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On My Bookshelf

I’m often asked about books that inspired me to become a writer and I don’t know how to respond because I find it difficult to explain the complex nature of that decision. Art-any art- is a calling and the pursuit of it is a journey in self-exploration with varying proportions (throughout one’s career) of both self-belief and self-doubt. Without this duality, an artist may find it difficult to create. In my experience, one’s life is usually building itself up to the moment when they address the restlessness of their being. The ability to fill that void with an artistic enterprise is a matter of faith, discipline and persistence. In retrospect I can say that it was a whole body of literature that petered into my sub-conscious, one that I wasn’t particularly paying attention to until I was asked.

My grandmother and mother used to read to me when I was a child.  I can still hear their voices in my head as they told me fantastical stories from Indian mythology, of which the Ramayana and the Mahabharata took prominence. Also popular were the Arabian Night’s tales with their genies and magic carpets. It’s a wonderful feeling to lie cuddled up in bed (in an era that didn’t have any digital distractions) and be told about Gods and demons, good and evil and the triumph of sincerity over might. The brain is a remarkable organ, especially in our formative years. Every generation carries forward the story of the human condition. Old ideas enter young minds to restructure and recalibrate themselves into something new. We draw water from the same well but the vessel we pour it into becomes more important than the water itself.  What we can make of the knowledge forms our character. Learning is a continuous process; an intellectual exchange as we go back and forth between ancient wisdom and modern concepts.

In my opinion, books symbolize a feeling of connectedness with humanity and the world around us. We come across our own feelings in the written word or when we identify with a character. A lot changes with the passage of time but feelings remain the same. Love, lust, hate, greed, jealousy, envy, faith and hope continue to dominate our lives. Books offer us an insight into other cultures, escapes into hitherto unknown worlds, alternate realms, knowledge, entertainment, laughter and so much more.

Predictably so, I began my reading journey with Enid Blyton, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Somerset Maugham- most of the classics. I went through the mystery genre with Agatha Christie and James Hadley Chase, espionage with Robert Ludlum and magic realism with Marquez. Also, like many girls of my generation I swooned over the heroes in Mills & Boon novels. A few of my favourite authors are Pearl Buck, Milan Kundera and Albert Camus. The list is much longer because there is a library in my mind. I can never name a few books and say they are the best I’ve read because it’s like an exercise in comparing stars in the sky.  Even so I’ve compiled a list of ten books (fiction and non-fiction) off the top of my head that will always remain with me.  I list them in no particular order and briefly state the reason these books stayed with me.

       Fiction:

  1. The Stranger by Alber Camus- Meursault, the protagonist, feels a sense of isolation from people. Camus underlines the fact that society expects people to behave in a certain way.  The protagonist’s non- conformance to this format has repercussions.  His lack of emotional display labels him as ‘inhuman,’ as though a false display of emotion is preferable to the truth.
  2. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera-Kundera’s phrase ‘einmal ist keinmal’ is unforgettable. He explains, “What happens but once, might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all.” It draws one’s attention to the futility of experience because nothing ever recurs.
  3. Tales from Firozsha Baag by Rohinton Mistry-We have all met the many characters Rohinton Mistry introduces to us through the eleven short stories set in a Parsi colony in Mumbai. ‘Swimming Lessons’ is my favourite story as the protagonist weaves in and out of the present (in a foreign country) and the past (in Mumbai) in his memory. Funny, poignant and true to life, this is a collection that is not be missed.
  4. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand- Recently, this book has been criticized for various reasons but I find Howard Roark’s character fascinating and I am very happy to have met him. He is the epitome of a man with integrity and intelligence. The idea than one can be selfish in a virtuous way is unique and thought provoking.
  5. The Gathering by Anne Enright- I enjoy reading books that deal with the everyday drama of life. The complex structure of family bonds, love, death, loss and memories. Especially, the constant stream of consciousness that we subject ourselves to regarding these matters. I’ve reproduced a few lines, “How she turned and carried the suitcase out of the house. And everything that seemed impossible was possible after all. She had the gift of feet, that placed themselves one after the other so that she could walk out of there, and she had the gift of her hands, to make her way through life and she did not look back.”

             Non-fiction:

  1. The Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari- Harari traces the evolutionary history of human beings. His voice is very conversational, making this book an easy read. Out of the many fascinating details he provides, I’ll quote from the section called, ‘Chemical Happiness.’ ‘Evolution has moulded us to be neither too miserable nor too happy. It enables us to enjoy a momentary rush of pleasant sensations, but these never last forever. Sooner or later they subside and give place to unpleasant sensations.’ One gains an understanding of why we are the way we are through the many insights he offers.
  2. The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee- This book reveals the immense research that has gone into understanding the gene. Scientists who have never been applauded or recognized by the world (in general) have brought us closer to a better future by their tireless research. This book has several memorable quotes, out of which I can only write one, ‘” Is it sin, which makes the worm a chrysalis, and the chrysalis a butterfly, and the butterfly dust?” the German theologian Max Muller asked in 1885. A century later, biology offered an answer, it wasn’t sin; it was a fusillade of genes.’
  3. Women of the Raj by Margaret MacMillan- This book narrates the viewpoint of the women who braved the long sea journey from England to make India-a mysterious country for them- their home. It gives us the social history of the times, a refreshing change from the political history that we are more familiar with.
  4. A Short History of Everything by Bill Bryson-Books on science and geography introduce us to numerous people who have contributed to the knowledge we so nonchalantly google today. Moreover, modern-day scientists have equipment that saves them the trouble their predecessors took. It was not so for Reverand Robert Evans. I quote from the book, “When the skies are clear and the moon is not too bright, the Reverend Robert Evans, a quiet and cheerful man, lugs a bulky telescope onto the back deck of his home in the Blue Mountains of Australia, about fifty miles west of Sydney, and does an extraordinary thing, He looks deep into the past and finds dying stars.”
  5. Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku- ‘By 2100, our destiny is to become like the gods we once worshipped and feared. But our tools will not be magic wands and potions but the science of computers, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, biotechnology and most of all, the quantum theory, which is the foundation of the previous technologies. By 2100, like the gods of mythology, we will be able to manipulate objects with the power of our minds.’ And these are only a few sentences in this book that gives us a peak into the magic of science.
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