When the translation of Kalki’s historical novel Ponniyin Selvan reached bookshops in the late 1990s I met someone who was barely aware that an international game of cricket was being played. So completely lost was she in 11th century Chozhanaadu.
John Ruskin described books as the lifeblood of their creators but omitted to say that they also enter our bloodstreams and become part of our emotional DNA. The books we read gradually take over our minds, sometimes refusing to leave. Passages and characters become a part of us and linger on years after we have not only put the book away but possibly even lost it. Imaginative writing is “otherness” and as such diminishes loneliness.
Value in literature, as in life, has much to do with personal taste and though reading is the most healing of pleasures, everyone reads against the clock. Last month, a friend loaned me a book about a privileged family’s ups and downs and though it was well written by a descendant I really couldn’t get past thinking how self-indulgent the exercise was—photographs, minutiae of meals and clothes all packed into an elegant and heavily priced hardback. Imaginative literature, memoirs and travelogues all diminish our loneliness. Yet I thought I had wasted my time and skipped nimbly onto the next work more to my taste but my friend loved this same book and thought that every page had something to say.
Why does one read? It was Emerson who said that society cannot do without cultivated men and women. Whether or not we realise it or want to admit it, we read in quest of a mind more original than our own and perhaps because modern-day despair requires consolation and the medicine of a profound narration. While self-improvement is a large enough project for your mind and spirit, there are no ethics of reading! Books give us the option of believing that the truth is as funny as it is grim. Good writing is about stories which aren’t just told but told in a powerfully original way and the Seven Great Themes—love, loss, laughter, fear, hunger, hatred and justice—are the stuff of literature. Then there is the dangerous territory between fiction and life-writing recently labelled as bio-fiction.
In times when everything around us is becoming mechanised, writing is one of the ways in which humanity keeps track of its emotional origins. A childhood largely spent watching TV leads to a young adult who is unlikely to welcome the suggestion that “in our beginning is our end” or “the mind is in its own place and makes a hell of heaven and a heaven of hell”. Let me close by quoting Harold Bloom: “I urge you to find out what truly comes near to you.”