By Vikas Datta
Life has been variously termed a bowl of cherries (which may be sweet but include pits) or a box of chocolates (you never know what you may get or when they run out) or so if we stick to food similes. As for food for the mind, how does literature, its usually faithful recorder or sometimes unconventional interpreter, compare?
Diligent and discerning readers may term it a bowl of salad (mixed flavours improve taste) or a bag of crisps/peanuts (you can’t stop at just one piece or serving), but the bottomline remains that variety is the spice of all things literary too as well as life.
As this venture, begun five years back, ends with this instalment, lets me focus on some accomplished, favourite authors, having figured here – or planned for later – for a wide cross-genre panorama.
Let us confine the number to the magical seven – manifested in the seven days of the week, the seven deadly sins, the seven seas (or heavens or veils for dancing), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the Magnificent Seven and so on.
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson aka ‘Lewis Carroll’, with his “Alice in Wonderland” (and its sequel “Through the Looking-Glass”), didn’t only pen a much-loved children’s tale – for the time when reading was a favoured pastime – but also offered a surreal evocation of a dream world, with all its “logic” and a subtle but sharp attack on the real-world “logic”.
And then Carroll shows his poetic parody skills in both works while inventing new humorous verse – “The Walrus and the Carpenter” is an absolute treat. This virtuosity can also be found, in much greater length and scope, in “The Hunting of the Snark”.
From nonsensical satire to political satire is not a very long step, and this brings us to Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov.
Though he had at least a dozen works apart from his stage oeuvre, his immortal, though much posthumously published, masterpiece remains “The Master and Margarita”.
A parallel tale of star-crossed lovers, the Devil and his entourage in Stalinist Moscow and Jesus of Nazareth, it is simultaneously slapstick, trenchant satire targeting some aspects of its Soviet setting – bureaucratization (and repression) of culture, but also people’s vanity, gullibility, and greed – especially for consumer goods, and an account of Jesus the man.
But in all readings, there are powerful undercurrents of faith, love and redemption, and above all, abiding hope for resilience of human creativity, in just three words – “Rukopisi ne goryat (Manuscripts don’t burn).
When it comes to humour, there is no shortage of choices. But even besides P.G. Wodehouse or Richard Gordon of the uproarious “Doctors” series, there is also George MacDonald Fraser, whose “McAuslan” trilogy is a thinly-disguised autobiography of his post WWII service as an officer in a Highland Scottish regiment, but pales before his “Flashman” series, an irreverent, intensely political incorrect but meticulously-researched and plotted look at a large expanse of the 19th century conflicts across five continents.
On the “real” world, Nevil Shute was a once popular author, whose two dozen odd novels, published between 1926 and 1961, span romance to redemption, religion to reincarnation, and cross-cultural relations to a post-apocalyptic scenario.
Each one is a classic, but three representatives works could be “Pied Piper”, in which an elderly Englishman, vacationing in France as the Germans evade, successfully leads seven children to safety, and “Round the Bend”, where a new religion based on good work rises around an aircraft mechanic and Shute minces no word in condemning race-based immigration policies.
Then there is “Trustee from the Toolroom”, his last novel, in which a mild-mannered English mechanical model manufacturer has to mount a desperate mission – into South Pacific – to safeguard the legacy of his recently-orphaned niece. But what appears a mission impossible is smoothened by all sorts to men – and why is what the book is about.
For romance and relationships, in both their light and dark versions, there is no one to beat the irrepressible Kiran Manral, whose versatility is only matched by her prodigious and regular output. From “All Aboard” to “The Face at the Window” to the latest “Missing, Presumed Dead”, she can delight and chill you.
Closely-tied is Laaleen Sukhera, who shows how Jane Austen’s spirit survives in the subcontinent with her curated “Austenistan”.
And then for wartime adventure, there is Alan Furst, whose intricately-plotted two-dozen-odd stories offer a nostalgic and wide look at pre-World War II Europe, especially the Balkans.
For crime fiction, especially the police procedural variant, there is the husband and wife team of Per Wahloo and Maj Sjolwall, the progenitors of the Scandinavian crime genre, with their 10-instalment Martin Beck series, which also looks at the social ramifications of crime and its personal effect on law enforcers.
For a more contemporary look, especially against the backdrop of terrorism in Pakistan, there is Cheryl Bernard’s one off “Murder in Peshawar” and Karachi police officer Omar Shahid Hamid with his “The Prisoner” and the more chilling “The Spinner’s Tale”.
There are many more to be cited, but this should suffice till we meet again. (IANS)