Wake up. Wash hands. Cook food. Wash hands. Finish editing the article. Wash hands. Eat. Wash hands. Webstream and chill. Wash hands. Eat. Wash hands. Scroll down the news feed. Read. Wash hands. Off to bed. Wake up. Repeat. One day was rolling into another, an endless loop with nothing except sundown and sunrise to mark the fact that the date had changed. The day I picked up my phone to check whether the day was Sunday or Monday, I realized something had to give. I had to break this infinite loop before it started feeling like a noose tightening around me.
I needed help, and so I turned to my oldest and most trusted friends – stories. Stories have always been my portal to different times, different spaces. They’ve been the most stress-free way to make new acquaintances, some who became lifelong friends with permanent spots on my bookshelves and some from whom I grew apart, and they moved on. Continuing with the next one on my 2020 reading list did not feel right. Nothing in 2020 was going as per plan, so why should my reading plan be spared!
The thing with the lockdown and this pandemic is that there is no missing endpoint. No one, not scientists, doctors, experts… no one can do anything more than shrug when asked – when will this end? What we are hoping for is a single word answer, what we get is a thesis filled with data, ifs and buts, and before they get into the appendices, we have tuned off. This lack of an end in sight is unnerving. That’s what my loopy routine needed – a way to mark the end of the day and something new to look forward to the next day. Stories in long-form would not fall in line with this plan. Maybe, short stories? Novellas? And then it struck me – a new acquaintance every day and perhaps to reacquaint with a few who have been sitting around gaining wrinkles.
I start at a happy place – a childhood favourite, Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince. Rereading it after almost three decades, I realize that this time around I catch the parable that the writer has whispered between the lines. I sleep happy that night. Next on the cards are short stories by Philip Roth who had left quite an impression on me last year with his Goodbye, Columbus. The short stories I pick focus on the theme of religion and tolerance without being overbearing. Another childhood favourite Astrid Lindgreen’s Pippi Longstocking sweeps me up in nostalgia. Next, I mix things up with reading a play script, something which I usually do with a group of friends. But, hey friends have dehydrated into pings on the phone and boxes on the computer screen! I pick a long overdue read Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House, a play layered with social and individual tension.
Ibsen’s comment on society nudges me in the direction of Saadat Manto’s short stories. Manto once defended the theme in his writing with these words – “If you cannot bear these stories, then the society is unbearable. Who am I to remove the clothes of this society which itself is naked.” After a quick hey-ho to Herman Melville in the 19th century, a ping on the phone pulls me back to the present. It is India’s favourite cartoonist R K Laxman’s The Best of Laxman, one of the many freebies that are appearing in our realms to help make the lock-in bearable. Another play, this time British dramatist Willy Russell’s One For the Road drives home the point that tragedy when cloaked with comedy hits hard. As I ponder over my next day’s read, a thin spine catches my eye. The cover is a sage green that time has muted down – Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali. A gift, it has sat in the shadows of the tomes around it for half a decade. Yeats, in his introduction, says Tagore’s ‘songs brought out a world that he had always dreamed of.‘ As I read on, I echo this feeling. My tenth date on the tenth day is with British-Zimbabwean writer Doris Lessing. The author’s ability to spot stories in the ordinary through her observation of the vagaries of human behaviour strikes a chord. It’s the kind of writer I hope to become. Ten days of reading a different author each day has added a beat to the hum and drum.
Next, I pick a modern romance Edan Lepucki’s If You’re Not Yet Like Me. A far cry from the teeth-decaying sweet romances I grew up, the writer’s choice of backing a flawed protagonist makes it relatable. I follow it up with Punch Goes Abroad, a compilation of travel articles that initially featured in Punch Magazine. It is speed dating at its best as Miles Kington, Julian Barnes, and a few others do their best to woo me. Day 13 introduces me to a new name, Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose stories lead me to a world I know nothing of and hold me trapped there much after the stories end. From new introductions to the always-and-forever, Ernest Hemingway with A Big two Hearted River and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. The next day brings home The Rich Boy by F. Scott Fitsgerald, which carries some shades of Gatsby.
A tweet alerts me to a new author, Norwegian Joe Fosse. His novella And Then My Dog Will Come Back To Me starts with an innocuous event but soon takes hairpin bend twists and turns. Or does it? The doubts persist though the tale ends. The next few days are what become, by chance not decision, my classic phase. I read Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, William Faulkner and Jack London. The only interruption is Bernard Pomerance’s brilliantly conceived play The Elephant Man, which is read out loud over a Zoom call with a group of fellow readers and followed by a spirited discussion. The classic phase is followed by some contemporary geniuses Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes and another eternal love Haruki Murakami’s The Folklore of Our Times.
A week away from a month of reading a different author every day, and it occurs to me that I have neglected contemporary Indian writers. V S Naipaul‘s Indian origin gets him a foot through the door and his short stories in A Flag on the Island paint a vivid picture of life on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago. From the Caribbean, it is a quick flight back home to Mumbai. Rohinton Mistry’s Firozsha Baug acquaints the reader with life in the Parsi colonies that dot the city. Another Indian writer on my list is Satyajit Ray with his short story Bonku Babu’s Friend. True to his style, the writer uses a straightforward narrative to hold a mirror before us that compels us to examine ourselves, uncomfortable as it may be. Another neglected group on my list is women writers, and with month-end looming close, I turn to two celebrated women. Virginia Woolf’s short stories The Mark on the Wall and Kew Gardens are in her characteristic stream of consciousness style. Her ability to stretch and collapse moments is astounding. She is followed by Alice Munro with The Bear That Came Over The Mountain which redefines love when seen through a more pragmatic lens. It’s day 30, and the recommendation has come from the great Murakami, a name that made an appearance in his short story Kenzaburo Oe. His Aghwee, the Sky Monster delves into the theme of mental disorder with a subtlety that is befitting of the point of view character. I am enamoured, and I see the merit in exploring a longer relationship with Oe.
What next? Perhaps, a new reading goal. For now though I am revelling in the many moments that these stories created in the last thirty days. If it weren’t for them, the days would have connected together in a flatline, and that is no way to live.
Illustrations – Himali Kothari
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