I read voraciously. I write obsessively. The reading aids the writing. Any Rushdie will tell you that. The reading bug took hold of me, in a serious way, rather late in life; only about twenty years ago. Prior to that I read fitfully and my oeuvre was largely confined to P.G. Wodehouse and his ilk. The Master of humour wrote, for the most part, in a time-warped bubble of an innocently imagined England of a bygone era. He made me laugh out loud. LOL, as today’s social media generation would have it. And whenever I did write on any subject, Wodehouse’s influence was palpable, an influence I am loath to jettison, though I have striven hard in recent times to develop a voice of my own. Not easy, mind you, but as the poet T.H. Palmer so succinctly put it, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.’ It can be trying, but one keeps trying, if you catch my drift.
Latterly, I have been devouring the works of many authors, both contemporary and of an earlier vintage. Whether it was Damon Runyon, writing about guys, dolls and wise guys during the notorious prohibition era in America and who, astonishingly, wrote all his short stories entirely in the present tense, or the new age British glamour writers with a more literary bent, like V.S. Naipaul, Martin Amis (son of Kingsley ‘Lucky Jim’ Amis), Ian McEwan, Christopher Hitchens, Salman Rushdie (I see him as a British Indian, though he became an American citizen in 2016) and a handful of others who keep me elevated and entertained at the same time. One of these days, I’ll get around to Jane Austen – watching Pride and Prejudice or Emma on film doesn’t count. What is more, all of the above named, without exception, can turn out an ineffably beautiful sentence. It comes as no surprise that Salman Rushdie wrote copy for a reputed advertising agency in London, before raking in the shekels as a full time novelist.
That said, there was a notable gap in my reading of this highly decorated author. I was being asked by all and sundry if I had read Salman Rushdie’s 1981 blockbuster classic, Midnight’s Children, his breakthrough novel. Most of those who probed me had not read the book themselves, which I thought was a bit cheeky. I had read about it, of course, and I was reluctant to take the coward’s way out with that well-worn cliché, ‘I’ve seen the film,’ which I haven’t. I kept close tabs on reviews galore and accolades that followed the author, all of which made Salman Rushdie an international celebrity overnight. A few years after Midnight’s Children, Rushdie’s fame gravitated into the hallowed space of notoriety when he published The Satanic Verses, which was banned in many countries, including India, as these verses referring to pagan goddesses, were deemed anathema to the Islamic religion. The offending verses were believed to have been inserted by Satan into the Holy Book. Rushdie himself fervently denied any hurt intended or expressed towards the religion and issued an apology, but try telling that to the Ayatollah Khomeini who was not impressed and issued the ‘off-with-his-head’ fatwa. A price was placed on Rushdie’s head by leaders of the Islamic faith. All of which, naturally, made the book even more talked about, and it flew off the shelves like those proverbial hot cakes. If Midnight’s Children altered the course of Rushdie’s life bringing fame and fortune beyond his wildest dreams, The Satanic Verses brought more fame allied to notoriety, presaging danger to life and limb under the sinister ministrations of religious intolerance and fundamentalism. Like V.S. Naipaul before him, Rushdie’s most trenchant critics invariably never read the book. The poor chap, now a hunted man, had to become incognito and went into hiding for extended periods.
In spite of all this unwanted attention swirling around Rushdie’s head, or perhaps because of it, the Bombay born author became the toast of the literary world while others, more inimically inclined had their knives out and were threatening to turn him into toast! He even appeared in the odd film, most notably a cameo as himself in the hit comedy, Bridget Jones’s Diary. A cause célèbre, our Sir Salman. Yes, the icing on the cake was the knighthood he received for literature in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in June 2007. ‘Arise, Sir Salman.’, intoned Her Majesty, as she dubbed him Knight. An accolade that was received with unbounded joy by his admirers and, in equal measure, with unconcealed revulsion by those clerics who wanted him put down.
Such was the ironic existence of this iconoclastic writer. Meanwhile, I was yet to lay my hands on a Salman Rushdie book, and this was beginning to irk and get me talked about in a distinctly patronising manner by the cognoscenti. ‘What are you telling me, you have not yet read Midnight’s Children? And you have the gall to call yourself an aspiring writer? Aspirated writer would be more the mot juste.’ This and variants of the same, I had to put up with on a daily basis. To my biting counter question, ‘Big deal, have you read Midnight’s Children?’ the conversation amongst the literati would adroitly shift to, ‘Is Arundhati Roy’s activism harming her writing?’ or the impending threat to the earth’s green cover or the ozone layer, not that anyone is in the least bit bothered about what happens to the ozone layer, with the exception of a clutch of environmentalists and the polar bear, I am guessing.
To get back to Midnight’s Children, I finally took the bold decision to buy the book. A couple of taps on my desktop keyboard, and the next thing I knew, the Amazon masked man was at our gates with the bulging parcel. I had to keep the bubble wrapped packet in home quarantine for 48 hours thanks to the pandemic, and at last I was able to hold the book in my hands. After riffling through the pages and smelling it, which I do with all new books (a schoolboy habit), I placed it on my work table and carefully considered this voluminous opus. It was a paperback edition, the imported hard cover would have blown a gaping hole in my bank balance. At 650 pages, Midnight’s Children weighed in impressively, easily qualifying as a heavyweight amongst books, literally and metaphorically. Off hand, I can readily think of only Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, which packed in substantially more words. So there it was, Midnight’s Children, resting serenely on my bedside table waiting for my studious attention. I let a few days pass, allowing the book to marinate, in a manner of speaking, while I quickly flipped through Wodehouse’s Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit for the sixth time to get me nicely warmed up for the big ‘un.
The thing of it was that the 650 pages was proving to be a dampening deterrent. I was also concerned that long periods of holding the book in my hands could cause irreparable harm to my wrists, particularly the carpal and scaphoid bones, which need to be in mint condition to do pretty much anything mundane and routine. Every now and then, I would gently lift the book up, lower it down and put it back on the table, weighing up the options, thinking I would come back when I was good and ready. To read a book of the heft of Midnight’s Children, you need to be physically in shipshape order and mentally agile. Under such arduously challenging circumstances, procrastination was an easy option. ‘Let the weekend pass,’ I would mutter to myself, ‘and I should be prepared to dive headlong into it from Monday.’ Any time but now, about summed up my state of mind.
What is it about fat volumes that turns one off so? Whereas other past best-sellers like Love Story and Jonathan Livingstone Seagull barely went beyond 140 pages before Messers Erich Segal and Richard Bach decided to down tools. Lazy sods! Of course, Love Story was merely an unabashedly lachrymose tear jerker with a great opening line, and I cannot possibly place Erich Segal’s pot boiler alongside Rushdie’s monumental MC. It was just this illogical mental block that kept me from picking up MC and giving Rushdie the once over. Finally, finally I took courage in my hands and decided to break the deadlock. I started reading the blasted thing, digging in for the long haul. Let me quickly add, right here and now, lest you get ideas, that I am not going to talk about the book’s contents or even remotely attempt to review or critique it. I simply do not possess the literary or intellectual wherewithal. Suffice to say that, far from being a plodding, tedious drudge that books in excess of 500 pages usually turn out to be, this one was a blast. I finished the book in six days flat, far from my original apprehension of having to pore over it in instalments over six months. Put me in mind of Wodehouse’s wry observation that the problem with Russian novels was that you had to plough through 400 pages before the first murder took place in some remote gulag! Not so with Rushdie’s MC. I did not experience that sinking feeling that I had just run the marathon and collapsed unconscious at the end of it. Far from it. It helped greatly that the story was set in the Indian sub-continent, the protagonist taking us on a rip-roaring, hair-raising journey beginning ‘at the stroke of the midnight hour’ on August 15, 1947, all the way down to the Indira Gandhi dynasty’s shenanigans. The novel was a heady combination of ‘magic realism and historiographic metafiction’, as described by some literary pundit, and who am I to argue with that? That’s about as much as I am willing to divulge.
As for the 650 pages of Salman Rushdie’s brilliance, having gone through it like a breeze, I have drastically revised my biased opinion on fat books. Other than the fact that they pose serious problems in terms of space management in my home library, not to mention wrist sprain, I shall now warmly welcome corpulent tomes into my humble abode, without prejudging them purely on the basis of their obesity. To conclude, I can do no better than to quote Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s eponymous play, ‘Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look……..Let me have men about me that are fat.’ My thoughts exactly, Julius. Only, my thoughts extend to the rarefied world of books.