Wednesday, December 25, 2013
On unpacking a carton of books - II
Continued from the post above
Right at the bottom was VS Naipaul.
I pulled up A House for Mr. Biswas, the hardback Russell Edition 1969 by Andre Deutsch. I flipped through the Prologue trying to evoke memories of my first reading. Then I came to the end of it and stared and re-read a dozen times, a roar in my ears: “…to have lived and died as one had been born, unnecessary and unaccommodated.”
That sentence had the force of a revelation. It had always been there; I had read the book first twenty years back. But it was only now that those words struck me with a terrifying authorial presence they summoned. In that epitaph, leaving no doubt or room for ambiguity, I thought Naipaul had gambled a great deal: that the reader would still want to read on. Not about failure in life and death but about an irrelevance from birth to death.
A few days later I had begun reading it, I was stunned; Mr. Biswas, always Mr. Biswas, a parodic courtesy surely, moved me to tears at the folly, no, the futility of striving and he made me laugh at the tragic heroism of his life: Mr. Biswas settling into bed with Marcus Aurelius after swallowing digestive powders.
I have not stopped reading fiction since then. Mr. Biswas for me is one of twentieth century’s great novels. Over the next five months, I re-visited some of Naipaul’s early fiction: The Mystic Masseur, Mimic Men, The Enigma of Arrival, the first two from that crate. But none of these compared with Mr. Biswas. The high tragedy, rich comedy that never let the narrative smack of despair or sentimentality made the new reading an awesome experience. I finished the book just as the playwright Girish Karnad raised an unnecessary storm about Naipaul at a Mumbai literary festival. It and the rejoinders, notably Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s dissection of Naipaul’s work convinced me more than ever of his place among the greatest of twentieth century fiction writers.
I had arranged my bookshelves: thrown away the cartons and re-entered chronological time. But that experience of unpacking had shown me how I could always leave it for another; not as a form of escapism. Not just to re-live the joy of reading but to experience the enchantment of literature’s ability to displace sequential time with the metaphysical, its power to help us enter someone’s else’s memories, pain, share in the foibles of the human comedy and come back knowing our present world better.
Ashoak Upadhyay is a journalist whose debut novel, The Hungry Edge has recently been published. See www.hungryedge.com