In the middle of the grim lockdown on a Sunday afternoon, I found myself staring blankly into the book cabinet. For the less fortunate who do not like to read – staring into the book cabinet is equivalent to you staring inside a fridge.
I had binged on a few non-fiction books, written an article or two, worked on a new product, indulged in cooking, watched all Harry Potter movies, and yet the wretched lockdown was still around. It simply kept getting renewed like my scarcely used gym membership. It was then that my wife suggested I read something less serious, something fiction, probably a racy novel penned by Agatha Christie or Alistair Maclean.
There was a time when all I read was fiction. Then came the time when I couldn’t get enough of non-fiction. Now, as a reader, I am at a point where too much of anything puts me off, and that has helped me achieve a balanced supplement of literature.
While scouting through the book cabinet I came across a compilation of Jeffery Archer’s short stories. Here was a format I had left behind long ago, and quite intentionally too. To be honest, I was never a fan of short stories. I like to indulge in what I read, and a format which introduces its characters, unravels the plot lines, and winds it all up in about 20-40 pages does not satisfy my literary taste buds.
This collection of short stories, however, seemed interesting. Blame it on my state of absolute boredom, or the non-committal mindset thanks to the uncertainty of the pandemic, but I certainly felt drawn to this less indulgent form of literature.
I had never read anything written by Jeffrey Archer. The only short stories I had read were written by Agatha Christie, Anton Chekhov, Rabindranath Tagore, R K Narayan, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Jeffery Archer was an unknown territory and without the overall dullness set in life, it would have probably stayed that way.
This book of Jeffrey Archer’s that I am talking about is “And Thereby Hangs a Tale”. I like to read a book word-to-word, from the first to the last, and that means I read even the most mundane things like the date of publication or where that specific edition is for sale.
This particular book was an exclusive South Asian edition and I wondered what South Asia connection I would find in here. South Asia, after all, is a kaleidoscope of human emotions, and authors, some known and many unknown, keep contributing to the huge pool of stories by peeking into it. Every writer who looks at this region and people gets a unique perspective depending upon their position across geography and time.
The book begins with an engaging story of a high-end robbery. However, I was hooked on to the book from the foreword itself, thanks to a brilliant musing of the author which goes, “I would like to thank all those people who have inspired me with their tales, and while there may not be a book in every one of us, there is so often a damned good short story.”
This was a sort of a revelation to me and as I went through the book, I started to see the resemblance these fantastic characters had with people and stories around me. Only those in love with books would understand the joy when a book reveals an everyday fact of life in a completely different perspective. Unlike in a classroom or a discussion, it is purely passive allowing you to fully relish the joy of discovery. Only a wordsmith can give you that sense and I got it in the foreword of this book.
Did I not know that writers often take inspiration from characters around them? I did. Did I not know that some of these characters would have a resemblance with people in my life? I did. It is however the charm of the language that can make even the most obvious thing appear like a revelation.
Language is important and in the world of instant messaging, more so than ever. J K Rowling is not special because of Harry Potter’s plot. Do you think Harry Potter is the first book about children and magic? It is the way she puts it forth. P.G. Wodehouse was not the first to make fun of the pompous royalty of Great Britain and their trivial issues; it is the way he pokes fun at them that attracts you.
If the language of a book is good, no matter how dull the plot, you can still scoot over from one page to another with some interest. On the other hand, poor language will make even the finest plot or idea utterly unreadable.
“And Thereby Hangs a Tale” had stories with crisp and interesting plot lines. The story of a gold-digger nurse praying on her gullible rich patient (seemingly a cliché plot line) had the kind of an ending that you go back and read again. Another one of an undiplomatic diplomat was elaborate and ended on a rather cheeky note. The story of a man insistent on getting a membership at a golf club felt more like a summarized biography rather than a short story, but three completely different stories following it brought the pace back into the book.
The last story was where I got my South Asian connection. It is about an aristocratic couple in India who defy the odds of caste system, only to be united in tragedy. I was taken by the Indianness of the plot and its Bollywood-style narration. Also, it surprised me; it is not often that you get to read a contemporary Indian story from a British author. Most British authors love to romanticize about the days of the Raj, and an Indian story that begins with a silly chase between a Porsche and a Ferrari across the streets of Delhi is a fresh departure from the bygone era.
These short stories got me hooked and I realised that my point of view towards this less indulging format was the problem. Also, in the past, I could afford to keep that point of view; there was a time in life when I could spend hours reading a book uninterrupted. Now, every hour, there is a professional or a domestic obligation that needs attending. It could be something as simple as a ringing doorbell, or a colleague calling about work, but after all, it is an interruption.
As we learn to take these interruptions of life in our stride, we realise that indulgence is a luxury which only a student’s life can afford. We adapt quickly in other areas, but when it comes to special things, such as hobbies, it is usually difficult to adapt. As the pandemic presses on, all of us are learning to adapt to a new normal. Everyone is coping differently. I hope Mr Archer is safe and is keenly observing, because there would be many who could write an indulging plot around this catastrophe, but we would need him to spot those damn good short stories.
The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.