Anne and I, and those days - In Delhi, memories of a Booker winner from Dublin

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  • Published 18.10.07

Anne Enright, who won the Man Booker Prize on Tuesday for her novel The Gathering, was a classmate of Manini Chatterjee of The Telegraph. Chatterjee recalls their days together in Canada.

Had Anne Enright — in the fashion of Oscar-winning Hollywood stars — thanked all the people who made possible her Booker prize last night, a man called Theo Dombrowski would surely have figured somewhere high on that list.

For it was in Theo’s English classes, spread over two magical years more than a quarter century ago, that literature came alive for Anne and me and a dozen-odd teenagers when we were still impatient to assume the world. And there was no better way, Theo hinted to us, than through the infinite beauty of the written word.

We were students at the Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific, a small pre-university college nestled among giant Douglas firs on Vancouver Island in what is possibly the most beautiful nook in the world. There were students from over 50 countries who spent two years to earn the then little-known International Baccalaureate, and it was something of a college tradition that the Irish and the Indians always made the best of friends.

Anne, I must confess, was not my best friend. Her fellow Dubliner, Fiona Healy, was. And Fiona’s world was divided neatly in two — those who came from the north of the Liffey (the river that flows through the centre of Dublin) and those who were residents of the south. The rich spoilt brats of Dublin all lived south of the river that cut through the city; the working class peopled the north.

Fiona, daughter of a feisty postman, was quintessentially north. (As a young girl, she once asked her father the meaning of the word plutocrat. “A plutocrat,” he replied, “is someone who is stinking rich. We, my dear, merely stink.”)

I may have counted as a southerner if Fiona had met me in Delhi. But in distant Canada, my nascent Marxist pretensions were a substitute for a non-working class background — and Fiona befriended me from the start. Anne, from south of the Liffey, never quite made the cut.

Except in Theo’s English literature class. The Liffey disappeared for a few hours every day as Fiona and Anne and I — the Irish and Indians were also considered the most “literary” since the word “nerdy” was still some years away — had furious arguments about Virginia Woolf and Keats, T.S. Eliot and Shakespeare.

Theo, who loved nothing better than a good literary joust, would encourage us to read between the lines and beyond the lines and even where no lines exist. Was J. Alfred Prufrock a wimp or a prophet? Anne, if I remember right, was a Prufrock fan (and Fiona, naturally, detested him). Literary characters were not boring figures to write weekly essays on; they were closer to us than our siblings had ever been, more intimate than lovers would ever be.

That was true of King Lear — whom all us father-complexed teenagers far away from home truly loved; but it was also true of the despicable Max, the lecherous old man in Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming. And one of the stormiest days in that pacific environ was when some of us insisted that Max was a latter-day Lear.

Even irreverent Theo, whose boundless love for Shakespeare infected us all, could not quite accept that heresy — but ended up giving A+ to the essay that effectively argued the Max-Lear thesis. And then there was Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse — which we analysed to death. One line from that book — ‘If Shakespeare had not existed, would the world have been any different’ — haunted all our discussions on life and literature. Anne, who wrote poetry on the side, had no plans to be a full-time writer then, but she was among those who strongly believed that Shakespeare — and indeed all great literature — did make a difference. In the customary end-of-term wine and cheese parties, everyone in college dressed up in their “national dress.” But at the cosy dinners hosted by Theo, his students were asked to turn up as characters from their literature course. Anne came in a fancy gown and a hat full of feathers, groaning loudly — “My back, oh my back. Ah, but the ceiling, the ceiling.”

It took us ages to figure out who she was — one of the “ladies” who “come and go, speaking of Michelangelo…”, a throwaway line in Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. She had been gazing so long at the Sistine Chapel, her back had given away, you see…. Even Fiona admitted that Anne’s impersonation was truly “clever” (in the positive English sense of the term, and not in the pejorative way we Indians use it.) In the summer of 1981, on my way home after completing the two years in Canada, I spend a few days in Dublin with Fiona. It was only when I visited Anne’s home, south of the Liffey, that I discovered it was no plutocrat’s mansion but just a regular middle class home.

Anne and I spent a lovely, languorous weekend at a farm in County Roscommon, the home of another Irish friend from the college, Jane Clarke. Jane, a country girl, had escaped the class divisions of Dublin but at Roscommon I found older divides that make Ireland so unique.

After two days of endless conversations and walks in the fields, Jane’s kid brother took me aside and said: “You know, Anne is a really nice girl.”

Sure, I said, why shouldn’t she be?

“I mean, she is really nice even though she is a Catholic.”

Young Andrew, it transpired, had never really met a Catholic before, and it was a college in Canada that had brought Protestant Jane and Catholic Anne together. It is this volatile land with its ineffable warmth and passion that has given English literature some of its greatest voices over the years. Anne Enright has just joined that club – but I would like to think that those classes in Canada also did their bit….