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Reading & Writing

for David Pryce-Jones

1.

I have no memory at all. That’s one of the great defects of my mind: I keep on brooding over whatever interests me, by dint of examining it from different mental points of view I eventually see something new in it, and I alter its whole aspect. I point and extend the tubes of my glasses in all ways, or retract them.”

—Stendhal,The Life of Henry Brulard

I was eleven, no more, when the wish came to me to be a writer; and then very soon it was a settled ambition. The early age is unusual, but I don’t think extraordinary. I have heard that serious collectors, of books or pictures, can begin when they are very young; and recently, in India, I was told by a distinguished film director, Shyam Benegal, that he was six when he decided to make a life in cinema as a director.

With me, though, the ambition to be a writer was for many years a kind of sham. I liked to be given a fountain pen and a bottle of Waterman ink and new ruled exercise books (with margins), but I had no wish or need to write anything; and didn’t write anything, not even letters: there was no one to write them to. I wasn’t especially good at English composition at school; I didn’t make up and tell stories at home. And though I liked new books as physical objects, I wasn’t much of a reader. I liked a cheap, thick-paged children’s book of Aesop’s fables that I had been given; I liked a volume of Andersen’s tales I had bought for myself with birthday money. But with other books—especially those that schoolboys were supposed to like—I had trouble.

For one or two periods a week at school—this was in the fifth standard—the headmaster, Mr. Worm, would read to us from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, from the Collins Classics series. The fifth standard was the “exhibition” class and was important to the reputation of the school. The exhibitions, given by the government, were for the island’s secondary schools. To win an exhibition was to pay no secondary school fees at all and to get free books right through. It was also to win a kind of fame for oneself and one’s school.

I spent two years in the exhibition class; other bright boys had to do the same. In my first year, which was considered a trial year, there were twelve exhibitions for the whole island; the next year there were twenty. Twelve exhibitions or twenty, the school wanted its proper share, and it drove us hard. We sat below a narrow white board on which Mr. Baldwin, one of the teachers (with plastered-down and shiny crinkly hair), had with an awkward hand painted the names of the school’s exhibition winners for the previous ten years. And—worrying dignity—our classroom was also Mr. Worm’s office.

He was an elderly mulatto, short and stout, correct in glasses and a suit, and quite a flogger when he roused himself, taking short, stressed breaths while he flogged, as though he were the sufferer. Sometimes, perhaps just to get away from the noisy little school building, where windows and doors were always open and classes were separated only by half-partitions, he would take us out to the dusty yard to the shade of the saman tree. His chair would be taken out for him, and he sat below the saman as he sat at his big desk in the classroom. We stood around him and tried to be still. He looked down at the little Collins Classic, oddly like a prayer book in his thick hands, and read Jules Verne like a man saying prayers.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea wasn’t an examination text. It was only Mr. Worm’s way of introducing his exhibition class to general reading. It was meant to give us “background” and at the same time to be a break from our exhibition cramming (Jules Verne was one of those writers boys were supposed to like); but those periods were periods of vacancy for us, and not easy to stand or sit through. I understood every word that was spoken, but I followed nothing. This sometimes happened to me in the cinema; but there I always enjoyed the idea of being at the cinema. From Mr. Worm’s Jules Verne I took away nothing and, apart from the names of the submarine and its captain, have no memory of what was read for all those hours.

By this time, though, I had begun to have my own idea of what writing was. It was a private idea, and a curiously ennobling one, separate from school and separate from the disordered and disintegrating life of our Hindu extended family. That idea of writing—which was to give me the ambition to be a writer—had built up from the little things my father read to me from time to time.

My father was a self-educated man who had made himself a journalist. He read in his own way. At this time he was in his early thirties, and still learning. He read many books at once, finishing none, looking not for the story or the argument in any book but for the special qualities or character of the writer. That was where he found his pleasure, and he could savor writers only in little bursts. Sometimes he would call me to listen to two or three or four pages, seldom more, of writing he particularly enjoyed. He read and explained with zest and it was easy for me to like what he liked. In this unlikely way—considering the background: the racially mixed colonial school, the Asian inwardness at home—I had begun to put together an English literary anthology of my own.

These were some of the pieces that were in that anthology before I was twelve: some of the speeches in Julius Caesar; scattered pages from the early chapters of Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and David Copperfield; the Perseus story from The Heroes by Charles Kingsley; some pages from The Mill on the Floss; a romantic Malay tale of love and running away and death by Joseph Conrad; one or two of Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare; stories by O. Henry and Maupassant; a cynical page or two, about the Ganges and a religious festival, from Jesting Pilate by Aldous Huxley; something in the same vein from Hindoo Holiday by J.R. Ackerley; some pages by Somerset Maugham.

The Lamb and the Kingsley should have been too old-fashioned and involved for me. But somehow—no doubt because of the enthusiasm of my father—I was able to simplify everything I listened to. In my mind all the pieces (even those from Julius Caesar) took on aspects of the fairy tale, became a little like things by Andersen, far off and dateless, easy to play with mentally.

But when I went to the books themselves I found it hard to go beyond what had been read to me. What I already knew was magical; what I tried to read on my own was very far away. The language was too hard; I lost my way in social or historical detail. In the Conrad story the climate and vegetation was like what lay around me, but the Malays seemed extravagant, unreal, and I couldn’t place them. When it came to the modern writers their stress on their own personalities shut me out: I couldn’t pretend to be Maugham in London or Huxley or Ackerley in India.

I wished to be a writer. But together with the wish there had come the knowledge that the literature that had given me the wish came from another world, far away from our own.

2.

We were an immigrant Asian community on a small plantation island in the New World. To me India seemed very far away, mythical, but we were at that time, in all the branches of our extended family, only about forty or fifty years out of India. We were still full of the instincts of people of the Gangetic plain, though year by year the colonial life around us was drawing us in. My own presence in Mr. Worm’s class was part of that change. No one so young from our family had been to that school. Others were to follow me to the exhibition class, but I was the first.

Mangled bits of old India (very old, the India of nineteenth-century villages, which would have been like the India of earlier centuries) were still with me, not only in the enclosed life of our extended family, but also in what came to us sometimes from our community outside.

One of the first big public things I was taken to was the Ramlila, the pageant-play based on the Ramayana, the epic about the banishment and later triumph of Rama, the Hindu hero-divinity. It was done in an open field in the middle of sugar cane, on the edge of our small country town. The male performers were barebacked and some carried long bows; they walked in a slow, stylized, rhythmic way, on their toes, and with high, quivering steps; when they made an exit (I am going now by very old memory) they walked down a ramp that had been dug in the earth. The pageant ended with the burning of the big black effigy of the demon king of Lanka. This burning was one of the things people had come for; and the effigy, roughly made, with tar paper on a bamboo frame, had been standing in the open field all the time, as a promise of the conflagration.

Everything in that Ramlila had been transported from India in the memories of people. And though as theater it was crude, and there was much that I would have missed in the story, I believe I understood more and felt more than I had done during The Prince and the Pauper and Sixty Glorious Years at the local cinema. Those were the very first films I had seen, and I had never had an idea what I was watching. Whereas the Ramlila had given reality, and a lot of excitement, to what I had known of the Ramayana.

The Ramayana was the essential Hindu story. It was the more approachable of our two epics, and it lived among us the way epics lived. It had a strong and fast and rich narrative and, even with the divine machinery, the matter was very human. The characters and their motives could always be discussed; the epic was like a moral education for us all. Everyone around me would have known the story at least in outline; some people knew some of the actual verses. I didn’t have to be taught it: the story of Rama’s unjust banishment to the dangerous forest was like something I had always known.

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