Keeping to the Straight and Narrow

I’ve never been fond of blog memes. But I do them frequently, because I am fond of people that tag me with them. However, there’s something about the way memes are interpreted that is — predictably — beginning to irritate me (sooner or later, something will always irritate me, as surely as the sun will shine. I am famous for my irritability). This time, it’s the way every meme about booklists, no matter how it is phrased or framed, is expected to become a list of one’s favourite books. The damn thing’s like a gentleman’s bloody word: No matter what clever guise any book meme hides under, the collective mind keeps to the minimum-effort path of ‘favourites’, that it has worn down to the founding stones with constant, single-minded treading.

And I can say this with some authority, from the response generated by the last two memes I did. They were both booklists, and neither were lists of books one loves more than life itself, or derives more pleasure than sex from. What they were, were, respectively, lists of books that are at the top of one’s mind right at the very moment of writing, and authors one reads for leisurely pleasure. For the sake of filling white space, I’ll copy the first list below:

Books off the top of my head:

Catch 22 (Joseph Heller), Aranyak (Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay), Jeeves and Psmith (Wodehouse), Hoimonti (the short story by Tagore), ShojohpaaTh, A Change of Skies (Yasmin Goonaratne), Calcutta Chromosome (Amitav Ghosh), Thud! (Terry Pratchett), Cereus Blooms at Night (Shani Mootoo), Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie), nearly everything by Syyed Mujtaba Ali, the Mahabharata.

Why were these at the front of my mind? It’s been a while, but I remember I was toying with Thud!, Midnight’s Children, Cereus Blooms at Night and some stuff by Ali because I was writing something about the ethnicisation of urban spaces in multicultural societies, and was chafing at the textual constraints put on me. I would dearly have loved to chuck the mind-numbingly boring task of crafting an essay by copy-pasting from ‘primary texts’, and actually weave something a little more meaningful from these texts that my professor had likely never read (these being far outside the purview of her professional or personal taste). Isn’t that the point of postgraduate, and even undergraduate level work? That you give a little bit back to faculty for all that you receive, because we can all learn from each other, even if in different ways?

I thought of the telescope-armed goddess and pigeon-bred virus strains, of the little girl who pretended to be her mentally delicate teenage sister when her drunk father groped for a pliable female body, of life sentences to intellectual isolation, of frontiersmen starving to death in a desert where native groups found enough for a feast all year round. I thought of subaltern systems of knowledge, forgotten because rooted in marginalised or suppressed demographies. Of unwritten patterns that are lived by living flesh and blood over and over again, yet leave no trace on the history concretised, and concretised, ironically, by fading ink on parched paper. And of how this imagined concrete gives us the authority to determine who and what is right or normal or real, and who and what is not. And thereby the right to kill, plunder, or more civilly persecute with impressively dense laws, or primly dismissive terms like ‘collateral damage’.

And because the brutal New England winter had sent news of an early arrival, I was thinking of the lush, enchanting beauty of the tropical forests of Aranyak, and of a peace we have long since lost forever.

That’s what I put into that note, behind a screen of names. I didn’t expect people to see through the weave of the screen straight into my soul — in fact if they did I would be very disturbed — but I did expect them to read the meme-title, and realise that “Books on your mind right now” does not mean “your favouritest books of all time, whee!”. Much can be said in support of knowing one’s audience and lessons learnt, on behalf of not stiring the pot and sticking to the clearly projected expectations, and not venturing beyond the ole tried and tested even for the sake of accuracy of personal integrity. But not all of it is flattering.

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