowing that his value system was not in the right place, you can excuse him. But the remaining respect was lost, not respect, rather, the remaining tolerance was lost. Never even once he wrote about his father in one of his books.

Anyway, undoubtedly he was one of the greatest writers in contemporary India and even if grudgingly, I have to accept that. His death is an end of an era. I don’t resent the way he lived his life surrounded by whiskey and women, my only problem with him was his skewed sense of secularism.