The Distillery

Unremarkably, I grew up on a steady diet of Enid Byltons and what were called Children’s Classics at the time. I romped through the adventures of Noddy and Big Ears, climbed into little toadstool houses with fairies and elves, and whooshed off on delightful adventures on a wishing chair. Later, Malory Towers and St. Claire’s enthralled me, with games of lacrosse and the delicious if distant fun and games in an imaginary English Boarding School. The Famous Five made me long for a cottage by the sea, a dog named Timothy and lazy summer picnics with crumpets and scones.

Of course, at the time, I was blissfully unaware of the incongruity of inhabiting a world so far removed from my own, having grown up in small towns across India and equally, I was yet to understand why some of the innocuously presented characters and storylines that I was devouring were problematic as seen from our somewhat more evolved and inclusive lens today. A curious book I remember that stood apart from the largely make believe world in the Enid Blyton books was Six Bad Boys, one of her few attempts at realism, and I remember my brother and I were both deeply moved by it.

The classics of course, were required reading – The Three Musketeers, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, Huckleberry Finn and Heidi, Black Beauty, The Secret Garden, Little Women and What Katy Did to name a few. In some ways it was a time for such undistracted reading, without our compulsive technology addiction, I could spend hours up on a tree, or lying on my belly on a sunny terrace, completely absorbed in stories set in far off lands and times, brought alive before my young eyes through the pages of a book. 

Still later, as was common in the Kolkata of that time, one of the few red states in India, and therefore with a love for all things Russian, one of the greatest writers of all time, Fyodor Dostoyevsky came into my life. The Idiot, Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, Notes from Underground and unforgettable short stories like The Honest Thief, Bobok, A Weak Heart and Mr. Prokharchin amongst others forged a permanent place in my sensibility and my perspective on life and its many contradictions. Of course Dostoyevsky didn’t travel alone, I devoured Turgenev, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Platonov and the master of the short story, Anton Chekhov, who at the time was my most favourite writer in the whole world. 

My exposure to poetry, apart from what we studied in school was primarily through my father who had studied English Literature as well in his time, and his favourites were the Romantics – Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, Coleridge, William Blake and possibly the last of the Romantics W.B. Yeats. Other favourites were the Victorian poet, Robert Browning and the whimsical ee cummings, with his idiosyncratic but delightful poems. Still later I discovered Ogden Nash, John Milton, Tennessee Williams, Sylvia Plath, Robert Burns, William Blake, Edger Allen Poe (another favourite), Christina Rossetti, Maya Angelou and Emily Dickenson among others. 

Mobirise

Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths,
  
Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half-light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

 - W. B. Yeats 

My relationship with Shakespeare seems much more intimate, since I consumed and was consumed with his works all through the three intense years in University studying him. Perhaps my reading of Shakespeare could be a post by itself but suffice to say that Shakespeare opened my eyes to how intimately language could capture the human condition and all it encompasses. Speaking of University, a book I detested on my first reading and grew to love intensely was Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad a slow, often ponderous tomb of a book which revealed complex psychological layers, as our brilliant professor led us through the study of the text.

The poet Rajanikanta Sen who is my great grandfather, was an abiding presence in our home though my father’s voice who sang many of his devotional and philosophical songs so very beautifully.

Aamai Shokol Rakhome Kangaal Koriya gorbo koriche Choor…
(Having rendered me destitute in every way, my pride has shattered me..) 



Some of my other favourites who seem to have lost some popularity amongst current readers, were writers such as Jerome K. Jerome, Gerald Durrell and PG Woodhouse. There is a certain ease in their use of the language, a lucidity coupled with dry wit and an ability to spin a good yarn, that is hard to come by and even harder to imitate.

Another writer who made an indelible impression on me was O’Henry and I consider him another master of the short story. The Last Leaf, The Gift of the Magi, After Twenty Years; these timeless stories represent the beauty of the form as well as the skill of one of its most accomplished practitioners.

I also read the hugely popular books of the time, Agatha Christie murder mysteries, The Thorn Birds, Roots, Love Story and then later Illusions, Women who Run with the Wolves, A Room of One’s Own and The Bell Jar. These books informed much of my sensibilities as I stood at the cusp of adulthood though strangely, the Mills & Boons genre of popular romance completely passed me by though I was the privileged recipient of their more salacious bits, read aloud to me in secret by helpful older cousins.

Since I was little, I had an interest in world history, philosophy, spirituality and art and was fortunate to have many books on the subjects already in our home. I think my casual browsing through them on occasion, our spirited family discussions on an artist, and event, an idea, laid the foundations for an abiding curiosity in those worlds. In particular, the philosopher J. Krishnamurti inspired many questions within me and I spent many years immersed in deep study of his writings.

Surprisingly I came to Rabindranath Tagore primarily though dance, since his songs were the gold standard for little Bengali girls to dance to. Growing up in an average Bengali home, Rabindranath is infused into our way of life, our ideas about morality and love, our relationships and our understanding of the world. In his stories and songs, in his characters, we find ourselves. In all honesty, I am still reading Rabindranath and discovering the vastness of his canvas that remains largely unsurpassed.

 

Among contemporary Indian writers, Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh remain my favourites though I have enjoyed reading Kiran Desai, Salman Rushdie, Aravind Adiga, Arundhati Roy, Rohington Mistry, Vikram Seth and Ruskin Bond to pick a few. An Equal Music by Vikram Seth remains one of my most treasured books of all time.

Over the years I do regret having read so little literature in Indian languages except perhaps what I read in school - a smattering of Hindi short stories and poems. My endeavour is to acquaint myself with more writers and works from the subcontinent who have produced magnificent works of literature in their own right.

To me, the world of literature is the world of people, ideas and humanity as well as a world of stories well told. As I try to understand the complexities and contradictions of our times, like many of us, I am sometimes overwhelmed by the vastness of books and genres I want to explore. But more on that another time.

Until then, thank you for visiting and thank you for reading.