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My 20s in Books

My coming-of-age book was incidental. It was not a classic. Not Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mocking Bird. I ended my teens with Mario Puzo’s Fools Die. I found it in my dad’s collection one bored summer and read it. Overnight, I felt I had grown up. It spoke to my angst-ridden teen self with a writer hidden inside.

Leon Uris’ Exodus is the book I borrowed from neighbours who would over the next few years shape my reading, and therefore my writing.

In their bookshelf I discovered Irwin Shaw. I wallowed in misery with Young Lions but found his books addictive. They left me depressed but I was hooked. Depression-era America didn’t feel alien at all. At least the writers and their books didn’t.

And then came my Holy Trinity – the Johns – Steinbeck, Kennedy Toole and Irving. East of Eden, The Confedracy of Dunces, The World According to Garp. Books that taught me three important lessons – that prose can be lyrical, that writers should write everyday, and it didn’t matter if there was no second novel. And maybe a fourth – authors named John won’t disappoint.

This was all in the late 90s and early millenium, and Indian writers had started cropping up. I thought I’d find my way home in their books. I honestly tried. Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August made me laugh. I was pleased to see an Indian author write unflinchingly about turd and pot. Amit Chaudhuri’s Afternoon Raag showed me how a novella should be written. But besides the handful, I was left uninspired.

I returned to my old turf and to Sinclair Lewis with his Main Street and Elmer Gantry. It was a homecoming of sorts. I followed that with James T Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy, and Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

They made worse (or better) that most pedestrian of adolescent and youthful troubles – angst, laced with the ennui of one without ambition.

I flirted with Japanese writing – Yasunari Kawabata and his immensely beautiful The Dancing Girl of Izu. I found too, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his The Chronicle of a Death Foretold – that I read at one go, unable to put the book down. I was finally in the presence of the masters.

The fork in the road came with a job as a children’s librarian. I discovered the joys of large print stories for young adults and entered the magical realm of Harry Potter, readily, willingly, and happily.

The other road, one I also took, led me to Mordechai Richler and his The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.

I learnt to laugh again. It set me down another path, one I’ll remember my 30s for: Comic fiction and why the world’s not such a sad place after all.

Featured illustration by Tasneem Amiruddin

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  1. Craig Dudley says

    Mai I suggest another fork in the road? Try Whittaker Chamber’s WITNESS or David McCullough”s JOHN ADAMS or any of Mark Twains short stories. They ring true for me.

    • Aravinda Anantharaman
      Aravinda Anantharaman says

      Thanks Craig, Mark Twain ended up in English text books for me, so haven’t learnt to read his books for pleasure. Maybe time to revisit.

  2. Pingback: A Decade in Books - Tea Stories - Still Steeping: Teabox Blog

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