All book reading groups are good things and I commend their efforts. Some, however, want to try, in the time-honoured phrase, something different, such as pursuing a theme, for example, the works of a single writer; but probably more varied and interesting would be novels about a place: a part of a city, the city itself, or the country; works which refract that country through several individual prisms.
Book Groups – Take ‘India’ for example
In our youth, we all read The Raj Quartet, Bhowani Junction, and The Far Pavilions; all excellent in their way and giving readers the chance to live vicariously in pre-independence India and to learn that pyjamas and bungalow are really Hindi words. To repeat the exercise today, from the large pool of Indian English literature, here are a few suggestions for book reading groups.
The God of Small things is the debut novel of Arundhati Roy and, as of today, her only novel since she has opted to devote her time and her considerable, and well-deserved, royalties to championing the under-privileged in India. In style, the novel is somewhat Modernist and the events are not related chronologically. To say too much about any book can be to spoil its impact for new readers so all I will say is that it is set in Kerala and deals with twins who were separated at birth and are now reunited. If that sounds too secretive, this is a quotation from the book itself.
It didn’t matter that the story had begun, because Kathakali discovered long ago that the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings.
Roy was awarded the Booker Prize for her book in 1997 for a work that sparked renewed interest in the contemporary literature of the subcontinent.
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth might never have been published if the much-respected literary agent Giles Gordon had not been immobilised in hospital when the manuscript, standing a metre high, was delivered. He had the enforced leisure to read it. Not so much a book as a saga, it runs to nearly 1,500 pages in the paperback edition. Gordon was hooked, as were the publishers and the public. The story is set in post-independence, post-partition India in the fictional city of Brahmpur and deals with the efforts of Mrs Rupa Mehra to arrange a marriage for her 19-year-old daughter Lata with, of course, a suitable boy. While Lata and her three suitors form the core of the story, it is carefully set against the very real issues and background of India in the 1950s.
A Fine Balance by the Indian-born, Canadian writer, Rohinton Mistry is another doorstep of a book that almost needs two hands to carry but these hands will hold within them a wide ranging tale of India during Mrs Ghandi’s State of Emergency, a period of much expanded government powers and a severe crackdown on civil liberties. The stories of four characters living in and around what is obviously based on Mumbai are sewn together by the events and the sewing machine which is almost a character in its own right. Some critics have compared the sweep of the book’s narrative with Charles Dickens and one could certainly compare and contrast it with Dombey and Son.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie is a book of magical realism based on the concept that every child born at that midnight hour in 1947 (when, on the stroke of twelve, two separate states, India and Pakistan, were created out of colonial India) has telepathic powers enabling them to communicate with each other.The novel went on straight away to win the Booker Prize in 1981. Saleem Sinai, the chief protagonist tells the story which is set against the actual events of those years after independence.
A Son of the Circus is by John Irving. In his Author’s Notes, he writes: “This novel isn’t about India. I don’t know India […] When I was there, I was struck by the country’s foreignness; it remained obdurately foreign to me. […] I began to imagine a man who has been born there and has moved away [yet] who keeps coming back again and again. […] with each return trip, his sense of India’s foreignness only deepens.” Yet, for most readers, this book really is about India besides being a thrilling detective story and a real page-turner.
White Man Falling by Mike Stocks is much less well-known and that is a real shame. For a white author, he manages to think himself inside the skin of Sub-Inspector (retired) R M Swaminathan and into the language and atmosphere of southern India in a way that few could emulate. The Sub-Inspector (retired) wants to know why a white man fell off a balcony and finds the explanation more complex than at first sight. A splendid book!
But I’ve already read them all!
There is a fair chance that book reading group members will have read some or all of these suggestions. However, a good book is like that famous river; you can never enter the same book twice: it will have changed because we, as readers have changed since last we opened it. Each of them is worth another reflective reading.