One For the Books

It’s a rainy, booky, pots of tea day, and so I will finally try and compile that book list I’ve been asked several times to do. The request, if I remember right, was to list books that have influenced me the most. I’m not sure what that means, exactly; Sarat Chandra, for example, makes me cry buckets of easy tears, but I wouldn’t call that emotive affect an influence. And while I disliked the dry sanctimoniousness of Vidyasagar‘s Bornoporichoy [An Introduction to Letters], it influenced me immensely by basically teaching me to read and write in my own mother-tongue.

Here, then, is an exploration of the texts that have, in my rather limited reading experience, ‘influenced’ me in ways I can consciously identify.

1. Aranyak, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay: the most unpretentious lyrical ode to the eastern forests and life in them, rendered in everyday prose. It is one of the most beautiful books I have been reluctant to read, because which child would willingly read a decidedly non-adventure non-sci-fi type book based in the forests of Jharkhand? In the end I read the book so many times my grandfather – whose copy it was – had to have it rebound, because the spine came off. Apart from the sneaky charm that hooks one subtly by the first twenty pages, Aranyak is also an ethnographic account of the tribal and rural life in the area, as well as a recording of caste-capitalism’s first advances into these now-ravaged lands. It is perhaps a testament to the appeal of this book that the slight factual marring, caused by the author’s social outsider status, is acceptable to most readers, when in other instances it might have been proof of narrative colonialism.

2. “Ghanada” stories, Premendra Mitra: Tenida was the house favourite when I was young, and I loved its “boys adventure tales” humour to bits, but I always, always preferred Ghanada. If one looks beyond fond nostalgia, one finds in Ghanada an enticing mix of fascinating sub-genres that were nearly absent – and certainly unnamed – in Indian literature at that time: secret/alternative history, science fiction, spy stories, political thrillers and action-adventures, with a touch of the con/heist and just a tiny dash of parodic noir. To pull this off this is impressive enough, but what recommends Ghanada even more, in my opinion, is Mitra’s dedication to scientific and historical accuracy. In an environment where even realism was not necessarily required for kishor (young adult) fiction, meticulous adherence to scientific and historical fact is absolutely admirable.

3. Michel Foucault. The structure and functions of power are always, always, at the core of anything social. To Foucault I owe confirmation of suspicions, legitimisation of lower-middle class third-world female frustration, and just the glimmer of change via policy, and policy via better understanding. I’m just going to leave it at that.

4. The Sandman (in particular “Ramadan” and “The Tempest”), Neil Gaiman: my first encounter with the reinvented comic-book format. Visually opulent and intriguingly disturbing in parts, marrying the mundane to the mythical, full of meta narratives and open endings. Absolutely the stuff I eat up every time.

5. All non-detective stories, Enid Blyton: so utterly removed from my cluttered, urban, tropical world, Blyton’s landscape of sea-fronts, tame woods, cosy villages and quaint boarding schools, magically clean and comfy barns, white Christmas, and back gardens with hidden paths enchanted me utterly. Had Blyton only written of the wonderfully strange children who lived in it – children who went to perfect little farms on Bank Holiday, picked berries from the bush, ate delicious-looking suppers at impossible times and called adults by their surnames – the books would have magical enough for me. The brownies and pixies were just an added bonus I didn’t take very seriously.

6. Rabindranath Thakur. I’ll just leave it at the name, because the spectrum of Robi Thakur’s influence on me is varied, and very wide. If I had to name names, I’d cop out cleverly by saying Sanchaita, an anthology of his poems, the collection of all his essays (even though I may not agree with every one of his assertions), and the short stories “Hoimonti”, “Streer Potro”, “Khudhito Pashan”, and for an unusual touch of horror, that story about the old, wealth-obsessed man burying his a young boy alive with all his worldly assets, so his unreleased spirit can guard it till the man’s estranged grandson can come to claim it. He only realises on his deathbed that the child he thus murdered was his grandson.

7. Upendrakishor Shomogro, Upendrakishore Roy Chowdhury: this is an anthology of stories from the Vedas and Puranas, and a summarised, simplified version of both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. This book held me captive for weeks, after which I could quote at will from nearly all of it. This book was why I started talking to my grandfather about religion and Hinduism, and why, a few years later, began reading about ancient Hindu texts. The first-hand knowledge has stood me in good stead, especially in the current political atmosphere in India.

8. Catch 22, Joseph Heller: this book has always seemed to me to be an expanded, enriched, dipped-and-fried in cynical satire version of the essence of Langston Hughes’ much more sincere and direct poem,”Will V-Day be Me-Day Too?“. The book destroys hope in pretty much everything. And yet when you finish, you realise there’s more cause for hope in this dark, cynical book than there ever will be amongst good, subservient citizenry. Here’s a little taste:

“You have deep-seated survival anxieties. And you don’t like bigots, bullies, snobs, or hypocrites. Subconsciously there are many people you hate.”
“Consciously, sir, consciously,” Yossarian corrected in an effort to help. “I hate them consciously.”

9. My old diaries, me: I discovered these while cleaning out my almirahs before moving cities. Give my utterly destroyed capacity for memory, my own young life was a revelation to me, a stranger’s stories with only vague flashes of familiarity. I was slightly disappointed to see the lack of modern identifiers of teenage and childhood from these records. I suppose the person who told my mother “Your daughter was born forty” had it right.

10. (Abol Tabol + Haw Jaw Baw Raw Law + Jhala Pala + Pagla Dashu, Sukumar Roy) + Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll: the absolute delight that is wonderfully-done nonsense and silliness, streamed through a steady narrative. And unlike Lewis Carroll – at least in my opinion – Ray’s work can be read subversively, a response to the political climate he lived and wrote in, even though he was never actively involved in political strife against the British Raj.

And here’s the bonus, because why stop at ten when eleven will bore just as well?
11. Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys + Cereus Blooms At Night, Shani Mootoo + The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood + Subarnalata, Ashapurna Devi: dystopic tales centred on violated, exploited, and above all, silenced and marginalised people, most of whom happen to be women. It’s amazing when one stops and thinks how ‘natural’ the absence of these stories were for centuries, how identities lived daily couldn’t be legitimised – or even explicitly recorded – in writing. We are very much a society in denial about itself. If there was such a thing as existential therapy, we’d be on its metaphorical couch right now.

And that’s all for tonight. The dogs need airin’ and feedin’, my soul needs drinkin’, the dinner needs eatin’, and so I’m offski kitchenwards.

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