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ESCAPE INTO THE HILLS

One evening, when I had run out of ideas and overcome by lethargy, I sat gaping at the wall of books facing me and the shelf beside my armchair. Normally when I am in this blank mindlessness, I take a stroll round my little garden. I could not do that because it had been pouring since morning and the chill seeped into my bones. I had a fire lit and thought I’d listen to some music. I felt too lazy to look for the right tape to put in my 20-year old cassette player. I began to pull books out of the shelf to see if any would interest me.

I came to Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Bound. I had read Roth’s novels and had been very taken by him. But this one I had not read. Probably what had daunted me was its size — nearly 900 pages. It would take a week or more to go through it. I didn’t have that kind of time as I had come to Kasauli to get on with my own novel, which was not shaping out as well as I had hoped.

However, I opened Roth’s book to see why I had overlooked reading it earlier. It had been gifted to me. The inscription read “With great respects — from Kiran Modi. Dated 2nd July 1992”. I could not recall who Modi was but the name created pleasant vibes. She must be somebody I had liked, who had given the book to me because she shared my admiration for Roth.

I began reading Zuckerman Bound. I read it by the fire side, in bed till sleep overtook me, and for the next four days, till I finished it. I felt angry with myself because I did no writing of my own. It was like a drug I couldn’t get enough of.

The story is of a Nathan Zuckerman, a Jew, born and brought up in Newark (New Jersey), United States of America. He writes a novel, Carnovsky, about American Jews, based largely on his own family and friends. It is a huge success. He gets over a million dollars in royalties and another six million from film rights. Overnight he becomes a celebrity. Everyone in the street recognizes him. Women want to share his bed; he marries three in succession. All is hunky-dory except for the fact that most of his community and his family think he has made fun of them in his novel and turned anti-Semitic.

Dozens of characters come and go in Zuckerman Bound; they tell their tales and disappear. It is like a phuljhari which sparkles and splutters about in all directions before it dies out. For me the most amusing of the characters is a bore who latches on to Zuckerman. He’d been a minor celebrity himself for a short period and wishes to publish a novel like Zuckerman’s and carries his manuscript with him wherever he goes. He hangs on to Zuckerman like a leech, joins him uninvited at dinner, takes half the sandwich Zuckerman leaves on his plate to get away from the bore and follows him to the busstand, talking endlessly.

They pass a delicatessen. Zuckerman accepts his offer of an ice-cream cone. While the bore is inside, awaiting his turn to be served, Zuckerman makes his escape. The bore catches up with him a few days later and renews pursuing him. I found the character particularly amusing because I have to cope with quite a few bores of the same species.

However hurt Zuckerman’s family feel at their portrayal in Carnovsky, they keep their opinions to themselves. They don’t resent his success at their expense. The most touching portrayals are of his parents, his father, a retired chiropodist, and his mother, who oozes with kindness towards everyone. They lead retired lives in tropical Florida. Then the father has a stroke and is taken to a hospital. Members of the family fly in from different parts of the country to be by his bedside. The father has difficulty speaking and the word or two he manages to blurt are not clear. But, the last word he says to his mega-celebrity son, Nathan Zuckerman, sounds like something like “bastard...”

Woman of many parts

Among the visitors who descended on me in my hide-out in Kasauli was Rajni Walia who came all the way from Shimla to spend a couple of hours with me. Rajni is colourful in every sense of the word. She was decked up like a filmstar ready to face the cameras: heavily made-up, a dupatta with colours of the rainbow and a paisley-shaped bindi more colourful than any I have seen. She carried a handbag studded with stones and marbles of many hues.

“Where on earth did you get that”, I asked.

“Baghdad,” she replied. “My dad was adviser to the Iraq government for some years, I spent quite some time with him and did a lot of shopping.”

“And what do you do'”

“I am the associate professor of English literature at the government college, Shimla.”

“Why Shimla' Why not Chandigarh or Delhi'”

“My husband is in the Himachal Pradesh forest services. Shimla is his base.”

“Can you tell me the name of the tree under which we are sitting”, I asked her because I was still uncertain of its identity.

“Toon.”

“And that big one facing us'”, I saw a lot of langoors on it eating its leaves.

She took one glance and replied, “Himachalis call it Khirik. My husband will give you its Latin name. I have picked up information about trees because I often go out with him on tours into the hinterland.”

“Where else have you been'”

“Just about everywhere,” she replied and fished out a book from her handbag. “I did this in Australia. It was written under the guidance of David Parker, professor of English at the Australian National University, Canberra.”

Rajni Walia has written the book, Women & Self: Fiction of Jean Rhys, Barbara PYM & Anita Brookner. I had not read anything by these ladies; nor I suspect, have many Indians. The one thing that they share (according to Rajni) is their disappointment in love and marriage: something most women in love, married or single, experience in their lives.

Rajni has an MA, M.Phil and a PhD from the Punjab University, and is a first class first throughout. She is currently writing on contemporary Indo-American women’s fiction. Appearances are deceptive. This lady I took as a light-weight because of the care she had taken in decking herself is quite a scholar. Long after she left, the fragrance of the perfume she wore lingered in the pine-scented air of my little garden.

A manner of speaking

I love to see Vajpayee ponder and pause

When an interviewer asks him a

question, complex and deep.

Vajpayee closes his eyes and does not

speak for minutes —

Till the interviewer himself falls

asleep.

I love to see Sonia Gandhi read her

speech

From a text written in Hindi chaste

With an accent foreign in tone and

timber

Like a tube filled with desi paste.

I love to see Laloo Yadav ridicule his

rivals

Particularly when he is in pastrol form,

His English words fall on urban ears

Like hailstones in a summer storm.

I hate to see Narendra Modi wax

eloquent

On the awakening of fascists in

slumber

And decry those who happen to be in

minority

But go on multiplying their number!

(Courtesy: G. C. Bhandari, Meerut)

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