Unbeknownst to many, this time of year marks a whole year’s blogging. Relative to veteran bloggers out there, this is a very humble achievement, but a significant one to me. 56 posts at the last count. For the next 52 weeks (or more), I’ve decided that my blog will reflect some of my thoughts on writing related matters. Another goal is to read at least two books each month.
Both the books I read recently have India in common. The Smile of Murugan by the BBC presenter and historian, Michael Wood, is something I’ve mentioned in an earlier post – this is a book about a pilgrimage taken on by an accident of fate (i.e. destiny) by the author – four years earlier, he’s told by an astrologer in Chidambaram that he would undertake one such journey. Michael Wood’s passion and ability to completely surrender to the experience of a traditional pilgrimage is impressive and quite moving. As he travels on a bus squashed between other pilgrims, for two weeks, his extensive academic knowledge melds with what he sees around him inside the inner sanctums of Saivite shrines all over the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Having grown up in Chennai, visiting temples was an intrinsic part of our lives.
To me there is the combination of the aesthetic and the spiritual that can make it a particularly sublime experience. The aura of centuries old traditions carrying on (from classical times) is ever present, there is the amazing art in stone in the corridors and there is also the serene beauty of the water tank with the symmetrical steps on all four sides. Michael Wood understands the role of the faith-healer when he visits Vaitheeswaran koil and really grasps what a ‘good darshan‘ means – the satisfaction experienced by the devotee when he or she finally finds themselves in front of the deity. Reading this evocative book felt like a spiritual experience in itself. I would also highly recommend watching his six-part series for BBC TV Story of India.
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, by Geoff Dyer, on the other hand leaves the reader with a long list of fairly repellent thoughts – Jeff, a jaded freelance arts journalist, just divorced and approaching 50 (also having coloured his hair for the first time) travels to Venice for the Biennale and spends the next few days in high debauchery. He revels in downing copious amounts of Bellinis (Prosecco and peach puree cocktails) with bitchy colleagues and is strangely, lucky enough to meet a woman with whom he has a lot of sex, graphically described. They progress to doing staggering amounts of cocaine and the trip which he dreads at the start is quite a successful one. Somewhere, his lady love slips in a comment about the decaying city of Venice (with its many waterways) reminding her of Varanasi, where we find Geoff (not Jeff), now in first person narrative, in the second half of the book. This is a comparison I’ve come across for the first time and it’s an intriguing one.
Geoff is apparently tall and slim – in my head, he became a cadaverous image, a prime candidate for the ghats. He wanders the streets of Benares (Varanasi) for weeks on end, lost and aimless in this city, where people come to perform the last rites of their loved ones on the Ganges. He is seeking something, but is so halfhearted about it all – he tries to understand what ‘Hinduism’ is all about – achieves it a little (talks about darshan with some insight), before slipping into delusional fantasies about Ganoona (a cross between Ganesh and Hanuman for him), ending it all with a weak whimper. The acknowledgements page at the end is peppered with references from the Rig Veda, Shakespeare and of course an extensive knowledge of the arts world too – aimed to impress us readers of the author’s erudition. Sadly, not one of the many people he mentions who read the manuscript for him, seemed to have pointed out that ‘sanyasin‘ was feminine. He uses the word repeatedly to describe himself, after he’s shaved his head leaving a little twirl of hair like sanyasis, who are male, would do. There was something quite perverse and cold about this book – in direct contrast to Michael Wood, above.
So, when I resumed my writing this week, I was quite surprised to see the main character in my short-story reflect some of Geoff’s darkness. It fixed the man I wanted to describe firmly in the world I put him in (Hawaii, far away from Venice or Varanasi). Here’s an excerpt:
He could try to be cleverer, have a more considered view on things and arrive at a vaguely profound conclusion to sum up his life, his existence and his need to just not feel a failure all the bloody time. Disappointed that I turned out to be such a disappointment. He could do better than that. Could he really? No, he didn’t think so.
The moral of this story: even a bad reading experience can yield surprising rewards. And what about the satisfying reading experience of the first book? A gift of a different kind.