In the semester of January-May 2004, I took a course on Indian Fiction in English. This was in order to satisfy the quota for “humanities” credits at IIT Madras. The course was mostly good, and taught well, and we got a glimpse of how Indian writing in English developed, and the motifs that have been unique to such writing. There are a number of short stories we read as part of the course that I still remember vividly. But then there was the book.
For a one semester course, having lots of short stories makes sense, but no course is complete without analysing a novel, and so we were asked to read Jaishree Misra’s Ancient Promises, a truly depressing and mindfucking piece of literature. I don’t know if it was a consequence of that, or that I didn’t read much anyway, that the number of books of fiction I’ve read since then can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Soon after graduating from IIT (after some wrangling – I had attendance issues in the said Indian Fiction in English course, thanks to all the IIM interviews and some casual bunking), I paid Rs. 95 for Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone and devoured it. Fresh out of IIT (and having spent a summer at IIT Delhi, I could relate to the settings in the book), I must say I loved it. A few days later I borrowed To Kill A Mockingbird from God. Loved that, too. Then I borrowed (from God, again) Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Never got past the initial pages. I don’t think I even returned the book to God.
Then I bought Catch 22 and didn’t read it (the book was soon in tatters and I gave it away). Through IIM, I was too busy reading the Business Standard and blogging and indulging in unsavoury activities to have any time for reading. And after graduation I turned to non-fiction (I started with Duncan Watts’s Six Degrees, then James Suroweicki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, Freakonomics, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, James Gleick’s Chaos, etc.) – mostly books on science and history and economics. I was hooked and for the last eight years this is what I’ve mostly read. The only book of fiction I remember reading in this intervening time period was Amit Varma’s My Friend Sancho. I had gone for the book’s launch in Delhi (more of an excuse to meet Amit and other friends who were going to turn up there), bought it out of sheer social pressure at the occasion and read it. I must say I quite liked it (though I like Amit’s recent writings on risk and ancient writings on freedom much better).
So scroll back (or forward – depending on which frame of reference you are in ) to about a month back, after I had left twitter and facebook when I decided I must use the now available time to read some fiction. I started off with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (free Kindle edition), struggled though to about 50% and promptly gave up. I needed some fiction that would inspire me.
Some ten years back Madness had recommended that I read Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. I promptly ignored him. Eight years back he made the same recommendation. I ignored him again. In 2008 I decided to read the book, but couldn’t find a copy (pre-Kindle days, remember). Sometime in 2009 or 2010 I found a copy in Blossom, and bought it, and it was sitting in the back of my bookshelf till two weeks back. I didn’t start reading from that, though.
When I had my accident in Rajasthan back in 2012, I had injured the ligament in my left thumb, and the greater injury of my fourth right metacarpal had meant that I had ignored this ligament injury until it was too late. So I have a weak left thumb. And that means it is hard for me to hold open a paperback with my left hand – it has to be placed somewhere. This means most of my reading in the last two years has been on the Kindle.
And so I got a sample on my Kindle. The first scene involving movement of currency in Shanghai had me hooked. Soon I was through the sample. Before I hit that “buy” button on my Kindle, though, I checked the bookshelf to see if the physical copy still existed. It did, though it was yellow (perhaps it was already yellow by the time I bought it). So I picked up the physical copy. And over the last ten or twelve days I’ve read it. All 918 pages of it.
It’s been a fabulous book (if a work of fiction has to hold my attention for this long it ought to be fabulous – my ADHD makes me a very good judge of books and movies). Insane fundaes on cryptography, privacy, the second world war, American legal system and just about everything else. It’s been so insanely full of fundaes that I actually sat through 918 pages of it! Can’t recommend the book enough!
I wonder if I would have read it had I still been on Twitter and Facebook. I probably would have – despite being on these media I did read a sufficient quantity of non fiction in the last 2-3 years. But I had the kind of mental space I didn’t for a long time (possibly in part with living alone). And so I read. It’s been fabulous.
The next two books I plan to read are Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (I’d begun reading it two years back and liked it before I had a problem with that Kindle and had to exchange it) and Dr. Sid Lowe’s Fear and Loathing in La Liga (considering I’m traveling to Catalunya next month). I still don’t know which one I’ll pick up next (figuratively – both books are on my kindle).