great books

Dear Mr Bond, here’s what your ‘Confessions of a Book Lover’ told me about writing (and you)

‘If I learnt from you that ageing is the writer’s success, I think I’m also starting to learn that caging is the writer’s need.’

Dear Mr Bond,

It was from you I learnt that the writer’s sole success lies in ageing, that experience – the arm common to all our fingering apparatuses – is everything. It’s what is making me write this letter, and it will subsume this letter even as I write it, what will arraign it as a memory to be recounted 60 years later to my neighbour’s grandchildren.

I must make it clear why I’m writing this letter; I’m writing it because this week, I read something you had written. Well, you hadn’t exactly written it, but your name was on the cover. It was your presentation to the world, to me, that is, of your favourite writers, books, and excerpts. You preambled each with your fondest words of praise, and you told me why you were giving me so-and-so to read and what good things I could look out for. I have never read anything like this before, and 50 pages in, I knew I would have to write you a letter, thanking you for making me restless.

A few questions

But before that, Mr Bond, I have a few questions, would you please answer them? Why did you show me the excerpts you did? Why those? Do I read you along with those excerpts, should I read you in them? Should I imagine you hiding in fear under a bed whose occupant lies dead? Should I imagine you phoning and phoning the tabloid publisher, demanding that your presence at a party be documented with zero spelling errors (“It’s not Bunskin Rond, and it’s not Rustom Bond, it’s Ruskin Bond!”)

Equally, does my asking these questions mean I’ve done all this, that I’m already guilty of predictable imagination? And what pleasure did you get, making it clear to me, all over again, that there is just so much to experience, and therefore to read and to write, on this earth?

You showed me William Saroyan writing, “The earth is mine, but not the world.” What is writing, if not the promise, the illusion that the world too is yours, that you too are the world? And what keen, slanted pleasure I can imagine you must be getting, Mr Bond, to deliver this earth-shattering world-gathering news to my doorstep, that I can write?

I do have to thank you for this, I have to thank you profusely. But I also have to apologise for being insubordinate and as utterly rhetorical as I have just been. I doubt I will do either in this letter. Or maybe this was just a paraliptic way of doing both. I’ll move on.

Ruskin Bond
Ruskin Bond

Room pleasure

Laurence Sterne amused me the most. A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy promises to be very curious, but as to the excerpt you let me read, I must admit the title stayed with me the most of all: The Case of Delicacy. An English gentleman is forced to share his room for a night with a young woman and her maid. The maid finds a nearby closet to sleep in, but Sir Man and Lady Woman have two parallel beds close to each other, and he admits that there is “no way favourable to the nicety of our sensations.”

The lady lays down some conditions, one of which is for both to remain entirely mute for the rest of the night, and the trouble begins (as the excerpt ends) right when the gentleman breaks this rule. But while I was eager to find out what happens next to Sir Manners and Lady Decorum, I was also content to sit with the delicacy, as it were, of the situation they were currently in.

“We were both too delicate,” he writes, “to communicate what we felt to each other upon the occasion.” I needn’t remind you that this sensibility you have previously written about, of the writer being in the wrong hotel room, has very much to do with the domesticity, the artifice and the resultant artificial beauty, the logistical romance, of the room itself.

This “roomance” I see even in William Saroyan’s interior monologue, when he simply states, “I am a young man in an old city. It is morning and I am in a small room.” Much of your favourite passages, I daresay much of literature itself, is concerned with what goes on in rooms, with versions of the case of delicacy, of this encased delicacy, that Sterne writes about.

Remember that nasty scene in The Idiot when Nastasya chucks an entire bundle of money into the fire for Ganya (or whoever else) to retrieve? Or in Midnight’s Children, when it is time for Dr Aadam to confront his patient on cold mornings through a perforated sheet? Or in Great Expectations, even, when Pip is made to feel the most awful a child can feel at the dining table?

These are things that take place in a room. You yourself were confined, in this room or that room, in a ward or a bathroom, as you were led to discover the books you loved. You ran from the athletics field, you left behind the open spaces. If I learnt from you that ageing is the writer’s success, I think I’m also starting to learn that caging is the writer’s need.

The vaster the sum of experience and the heavier the burden of its parts, the deeper, I feel, are our burrows, the longer our stays under strangers’ beds. The more I have to do, the less I want to do it. It’s sheer procrastination all over again, isn’t it? I want to write about so much there is in this world, I’ll write about a man and a woman in a room, or a man and a typewriter in a room.

Virginia Woolf writes in Orlando about a young man confronting an apocalyptic frost in England, watching human beings freeze over into stone, and yet, when it is time to bemoan the ire of nature, what does he do? He channels Hamlet and abuses the woman who has left him, whom the frost has taken away from him.

We cannot do without particulars, I’m beginning to see this much. We cannot do without the template that says, “Pick one.” Nevertheless, you have offered me several particulars, which I think remains one of the few lasting beauties of literature, that it is nothing but multiple singulars, and for that I am very grateful to you. Thank you, Mr Bond. And I’m sorry this letter isn’t longer. I’m sure you aren’t, though.

Until next time,

Sayali

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