Reading through a heatwave

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The air is still and the heat steady. After a few days of attempting to endure the ‘real’ temperature outside, I’ve succumbed to switching on the air-conditioning in the day. It feels as if I’ve been pulled out of the oven and given an iced towel to be revived. Just recently, it was the reverse back in London when the heating was still on. I left the UK just as the British ‘heatwave’ arrived and I can safely report that they haven’t seen anything like this (yet).

April-May in Chennai for me was all about the school holidays – where the days began early with a bike ride to the beach or around quiet, leafy streets and simply stretched from one satisfying meal to another, with the weekly ‘oil’ bath to cool the body down. Books stacked under the bed played a large part too.

Cousins would show up from other towns and cities and sleepovers organised. We’d play card games sharpening our competitive spirits – “Bluff”, “Ace” or easy “Rummy”. The carrom-board would come out with the ivory strikers hitting black or yellow wooden discs into the four pockets, with pocketing the sole red piece being the big prize. Or we’d play the more traditonal pallanguzhi – the wooden block with fourteen bowl-shaped holes and two wider square-shaped ones on either side. I’d be in awe of those who could drop the cowrie shells into each hole at great speed. The more you are able to accumulate, the better for you. Or, we’d draw the daayakattai squares on the floor with chalk and roll the heavy brass matchstick shaped dice. Attack, cut, win – simple rules of any group games. At mealtimes, we’d be asked to sit around in a circle and given rice mixed in with vatthakuzhambu and roasted appalam with another round of rice and yogurt with a pinch of mango pickle. All this feels like another life in another time – especially in these days where we seek out more and more variety and sophistication in the food we eat, in the games we don’t play – or do, from the solitary company of the smartphone.

Perhaps, the one simple thing that has still managed to last is the book and the reading habit. Books have always been windows into another world, another person’s mind. Two recent books I’ve read happened to be accounts of middle-aged men who look back at their lives with cynical clarity (Ties, Domenico Starnone and The Only Story, Julian Barnes).

The triptych structure is used to excellent effect in Ties – where the first section starts with the account of a wronged wife whose husband has left her for a younger and more beautiful lover, leaving her to look after her two young children. The second section is the man’s perspective from a later time, looking back on his transgression and his decision to return to his family out of a sense of duty. He still has an eye for a pretty face but when they come back to a ransacked house after a holiday, he begins to lose his mind as secrets from his past seem to have been exposed. The last section is from the point of view of his two children who are now middle-aged and are products/victims of their parents’ conduct. This book is translated from Italian by none other than Jhumpa Lahiri, who has taught herself Italian in the past few years to high standard. For me, the story was too dull and dreary, essentially about a self-centred man with a controlling wife and perfect lover. The stilted style, similar to Elena Ferrante who, if she is Anita Raja, is married to this writer. The theory is they wrote the popular My Brilliant Friend series of books together.

Julian Barnes held my attention a lot better than Starnone – perhaps because the language was not translated and the love between a 19 year old man and a 48 year old married woman he meets at the tennis club genuinely felt authentic. It is also a slow disintegration of what starts off as a match made in heaven. It is a little unbelievable in places, but a sad tale of love being insufficient to hold two people upright.

So much for the well-established writers of European origin. With me now is a translated Tamil novel Seasons of the Palm that is supposed to be an account of the everyday brutality of a caste society. Twinkle Khanna’s collection of short stories titled The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad feels like R K Narayan has spoken to her in her dreams. The title story is impressive. I think I’m sorted for reading material to take me through this heatwave.

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