I’ve always had this fantasy that one day I would read Gabriel García Márquez in the original Spanish. This reading bit was important because I’d read somewhere that his English wasn’t great and the fantasy also included a meeting with him, more than one meeting, a friendship developing (from my side a very respectful one, at first), drinking bouts, walks, laughter, all of this conducted in Spanish, or Castilian, if you like (my command of the language being fluent by this time). Why would this truly great, crazily busy man, a man who no doubt protected his privacy like a tiger, be interested in someone like me? I have no answer, except in the fantasy for some reason he found this Indian fan, this bhakt who was a year older than his first-born, amusing for short periods of time. The reading bit was also important because all of us who read him in English knew that we weren’t really reading what GGM had written, what we were reading were possibly stunningly good reconstructions of the original. The fluency in Spanish was important because I imagined speaking to him about my world as well as his, so I would need to convey things, stories, songs, poems, jokes, tell him about Ritwik Ghatak, say, or the bauls, or Mohammad Rafi, share scurrilous jokes about film actors and Indian politicians, try and interest him in the surreal drama of cricket if not its exact mechanics.
As I’ve written elsewhere, I was pointed towards One Hundred Years of Solitude when I was in my early twenties and living in New York City. The pleasurable shock of reading that book is still vivid in my bones. Looking back, I realize I was till that point completely a hostage of el Norte, of the Anglo-Americo-European north, and its limited notions of what comprised a good story, what comprised a novel, what comprised the list of narrative forms admissible in a serious work or art. As I got sucked into the great filigree of García Márquez’s narrative I felt as if I’d been given back a trunk of family treasures that had been stolen from me when I was eight years old, the age when I first began reading English properly. Sweltering in that New York August, suddenly the Ramayan, the Mahabharat, the Panchatantra, and all the crazy folk tales, were all back with me, all of them now open pathways, inviting me out of the deep parochialism that often streaks through places that imagine they are the centre of the universe.
Speaking of Hemingway and Faulkner, GGM writes about how writers read others’ novels only to figure out how they are written: “We aren’t satisfied with the secrets exposed on the surface of the page: we turn the book around to find the seams. In a way that’s impossible to explain, we break the book down to its essential parts and then put it back together after we understand the mysteries of its personal clockwork.”
In those days I wasn’t particularly interested in reverse-engineering GGM’s prose joinery. It was films I wanted to make, fiction and documentary, so the taking apart was what I and others like me did with cinema (which in those pre-VHS days involved going back to a theatre to see a film n number of times), while books were purely for pleasure, for the deepening of insights, for inspiration.
After GGM (in those days everyone referred to him as ‘Márquez’ rather than the correct ‘García Márquez’) I discovered Rushdie’s mint-fresh Midnight’s Children and then the pleasures of Günter Grass’s novels. Other Central and South Americans began to show up in the bookstores, while from India Allan Sealy and Amitav Ghosh’s first novels joined the sprawl of magic realist work. For many of us, these ‘Márquezian’ narratives (as people called them) were great fodder for script ideas, for images and sequences in imaginary feature films. I remember for the longest time in the early 1980s my big project was a film set in Gujarat and Rajasthan based on GGM’s great novella, Innocent Eréndira. It was to be a great masterpiece. In my mind, I met ‘Senor Márquez’ at Cannes or Berlin and showed him the film; of course he loved it; he clapped my back and said “Just call me Gabo! Mrinal does!” “Yes, Gabo-da!” What actually happened was that Indira was assassinated in the time of Eréndira. India’s own brand of magic realism imposed itself, a recognizable cousin of the South American genre, yet very different. I remember the aftermath of Mrs Gandhi’s death and the grim darkness pervading the winter-time New Delhi I visited a couple of months later. I remember reading GGM’s The Autumn of the Patriarch around this time. In the gargantuan character of the dictator created from the composite of many different Latin American despots, I immediately recognized some things with a jolt. And yet, there were certain things missing, their gods were different, their knives were different, their chamchas were different. And then again, speaking about the novel in an interview he gave later, García Márquez nails it perfectly for any student of recent Indian history: “The more power you have, the harder it is to know who is lying to you and who is not. When you reach absolute power, there is no contact with reality, and that’s the worst kind of solitude there can be. A very powerful person, a dictator, is surrounded by interests and people whose final aim is to isolate him from reality; everything is in concert to isolate him.”
If dictators get trapped in their solitudes often, so do artists who become very famous in their own lifetimes. We’ve seen people as different as Picasso and Satyajit Ray becoming imprisoned in citadels they could, ironically, only have created from a genius to which openness was intrinsic. GGM was no exception to this rule. Here is a man who starts his writing career scribbling incessantly on rolls of newsprint he nicks from the newspaper where he works. He does journalism during the day and writes stories at night, sitting in the printing room of the newspaper, in cafés or in a rented room in a whorehouse. Even though he has a few books of fiction published and in the market, he earns not a penny of royalty till he’s past forty; in Calcutta terms he’s the man who writes for the small-magazine, who’s happy when a publisher forks out money to bring out a small edition of a chotto-uponnyash, a novella. When he sends off a copy of his first big novel to his publisher, his wife has to sell things in the house to afford the postage between Bogota and Buenos Aires (one immediately thinks of Mrs Ray selling her jewellery to help fund Pather Panchali). By the time he passes from our midst, GGM has five houses between Latin America and Europe, all of them furnished in identical white, with an identical Mac computer in each. By the time he reaches his eighties, he’s close friends with Fidel Castro and good buddies with Bill Clinton, he lunches with Kissinger and gets drunk with Noriega, the Panamanian strong man. After the Nobel in 1982, the ivory-towers are there, but there are also a few strong books he manages to finish.
Looking back, I realize that many of us in India who were inspired by GGM never finished a classically magical-realist film or wrote a magical-realist novel. I think the luckier ones of us have managed to distil his inspiration in trying to find out our own honest and dynamic forms. But even as we’ve done this, the man’s great work, light and deep at the same time, has stayed with us, as have his ideas, his insights and his images. Here, for instance is the dictator from The Autumn of the Patriarch assuming control over the country: “In the midst of the rockets of celebrations, the bell-ringing of glory and the music of pleasure with which the event of the civil canonization was celebrated, he busied himself in person to see the decree was carried out without any dubious manoeuvres so as to be sure they would not make him the the victim of new tricks, he picked up the reins of reality again with his firm velvet gloves as in the days of great glory when the people cut off his path on the stairs to beg him to restore horse racing in the streets and he so ordered, agreed, that sack races be revived and he so ordered, agreed, and he would appear in the most miserable of villages to explain how they should put hens in their nests and how calves should be gelded...”
Gabriel García Márquez has written about many things, love, memory, nostalgia, landscapes devastated by human greed, workers massacred by murderous corporations, memories of planned massacres wiped out by the rain of amnesia, whole seas belonging to a country sold off to other countries, and we can remember with pleasure or terror some image or insight of his. Today, two days after the laundry line of time flies him up and away from us, I keep thinking of the simple observation that is at the core of his fiction, the one he makes after spending time with a lot of power-hungry men: “A very powerful person, a dictator, is surrounded by interests and people whose final aim is to isolate him from reality; everything is in concert to isolate him.”