Arundhati Roy’s ‘The God of Small Things’ & Michael Ondaatje’s ‘The English Patient’
By RK Biswas
If someone were to ask me what was 2015 about, I’d say memory. Not because I took nostalgic trips to childhood places or spent hours leafing through plastic photo albums, but because I read books I had read before. My journey through those familiar landscapes was a shared one. Except that for my fellow traveller, my daughter, it was her first trip through the books. The pleasure of re-reading a book with your own offspring is akin to visiting a place you had travelled to before and introducing it to him/her. There are familiar places to point out. Familiar people or characters to meet and greet again, and explain their idiosyncrasies to the first timer. But above all, the startling revelations of a second visit are yours alone, which is at times akin to peeling off a layer and discovering hues you had not seen before. And other times like hanging upside down and observing the (book’s) world from a perspective you wouldn’t have thought of before.
Some of the books I read (or re-read) either along with my daughter or after she had finished them and was eager to discuss the plots and characters, were the usual classics. Some were books I had read when I was a teenager like her. One in particular – The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy –was a book I had picked up soon after she was born. And, yes, this was one that stood out from my pile of re-read books. The other one that impacted me all over again, and also in a new way was Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.
When I began my journey I did not expect anything more than a jogging of memory. I also believed that I would read some pages at a slant, speed-reading to get the grist of it. I thought I only had to deal with the narrative arc since I had gone through the words before. I couldn’t have been more wrong. My daughter and I would read at our own individual paces, mine slower because I had more interruptions than she did. We would meet at the dining table during late afternoon to talk about our reading experiences. She had finished her boards and would be home for a few months with plenty of time on her hands.
Most days the evening would sink low and my tea turn cold by the time our sharing of notes quietened down. Sometimes we would go off topic in our pursuit of the core idea behind a particular book. Some book discussion wound up pretty quickly. Others we found ourselves returning to day after day. Like the two books I mentioned earlier. They had moved her too, very deeply. We discovered parts that had made both of us weep or laugh or feel enraged. There were descriptions, certain passages that we read out to each other. We often stood on shared terrain, filling our senses with the same sights, sounds and smells, the joys and miseries of imagined people we felt a sense of ownership towards. For me, it was also about stepping back and turning over the book’s story and message, the whole being of it, upon the palm of my hand as if it were a multi-faceted stone. At times I felt memory was playing a trick on me. A character or a situation felt somehow different now. I was reliving the book. But something had changed during the years.
When I first read The God of Small Things, Rahel’s and Estha’s entwined story was what had occupied my mind. The grown up Rahel had interested me far less. Ammu’s love affair with Velutha had reminded me of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The other characters together formed a colourful backdrop to the three main characters. The story was certainly powerful, and stirred my imagination with regurgitated memory. During the second reading, I found myself examining the minor characters in the book more acutely. Baby Kochamma was someone to be pitied more and Chacko’s weaknesses were less absurd. This time round, more than the narrative arc, I found more time to swim with slower strokes through Roy’s exquisite and bejewelled prose. I found more profound truths in the smallest of sentences, and a child’s viewpoint took on higher meanings – “Anything can happen to anyone” and “it’s best to be prepared”. To me the God of small things lay in the little, bite sized offerings, through words and phrases in Roy’s book. I felt that I had been able to chew through her narrative thoroughly with enough left-over for leisurely rumination.
I hesitated to read The English Patient again. The book had unsettled me when I’d first read, even though I had read it impatiently at that time. My daughter urged me to go through it. She had already read and was eager to discuss the book. The English Patient is, at one level, a reflection of war and the ideas of nationhood. At another, it is a story about love, not merely a love story. The two together makes it a story of passion. One that soars above the human condition.
When I had first read the book in 1993, it was the twin love stories of Almasy and Katherine and of Hana and Kip that had held most of my attention. The war was a mere tool for the unfolding of the plot. This time round, World War II seemed like a living creature, a beast that lurked around and took on other shapes. Love was not a story one could follow as easily as a dog follows a scent. The interspersing of time, the swinging between one narrative and another appeared sharper. Maybe because I was reading it more slowly, sometimes even stopping to retrace my steps, as one does in a labyrinth. But Ondaatje’s narrative was neither obfuscating nor misleading. I found myself enjoying the swing from one timeline into another. At times, I folded pages in between to allow two connected timelines to touch.
I found myself examining the two sets of lovers, not judging them, but mulling over their situations, both torn asunder by war. While Hana remained a puzzling, enigmatic half-child half-woman, just the way I had encountered her before, the second reading made me look more closely at Kip. I tried to enter his mind and understand why he did not see the British as they were to us Indians, why one man’s goodness (Lord Suffolk) had turned him into a British loyalist. But even as I battled it out in my mind, I knew that this was Ondaatje’s intent, and I hadn’t quite seen it that way before. When Kip hears of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, when the nickel drops, it doesn’t just drop for him, but for the world as well – Ondaatje’s world of readers.
During my first reading, my reaction had been more cynical; Kip didn’t know because he was naïve, as naïve as those Indians who looked up to the British, the white race in general. His attitude was more generic. But now I inhabit a world where individual kindnesses or cruelties can no longer influence a person wholly. Our perspective of the world, which used to be a sum total of our individual and often insignificant experiences, is now at the mercy of information overload and at times irresponsible opinions thrust upon us. Perspective has become dangerously artificial. Yet through the fog of the novel’s timeline, Kip’s cry manages to pierce the skin of our 21st century sky: They would never have dropped a nuclear bomb on another white country.
To me, it seems that the whole book is impaled on this one slender spear, and it swings like a slain body displayed for us. I cannot get that scene out from my mind. It opens up questions and more questions about what is happening around us now. What situations, political decisions, trade and war tactics led to the world we live in today? Revisiting The English Patient was like walking on a bed of hot coals. I burnt myself, because I had neither the blind faith of the ignorant nor the hard calloused feet of the bored and blasé voyeur. I am glad I was able to share it with my daughter though.
What I have received from my re-readings of several books in 2015, and especially the two mentioned here, is this: that if a book occupies a bit of your consciousness, do revisit it as and when opportunity arises. When you read again, especially alongside a loved one, who is reading it for the first time, the discussions that follow act as markers on the road you once tread as a girl or boy.The books give you the twin gifts of rediscovery, re-experience and re-imagining, as well as reliving that first experiences of it in all its delicious freshness.
RK Biswas lives and writes on Earth. Her poetry and fiction have been widely published. Her two published books are Culling Mynahs and Crows (Lifi Publications, India) and Breasts and Other Afflictions of Women (Authorspress, India). Her third book, Immoderate Men (Speaking Tiger Books) is forthcoming in mid-2016. She blogs at: http://biswasrk.wordpress.com.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.