The territory of nonfiction is a strange one– hard to gauge, harder to pick and choose from, and hardest perhaps to make justice to when it comes to feature posts like these. But fortune favours the brave, and we, at SPREAD consider ourselves extremely fortunate that we were brave enough to convince Indradeep Bhattacharya to put pen on paper for us. Dear readers, savour!
It was because of professional compulsions that I started reading nonfiction more aggressively than ever around 2011. To begin with, the titles I chose were mostly journalistic memoirs which I thought would give me some insight into the ways of the world of print media. And oh boy! didn’t I enjoy it! That I now read at least three nonfiction for every novel is largely due to these early titles that I chose. I was plain lucky.
In December 2011, I picked up a memoir of the noted journalist from yesteryears, Harish Chandola, called At Large in the World. It turned out to be, I must say, one hell of a book. Chandola, now in his eighties and residing in the hills near Joshimath, used his annual leave in 1952 to travel to Tibet on foot with local border traders. They started from Mana, the last Indian village along the Tibetan border and walked up along the Saraswati River to reach the 19,000-ft Mana Pass, on the other side of which lay the land of the Dalai Lama. If you thought that was enough, wait. It was the time China was beginning its incursion into the region. Chandola took the Chinese army by surprise. An Indian journalist was the last thing they expected as they were surreptitiously building a 1,700-km highway connecting Lhasa to Beijing. They didn’t know what to do with him. Eventually, Chandola was detained by the Chinese Army for three months. Back in Delhi in 1954, he exclusively reported the construction of the road that he predicted would change the whole continent’s geopolitics once and for all. Prime Minister Nehru refused to believe the story. As I read the pages of Chandola’s gripping memoir, I realised the import of the saying — Truth is stranger than fiction — all over again. And that even while reading nonfiction, you might sometimes need what is commonly called the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’.
And I have not looked back since. For the next few years, I read only nonfiction. The next title I took up was Our Moon Has Blood Clots by Rahul Pandita. An unputdownable book, once again. Today, as Kashmir stands on the brink of history, I cannot help going back to the book, which the author subtitled ‘A Memoir of a Lost Home in Kashmir’. Let me share a passage with you, where Pandita movingly describes one of his many experiences of forced relocation, as a child in the valley:
Later that evening, the lights went off. Jaayen to jaayen kahan.. whenever I hear this melancholic song by Talat Mahmood, I am reminded of that October evening in Baramulla. The lights went off and with them, our hopes were extinguished too… Confusion reigned on the roads. Families ran helter-skelter to safer places. Some of them carried the idols of their deities in wooden boxes. I saw an old man holding his hookah under his arm. A young girl carried over the shoulder of her father. A rag doll had fallen from her hand. And her father would not even stop to pick it up… In the moonlight, the tall, lean poplar trees appeared to touch the sky.
Sounds familiar. Doesn’t it? This can be about last night in Pulwama or Tral. That’s another thing about nonfiction. It clicks with you instantly if you pick up the right book.
In the following months, I diversified. I read books on cricket, religion, travelogues, biographies, essays, collection of letters. I took an automatic liking to narratives of war. Books like Poetry of the Taliban or We Crossed a Bridge and It trembled had me stay up all night. While the first title is self-explanatory albeit almost oxymoronic, the second book is an astonishing collection of intimate wartime testimonies from Syria. I read them and I trembled.
The other thing that nonfiction has done to me is that it has got me acquainted with my favourite authors in ways that their fiction could never have done. It was almost obvious from the very beginning that I would talk about Marquez at some point in this write-up. Now is the time. The book that I have enjoyed most besides his most memorable fictional works is undoubtedly Living to Tell the Tale, his famed autobiography. What a title! I could have never known Gabo up close and personal had I not read this book. It captures the great man’s entire literary pursuit: To wage a war with his words as weapons. Colonel Aureliano Buendia organized 32 armed uprisings. But what could Garcia Marquez do for the liberal cause? He could live to tell the tale. Of tyranny, usurpation, exploitation, massacre. Hence the title. Imagine its power!
Talking about titles, I was overwhelmed by the title of Frieda Lawrence’s autobiography Not I, But the Wind. Ooooohhhh! I become so happy just by uttering the title. I must admit, I have never been so moved by the title of a book. Read it aloud a couple of times and take it in. For the uninitiated, Frieda was the German wife of Lawrence’s college professor, Ernest Weekly. The two met in April 1912 when Lawrence had gone to his former teacher’s home looking for a job. He was 27; she 32 and mother of three. She immediately began an affair with Lawrence. They left for the continent on May 2. Thus began their conjugal life which was more like what we today call an open relationship. They both had many lovers throughout their lives, but they stayed committed to each other in a way very few of those who knew them could understand. Once I had read the book, Lawrence’s fiction opened up new vistas in front of me. I didn’t know how to react when I found that Lawrence wrote stories like The Odour of Chrysanthemums around the same time, emphasizing the wife’s tragic recognition of her responsibility for the failure of marriage and the destruction of her husband. In Sons and Lovers, however, Lawrence’s sympathy shifts, subtly but surely, towards the wife. When I read them the second time after reading Frieda’s confessional book, they conveyed so much more to me.
I can go on and on. I can never forget my excitement when I read Tavleen Singh’s Durbar for the first time. I read out long passages to my friends and family. Again, when a school friend suggested to me the fascinating book called Indian Summer, the very first paragraph stumped me. Dealing with the last days of the British empire in India, the book starts:
In the beginning, there were two nations. One was a vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organized and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swathe of the earth. The other was an underdeveloped, semi-feudal realm, riven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate, diseased and stinking masses. The first nation was India. The second was England.
Is the irony any less astonishing than ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged’ etc.?
Have you ever been to Point Nemo? No, you haven’t. Point Nemo is the furthest point from land on Earth. Officially known as the oceanic point of inaccessibility, it’s located near Antarctica. It is so far from land that the closest humans to Point Nemo are usually astronauts — the International Space Station orbits the Earth from a distance of about 258 miles, while the closest inhabited spot to Point Nemo is more than 1,670 miles away.
Have you read the Voynich Manuscript? No, you haven’t. The Voynich Manuscript is a 240-page medieval tome written in an unknown language that has baffled scholars and code-breakers for years. The manuscript is believed to have originated sometime between 1404 and 1438. It is filled with enigmatic illustrations and diagrams that seem to depict everything from unusual plants to women with swollen bellies bathing in green pools. All attempts to translate the book’s text, including the latest one by Alberta University professor Greg Kondrak, have failed.
Trust me, the world that we inhabit is a marvellous and fantastic place. There are far stranger things happening out there than are dreamt of in your philosophy. While writing fiction, we only state what is probable and within the grasp of our imagination. But the nonfiction writer is not stymied by such limitations. He has so much more to play with.
If I have put forward my case convincingly, here is a list of nonfiction titles from which you can pick your choice:
- The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
- Durbar by Tavleen Singh
- The Lover of Unreason by Yehuda Koren & Eilat Negev
- We Crossed a Bridge and It trembled by Wendy Pearlman
- Indian Summer by Alex von Tunzelmann
- Aarushi by Abhiruk Sen
- Not I but the Wind by Frieda Lawrence
- Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- The Last Englishman by Deborah Baker
- Commandante: Inside Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela by Rorry Carrol
Title Image by Eugenio Mazzon
Book covers from Google Images