Four Weeks’ Reading

A motley collection of writing, most of it pleasing, some of it a let-down, a bit of indignation, a lot of satisfaction- the last four weeks of reading.

Miguel Street by V S Naipaul strings together snapshots of people in Port-of-Spain, their vocations and hardships, the current of life that runs through their struggles to make ends meet, the amusements and the simple joys that keep them going through endless days and nights. Ambitions and hopes more often than not come to naught, women fall prey to prostitution and men succumb to drink, but finally one young man breaks free from the imperceptible jinx and leaves his cloistered world to make it big outside. Never depressing, the book is a breezy, evocative read, and I’d say it’s a good way to begin an author you’re reading for the first time.

A Damsel in Distress is vintage Wodehouse. Maud’s troubles with her busybody brother and her aristocratic aunt and the subsequent confusion are hilarious. Wodehouse takes you on a thrilling ride through country streets, castles and Piccadilly; if only all the Mauds of the world had a PGW to rescue them from the predicaments they manage to put themselves into! On second thought, do these Mauds exist, or do I need to make another expression of gratitude to the Master of Humour? The mere glimpse of a Wodehouse book and the anticipation of decent humour, devoid of any traces of slapstick comedy, can get you through bleak nights and tiresome hours at work.

The autobiography season opens again. Something of Myself, Rudyard Kipling’s sketch of his life, is a decent insight into his life and the awe-inspiring literary circles he moved in- with contemporaries of that mettle, anybody would have needed an immense amount of talent to make himself known, and Kipling, of course, was a man of no mean skills. One of my favourite books from my school years is Stalky & Co., and it was interesting to read about the experiences in Kipling’s life that shaped the story. As a writer, I shall always admire Kipling for his gifts, but I cannot quite say the same about his ideas. Very colonial and superior in his outlook, his writing reflects a demeaning opinion of the ‘subjects’ of British rule; a fault that I detested in Frances Hodgson Burnett as well. Faults we have many, but it does arouse your indignation when you find your people being looked upon as the rightfully designated slaves of a mighty Empire; where religions that advocate unknown methods are dismissed as pagan and worthless, native customs that are incomprehensible to the unaccustomed mind are only worthy of ridicule.

Continuing with religion, the last book I read was Catalina. To be honest, I’d expected much more from Maugham in terms of the story as well as the language, and it was a bit of a let-down. The undercurrent of humour and satire couldn’t be missed, of course, and the politics of religion (which, of course, applies to every religious order in the world) was disarming- how can people who profess welfare and faith act more to advance their own interests than in those of the millions who follow without discretion every word of theirs? They are only human, agreed, but the levels they can actually stoop to are astounding. The book opens in the troubled times of the Inquisition with sixteen-year-old Catalina’s vision of the Virgin, and her miraculous recovery from her infirmity. Maugham sees through the masquerades and the pretence and weaves a delightful story with some marvellously depicted, extremely human characters in Dona Beatriz, Bishop Blasco and Don Manuel, but somewhere towards the end, it just seems to lose its way and comes to a rather disappointing end. The language often seems repetitive, and some words are used too frequently for comfort- as if his vocabulary had suddenly deserted him. Maugham has done much better in his more famous works, and I am just glad I’m done with the disenchantment before moving on to the books that he is really known for.

Anita Desai, sadly, I abandoned. Clear Light of Day didn’t inspire me enough, and after a few pages where I felt like I was bobbing on the still shores of a lake without making much headway, I decided to give up.

I’ve begun on another autobiography, and it is extremely promising- how could it be otherwise, with a life as colourful and controversial as Boris Becker’s!

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