As you get older, you start to miss some of the books you have read in the past at different stages of your life. Sometimes what drives this yearning
is nostalgia, a memorable moment in the past, or often a reference to a character from a narrative. At least among my friends, how often we refer to Amit Roy, Srikanto, or Constance during conversations, blogs, or on Facebook!
The two books that I reread in the last month are Jajabor's “Drishtipaat” and Nobel Prize-winning writer Alice Munro's latest collection of short stories, “Family Furnishings”.What reignited my interest in Drishtipaat is a prolonged conversation with my Facebook friends on love and marriage. Since my boyhood, I was very sympathetic to the plight of the romantic Charudatta Adharkar who fell in love with Sunanda, a married woman living in Lahore during Second World War, but was subsequently jilted by her. The book was also a favorite of my mother, and her mother—my grandmother-- who first kindled my interest in the life of Adharkar when I was in high school. And, since Jajabor's observations and philosophical comments strewn all across the book were very well known while I was growing up, there was hardly a conversation during my prolonged stay at Dhaka University where we did not have a quotation from Drishtipaat to spice up our conversations. On love, marriage, technological change, religion, art, architecture, colonial rule, you name it; one could find a pithy statement in Drishtipaat. My mother, who was a very humble person herself, would quote until her dying days from him: “shohoj howar moddhey achhey culturer porichoy”. But some of Jajabor's best-known views on love, betrayal, and sacrifice appear on the last page of Drishtipaat.
The last time I read Drishtipaat was more than a decade ago. I don't have a hard copy at home but as luck would have it, I came across an electronic version online, and started turning the pages gingerly. Why so? Well, first of all, I wasn't sure whether I would have the patience to finish it as I knew I have to plod through a poorly scanned PDF file. I also recall vaguely that Drishtipaat has pages and pages of Jajabor's arcane observations, comments, and references that never interested me. For example, descriptions of his trips to some of the markets and historic sites in New Delhi are lugubrious and superficial. And most importantly, some of his Bengali is tough for me to comprehend these days.
But the magic of the Adharkar name kept on prodding me. So, little by little I kept on turning the pages.In the meantime a Facebook friend of mine, Ashis, made a very interesting remark, “Charudutta Adharkars are a rarity now-a- days”. Yes, I am sure in this day and age, very few men would vow to remain a bachelor and nurture the memories of a lover who speaks disparagingly of you. But, there is also a different moral embedded in this so-called love story. To paraphrase Jajabor, “men make major sacrifices for their love,but women do not”. Was he right? I knew I had to research the matter by reading this masterpiece again.
As I embarked on this journey, one of the first things I learned is that I missed out on so much of this classic during my last read. May be I was rushing through it, or my memory nowadays is not as sharp as I believed it is. Also, we all mature with age, and that makes one appreciate the personalities, events, and a writer's perspectives in a different way. For example, Jajabor went to New Delhi from Calcutta by air, and he offers some interesting observations on how during his earlier travels by train he was able to enjoy the sights and adventures of passing through different parts of India. Having undertaken this journey from Calcutta to Delhi both by train and by air myself, I am able to see where Jajabor is coming from.
However, after going through the “Adharkar Affair” I now formed an opinion that is slightly different from the conventional wisdom. I am convinced that their emotional relationship was mostly one-sided. Sunanda did show some feelings for him but not enough to call it an affair. Today we might just call it crush or infatuation. She never said “I love you” or promised to divorce her husband. We also know that Adharkar went abroad for a year, and there is no indication in the novel that they stayed in touch with each other during this period. So many things could have changed. They say,“Distance makes the heart grow fonder”, but the relationship between these two could not be categorized as love, only friendship. Even when she came to Bombay after learning that he was sick, while she was rash but again to view that as a sign of passion might not be fair to her. No physical intimacy, no formal commitment, and no indication that was any reciprocal intensity.
I picked up Alice Munro's “Family Furnishings” which is the most recent collection of her short stories and includes 24 stories written between 1995 and 2014. This book is a companion volume to “Selected Stories (1968-1994)” which came out almost a decade ago. For dedicated readers of Alice Munro who had in July 2013, a few months before she won the Nobel, indicated that she might retire, any anthology of Munro selected by her is a cherished gift. While most of the stories in this collection were previously included in her earlier books, for first-time readers it is a great place to start since the arrangement is in chronological order, from the “Love of a Great Woman” (1996) to “Dear Life” (2011). While personally I have read many of them in the past in the New Yorker magazine, it is always good to re-read Munro since her writing touches many areas of my core sentiments.
The trademark of a great writer like Munro is that her words never get old. While I have read many of the short stories of this collection, and immediately recognized many of the titles, and as I kept on reading these many of the characters, names, and plots seemed familiar, I can't say I felt bored or had the urge to skip a line or two as I had done earlier. Alice Munro's literary technique and narrative style is so captivating that for me, both as a writer as well as a longtime Alice Munro devotee, I clung to every word in the stories. I also realized how much of the love, creativity, and fascinating twists and turns in each story I missed in my first reading. One reason may be because I read these while I was commuting to work in a train. The surroundings were obviously very noisy and the stops and starts of the train must have been a distraction. This time, I was in my backyard and nothing else could take my eyes away from the pages as I swallowed each of her words. Once again I found the experience absolutely rewarding. I promise my readers that I will offer a review of this book shortly.
I must mention that two of the stories of which while I remember the general plot, I forgot the respective ending. “Passion” and “Dimensions.” In “Passion”, a middle-aged woman goes back to visit a house where she made a momentous decision of her life. Why? I forgot although I had read the story only a few years ago. And now, I was happy to discover. Alice Munro in this story projects about the importance of passion in life and love. Grace, a girl from a humble family gives up the prospect of marriage to Maury who comes of a well-to-do family but noticed that there was no passion in their relationship. They never kissed each other or had any physical intimacy. Then one day Neil, his elder brother, takes her out on a ride as they had gathered for Thanksgiving dinner. He is a doctor and touches her, in a friendly way, and her eyes opened. She finally realizes that a marriage without passion is not what she wants, and moves on with her life leaving Maury behind. The story appears to have a diametrically opposite outcome of Drishtipaat's Adharkar.
In “Dimension”, a woman whose husband killed her children goes to visit him in jail but then she finds liberated and makes a monumental turnaround in her life. While she was on a bus on her way to the prison, the bus stops because of an accident. A young man is on the ground and he is seriously wounded due to the accident. She gets off and nurses the victim and he starts to breathe again. But Munro leaves some mystery at the end. Did she turn her life around? Did she finally turn the corner and take the step that would let her be on the recovery trail? The reader can let his/her imagination draw the conclusion.
The reviewer lives and works in Boston, USA.