Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Bookered Out: Or I bet Jacobson was not mantelpiece-deprived like me

As Howard Jacobson was accepting his first Man Booker Prize award yesterday for the book The Finkler Question, I was accepting my first polite rejection from the Story Quarterly to whom I had sent a short story for publication.

I don’t blame them. I was destined to fail as a writer. Because I grew-up funny in small town India reading words I couldn’t visualise and seeing things I had no words for.

Howard Jacobson: Bet his was rich with mantelpieces
We spoke Hindi at home, English at school, and a hopeless mix of the two everywhere else, and my book diet was rationed by our school librarian to 12 books a year -- to be chosen out of an exclusively selected pile of Enid Blytons and Nancy Drews. Other than that, there was a Railway Club library entirely built out of the comic books and American paperback thrillers left behind by Railway Officers passing through Dhanbad.

The problem was that everything I read related to some imaginary world out there with landscapes, terrains, houses, neighbourhoods, foods and clothes that were divorced from most things that surrounded me. I remember spending an entire winter afternoon in our large, bare drawing room staring hard at its every feature trying to figure out if anything fit the description of a mantelpiece. Mantelpieces frequently appeared in the lives of the Famous Five whom I was rather obsessed with. Yet, I had great trouble visualising it. I knew my drawing room had shelves and a cupboard, four walls and a CEMA fluorescent tube light – but nothing that could be a mantelpiece. It sounded grand, M-A-N-T-E-L-P-I-E-C-E, but what was it? What did it really look like? The fat Oxford English Dictionary gave me a hazy idea of shape and form, and the fact that it probably had something to do with fireplaces, but nothing concrete that I could grasp. And there were no google images to rush up to. There was only my imagination, and a hazy, frustrating feeling that I was not trying hard enough.

But how could an eight-year-old visualise something that she had never seen. How could I visualise bacon, mackintoshes, loafers, brogues, macaroons, jodhpurs, loafers, brambles, blueberries, awnings, turrets, gables, attics, and daffodils when I was surrounded by saris, pyjamas, polyester, aubergines, karelas, English broilers, spices, scooters, pigs in gutters and water buffaloes. Slowly, I simply started shutting descriptions out, involving myself more and more with the characters and their internal lives. After all, I could still identify with their anger, surprise, jealousies, envies and joys, if not with their mackintoshes and brogues. I thought that a better solution than the one my best friend Shilpi (or was it Shilpa?) came up with – not read at all.

To make matters worse, there were no texts around me that helped me put into specific words the things that actually formed my visual landscape. Even our school textbooks were filled with stories by English and American writers. There was nothing that described the lives we led in our Indian towns and cities. Was there a specific word to describe the standalone single-storey brick-built apartment block that I lived in? I knew it was different from the row of stone-built single-storey apartments with shared walls that my friend lived in. If there were separate words to distinguish them, I never came across them in either books or real life – they were only ever called buildings. There were bungalows and then there were buildings, nothing in between.

Confused and frustrated by words and descriptions, I simply stopped looking for words to describe the in-betweens. Rooms were rooms, houses were houses, trees were trees, colonies were colonies and chicken curry was chicken curry – if there were in-between features, they existed in the world of my vision, not in words, not on paper, not in stories, and not in novels.

Today, Indian children are more lucky. Google has made the world so much smaller, and Indian authors writing about life in India are increasingly common. But it is too late for me. Mantelpiece deprivation sealed my fate forever. Bet Jacobson never had that problem.

 Update: Naresh sent me a link related to a BBC4 documentary talking about Blyton's overpowering effect on so many Indian children. I am glad I wasn't the only one.


jaimit said...

aubergines eh? we always had the humble bringals and we grew never tasting aubergines, ever. you lucky child.

globalbabble said...

Agreed. It was brinjals. Baingans, actually. I don't even know when it got replaced in my head with it's fancier synonym.