Sunday March 3, 2013
Revisiting old friends
By ABBY WONG
THERE are times when nothing else matters. And it is precisely at such times, when nothing rouses or pleases, that a few moments with old friends can come to the rescue and remedy the restlessness of the day.
Those lost ties can be reconnected with a simple nod or handshake, and lost moments can most likely be rekindled by someone most prone to say the most hilarious things. In those momentarily silences between uproarious laughter, we ponder, “Is this happiness?” Yes it is – the atom of joy.
Then again, when such moments are needed but not available, I seek out “old friends” among authors from whom I have derived immense pleasure in the past. There is no handshake, nor is there laughter that leads to embraces. But no sooner have I laid my hand on their works do I feel at ease, and the swishing sound of pages turning is good enough to enliven my soul. So on that day when old distant friends were out of reach, I looked for Rohinton Mistry and Naguib Mahfouz – two of my favourite writers.
In my favourite library where fiction steals every iota of limelight, both Mistry and Mahfouz are neighbours two columns of bookshelf apart. The sight of Mahfouz’s books gives comfort; it is a sign of respect and all the titles collected there, an obituary. Mahfouz, an Egyptian writer and a Nobel laureate who died in 2006, was a prolific writer who had poured out a colossal body of work made up of novels, short stories, and plays. Though a devout Muslim, Mahfouz embraced existentialism, believing that each individual, not religion or society, is responsible for giving meaning to life and living it passionately. Through many of his books, all of which are awe-inspiring, Mahfouz advocated his beliefs.
In a book called Children Of The Alley, one of Mahfouz’s best known works, the novelist told the story of an Egyptian patriarch who builds a mansion in an oasis surrounded by barren desert. Within the boundary of the mansion is a story of an Egyptian family; beyond it, however, is a hidden narrative that involves the religious history of mankind. This book was what I had come to the library for on this day when nothing was rousing. An allegory of human suffering and striving, it stirred me now like it did a decade ago when I first encountered it. Splendour oozes out of the first two pages, spellbinding with the translator’s poetic prose and engaging by being mysterious.
If hell is described as a place void of hope, then Bombay (now known as Mumbai) is the vortex of hell. In a place steeped in mystique are stark hardships that glare at you with their daring eyes, a place where religion reigns even as apathy suffuses. Such is the setting of Rohinton Mistry’s highly acclaimed book, Such A Long A Journey, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1991. As his characters embark on their journeys within a corrupt society where water is scarce and filth aplenty, the melancholy they portray is hard to shake off. It is this lingering melancholy that grants the book a place in my heart.
The main character is Gustad Noble, a simple and honest man who is inconsequential in the larger scheme of things, and one who does not demand much of life other than health and happiness for his family. When his struggle and loyalty do not pay off, a sense of helplessness sets in, followed by increasingly negative turns of events. In the end, after much endurance, he questions what really matters, and we, the reader, concede as if we have travelled along on Gustad’s long journey, met the people he did and endured the limits he is stretched to withstand.
I was heartbroken a decade ago while reading it amidst the abundance my society had given me. Now, if I were to read it again in the same society where unrest and uneasiness are unravelling, I would see Gustad’s chronic shortage of hope and happiness with more empathetic eyes.
Such writing quells the restlessness of my day, and such melancholy tames my pomposity. When I strode out of the library, I saw the cloudless skies of Down Under where everything seems calm and positively assuring. Someone nearby, as I eavesdropped, complained about the pickles in her burger and another could not wait to return an ill-fitting garment. But the words of Mahfouz and Mistry were way too powerful. They drowned the petty laments, reminding me that far away, in many parts of the world, there is real confusion, deprivation, helplessness, corruption, injustice, anarchy, and discrimination. If these things have not happened to you yet, they have appeared in fiction. Fiction is not strange, as most think it is. It foretells realism.
If there is one book Abby Wong thinks you will love to read, that book is Children Of The Alley. Go for it!
Write to Abby at email@example.com.