Books They Adore
In keeping with the theme of Papercuts Volume 10 “From Pulp to Postmodern” we asked South Asian writers about the first book they fell in love with. Here’s what some of them had to say:
Amitava Kumar — writer and journalist, author of A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb
When I was promoted to the rank of a professor, the library at the university where I was then employed asked me to send them the name of a book that had been useful to me in my career. I chose V.S. Naipaul’s Finding the Center. The library then purchased a copy, which was duly displayed in one of its rooms, with a statement I had written about the book:
This was one of the first literary autobiographies that I read. Its very first sentence established in my mind the idea of writing as an opening in time or a beginning: that sentence conveyed to me, with its movement and rhythm, a history of repeated striving, and of things coming together, at last, in the achievement of the printed word: “It is now nearly thirty years since, in a BBC room in London, on an old BBC typewriter, and on smooth, ‘non-rustle’ BBC script paper, I wrote the first sentence of my first publishable book.” This first sentence — about a first sentence — created an echo in my head. It has lasted through the twenty years of my writing life. The ambition and the anxiety of the beginner is there at the beginning of each book. Every time I start to write, I am reminded of Naipaul’s book.
But that wasn’t The whole truth, neither about Naipaul, nor about beginnings. The sentence I had quoted had mattered to me, yes, and so had the book, but what had really helped was Naipaul’s telling an interviewer that in an effort to write clearly he had turned himself into a beginner: “It took a lot of work to do it. In the beginning I had to forget everything I had written by the age of 22. I abandoned everything and began to write like a child at school. Almost writing ‘the cat sat on the mat.’ I almost began like that.”
And I did that too, writing my columns for Tehelka with a new awareness of language, trying to unlearn the kind of writing I had picked up in the academy. The result was my own literary biography, Bombay-London-New York.
Bina Shah — journalist and writer, author of A Season for Martyrs
I’ve loved a lot of books in my life, but the first book I really fell ‘in love’ with was,interestingly, Alain de Botton’s Essays in Love. I read it when I was 23, and had just had my heart broken by the love of my life, as I thought of him at the time. I chanced upon Essays in Love while browsing the Harrods book section (which does not exist anymore either, a testament to the illusory nature of all things, animate and inanimate).
To soothe my aching heart and soul I bought the book and read it quickly, then read it again, and thereafter every couple of years for the next decade. Alain de Botton’s simple tale of a young man who finds love by chance, builds upon it, imagines a lifetime based on it, then loses it, only to possibly find it again at the end of the book gave me hope that perhaps rather than the end of the world, what I was going through was temporal and would stop hurting one day.
I didn’t realize that de Botton was sneaking in lessons in the philosophy of love, which helps us become more stoic about the travails of that process. And although I remain as ‘dil-phek’ as I was when I was 23, Essays in Love helped me to grow a little more resilient in love, loss, and everything that lies in between.
Annie Zaidi — writer and essayist, author of Love Stories # 1 to 14
Love is a difficult thing. Who do we really love? Is it love or only a passing fancy? The question is particularly difficult to answer in the context of books, because books form us and change us – much as falling in love does – but as we change, so does our relationship to the beloved.
That said, my first clear memory of a book I really liked, and of which I still have fond memories, is ‘Heidi’. It’s a novel written by the Swiss writer Johanna Spyri. It tells the story of a little girl, an orphan, who is sent to live with her grandfather in the Swiss Alps. He is a reclusive, somewhat crusty shepherd and the child has a very different life with him. She sleeps on a straw bed, eats goat cheese, etc. I have forgotten most of the plot, but the book left me feeling warm and strong at the same time. I think I was also enjoying the fact that Heidi was a girl who was cared for but not overly cosseted, and that she grew physically stronger up in the mountains. Even when I was little, I seemed to prefer books where girls were either the central protagonist or at least, not being left out of adventures while boys took the lead part in the action.
Rupa Gulab — columnist and author of The Great Depression of the 40s. Her fourth book, I Kissed A Frog, will be published in early 2013.
My first favourite book? Honestly, I can’t remember the name, I only have hazy memories of fluffy rabbits called Sunny, Happy, Honey and suchlike, hens that clucked sternly at brash roosters, and other cute animals. I loved that book dearly then, and in my defence I must say that I was only five years old and never imagined that there was a far superior and more menacing book on animals out there by George Orwell. When I was about seven or eight, though, I fell in love with another book that remains a favourite: Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. It’s a crazy, side-splittingly funny book – and the humour is so intelligent. My favourite bits from Through the Looking-Glass: when the Red Queen invites Alice to a meal and introduces her to a leg of mutton – and when Alice offers to slice it, the Red Queen sharply reprimands her saying that it isn’t etiquette to cut something you’ve been introduced to. A hungry Alice fervently hopes that she won’t be introduced to the pudding as well. And then there’s that deep and meaningful conversation on birthdays with Humpty Dumpty who says he prefers celebrating unbirthdays because there are there more unbirthdays in a year than birthdays and makes a bemused Alice do the math. This is a book that’s stayed with me forever – it’s a fabulous stress buster. What makes it even more special is that it used to be one of my mum’s favourite childhood books as well, and I’m happy to say that I still have her battered, well-thumbed original copy on my bedside table!
Musharraf Ali Farooqi — novelist and translator, author of Between Clay and Dust and The Story of a Widow
In the year 1986, I ran up high-fever reading Crime and Punishment. Why? Because I had committed murder that day — the murder of a murghabi (teal) with a blunt-edged knife. I had the teal for lunch afterwards.
As I read the book, the justification for the murder played out in my mind in a very different context…
Shandana Minhas — writer, author of Tunnel Vision
Frank Herbert’s Dune blew my socks off because it made subjects previously inaccessible to me (politics, religion, history, philosophy, ecology) both comprehensible and seductive. When I say these subjects were previously inaccessible to me, I mean that my early education suffered from the age-old curse of ‘bad student meets worse teachers’. So the first gift Dune gave me was an awakening of curiosity about things I had previously found irrelevant to my life. On awakening, I discovered that they were everywhere.
*this does not apply to George Orwell
The third gift Dune gave me was an appreciation of the epic, and the infinite capacity of imagination.
The fourth gift Dune gave me was the value of less is more in characterization.
The last gift Dune gave me was a tremendous sense of my own inadequacy. I knew I would never have the kind of vision, intelligence, insight or craftsmanship that Herbert had. I was free to skip happily down the road to finding my own voice, without any illusions about one day producing a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.If that isn’t the best kind of influence, I don’t know what is.