It was love at first sight. In a greyly lit room filled with mild disquiet, anxious conversations and a few grey souls, the black and gold catalogue seemed strangely aloof. Luminous, and beyond anything my imagination had conjured up when I heard the term ‘publisher’s catalogue’. I watched it being passed from hand to hand to exclamations of delight and awe, smug in the knowledge that it was intended for me. You may covet all you want, ladies and gentlemen. But this beautiful, beautiful object is mine – and you can’t do a thing about it!
When it finally reached me, I held on tight, refusing to pass it on further or even put it down on the desk. I am known to be selectively selfish.
Later that evening, it was with a sense of reverence that I opened the catalogue to go through its contents: a collection of texts from his authors, written in response to a ‘provocation’ sent out to them by Naveen Kishore, founder and director of Seagull Books:
A myth. Of futility. Do not misunderstand so early in the half-formed thought. Not merely and uselessly futile. I speak of the futility of our lives filled to the brim with so many things. Not always essential. These so many things. All vital. Or life giving. Just things. That rattle in empty tins. Like heads filled with echoes.
So make me a myth of the futility of things.
And they did. Ivan Vladislavic, Mahasweta Devi, Thomas Lehr, Gayatri Spivak, Hans Magnus Enzensburger, Monica Cantini, Yves Bonnefoy… Just a handful of names from the impressive list of writers who responded to the provocation.
Sisyphus, it seemed, was being celebrated as never before – through language stretched, bent and moulded to loving will. Words like perspectives and writing styles seemed inadequate to describe the wealth of text those pages contained. The illustrations took off where the texts ended, adding to the meaning, lending it colour and form that seemed almost impossible.
At every turn of page, the possibility of the incredible, the unexpected – the fantastic. I was an overzealous Alice meandering through Wonderland!
Back in the eighties, when my cousin was doing her MA, she had a collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets – a hardbound volume with a blue and cream sleeve – that I had my eye on. Somehow, it always ended up spending more time with me than her. So much so that I had seriously considered pinching it while leaving home for the big city in search of a job. (To be fair, I did try asking her nicely, but she refused.)
In the end, I did not, of course. But it left behind a gap that no paperback, new or second hand, was ever able to fill.
I’m only mildly ashamed to admit that over the years, there have been many great works of literature that I left halfway through reading merely because the dull black, closely printed words on equally dull, thin, bluish-grey paper seemed a sacrilege to the literature it contained. And soul-numbingly tiresome to read.
So you see what that catalogue, and the many books that came from Seagull after, meant to me.
Now I am the proud owner of some truly remarkable books; among them these gorgeously produced catalogues, each with its own eclectic set of texts. There is the Loss catalogue (one of my favourites), last year’s stunningly beautiful one on Blindness, an earlier catalogue on Notes finished and incomplete… Plus a few older ones that I am yet to read. The pleasure I derive from the sheer sight of them, the touch and smell of them, is beyond words.
There’s a rather cheesy statement that talks about the universe conspiring to get you what you want with all your being. Perhaps it’s true. Only, I had not even dreamt of finding my own writing within the covers of a Seagull Books catalogue – until I received the ‘provocation’.
Soul he said. Soul as the prison of the body. Soul I asked? What about the ones who don’t believe? In soul. Or God. Or religion. The ones that understand the body for what it is. Accept its one-way journey towards the inevitable. The body as decay. Gradual ruin. Eventual crumbling. We all know this. Or those that think the ‘inner core’, or what I presume is a ‘substitute’ for the notion of ‘soul’, is actually just an ever changing, evolving, fermenting mass of literature that grows. And grows. And knows freedom. And fear. And emotion. And love. And death. And every kind of existential angst that any soul worth its weight in gold would know! What about me? I asked. Or you for that matter. We who write and read and write and continue to both read and write while our bodies grow old and tired. But the mind. The mind remains in a state of excitement. Constantly radiant. Its brilliance grows with every new thought. What if we substitute ‘literature’ for ‘soul’ in your proud statement so that it now reads ‘Literature as the prison of the body’. Thing is that this doesn’t hold. Literature cannot be a space that restricts movement. Or freedom. At least it shouldn’t be. It is meant to be a liberating presence. Like its close companion. The dark. For me the dark is important. The dark as a substitute for soul? Maybe. Darkness is essential for literature of meaning to grow and take root.
Body, soul, fear, love, death. Literature. Existential angst. The dark as a substitute for soul. Why did those words make me think of my old home? My tharavad, now a tired old ghost that lives somewhere between me and my sleep. Its trees and snakes and dark corners. Its shadows – warm, generous, forgiving. At some point, they had willingly sheltered a broken, confused teenager from the harsh light of the outside world. Shadows.
My childhood was one of stories – heard, read and imagined. And eventually narrated, with great gusto and enough embellishments, to lure a bunch of open-mouthed younger cousins to do my bidding. She still talks about the stories you used to tell, my aunt told me a few days ago. Bindu, her daughter, had been one of my most avid listeners. Minichechi! Don’t stop now… Go on, pleeease!
And so I wrote my response, with little conscious thought about what/how I was writing.
Body, soul, fear, love, death, literature, existential angst… And the dark as a substitute for soul. Tangled inextricably, like the roots of an ancient tree. Who am I to separate them?
The other day, some of us friends were talking about healing. One suggested religion, another counselling – or psychotherapy, where necessary. I did not tell them that I had tried it all, with limited success. Literature, I said, and they smiled indulgently. I smiled back, knowing.
That was random recall. I do that to a fault.
When the ‘Soul’ catalogue reached my home in Dubai, I was in India. And when it reached my address in India, I was on hospital duty. My moment of glory, suspended.
It’s beautiful, ‘Mma! You know you are in lofty company? I was told over a long-distance call. As eager as I was, eight nights of no sleep and total mental and physical exhaustion later, I have only now started reading. That too in small chunks – between client meetings, press releases, testimonials and op-eds that were waiting for me.
I pause in between work to look longingly at the silver grey catalogue on my table. I pick it up, flip through the pages with their marvellous illustrations. Touch a word, a dragonfly… Read a line or two, and put it aside – feeling the guilty taste of unfinished work on my tongue. Let me finish this, I promise myself. Just let me get this done! And I return to my work.
Times are tough, as times tend to be. In fact, they have been so for a while. But you have so much literature in you! someone had reminded me once. True. There is always the literature. All 402 pages of it. Waiting.