For me the biggest differentiator of people is their interest in books. I tend to like people who like books.
That is perhaps why I will not forget my former colleague Arun Ohri easily. On my gmail's draft folder I still have John Updike’s Rabbit novels in electronic format in the drafts folder. Arun, when he got to know of my craze for Updike, got these novels in soft format for me.
Unfortunately, I’ve yet to read them in that format.
Pranav Joshi, son of Suresh Joshi, the litterateur who changed the direction of Gujarati literature, introduced me to John Updike in the early 1980s when he lend me his Rabbit Redux, the second in the Rabbit series.
It was a strange book. Strange because it was a confusing mix of sex, race relations, drugs, Vietnam and the waywardness of the 1960s. But the manner in which Updike wrote was absolutely marvelous and compelling. I borrowed Rabbit Run, the first of the Rabbit series, from the American Center library in Mumbai. I have followed Rabbit to his grave through Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest. I haven’t read Rabbit Remembered.
Though Updike is talking about suburban America, in so many different ways, Rabbit is all of us. At this phase in my own middle ages, I feel I’m living Angstrom’s life during the Redux phase.
On a trip to Baroda with Pranav and Surbhi, I was reading Couples, much to the amazement of Pranav’s father. He said, in his inimitable contrite style: “I like your choice of the author, but not of the book.” That comment stemmed from the overtly sexual content of the novel.
Updike’s preoccupation with sex is legendary and has been commented upon by many. For the uninitiated, it may appear to be obsessive.
Over the years, fame brought about a change in Updike’s status as a writer. He became the establishment. A role he seemingly relished, but wouldn’t admit openly.
Another of my heroes – Salman Rushdie – had a public spat with Updike over his review of Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown. Rushdie, as always acidic, exclaimed: “I don't subscribe to the very predominantly English admiration of Updike. If you take away Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest, and some of the short stories, there's a lot of ... slightly ... garbage. Think of The Coup! The new one [Terrorist] is beyond awful. He should stay in his parochial neighbourhood and write about wife-swapping, because it's what he can do."
Notwithstanding Rushdie’s diatribe, John Updike’s universal appeal and relevance as a novelist is unquestionable. He will be remembered because he changed the way in which we think and talk about ourselves.