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