Speaking Volumes: Reading in a time of terror

In the days just after the Mumbai attacks, reading is the last thing on my mind. Like most of the people I know, I’m reading not books but blogs, Twitter feeds, the newspapers.

In the course of time, we read the lists of the dead, dreading the moment when our eyes will snag on a familiar name, when a single line of type will bring grief surging into our lives.

Terror and war force a pause, a kind of mourning from even the most dedicated readers and writers. In the aftermath of an attack anywhere in the world, at any moment in history—Hiroshima, Bali, Madrid, Beirut, New York, Mumbai—we seem to veer briefly away from fiction. After 9/11, bookstores reported that sales of non-fiction on military affairs and terrorism soared, as though by reading about the enemy one could draw a circle of protection around oneself, one’s family.

Terror strikes too close for us to want to see our lives reflected in the mirrors held up by Dom DeLillo, Amos Oz, Claire Messud, Denis Johnson, Mohsin Hamid, Michael Ondaatje, Ian McEwan and a score of others. We always go back to fiction, in the end, but after that necessary pause, that breathing space.

Many of my friends turned to ancient sources of comfort: the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, especially Ecclesiastes. The best-known lines from Ecclesiastes are from Chapter 3: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal …”

But further along, you come across these lines: “So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter.” It is a naïve thought, but it was at that moment it struck me: someone as human as me and you wrote the Bible. It may have been King Solomon, but he was no distant, magisterial author—like us, he had borne hapless witness to suffering and struggled to make sense of it.

Over this week, I have found my way back to fiction through poetry. I re-read W H Auden’s bitter ‘September 1, 1939,’ which was read so often in the US after 9/11. “Who can release them now,/ Who can reach the dead,/ Who can speak for the dumb?” Auden asks in an especially bitter verse, written for an earlier war. And then he flows into one of the most moving passages in poetry: “All I have is a voice/ To undo the folded lie…./ We must love one another or die.”

Auden led me to two poets closer to home. I had read Jeet Thayil’s ‘At Kabul Zoo, The Lion’ many years ago, in a different context. In this poem, Thayil imagines the devastation wreaked on the Kabul zoo (“So this is fear: tracers flaring/ above the pens, the fat thud/ of bullets…”), told from the point of view of one of its oldest inhabitants, Marjan the lion (“blind in one eye, / my jaw in shreds, my mane / singed to a useless crop, / I’m still here…”). Another place, another time: but his images hit home, almost painfully.

Then I went back to the late Arun Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda Poems. Kolatkar was never a sentimental writer, and in this collection what he captured about Bombay wasn’t the city’s famed, and overstretched “spirit of resilience”. His Bombay was inhabited by the Boomtown Lepers’ Band, by pi-dogs and drug-pushers, by the drunk who rails against this “shit city… one big high-rise shit; waiting for God/ To pull the flush”.

What do you look for when you read at a time like this? Not comfort, not just a mirror image of shared sorrows. Perhaps what you look for most is some kind of meaning, an unromanticised reminder of how things really were, an antidote to easy empathy, knee-jerk sentimentality.

Many will find their bearings in more concrete books: analyses of terror, treatises on the politics of South Asia. Some will find solace in older accounts of wars and battles, in the Iliad, in Herodotus, in Michael Herr. Perhaps my tastes—poetry and the ancient religious texts—will not be shared by all. But I have learned this week that if reading does not provide answers or salvation, it does provide a path back to some sort of acceptance.

(Published in the Business Standard, December 5, 2008)





4 responses to “Speaking Volumes: Reading in a time of terror”

  1. J. Alfred Prufrock Avatar

    Salud!J.A.P.(And how come you always have word verification that can be read out loud? This one is “ingaling”. Can I sign up somewhere?)

  2. Nilanjana Avatar

    Heh. What just came up when I tried word verification was “tringdon”.Word definitions: “ingaling”–i) The ancient Irish sport known as “raising the ingal”, which involves an abandoned portcullis door and two cows. “Dougal has manure coming out of his nostrils after his ingaling today.”ii) Someone who’s ditzy, but too humourless to be a dingaling: “Maria thinks she’s loveable, but she’s just an ingaling.”Tringdon:i) The small but crucial part of chain mail that a knight needs to unfasten in order to answer calls of nature. “Sir Edric was doing so well until he discovered that the last joust had not only bent his hauberk, but jammed his tringdon and codpiece together.”This is fun…

  3. J. Alfred Prufrock Avatar

    The current one is “spamen”. Breakfast food at an in-vitro clinic?You get one nos. awestruck gaze for “tringdon”. After I wipe up the cfsnt (liquid residue on keyboard, produced by snorting coffee through nose, say, on reading about tringdons)J.A.P.

  4. Nilanjana Avatar

    Spamen: 1) Condition of most popular donor at in-vitro clinic, who is currently unable to donate owing to an excess of demand for his, er, product. “Ranjit was sorry to have been spamenned, but it had been a good run at the clinic and his bank balance, if not his essential bits, felt much healthier.”2) Eye candy at an all-women’s spa:”There weren’t too many spamen available at Eau de Cinnamon, unless you counted the disgruntled gardener and the underage busboy who spent most of his time picking his nose, so Heidi made do with a hot oil massage and a cold shower.”

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