Lolita’s big grey eyes stare at me from a distance. In the past few days, wherever I have gone, she has accompanied me; silently, she has watched me. Often, in an idle state of mind, I have touched her, flipped through the pages that contain her, and abandoned her, halfway through the act. In a religiously followed routine, she is riding the metro with me and travelling in the rickshaw with me. These days, she sits in my backpack throughout the day and then comes back home with me. It seems like an act of infidelity, touching her, virgin, as she rests in my backpack. Lo. Lee. Ta. I tell her that she will have to wait, perhaps for a few more days, before I am ready for her; for the light of Humbert Humbert’s life; the fire of his loins.
I am, for the lack of a better word, an inconsistent reader. When I finish reading a book, I need to give myself, what I call the ‘waiting period’. In this period, however long it may stretch, I let the words sink in me. Thread by thread, I like to unravel each sentence. Often, in a tizzy, I pick up the book I have been reading and flip through its pages, with the urgency of a dying man. The sentence, the word, the thought bothering me is lost somewhere in the sea of those metamorphosing words. When I finally find the cause of my distress, I realise how naive I was in my interpretation. How could I have not seen that hidden layer; how did I miss the inside stitch?
However, to say that every book leaves me in a state like this would be dishonest. It doesn’t happen always, but when it does, it leaves me exhausted; the process of knitting a pattern of thoughts and tearing it apart. Last winter I started reading Sylvia Plath’s extremely disturbing The Bell Jar. Not being a fast reader, I took my time with the book, like I do with every book I pick. I savoured it slowly, instead of gulping it down like bitter medicine. Each day, as I turned its pages, Plath’s beautiful words grew on me. I was possessed; I became obsessed with Plath and her life.
“It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get at.” These lines have haunted me in my solitary moments. I remember staring at the red grip of my kitchen knife, tempted to find out, that secret place, that deep hidden corner, where lay that thing I wanted to kill. What was it that I wanted to kill? Touching my wrist, as I felt the blood rushing through my veins, it felt as if something was wrong. I was possessed, not by Plath, but her thoughts. So much so, that I was beginning to forget my limits. The lines, suddenly, were blurred. It was as if I was losing myself to Plath and becoming a creature of a subconsciously borrowed depression.
The day I read the first few words of the book, she became a part of me. Plath’s book is the reason why I cannot touch Lolita. How can I, when Plath’s words, still sometimes, keep me awake at nights? The great Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges, once while describing himself had said, “I am not sure that I exist, actually. I am all the writers that I have read.” In his extraordinary thought, Borges has said what I have tried to say in so many words. I too, like Borges, am all the writers that I have read. I am Plath, and I am Rulfo (Juan). I am Marquez (Gabriel Garcia) and I am Pessoa (Fernando). But, I am also the characters they write about. I am Eva who lives in a Cat. And I am the little girl who played the piano above Bernando Soares’s house. I am also the mad Susana, who Pedro (Paramo) loved so dearly, and I am Esther Greenwood who has gone mad ricocheting between “the active and happy”, and “introspectively passive and sad” states of mind.
All of us, no matter who we are, no matter where we live, associate with the city we live in, in different ways. To my mother, her association with her hometown is the inescapable Narmada that flows within her (and my) home city. She, often, perhaps in search of peace, sits at the bank of the river with her feet dipped into the water. To my father, his association with the city he loves so dearly are the now-defunct cinema houses he frequented every Friday, in the days of his youth. Baba will always burst into a story or two the moment you mention the name of a ‘Talkies’ as he likes to call them, or you name a film that he watched in one of his favourite theatres. For me, my association with my hometown has always been the library I was a rather proud member of. It was called the Universal Book Depot, a bookstore-cum-library that was holding my world together in the hardbound pages of its books.
That library, till date, remains the most vivid memory of my childhood. In that library, I was Alice, wandering in the wonderland. In that library, I bumped into Sherlock and Watson. I became friends with Huckleberry Finn; with the Famous Five and the Secret Seven I solved so many mysteries. On days I went hunting for a wild boar with Obelix. The Harry Potter trio became a quartet in that library, as I joined their war against Voldemort. My teenage heart could never forgive Scarlett O’Hara for being horrible to Rhett Butler, but more importantly it could never forgive me, for seeing so much of myself in Scarlett; loathsome, wicked, scheming little Scarlett.
In those days, I had a habit of telling Baba about every book I read. I would sit on his lap with the book in one hand and tell him everything I had read so far. Baba would get to know, not just about the story, but also about the characters in it, and how I felt about them. After listening to me, rather patiently, Baba would add his two bits. He would tell me how he felt about those characters, and how I should explore the various shades in them and not shy away from the dark ones. Quoting examples of books like Acharya Chatursen Shastri’s Vayam Rakhsamah, which is an exploration of Ravana’s character, he would tell me not look at the world through a black and white lens. He would ask me to follow the dark characters, to understand their psyche. His advice made reading more fun. Now, I would not just follow the story, not just journey with the protagonists, but also with the antagonists. He taught me to find meaning, to be an explorer. He asked me to build my own relationship with the characters, which was based on my understanding of them.
Even today, whenever I have a long conversation with Baba, he asks me about the book I am reading. He asks me what it is about, what the characters are like and in what ways I interact with them. Today, when I am not the little girl who could sit on his lap, when I have left behind me, the house and the sleepy little town I grew up in, when life has changed me so much that sometimes, people from the past struggle to find, in me, the person they once knew and were so fond of, one of the few things that has remained unchanged is my relationship with the written word. That remains static.
Pierre Menard, whose unfinished works (for such were the capabilities of the man) included the Quixote, wanted to recreate Don Quixote, not another Quixote (which would be easy) but Quixote itself. What he writes, in his recreation, is word-to-word similar to what Cervantes wrote, but still is richer in context than the original work, his literary reviewer wants us to believe. “Cervantes’s text and Menard’s are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer. (More ambiguous, his detractors will say, but ambiguity is richness)“, writes Menard’s reviewer. Whether or not one should believe him is not important, what is important is to perceive what the reviewer could in his readings of Menard and Cervantes.
Borges, in his short story, Pierre Menard, the author of the Quixote, means to tell us that nothing is original, there’s nothing that has not been thought before, dreamt before. What one thinks, has been thought before, what one writes, has been written before, and what one imagines, has been imagined before. It is a frustrating thought. It makes one question one’s own existence. Why do we exist, how are we different from the stranger sitting next to us on the metro, or from a man who died a hundred of years ago? Are we, in our thoughts, the doppelgangers of each other? Just faces and body structures are different, scrape the exterior and the bare soul shall look the same for each one.
Pierre Menard stands at a cross-section between the reader and the writer. Menard is a writer of infinite talent, but he is also a reader of acute acumen, for it takes great insight to create layers and layers of depth and meaning in a character, without parting from its original text. If I may dare say, my ambition is to be a Menard of sorts. However, my talent is seemingly less, and I do not have the capabilities of recreating (consciously, at least) the Quixote or the Iliad.
Yet, subconsciously, I have, many a time, written my own versions of the texts that have influenced me. The first time it happened was after I finished reading Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo. Months after finishing the book, one morning I woke up at six with a mad urge to write. It was almost like I was in a trance, some otherworldly force was making me create and so I wrote. I wrote a poem, in which I created a world similar to the world Pedro’s son discovered on his arrival to Comala. In days to follow, whatever I wrote was either borrowed from the book, or resembled it so much that I almost appeared to be a plagiarist.
The book had affected me subconsciously, and so I did not realise what I was doing. I wasn’t aware that I was recreating Rulfo’s work. Was I adding more meaning to it? Was I expressing my thoughts through the words I had stolen subconsciously? Or was it a result of my mediocre talent that had made me steal ideas and words from a great novel? I had no answers.
The written word influences me in more ways than I can hope to understand. My relationship with the text goes beyond the pages that contain them. When I started out as a reader, I knew very clearly what the plot of a book was, what role the character played; I could tell, distinctly, the difference between a character and me. With age, however, as I started reading more into the lines, I stopped journeying with the characters, I became the characters. Therefore, the impact became greater, and perhaps incomprehensible in a conscious state of mind. There have been times when I have been scared of certain characters so much that I have felt their presence in my house. A very sick Susana, moaning in pain, has shared the bed with me on several nights, Mary, Mr Fox’s muse and a creature of his imagination, (from Helen Oyeyemi’s brilliant novel Mr Fox) has often sat on my windowsill and had long conversations with me. It felt like I was sharing Mr Fox’s schizophrenia. It’s delusional but beautiful, that schizophrenic state of mind.
Lolita, that nymphet, that gorgeous little thing, who bewitched Humbert Humbert the moment he saw her, is going to be my companion for the next few months. The minute I read the first line of the book “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins“, I knew I will come to share Humbert’s passion and obsession for her. And so, for now, I am letting her rest on my work table, in my backpack, on my bedside, anywhere she wants to. But I will open her, when I am completely ready for her, when I can bear her presence in my small two-room apartment, when I can put up with her demands, and when I have no Susana, no Mary and no Esther to distract me. Not till then, never till then.
Manjiri Indurkar is feature writer for a sociocultural magazine called Democratic World. A fledging journalist, her interests include reading, writing, and eating (words, mostly). She can be found at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kamini Gopal was a wildlife biologist who baked most of her life. She started 22Baker Street - Holmemade Cakes when friends who had tasted her cakes, cookies and pies asked if she'd take orders. The name came about from a love for books and a longstanding romance with Sherlock Holmes.