Bookless in Baghdad: Reflections on Writing and Writersby Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor is once again at his provocative best. In the title essay, we learn the steep price paid by some Iraqis just to obtain a book; what does it mean when selling books, essentially selling culture, out of one’s own library is the only way to put bread on the table? Later, Tharoor reminisces about growing up with books in India and the central
Shashi Tharoor is once again at his provocative best. In the title essay, we learn the steep price paid by some Iraqis just to obtain a book; what does it mean when selling books, essentially selling culture, out of one’s own library is the only way to put bread on the table? Later, Tharoor reminisces about growing up with books in India and the central position of classics like the Mahabharata in developing his own literary identity. The poignant homage to Chilean poet Pablo Neruda recalls his incendiary deathbed challenge as an oppressive military regime invaded his home: “There is only one thing of danger for you heremy poetry!”
“The defining features of today’s world,” Tharoor writes of the global stage, “are the relentless forces of globalizationthe same forces used by the terrorists in their macabre dance of death and destruction.” His astute views on Salman Rushdie, India’s love for P. G. Wodehouse, Rudyard Kipling, Aleksandr Pushkin, John le Carré, V. S. Naipaul, and Winston Churchill make for fascinating reading. His insightful takes on Hollywood and Bollywood will intrigue even the most demanding cinephile. Together, these thirty-nine pieces reveal the inner workings of one of today’s most eclectic writers.
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Bookless in BaghdadREFLECTIONS ON WRITING AND WRITERS
By Shashi Tharoor
Arcade PublishingCopyright © 2005 Shashi Tharoor
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGrowing Up with Books in India
Growing up as the child of middle-class parents in urban India in the late 1950s and '60s meant growing up with books. Television did not exist in the Bombay of my boyhood, and Nintendo (let alone the personal computer) was not even a gleam in an inventor's eye. If your siblings were, as in my case, four and six years younger (and worse, female), there was only one thing to do when you weren't with your friends. Read.
I read copiously, rapidly, and indiscriminately. Chronic asthma often confined me to bed, but I found so much pleasure in the books piled up by my bedside that I stopped resenting my illness. Soon reading became the central focus of my existence; there was not a day in my childhood that did not feature a book, or several. One year I kept a list of the volumes I'd finished (comics didn't count), hoping to reach 365 before the calendar did. I made it before Christmas.
An abiding memory is of my mother coming into my room around eleven every night and switching off the light. I wasn't smart enough to think of holding a flashlight under the covers, but sometimes I would wait for my parents to fall asleep in their room, then surreptitiously switch my light on again to finish the book they'd interrupted.
It was, of course, my mother who'd started me off on the bad habit to begin with. When I was still in diapers, she would read to me from the Noddy books of Enid Blyton, stories about a nodding wooden doll and his friends in Toyland. My mother jokes that she read them so badly, I couldn't wait to grab the books from her myself: by the time I was three I was reading Noddy, and soon moving on to other stories by Blyton, easily the world's most prolific children's author, whose prodigious output (over two hundred books) could take you through an entire childhood. When I outgrew Noddy, there were Enid Blyton fairy tales, nursery fantasies, and retold legends; by seven I started on her thrilling mysteries of the Five-Find-Outers (and Dog); by eight I discovered her tales of British boarding-school life, midnight feasts and all; by nine I was launched on the adventures of the "Famous Five" and of four intrepid British teenagers in another series that always had the word adventure in its titles (The Ship of Adventure, The Castle of Adventure, and so on). Today, Enid Blyton has become the target of well-intentioned but overearnest revisionists, her stories assailed for racism, sexism, and overall political incorrectness. But my postcolonial generation (and today's Indians too) read her books entranced by her extraordinary storytelling skills and quite indulgent of her stereotypes. After two hundred years of the Raj, Indian children know instinctively how to filter the foreign-to appreciate the best in things British, and not to take the rest seriously.
For colonialism gave us a literature that did not spring from our own environment, and whose characters, concerns, and situations bore no relation to out own lives. This didn't bother us in the slightest: a Bombay child read Blyton the same way a Calcutta kindergartner sang "Jingle Bells" without ever having seen snow or sleigh. If the stories were alien, we weren't alienated; they were to be read and enjoyed, not mined for relevance.
Indeed, the most popular British children's books other than Enid Blyton's were the ones that didn't take themselves too seriously. My own favorites were the "William" books of Richmal Crompton, minor masterpieces of brilliantly plotted hilarity involving the escapades of an irrepressible schoolboy (all tousled hair, grubby face, and cheeks bulging with licorice allsorts) who was forever tumbling into ditches, pulling off outrageous schemes, and messing up his elder sister's love life. A close second came the Billy Bunter series by Frank Richards, whose stories under half a dozen pseudonyms earned him attention in George Orwell's famous essay on schoolboy fiction. Richards created an uproarious world of British public-school characters, from the eponymous Bunter ("a fat, frabjous frump") to his doughty Yorkshire classmate John Bull. There was even a dusky Indian princeling, improbably named Hurree Jamset Ram Singh, who played cricket magnificently, mixed his metaphors in a series of sage howlers, and answered to the name of "Inky." I suppose that, reading the books in independent India half a century after they were written, I ought to have been offended; but I was merely amused, for Frank Richards never wrote a dull word in his long and productive career.
Another hardy perennial was Capt. W. E. Johns, whose hero Biggles made his literary debut as a World War I flying ace and agelessly fought through World War II and the Cold War before his creator finally-in the RAF jargon he made so familiar to us-"went West." (Biggles's adventures inspired my own first work of published fiction at age ten-a credulity-stretching saga of an Anglo-Indian fighter pilot, "Operation Bellows"-but that is another story.)
Blyton, Bunter, Biggles: that insidious imperialist Macaulay had done his work too well, his policies spawning a breed of Indians the language of whose education made them a captive market for the British imagination. What about Indian books? Sadly, I suffered a major handicap: my parents' peripatetic life (I was born in London, grew up in Bombay, and would move to Calcutta before I turned thirteen) cut me off from the literature of my mother tongue, Malayalam. As with other children of migratory Indians, English became the language not only of my schoolbooks but of my private life: I played with my friends in English, quarreled with my sisters in English, wrote to my relatives in English-and read for pleasure in English.
The colonial inheritance made this a common predicament among urban, English-educated Indians. But where more proficiently bilingual children like my former wife, growing up in Calcutta, also read nonsense verse and fairy tales in vivid Bengali, I had to make do with Lear and Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen in English. There were few good Indian children's books available in English in a market still dominated by the British. The one area where Indian publishers could hold their own was in retelling the Indian classics. I remember several versions of the traditional tales I'd heard from my grandmother-episodes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (which later inspired my first novel), and the fables of the ancient Jatakas and the Panchatantra. Many of the fables had become familiar in the West through their retelling by Aesop, and thanks to the colonial legacy, we had the European versions too.
The other Indian stories I remember enjoying as a child were clever short tales about Birbal and Tenaliraman, two wise and witty men from opposite corners of the country who resolved problems in what were essentially extended anecdotes. The government-sponsored Children's Book Trust began publishing subsidized books for Indian children during the 1960s, but their quality was erratic and could not match the allure of their imported competitors. Today, their list features Indian equivalents of Enid Blyton, including a series devised explicitly to counter gender stereotypes. Indian kids today also have an indigenous answer to America's famous Classics Illustrated, the Amar Chitra Katha series, which retells myths, legends, and historical stories in attractive comics-and has Indianized the sensibilities of its readers in a manner unavailable to me when I was growing up in India.
But English did give me access to a broader world. Before I was thirteen I had read English translations, and competent abridgments, of Camus, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Hermann Hesse, and Tolstoy. Mark Twain and Melville's Moby-Dick, also adapted for younger readers, brought America to us, but in our daily reading the United States didn't fare as well as the former colonial power. Of course we had access to the Bobbsey Twins and the Hardy Boys, but there seemed to be something faintly brash and spurious about them: British books, we were brought up to believe, set the real standard.
The classroom, with its British-inspired curriculum, was a rich source of inspiration. At the age of nine I was reading Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare, at ten Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist (both unabridged); and the Bard himself, mildly expurgated, made an appearance on the syllabus when I was eleven. In the same year, an otherwise detestable teacher dictated a passage from P. G. Wodehouse as a spelling test, and launched me on the first great passion of my life.
It took me some seven years to find and finish all ninety-five of the master's books, but the pleasure he gave will last a lifetime. When, a month short of my twelfth birthday, my father-then thirty-eight-was taken to the hospital after a massive heart attack, the only thing that could console me, keep me whole and sane, as my father battled for his life in intensive care, was the compelling magic of a Wodehouse novel. To be transported to his idyllic world of erudite butlers and eccentric baronets, with its overfed pigs, bellowing aunts, and harebrained attempts to pinch policemen's helmets, offered what every, stressed-out child needs, an alternative to reality. (Wodehouse's farcically elaborate plotting, drolly literate style, and sidesplitting humor were, of course, their own rewards.) Dad pulled through, and I have remained eternally grateful. India is still the only country where Wodehouse has both a mass and a cult following, if the word mass can be applied at all to the tiny minority who read English; he is, after all, as widely read in India as, say, Agatha Christie.
Childhood is also, of course, a time for comics, and here American ones were greatly preferred to British. To an Indian child, the world portrayed in Archie or Richie Rich seemed infinitely more desirable than that of Beano. (Comics also made us aware of changing U.S. sensibilities. I still remember the first time black faces appeared on the Main Streets of comic strips, and what that taught me about the state of race relations in America.) The Classics Illustrated series was a sort of children's Reader's Digest Condensed Books, offering colorful capsule versions of more demanding literature, from Huckleberry. Finn to Around the World in Eighty Days. But my favorite comics were the Belgian Tintin stories, brilliantly translated by the British team of Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge. Herges perfectly sketched adventures of the boy reporter, his dog Snowy, and his sailor friend Captain Haddock (whose salty tongue produced delightfully polysyllabic invective-"bashi-bazouk!" "troglodyte!" "cercopithecus!") are classics of their kind. As clever, if not quite as thrilling, was the Asterix series, featuring an indomitable Gaulish village resisting Julius Caesar's Romans (who all bore appropriately Latinate names, from Marcus Ginantonicus to Crismus Bonus).
So mine was, all in all, an eclectic literary childhood. It is, I suppose, a uniquely Indian experience to embrace both Biggles and Birbal, Jeeves and the Jatakas, Tintin and Tenaliraman, in your reading. Growing up as a reader in India left me with a vivid sense of books devoured as sources of entertainment, learning, escape-and vicarious experience.
The most difficult moments of my childhood came on one day every year, the holy day of Saraswati Puja. Hindus dedicated the day to the goddess of learning through prayer and ritual and, paradoxically, by denying themselves the joys of reading or writing. Despite the most strenuous efforts, I could never master the required degree of self-denial. If I successfully pushed my books aside, I would find myself reading the fine print on the toiletries in the bathroom or the fragments of old newspaper that lined my clothes drawers. But I think the goddess forgave me these transgressions. For I continued to read and to learn from books; and now she has even allowed me to write a few of them.
Chapter TwoRevenging Rudyard, Subverting Scarlett
Every writer nurtures an idle fantasy (some more than one!), a project they toss around from time to time in their minds but never actually get around to putting down on paper. In my case I have long wanted to exact a sort of postcolonial revenge on that archimperial literary figure, Rudyard Kipling, by subverting his overpraised novel Kim. Kipling's tale of the nineteenth-century British boy who grows up for some years as an Indian, wanders the streets picking up the languages, the habits, and the insights of the land, is restored to Englishness, and then returns years later as a British officer uniquely equipped to play the "Great Game" on behalf of the Raj seemed to me ripe for reversal. How about a novel, I mused, about an Indian boy-let us call him Mik-who, as a result of an albino birth or advanced leucoderma, is pale enough to pass off as a member of the melanin-deficient race that ruled us for two centuries? Mik might grow up in a British cantonment, be trained to rule at some British institution like Haileybury or Camberley, imbibe the ideas and attitudes (and understand the weaknesses) of the colonials, and then come back to India, rediscover his family and his roots, and turn his intimate knowledge of the oppressors against them as a fiery nationalist. I played with the notion for a while, but never got around to writing it.
But Mik came back to mind the other day when a literary controversy erupted in America over the proposed publication of a novel called The Wind Done Gone, which would seek to do to Gone with the Wind what I had wanted to do to Kim. The estate of Margaret Mitchell, whose only novel, Gone with the wind, remains one of the most successful books (and movies) of all time, sued to prevent the publication of The Wind Done Gone, in which the same events are narrated from the point of view of a slave, the illegitimate half sister of Scarlett O'Hara. The author of The Wind Done Gone, Alice Randall, consciously sought to counter Mitchell's romanticized white-plantation South with an account from the perspective of the enslaved blacks who made the planters' prosperity possible. The Mitchell estate succeeded only briefly in getting a federal court to block publication of The Wind Done Gone, but the issue the case raises is an intriguing one. To the extent that literature captures our imagination with a version of experience that privileges a particular point of view, isn't it desirable, even essential, that others give voice to those who were voiceless, silent, marginal, even absent, in the original narrative?
Tom Stoppard, the brilliantly inventive British playwright, did precisely this in his early play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in which he took two minor characters from Hamlet and, in effect, rewrote Shakespeare by imagining the scenes the Bard left out, from the confused viewpoint of two hangers-on at Elsinore. Others, more recently, have done similar things. John Updike also reinvented Hamlet in his recent novel Gertrude and Claudius. In Mary Reilly, Valerie Martin retold Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from the point of view of the transformational doctor's maid. Herman Melville's classic Moby-Dick, with the obsessive Captain Ahab relentlessly pursuing the great white whale, underwent a feminist retelling in Sena Jeter Naslund's Ahab's Wife.
Excerpted from Bookless in Baghdad by Shashi Tharoor Copyright © 2005 by Shashi Tharoor. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Shashi Tharoor was born in London and brought up in Bombay and Calcutta. He has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune, the Times of India, and Foreign Affairs. A human rights activist and winner of a Commonwealth Writers Prize, he is currently a member of the Indian Parliament and lives in New Dehli, India.
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