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SECOND THOUGHTS – THE HINDU
Landscapes of the mind
BY NAVTEJ SARNA

Musings on the need for a writing landscape and the vagaries of literary prizes.

Even a fleeting brush with such a city can mark one forever, leave images that can linger in the mind for years, evoke yearnings that tug constantly

Pamuk's istanbul: The author speaks against the background of an Ottoman mosque.

THIS large glass window looks on to a peak the villagers call Shali. The early morning light caresses the valleys, skims the tops of the deodhars and glints off the white walls of the temple that sits atop the peak. Not far beyond the spur on my left lies Mashobra with its sinuous bazaar, its shops under the constant threat of the well-fed monkeys. There is little else to hold the mind or the eye, just the mountain ranges that stretch out in the light blue distance, enveloping their chessboards of light and shadow, aloof in their silences, absorbed in meditation. The old question about a writing landscape arises again. Are the silences enough to constantly feed the mind? Can one narrow bazaar yield enough stories if only one knows how to look for them? Or does one need to be in the midst of it all, rubbing shoulders with characters, living out the adventures, being part of the stories?

Sounds and smell of a city
Orhan Pamuk, the flavour of the literary season because of his recent Nobel, sheds some light. Somewhere he has answered the same question, saying that as long as he can see Istanbul with all its sounds and smells, it is enough for him, for it is that city that has made him. Pamuk has many other companions in writers who have used an enclosed familiar landscape for their fiction — R. K. Narayan in Malgudi, William Faulkner in Yoknapatawpha county and Ruskin Bond with his not-so-fictional Mussoorie, in contrast to the more footloose authors who have travelled far and become part of the worlds that they have written about — Joseph Conrad, V.S. Naipaul, Hemingway, Paul Theroux... .

Pamuk's Istanbul now must be read, not only because of his entry into the Nobel league, but because Istanbul is a world of its own. There are few cities like that — only Damascus and Isfahan come to mind — where everything seems possible, where entire worlds submerge into a crowded lane. Even a fleeting brush with such a city can mark one forever, leave images that can linger in the mind for years, evoke yearnings that tug constantly... ... Standing on the deck of a boat at night going up and down the Bosphorus, floating past minarets and palaces, Asia on one side, Europe on the other. The darkest romance, the deepest contradiction, the sharpest conflict could occur in such a landscape. Every time the boat goes under one of the huge bridges, the two continents seem to connect, clash, merge... and all conversation becomes meaningless, the glass of wine lies on the deck table, untouched.

... Or sitting in the gardens on the Asian side, wondering how people go to work everyday from here to there. The night redolent with flowers, the boat now floating away, towards the darkness of the harbour. I hear the story of pollution, crowds, economic difficulty... but nothing seems to detract from the romance.

... Wandering through the huge courtyard of the Blue Mosque, with its six minarets. There is a quiet and simplicity here that defines the purity of worship and calms the mind. The scale brings to mind the courtyard of the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus, that historical seat of the Caliphs, where the head of St John the Baptist lies buried.

... Or gasping at the huge, apparently weightless dome of the Hagia Sophia, the unique structure which has served both as church and mosque. Civilisations merge, religions coalesce at this crossroads of history.

Literary prizes
Pamuk's Nobel will perhaps repay some of his debt to the city by bringing it to the front rows of bookshelves and to the glass window displays of bookshops. But then every writer does not get the Nobel and the list of those who have not tells its own story about literary prizes. In fact the Nobel Prize for literature started with controversy in its very first year when the Committee chose someone called Rene Sully-Prudhomme over Leo Tolstoi. It continued to court criticism by inexplicably ignoring such master craftsmen like Thomas Hardy, Marcel Proust, Emile Zola, James Joyce (a committee member is said to have asked, "Joyce? Who's he?"), Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, Henrik Ibsen, Chekhov ... and got to George Bernard Shaw only at the age of 69. Shaw told the judges that the money is like throwing a lifebelt to a swimmer who has already reached the shore in safety.

And I have my own list of three favourites among the omissions, so over-the-top that they hardly ever figure even in the generally quoted omission lists. F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author of The Great Gatsby, often listed as the top novel of the last century, got nowhere near the prize. Was it his alcoholism, or his celebration of the lifestyle of the rich and famous, that put off the judges? And Graham Greene who, in book after book, clinically unveiled the human soul. Was it his cynical, baleful gaze that pierced the human condition, his own leaving the church, his relentless examination of deceit, adultery, betrayal that denied him this recognition? And why is that P. G. Wodehouse, "the performing flea of English literature", is never even vaguely mentioned as a possibility? Was it that innocent mistake of the radio interviews for Nazi Germany? Else how can one keep out of any list the man who is said to have made the English language jump through hoops and created an entire world that has delighted readers for a hundred years — unless of course, he was considered too light in humourless Stockholm.

navtej.sarna@gmail.com