A lunchtime conversation.
Colleague 1: “So, I am reading this book, which is big and I am struggling to finish.”
Colleague 2: “What are you reading?”
C1: “Oh, not fiction, something non-fiction.”
C2: “OK”*nods approval*
C1:”I don’t read fiction at all, only non-fiction.”*they both nod approvals at each other*
It wasn’t what was said, but the way it was said. The righteousness that comes with NF over Fic. This is something I see everywhere, the shirking away from Fiction as if it is something you don’t want your dead body to be caught with. An accompaniment is also “Since you read books, here is a recommendation”, which is usually something related to work, telling me how to improve my productivity. It is not enough if the book is NF, it has to make you better at doing your every day work – a self-help mostly.
When you say fiction the thing that springs to people’s minds is stories. Someone is telling you a story, and you just go along with it, and at the end there could be a moral. When you are done, you move on to the next story. Fiction thus falls under a waste of time. It doesn’t get you to be better at your job. And almost always fiction always conjures up images of R.K Narayan, whom you likely read in high school(and not even properly), and then graduated to the Chetan Bhagats and the Amish Tripathis who write now. It doesn’t help that they are the poster boys of Amazon kindle and “books” in general. This is something you want to avoid.
In this world there is no scope for fiction that is literary, that exists for the sake of itself. That might not just tell you a story, but can put you through different emotive states. It also raises questions about the purpose of reading itself.
Now, why does one read? I frankly don’t have a clear answer to it, other than I like reading. If I have free time, I would rather be reading than doing anything else. Maybe the beauty of a well-written line draws me, a well-crafted tale about something that I can relate to evokes memories that lie dormant in me, and more importantly it can make me empathetic towards people and their situations. And along the way it tells me about places, people, cultures, politics, relationships, emotional states, among others.
How does one slot a book like Amitav Ghosh’s “Shadow Lines” that is probably about some riots on the surface, but so much more, like leaving home, coming home, memories, history, relations, pasts. Should we even try to slot it?
For a change, this year has seen me reading a lot more NF than usual. 19 out of the 43 I’ve read this year have been NF. But NF would be too broad a brush to paint them under. These 19 count amongst them an autobiography, a biography, 2-3 travelogues, some on science, some on social media, one on politics, climate change. Not a single one would help me with my work. But then, what’s the point if you’re coming home and spending your free time reading about stuff that is only going to help with your work?
Yes, Fiction is an indulgence. It might not serve you any tangible purpose, but what’s the point of earning your free time if you are plowing it straight back into your work, when you can indulge yourself with some good prose? Remember that forward a long time back about the guy who was idling away at work?
All this aside, it has been a great year for Fiction in India. This was the year the JCB prize for literature was instituted. And it saw a shortlist of 5. I had read 2 out of them, and was hunting for the 3rd (hunting = waiting for the price to drop). I remember sitting in the metro, reading Poonachi on the kindle and smiling wistfully, or even welling up at times. It was a powerful experience. Half the Night is Gone made me sob, as you mirror your life with that of Vishwanath coming to terms with old age, a running out of time, and all the misgivings from the past with his brother and his father, only some of which he can set right, all after his son dies in an accident far away from home. Go easy on those around you.
There was an instagram giveaway for the JCB prize shortlist, and my name surprisingly came up. You don’t usually win in raffles, as they are low-probability occurrences. So it was a huge surprise, and the books came to me a week later, all of them signed by the authors! Latitudes of Longing was part of it, and the story of fault-lines and people living on them, and through them made me want to read it again. A few years later I guess.
This was also the year I got a new bookshelf made, which is filling up slowly. Hopefully, another few years I won’t have to worry about shelves. Maybe I would also have divested a few books away. Hoarding isn’t always a good habit. It’s just that I find it hard to read good fiction on the Kindle. It works really well for NF though. Not sure why that is, maybe it’s just me.
Anyway, given the large number of books, 2019 should be the year of rereading. There are so many books, that I wanted to revisit when I finished, but never got around to it.
Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth and the Namesake. Ondaatje’s English Patient and Anil’s Ghost. Chinaman – Karunatilaka, Arundathi Roy, the God of small things, Ghosh’s Shadow Lines, and Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom are amongst those crying out to be reread. Can maybe throw in Gabriel Garcia Marquez into the mix. So much of One Hundred Years was contextual, which I missed. Having read Galeano they might make a lot more sense now. Definitely needs a revisit.
Oh well, this was my cud-chewing at the end of the year. The actual list will be up only next year, after Anush is done.