Columns

SECOND THOUGHTS – THE HINDU
The columns not written
BY NAVTEJ SARNA

Of half-read books and the unspoken promise that they might be written about

I set myself a more practical target: to clear up a cluttered book rack.

PHOTO: AFP
ALICE MUNRO: Much talked about.

A Ablue-green choppy sea barely distinguishable from the overturned bowl of the sky. The white foam bursts in fury on the rock breakers and then churns slowly towards the piled up plastic chairs and the forlorn volleyball courts on the deserted beach, giving up its spirit. It could be any other day on a wind blown, drizzly sea coast. Except that it isn't; it's the last day of 2009.

And much in the sad and lost manner of the waves as they dissolve on the shore, its once again time to pull another calendar off the wall, to fold away reluctantly one more diary and to give the desk a ritual cleaning over. Once again a hopelessly belated attempt to instill some order, discipline, neat partitions….

Practical target
But the attempt fails before it begins. Life refuses to break away at calendar folds; it abhors bow-tied neat ribbons. Thoughts, feelings, hopes, regrets have a seamless flow and it's best to let that be. I set myself a more practical target: to clear up a cluttered book rack. But that too has problems. There are the half-read books; their covers taunt me, their sullen bookmarks point accusing fingers at a fickle mind. Or the ones that were read with the unspoken promise that they might be written about, but then something happened along the way. Together, they make up the second thoughts which I did not indulge in, the columns that I did not write.

Netherland by Joseph O'Neil is one those books. I picked it up because it brought together two unlikely concepts: Post 9/11 New York and cricket. A Dutchman, Hans, struggles with all that is happening within him and around him. His British wife becomes ideologically disassociated from the US in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and moves away to London, taking her son with her. Hans tries to hold on to his son desperately, even visiting his window through Google Earth. And as he fights his increasing depression in the charming Chelsea Hotel-that decadent haunt of writers and artists — he begins to see a New York that is beyond the skyscrapers that now seem such perfect targets and beyond the cocktail receptions rife with bitter, pretentious political debate. His guide to this other world — a world where cricket is played by immigrants (mostly West Indians) in small, ill-tended public parks — is Chuck Ramkissoon, a wily chatty Trinidadian, a man of large dreams, a mix of an entrepreneur and a conman, an almost perverse version of Jay Gatsby.

One of Chuck's vain dreams is to make cricket a national sport in America, to build a state- of-the-art cricket stadium and make a killing on it. But he also has a philosophy: “All people, Americans, whoever, are at their most civilized when they are playing cricket. What's the first thing that happens when Pakistan and India make peace? They play a cricket match. Cricket is instructive, Hans. It has a moral angle.” Touche.

An attractive black and white cover, and recollections of Intimacy, one of the best short novels one can get to, took me to Hanif Kureishi's Midnight All Day. It's a collection of ten short stories by this Buddha of British suburbia, the writer proclaimed as “Britain's foremost chronicler of the loveless, the lost and the dispossessed.” And he has some great start lines. For instance, how can you leave a story that begins: “We are unerring in our choice of lovers, particularly when we require the wrong person.”

Favourite story
My favourite story Sucking Stones is about the self-preoccupation of established writers, an attitude that drives an admiring budding writer to burn all her writing and to break off a love affair gone vapid with the words: “Sucking Stones. That's it. We look to the old things and to the old places, for sustenance. That's where we found it before. Even when there's nothing there we go on. But we have to find new things, otherwise we are sucking stones.”

And the third book that stares sullenly at me — you sought me out so much, it seems to say, and then you did not bother to finish me. It's Runaway, a much talked about collection of short stories by Alice Munro, not readily available in Indian bookshops. Except that I almost did finish it, but for a story or two. In a very Canadian setting, the pure stories, unhindered by historical or descriptive baggage, tease and engage and one never knows where the dramatic moment is going to come from; more often than not, it has nothing to do with the predicament that is first presented.

And the raw material is pretty much the same: a girl growing up in rural Ontario in difficult circumstances, escaping to a big city, getting in or out of a marriage, achieving success in the literary or artistic world and then returning to a setting that has changed forever…..As Munro herself once said: “The complexity of things — the things within things — just seems to be endless. I mean nothing is easy, nothing is simple.”

And that's it for this year. There are many others but I don't have the heart to consign them yet to the heap of columns that will not be written. In the New Year, there is hope.

navtej.sarna@gmail.com