06 August 2020

Learning to read all over again

When the lockdown commenced, life turned grim overnight; stranger than fiction. I was reading the Memoirs of Seth Naomal Hotchand of Karachi (1804-1878), a well-told narrative of a wealthy merchant of Sindh. Being the elaborate personal account of someone who belonged to a community about which not much documentation exists, the book, with an interesting history of its own, is fascinating. However, my eye lazed mid-sentence while my mind wandered, and the pages stayed put.

In despair, unable to read, unable to write, I dug into my files seeking comfort, and came across Forgotten Stories from my Village, Harwai by Hari Govind Narayan Dubey. In 2015, I worked with the author to translate this charming book, based in rural India during the freedom struggle, into English. It has dramatic stories – pots of gold uncovered by a farmer ploughing his fields, a spectacular jailbreak, the impact of caste division and social boycott, and more. What makes it a classic is the ringside view of the lifestyles, thought processes, and other subtleties of an epoch of Indian history invariably dominated by political figures with vested interests. To make it easily accessible to all, I uploaded it for free download on this link .

Still unsure about being able to concentrate, I decided to attempt a slim volume with an uncomplicated cover: The Impossible Journey by James A Coghlan. This lovely story of a Scottish boy’s experience of serving in the Indian army is fiction, but, based on the diary of the author’s great uncle’s accounts of a road journey from Rawalpindi to London in 1936, is quite as alive with engaging detail as Naomul’s memoirs. Along with glimpses of world history and geography, the reader understands a little about the connection between India and Scotland, while revelling in the wry turn of phrase that permeates the book.

And then, a drowning woman who miraculously began to swim, I picked up The Strange Case of Billy Biswas by Arun Joshi. This book shows that IWE were quietly turning out classic prose decades before the term IWE was coined. Billy Biswas belongs to two peculiar and mutually exclusive communities: the privileged anglophiles who once governed India, and an ancient tribe, both groups reduced today to appendages verging on extinction. Though I found its traces of schoolboy fantasy a little annoying, the plot captivated me and I read in long happy bursts, freed at last from lockdown.

This column was written for The Hindu and appeared on Monday 3 August 2020