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Of Writers & Reading

India’s biggest literary event, Jaipur Literature Fest, begins this week, and for this brief, happy moment the nation's cultural conversation turns to books and writing. We celebrate with an edition perhaps best described as a Literary Pot Luck. Some of India’s best writers tell us of books that have moved their minds, hearts and lives.

  15th Jan 2012

Amitava Kumar | Photo: Neeraj Priyadarshi

Amitava Kumar: You value the books you turn to in need

When I was younger books were fetish objects. They sat in a small group on a bare shelf or a window sill, depending on whether I was at home or staying in my room at the college hostel. Now, with more money, I'm able to acquire the books more easily, and they have lost their ancient magic as objects. Now, they are treasured as friends. Or, more likely, as guilty reminders of money wasted — because I hardly have the time to read one-tenth of the books I buy. While I'm on the subject, may I also confess to the guilt of seeing the piles of unread magazines growing higher in my study? The New Yorker, Granta, Caravan, The New York Review of Books, Himal, London Review of Books...the piles grow bigger till it is time to take them for recycling. In the case of each of those publications, some of the articles get read but that's only because I have encountered them online. Someone has posted a link on Facebook, or they've been mentioned on a blog, or sparked a controversy on Twitter. This is a new truth of reading: your taste is determined by the conversations on the Net.

It is difficult to narrow down to four or five what I treasure in this room where I'm sitting writing this. Books are like people: you value those who you can turn to in times of need. V.S. Naipaul's A House for Mr Biswas is a monumental work, and his Enigma of Arrival is a profound, stylistic achievement, but the book of his that I value most is Finding the Center. In that book I read, as a young student in Delhi, Naipaul's "Prologue to an Autobiography," and it offered me a way to imagine a writer's life. I've often turned back to it to find the road back to my own beginnings.

I think of each book that I have written as a tribute to the writers who have taught me vital lessons; there are too many list, perhaps, but here are four milestones on the road I have travelled: John Berger's A Seventh Man, Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia, Urvashi Butalia's The Other Side of Silence, and J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace.

Amitava Kumar is the author, most recently, of A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb, which won the Non-Fiction Book of the Year Award from the Asian American Writers' Workshop.

Ashok Vajpeyi: Language constitutes & also creates realityImage 6th

Rather early in life, I had realised that it is not enough to live one life; there ought to be many lives, at least, another life in addition to the given one. Born and raised in a middle class family, books became my inevitable companions. They were the other life.

In this other life there were many other voices, experiences, visions, emotions and anxieties, joys and pains, which I would have never encountered or felt otherwise.  Books are an escape from our harsh physical and emotional realities. But if you are vulnerable to their deeper impact, they teach you to cope with such things with better understanding and sympathy. You realise that truth does not survive in protected isolation but is invariably created by many others contributing in the process. You start valuing imagination, which creates so many alternative spaces. You discover that language not only constitutes but also creates reality. You may not feel suffocated by the constraint of your own time but, through books, could go beyond time and see that time as a continuum — the past is present and the future is already past.

As a child, I used to steal money from my grandfather's coat to buy books.  Throughout my life I've been spending a large amount of money, now self-earned, on books. There was a time when visiting a new city I would buy a book there, to remind me later that I had been to that place.

Since I'm a poet-critic, my personal library, which is rather large and becoming increasingly uncontainable in my 3BHK apartment in East Delhi, contains a large section of world poetry translated in English. I can hardly deny that I have not only an emotional and intellectual relationship with books but also almost a sensuous one. I am twice-born: once of my parents and a second time of books.

Recently, I've been reading the following: Vikram Seth's The Rivered Earth, This Is Not the End of the Book, a conversation between Umberto Eco and Jean Claude–Carriere, and A Bigger Message, conversations with David Hockney. A selection from Tamil Sangam Poetry, Love Stands Alone, also lies on my table, waiting to be picked up.

Ashok Vajpeyi is a Hindi poet-critic, translator, editor and culture-activist with more than 13 books of poetry, 7 of criticism in Hindi and 3 books on art in English. He is ex-chairman of the Lalit Kala Akademi.

Palash K. Mehrotra: I reread favourites to refine my craftImage 3rd

Each time I'm asked to write about books I like, I wish my entire library were in one place. As it happens, it's spread over three locations: my parents' place in Allahabad, my grandmother's place in Dehradun, and my own pad in Delhi. One tends to forget what one reads, so it's always nice to be able to browse all one's books in one go, jog the memory a little.

As a writer of stories, I have my favourites I return to, sometimes in moments of self doubt, sometimes just to go over stuff again, for in re-reading one's favourites one tends to learn a thing or two about craft, something that doesn't happen on the first reading, for that's when one is often completely absorbed by the narrative, carried along with the flow as it were. Among my favourites are Raymond Carver's Cathedral, Salinger's Nine Stories and Beth Nugent's City of Boys (powerful stories that tackle, among other things, the unusual subject matter of unmarried brothers and sisters co-habiting in their middle age). I'm also a fan of Alisdair Gray's short fiction—The Ends of My Tethers, witty dirty-old-man stories with no trace of self-pity whatsoever.

Among essayists, it's got to be Hazlitt for his range, and peculiar melancholy, and, when I want to read about writers and writing, Cynthia Ozick and Elizabeth Hardwick. Among humorists, it's David Sedaris' autobiographical prose, and H.L. Mencken, who combines erudition with a great comic touch.

Gay Talese is my hero when it comes to non-fiction. I like the way he dangerously blurs the distinction between friend and subject, especially in Thy Neighbour's Wife, and immerses himself in his field work — the participant-observer method, which I too have followed in my new book, The Butterfly Generation.

As for memoirs of writing, I'm an admirer of Annie Dillard's The Writing Life, and Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings, both of which, together, give one a sense of the seeds of creativity, and a ringside view of the process of literary artistry.

Palash K. Mehrotra is the author of Eunuch Park: 15 Stories of Love and Destruction, and the editor of Recess: The Penguin Book of Schooldays. His new book, The Butterfly Generation, is published later this month.

Chandrahas Choudhury: A library of memoriesImage 2nd

I like to read two or three books at the same time, switching between fiction, literary criticism, philosophy, politics, biography, history, memoir, and travel literature. For a few years most of my reading consisted of new books I had to review, but I now I am able to read more for pleasure, dipping into this and that. I like a lot of bookshops, but I don't think any room or place has more pleasurable books than my own library, especially since most books have some or the other memory associated with them: of buying them, reading them, missing them, dipping into them.

Unless I'm really desperate, I never read books belonging to someone else, because I mark up everything I read, both in the margins and in the blank pages at the back. I copy out sentences I like, make little notes about the writer's style, sometimes write out thoughts for my own books if I have nothing else at hand. Every book I've read has a record of my encounter with it, and I like it that way. I always use a fountain pen to write in my books.

I like to read books in cafes. Far from being a place full of distractions, a cafe actually eliminates them, since there's nothing else to do but read or watch people or think — and the last two are activities that usefully complement reading. Three or four days a week I'm to be found at the Costa Coffee in Nehru Place, a seven-minute walk from my house in Kalkaji. At night, the places where I read are in a chair on my balcony, under a small light and a dark sky, or else in bed. This is why I sometimes feel most awake at 2am.

It'd be hard to pick four favourite books from my library. Let's say that I've committed an unspeakable crime (for example, written a novel that sold only three thousand copies, and did not have a single number in its title) and am shipped off into some state of long detention by the Weepii-OYN (Writers for the Exclusive Propagation of IIT and Other Youth Novels). What four books would I take until Indian literature was willing to allow me back into its fold?

I'm thinking now of four very fat books, to keep me going through the years. A novel? Perhaps Orhan Pamuk's The Museum of Innocence; it's also a great love story, and I'll need something to make up for my girlfriend's absence. Some long and very complex work of philosophy: Leszek Kolakowski's Main Currents of Marxism, say, or better still the Mahabharata in a good translation, as that has philosophy and story both. A work of history or reportage: Lenin's Tomb, David Remnick's massive and engaging history of the collapse of the Soviet Union, most of which I read on one single enthralling night when I was 22. And last, some work with an unforgettable style and sympathy for and awareness of human beings, just so that my solitude is filled with both the sound of music and the murmur of people: so perhaps Nikoz Kazantzakis's The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel or Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise.

Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of the novel Arzee the Dwarf and editor of the anthology India: A Traveller's Literary Companion

Sidin Vadukut: A Rolex on my bookshelf

My reading habits usually have a lot to do with my writing habits. When I am thinking of, or planning the outline of a book, I tend to read up on a lot of books from whatever genre it is that I am ruminating over. Right now, for instance, I am reading a lot of Clive Cussler, Arnaldur Indridasson and other crime and thriller novels. I am trying to figure out how these guys balance pace and plot. Then, hopefully, I will finally be able to write my own early next year. Fingers crossed.

Otherwise, in general, I tend to read much more non-fiction than fiction. Especially history. At least 75% of my bookshelf has to do with the two World Wars, biographies and European history. Recently I've started slowly reading up on Indian history. I absolutely adore Abraham Eraly's books.

The most recent addition to my library is a collection of books on watches and watchmaking. I can't afford a Rolex. But I can definitely afford books with pictures of Rolexes in them! Ever since I started writing about watches for my newspaper, I've been utterly hooked. I think I have a dozen or so right now in the watch section.

Then there are comedy, humour and travelogue books. I club them together because I find that most travelogues I like tend to be very funny indeed, by writers like Michael Palin and Bill Bryson. Whenever I hit a bit of writer's block, or am too grumpy to embark on a humour column, I dip into one of my many Palins, Brysons, Dave Barrys or Art Buchwalds.

Picking just four from my entire library is bloody hard, but let me try. One has to be William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain. This was the book that made me want to explore writing many years ago. If Dalrymple could take people on such journeys using only prose... could I try to also?

Dave Barry Slept Here is the funniest book written by man. The funniest. Period. This is not open for debate. I've read and re-read this a million times. And I still burst out laughing at the official state blender setting for California.

My third choice is a bit of a cheat: the 10-book Martin Beck crime series. What utterly mesmerising, minimal writing. Love to bits.

And finally Bill Bryson's A Brief History Of Nearly Everything. For me this is the good standard for funny, accessible, utterly informative non-fiction writing.

Sidin Vadukut is a writer and columnist with the Mint-WSJ newspaper. He is the author of the Dork trilogy of office culture novels published by Penguin India.

Postcard from KashmirManan Ahmad

A sequence of sonnetsRohit Chopra

Jaipur Lit Fest: Things one should not miss 


Anamika: I turn to literature when I feel out of touch with myselfImage 4th

I read a lot of biographies and real-life stuff, most of it in unpredictable places and at unearthly hours —sometimes I'll be reading at 4 am! My father calls it the Brahmamuhoortha...the time when Hamlet meets his father's ghost.

I try reading many things — translucent faces/situations and even the outstretched palms of Time. All of us want to make some sense of the nonsense around us. Whenever I feel out of touch with myself, I hibernate with a book. I dig a hole for myself and I read. Books are the roadmaps that lead me back to my own lost self.

As one advances in years, one's telephone diary and reading lists get slimmer. One feels like returning again and again to all-time favourites: The Mahabharata, The Panchatantra, Kalidas, Shakespeare, Kabir, Rilke, Ghalib, Lorca, Chekhov and Tolstoy, Joyce, Woolf, and Neruda. My four new additions to these classics are Rahul Sankrityayan's Interpretations of the Buddhist texts, Women's Writing Across the World, African Folktales and the Katha collection of stories from the different languages of South-East Asia.

Literature for me is all that has happened and is still happening. It underlines ironies (both situational and verbal) and serves us the essence of all that history, psychology, politics, philosophy, moral geography and science deduce with their wide network of information, clues and clippings.

Anamika is the author of poetry collections Hanging Prisons and Ghalat Pate ki Chitthi. She has won the Kirti Samman and writes a column for Hindi daily Jansatta.

Manisha Pandey: Searching for solace in an age of unhappinessImage 5th

My life is typical of many women in India, living in a middle-class family from a small city, and doesn't provide me the luxury of watching the world from my window with a cup of black coffee in one hand and Love in the time of Cholera in another.

I pilfer time for books. I read while rushing to the office and after coming back half-exhausted. I read in the bus, on the Metro, on the rickshaw or in a queue. I cannot sacrifice my obligations in the office so that I can read, but I happily sacrifice the need to make dinner fresh everyday, or going out for a movie, for the joy that reading Pamuk or Murakami brings. With pleasure I dedicate all my weekends to Doris Lessing and Elif Shafak. Here in Bhopal, I've spent almost a year in seclusion with my books without going out and without anyone visiting me.

Why do we put in the great amount of effort it requires to read a book? Why do I read? The answer, perhaps, is similar to questions that go to the root of our existence: Why we are here on this earth? What is the purpose of life? Books help me explore these matters. I read because it gives meaning to life, it gives me immense pleasure and elevates my consciousness. It takes me to an unknown world of experiences, joys and sorrows. It is my great consolation during unhappy days, spent in a ruthless city. It is not an escape from the cruelties of life, but as if it's a possession of another world that is more beautiful and meaningful.

In my years spent in the patriarchal world of Hindi fiction, world Simone, Toni Morrison and Oriana Fellachi have fortified the belief that a different kind of life is possible. Books have strengthened my belief in a better world. We live in a time of social inequality and the age of unhappiness. Reading is happiness in the time of unhappiness.

My favourite books are: Snow (Orhan Pamuk), The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, Magic Lantern by Ingmar Bergman and Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson Mascullars.

Manisha Pandey, currently working as the features editor with India Today is an author, who has translated Simone de Beauvoir's interviews and Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House in Hindi

Mangalesh Dabral: A poet keeps track of the changing world

Poetry is my first love, but my reading habits are so erratic that I lay my hands (or eyes) on whatever printed material I get hold of and begin from anywhere: from travelogues, diaries, autobiographies and memoirs to those tedious theoretical-philosophical texts — like that of Jacques Derrida and other deconstructionists. I prefer non-fiction narratives to novels and short fiction, as such accounts reveal a lot about the author.

I primarily read Hindi books and will certainly take a look at the Hindi literary periodicals. But I also cannot avoid (or even wish to) reading fashion and lifestyle pieces. As a poet, I have to keep track of the changes occurring around me. When Beatle George Harrison was introduced to W.H. Auden, he said he had never heard of the poet. Auden responded, "But I have heard of you and have also listened to you sing, because my job includes it..."

From new archaeological knowledge of the Indus Valley Civilization to the Lakme ads featuring Kareena Kapoor (even as poor older sis-dearest fiddles around with almonds of an ordinary brand), everything increases my reading appetite. I recently read Vinod Mehta's Lucknow Boy and was immediately taken by his fond depiction of Lucknow and London.

Though it is difficult to choose just four out of a long list of my favourite books, there are a few I keep returning to: Collected Poems of Bertolt Brecht, for the wisdom and dialectics they convey, Residence on Earth by Pablo Neruda, for its poems of the lucidity of emotion, The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx, almost the final critique of Capitalism, and relevant even after 163 years, and The Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy, for its poetic yet mocking depiction of Czarist, aristocratic Russia as a big prison for the poor and the wretched — a wonderfully apt metaphor for India today.

Mangalesh Dabral is a Sahitya Academy Award winning poet and the executive editor of Hindi fortnightly The Public Agenda.

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