“Do you want some books? Some English books?”
It was Sunil speaking, my auto-rickshaw driver for the last two days in Jaipur.
“I have two books. You can take them with you.”
“Two English books. A girl gave them to me to read. She said they are very good books. She gave them to me to read them when I learn to read properly.”
“Oh, nice. What books are they?”
“I’ll get them.” He stood up in his chair and I rose halfway myself.
“No, it’s cool, man,” I said. “Don’t worry. It’s too much trouble.”
“No, it’s no trouble. I live across the road. I’ll get them.”
“Really, only if it’s no trouble.”
He laughed and smiled again. “It’s just across the road.”
“Okay, sure. If you want to, thanks.”
Sunil left in a flash and I eased back into my chair. I was sitting on the open rooftop of the hotel; drinking black tea and picking away at a paratha. For the last twenty-four hours I’d had stomach problems aplenty and had only just gotten through the day’s activities: a visit to the Jantar Mantar and Amber Fort; a test of endurance in forty degree heat.
At the far end of the rooftop, before a painted arch, a two-man troupe were putting on a puppet show; stories of the Ramayana. At times the volume was too much, the cymbals too clanging. I was too fragile for much patience, but also a tad too weak to feel any annoyance. I was still acclimatising to India, to Rajasthan, and I guess getting sick was part of the trip.
Sunil and I had just cut a deal. His uncle, Shyam, was to drive me around Rajasthan for the next ten days, starting the following morning. The price was fair and it seemed a far more convenient arrangement than taking my chances with the local buses and trains. It would also ensure I could see the more remote forts and temples, provided I was well enough.
I began to wonder about the books Sunil was bringing. What would they be? Rudyard Kipling, for heaven’s sake? I wasn’t terribly optimistic, though I wasn’t too pessimistic either. The worst case scenario would be a couple of airport potboilers, or some junk about spiritual enlightenment, though I most expected him to hand me some inoffensive, lightweight fiction.
“Here they are!” he said.
He was slightly out of breath. A short, moustachioed, rotund and cheerful man in his mid-thirties, Sunil always had an air of abundant enthusiasm.
He placed the books on the table and as soon as I saw the titles, I was pleased and surprised.
Summertime by J.M. Coetzee and The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.
I had read neither of them, but had wanted to do so, and now I was free to take them with me around Rajasthan.
“Oh, cool,” I said. “Excellent.” I picked up Summertime.
“This guy, Coetzee, is a very famous author. Have you heard of him?”
“He won the Booker prize, twice. It’s like the biggest prize in writing and only two or three people have won it twice. I’ve read about six of his books. Hell, I even taught his stuff once!”
“But that’s great,” said Sunil. “See, I knew these books would be good. The girl was very nice, very clever.”
“And have you heard of Arundhati Roy?”
He shook his head.
“She’s Indian, though I don’t know where from. This book also won the Booker prize. It’s supposed to be very, very good.”
“Very good then! And now, you can read them and tell me what you think. One day, I will read them too.”
We turned back to planning my route through Rajasthan over a large map of the region. I was very excited, though uneasy with stomach cramps. As we sat there over the next half hour, I kept glancing at the books and wondering whether or not these would really be the best place to start reading English literature. Coetzee might be just the thing, with his terse, laconic use of language and simple sentences, but I had no idea what to expect from Arundhati Roy. Still, as an Indian writing about India, the book could well be a lot more interesting and accessible for Sunil. There was only one way to find out: Read them.
The following morning I set off for Pushkar with Sunil’s uncle, Shyam. I had decided, on account of recurrent stomach problems, to hole up there for a couple of days in the hope of getting over my illness. The drive was easy, if disappointingly desolate, until the final stretch that is, when we turned off the main road. The land became more fertile, with many trees and patches of green growth; it was a yellow land, the colour of wheat heads, baking in the sun at the end of the long, hot dry, yet nourished by wells and tanks from the last monsoon.
We arrived at just after one in the afternoon, and made straight for the hotel. It took some time to rouse reception, but once on hand, it wasn’t long before I had the keys. I had booked a somewhat luxurious room – white marble, high ceiling, fan, air-con, a king-sized bed – all subtly decorated with painted flowers and curlicues. The small balcony overlooked the swimming pool and surrounding countryside; framed by tall hills of scrub and martian rock, the low-land was bright with crops of flowers grown for Puja. It was stupidly cheap at twenty dollars a night.
After a swim and a meal of dry garlic naan and black tea, I set off into town to explore. My fragile stomach rebelled at the powerful scents of dung and refuse, and, feeling physically exhausted, I was not in the mood for solicitations. I lasted only two hours before heading back to the hotel; tired, with a headache, wanting to have eaten, but having no appetite whatsoever. It was simply too hot, at thirty-six degrees and there was nothing for it but to read. I picked up The God of Small Things and lay down by the bright window. I was soon completely hooked.
The following day, my guts had not improved and I again only managed a short visit to town. It was disappointing, but I made the most of the time and took some good photographs. I was quite content to stay in the hotel anyway, with my imperial view across the fields of flowers to the hills, the swimming pool and abundant natural light. I spent a couple of hours watching women in traditional clothes harvesting flowers in the fields, before returning to my room to read.
Late that afternoon, as the sun fell quickly behind the turrets, painting the sky a brief pink and purple, I finished the book. I felt immediately bereft, having gained and lost so much so quickly.
I was exhausted and weak. I’d eaten some bananas and half a pineapple that day, along with more dry bread and black tea, but it was nowhere near enough food and I had to force myself to eat it. I decided I needed antibiotics, but had left it rather late to get something.
Tired, yet restless, I forced myself to start reading Summertime, if only not to feel so hollow. It took me a while to get started, but slowly and surely, it drew me in and gave me sufficient solace to get through the evening.
The following morning, Shyam and I left early to head down through Chittorgarh, en route for Udaipur, where I finally got hold of some antibiotics. I left Summertime in the car by accident, but was not in any great hurry to finish it.
There was now the Indian Premier League Cricket to watch, and, with my recovery starting the moment I took the first pill, I wanted to spend the time seeing things and taking photographs.
It was thus more than a week later, at the end of the Rajasthani tour, driving from Jaisalmer to Bikaner, that I finished reading the book. It had had its moments, though I was left feeling a tad nonplussed. The organisation of the book seemed too arbitrary, too random, though the writing throughout was quality.
When Sunil and I finally sat down together again in Jaipur, eleven days after our last encounter, I brought the two books with me. Sunil produced a small bottle of rum and poured us both a glass.
“Do you know what rum means?” he asked.
“No, I don’t. Does it mean something?”
“Yes,” said Sunil. “The letters. R.U.M – Regular Use Medicine.”
We laughed together and I took a slug of Sunil’s medicine. Soon the waiter came by and I ordered a vegetarian thali and a bottle of beer.
“Look, about these books. I’m not sure that either of them is a good place to start reading.”
“Basically, I think you’ll find Summertime rather boring and too academic. It has some very simple and easily understood parts to it, but it also discusses literature, theory – university stuff. It’s not really going to be that easy, I think, if you don’t know half the words. And, you know, that’s kind of the problem with The God of Small Things. I loved this book, it’s a great read – yet the language is very idiosyncratic. I mean, she uses a lot of words in strange ways, in different ways, and here and there she adds new words. It also moves back and forth in time, and has some complicated scenes where it was at first difficult to work out who was who. I had to read the first chapter twice to work out who the people were. I think it’s going to be a hard place to start reading English novels!”
I was concerned that he might think I thought him stupid, whereas I knew from our conversations that he had a very agile mind. But I also knew how limited his writing and reading skills were, because he had asked me to compose and type text messages for him to his English-speaking French girlfriend, so uncomfortable was he with spelling and grammar. What he needed was a great novel with simple language and limited nuance, though not devoid of it.
“But you liked the books? They are good?”
“Yes, I liked the books a lot. This one in particular,” I pointed to The God of Small Things. “But maybe you’d be better off starting with something else. Something with easier language in it.”
I began to wonder if he wouldn’t just prefer to read a crime thriller or action story of some kind. In truth, I hardly knew the guy, and apart from his professed interest in women of all shapes and sizes, I didn’t have a handle on his tastes. Then, I had an idea.
“Hang on. I think I have a suggestion. I’ll write it down for you.” I felt in the front pocket of my bag. “Oh crap.”
“I don’t have a pen.”
He turned and called out in Hindi. The waiter came over with a pen.
“Write on the napkin,” said the waiter.
“No, no,” said Sunil. “I want to keep it. A napkin is not good paper.”
“Hang on,” I said, taking the pen. I pulled a folded sheet with an old hotel booking from my bag, pressed the folds and tore off a quarter. The waiter moved away.
“The book is called The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway. It’s a great classic and you’ll be able to find it in India, no problem.”
Not long afterwards we parted ways for the last time and I returned to my hotel room. I smoked a little hashish, watched the cricket and went to bed. Before sleeping, I thought more about my recommendation. The choice seemed sound enough, and I felt rather too smugly pleased with myself for having suggested it. I suppose, having read a lot of novels and studied literature at university for years, along with teaching English, I ought to be able to make a good recommendation for a first English novel, or at least reserve the right not to feel like a total fraud in doing so. Still, what troubled me was that I had only read The Old Man and the Sea once, more than twenty years ago, when still in high school. Did I really know what I was talking about?
Four days later, sitting in the German bakery overlooking the wire suspension bridge, Lakshman Jhula, in Rishikesh, I noticed that there was a bookstore next door. I had walked straight past it and missed it altogether, yet they had a side window that opened into the café; a window, I had, strangely mistaken for either a mirror or a poster. Precisely what it was supposed to be reflecting or advertising, I can’t say.
I finished my meal of fruit salad, banana pancake with honey and two bowel-shifting filter coffees, and walked inside. By coincidence, the first shelf I looked at contained a collection of Hemingway novels and short stories. Sure enough, there it was: The Old Man and the Sea. I pulled it out and flipped it over: one hundred and ten rupees, or two dollars fifty. I could hardly just leave it, especially as, with a mere hundred pages, it would be no burden to cart around with me.
That day I took it back to my room at the Jaipur Inn; an expensive place at almost thirty dollars a night, but all I had been able to find at this time of year. It wasn’t quite full season yet, but the Kumbh Mela, a once-every-four-year Hindu festival of epic proportions, indeed, the largest gathering of people on Earth, was on down in Haridwar, a mere ten miles from Rishikesh. I was lucky to have a room at all, for the town was jam-packed full of pilgrims, sadhus, nomads, middle and upper class Indians, and tourists who had come either to find or lose themselves.
I needed a break from the throng, and, after negotiating the ever-crowded Lakshman Jhula, I showered, lay down on my bed and began to read the book.
Oh dear, was my first thought, as the characters began to speak. I have never been entirely comfortable with Hemingway’s dialogue; at times it has a crisp and simple reality to it; his characters speak in no-nonsense, no-frills, laconic utterances; brutally factual, often quietly defensive, formidably stoic. At other times, the tone is lighter; a slight playfulness creeps in, if somewhat reluctant, hard-boiled, guarded. Yet all too often, Hemingway’s characters speak with an odd and awkward formality. One understands that, particularly in his Spanish-speaking characters, he is attempting to replicate the more formal qualities of the grammar and niceties of the language. Yet it feels inauthentic, staid and archaic. In an attempt to create something naturalistic, there is too much evident process. His characters sound more like people reading lines, uncomfortably; like people bent on finishing their sentences with peculiar completeness.
This was my response to The Old Man and the Sea. I pushed on through the first twenty pages, wondering how on earth I could have recommended this novel. It wasn’t that it was bad, in fact, I was very much enjoying the setting, the observational detail, the tone and mood. But it struck me as a very odd book to choose as one’s first novel to read in English. It was full of jargon peculiar to fishing; hooks, lines, hawsers, thwarts. Would my Rajasthani friend bother reaching for his dictionary to understand the anatomy of a boat, of the fisherman’s trade? I very much doubted it. Would the story interest him; this slow-starting yarn of physical and psychological endurance? This melancholy tale of struggle, victory, loss and quiet respect? I very much doubted it.
I finished the book in an hour and a half, then got up to go back outside. I was very much inside the story, and it was very much inside me. I relished the intensity of mood it had brought on; it truly was a great story, and very well told, but I couldn’t help feeling I had given my friend a bum steer.
After a couple of minutes, my embarrassment passed. I began to laugh to myself. Hadn’t Sunil, after all, given me a bum steer as well? Hadn’t he told me that the Kumbh Mela would in no way effect Rishikesh, for all the pilgrims and tourists stayed in Haridwar? Hadn’t he told me I’d have no trouble getting up to Gangotri, only to find on arrival in Rishikesh that the road was closed until opened by the army on May 15? Hadn’t he sent me to the wrong bus-station in Delhi? I smiled at the thought of him settling in with The Old Man and the Sea. Perhaps he would find a way in, just as I had made my way here and found a hotel room despite tribulations. Yet, somehow, I didn’t think English novels were for him.