Speaking Volumes: Stoner and the tyranny of now

 (Published in the Business Standard, January 7, 2013)

Towards the end of 2013, I found an old interview with Mahmood Farooqui, the historian and story-teller. Many things that year had reminded me of his words: “We’re living with a loss of our sense of history… We live in a contemporary present where what happened two years ago is retro, so who are the takers for history?”

2013 had brought many good books with it, 2014 promised more, and yet there is such a danger to reading only in the present. Television will be 100 years old in the 2020s; nostalgia can take TV buffs back only as far as a century. Film goes back a little further, to the 1890s for the earliest moving pictures: you can travel a century and then a bit.

Books have a longer lineage. The Epic of Gilgamesh can be dated back to 2000 BC or before; the Rigveda is composed around 1700 BC or so; the Egyptian Book of the Dead goes back to roughly 1550 BC. If you choose to watch only contemporary films, you risk missing a mere hundred years or so. Read only books published in this year or in the last few years, and you turn your back on centuries of human story-telling. It is a chastening thought.

The curse of living in the permanent present extends to much shorter spans of time than complete centuries. Shorten the span to just one language—English—and just a few decades, and it is hard to see why anyone would limit their reading to only the latest, shiniest books. Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines came out in 1988; Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things in 1998. Both explored “history-shaped holes in the universe”. Arundhati’s Love Laws, defining who was allowed to love whom, are always relevant in a time of honour killings, the casual acceptance of dowry deaths and Dalit rapes conducted to teach the community a lesson. Ghosh’s Shadow Lines signalled his determination to explore the missing or forgotten slivers of history, and it contains one of the most accurate snapshots of a city caught in the grip of a riot ever written.


Running through the year was also the memory of Ruchir Joshi’s exuberantly inventive 2001 novel, The Last Jet Engine Laugh. In an interview, Ruchir talked of the legacies left behind by Subhash Chandra Bose and Gandhi, arguing that Bose was at the other end of the spectrum from Gandhi’s non-violence. “If you look at independent India, there’s a fetishism of militancy and nationalism. In the end, Bose won: Nehru lost, Gandhi lost,” Ruchir had said. In these aggressive, abusive political times, it is hard to ignore the Indian adoration of fascists and strong men, the order they enforce with obedient mobs at their command. We don’t mind the boot in the face, so long as it’s not grinding down on our jawbones.

There are so many useful classics from Indian English fiction. Rummaging among just the best-known: in Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games, embedded games of power, surveillance and the smashing of the idea of private histories occupies both the upholders of the law and the underworld, until it’s hard to tell one from another. Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy chronicles the decline of a certain kind of instinctive Indian secularism, the disappearance of the names of Muslim or non-Hindu judges from the annals of the courts, for instance, and remains a useful reckoner of the hierarchies of prejudice on grounds of religion, class, language, among Indians.

‘Schoolgirls’, © Manjula Padmanabhan

Manjula Padmanabhan’s Getting There (2000) and Suniti Namjoshi’s Feminist Fables (1990) are being rediscovered by a generation of women who find personal freedom as slippery a beast as Manjula’s protagonist did in the 1970s, and who find equality as elusive as it was for Namjoshi’s readers in 1990. I could go on listing books, but it’s enough to say that reading these again in 2013 gave me a way to better understand what was happening all through the year of protests, riots and seething anger.


Postscript: This is a fairy tale, except that it is true. In 1965, John Williams published Stoner, a moving novel about an obscure protagonist; the novel died long before its author did. Williams died in 1994, little known. He’d been awarded for one of his four novels (Augustus, not Stoner) and seen his best work disappear into the special hell of indifference. “Why isn’t this book famous?” CP Snow wrote plaintively when Stoner came out in England in the 1970s. It was loved by its readers; and it was forgotten in the wave of bestsellers. It seemed that each decade, another reader would discover Stoner and try to convince everyone he or she knew to read the book; and few did.


Then the NYRB reprinted Stoner in 2006, and what has happened since is phenomenal. Among the writers who love Stoner and will metaphorically grab you by your collar to tell you to read it are Ruth Rendell and Julian Barnes. Everyone who reads Stoner, which is only after all about an obscure professor negotiating the multiple disappointments of a once-promising life, gets personal about it, as though it was our discovery rather than the NYRB’s or rather than any reviewer’s find.

There was a curious link between John Williams and India, one that he rarely talked about or wrote about in his lifetime: he had spent two-and-a-half years flying the Hump, a radio dispatcher on planes that carried supplies to the troops in Burma. The route over the Hump was legendary for its difficulty; Williams, a radio expert, directed an air-raid warning “net” of ground observers linked by telephone and radio. He crashed once; he must have had other stories, but he didn’t share those.

Instead, he placed the biggest and most significant battles in the mind and heart of a shuffling academic who did no more than try to teach indifferent students the love of reading, and language, and the crackle of experience that books promise. I read Stoner over and over last year. The best novel of the 2000s shad been written in 1965, just a small reminder of the rewards of reading out of time.



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