A few months before I finished school, due to a set of circumstances that don’t lend themselves to a brief explanation, my siblings and I stayed for several days at the home of a friend of our mother’s. I was 15. The house had what I recognise in retrospect was probably a mostly decorative library, but it contained real books, and I spent hours perusing them. Some lines from a novel I found then remain indelible to me, and they return now to describe my chance discovery of it: “Who lays the crumbs of food that tempt you? Toward a person you never considered. A dream. Then later another series of dreams.” I don’t know what made me open Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, what tempted me toward what was an unusual choice for my reading tastes back then, but I do know that it permanently changed those tastes – and me. That was a book that raised me. I became an adult as I turned its pages, emerging in new skin, freshly initiated, as I closed it.
In the past few weeks, I’ve been slowly reading Ondaatje’s latest novel, Warlight. Like any Ondaatje after my first one, I came to it not with a sense of excitement but a sense of trust. Some books, and some bodies of work, are simply reliable that way. The time you spend with them is like seeing someone you share a long affinity with – sometimes you will speak of nothing special, but the point is that it is never transactional. Something caught my eye this time: on the page with the list of the author’s prior works, each title had a year in brackets after it. I’d read many of them, but what I’d never clocked was their chronology. Of Ondaatje’s 20 books, his first five – published between 1967 and 1976 – were obscure poetry collections. His life didn’t begin with his fame, and neither do decades of fame sum up his life.
Pondering that list gave me much for one of my current preoccupations: the deeply discursive questions of interior lives, and how, say, the volume of 20 books stands against every other method in which to measure 75 years of life. It reminded me of something my father innocently said when I signed a book contract once, for a work that wouldn’t be released for over a year later: “But what will the publishers do until then?” The same holds for what people imagine the author does, and this is true of everyone whose work requires a public presence. I nuzzle these contemplations often, applying them gently to everyone I encounter. This is bridge-work, for it helps me not only parse the lacuna between what is perceived of me and the true fabric of my days, but to also engage more meaningfully in those encounters.
These lines from Warlight say it all: “I could have entered and roamed within the story of their marriage as easily as I might have within the lives of others who had surrounded me in my youth, who were part of my self-portrait, composed from the way they had caught glimpses of me.”
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 19th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.