Languages of Truth
Before there were books, there were stories. At first the stories weren’t written down. Sometimes they were even sung. Children were born, and before they could speak, their parents sang them songs, a song about an egg that fell off a wall, perhaps, or about a boy and a girl who went up a hill and fell down it. As the children grew older, they asked for stories almost as often as they asked for food. Now there was a goose that laid golden eggs, or a boy who sold the family cow for a handful of magic beans, or a naughty rabbit trespassing on a dangerous farmer’s land. The children fell in love with these stories and wanted to hear them over and over again. Then they grew older and found those stories in books. And other stories that they had never heard before, about a girl who fell down a rabbit hole, or a silly old bear and an easily scared piglet and a gloomy donkey, or a phantom tollbooth, or a place where wild things were. They heard and read stories and they fell in love with them, Mickey in the night kitchen with magic bakers who all looked like Oliver Hardy, and Peter Pan, who thought death would be an awfully big adventure, and Bilbo Baggins under a mountain winning a riddle contest against a strange creature who had lost his precious, and the act of falling in love with stories awakened something in the children that would nourish them all their lives: their imagination.
The children fell in love with stories easily and lived in stories too; they made up play stories every day, they stormed castles and conquered nations and sailed the ocean blue, and at night their dreams were full of dragons. They were all storytellers now, makers of stories as well as receivers of stories. But they went on growing up and slowly the stories fell away from them, the stories were packed away in boxes in the attic, and it became harder for the former children to tell and receive stories, harder for them, sadly, to fall in love. For some of them, stories began to seem irrelevant, unnecessary: kids’ stuff. These were sad people, and we must pity them and try not to think of them as stupid boring philistine losers.
I believe that the books and stories we fall in love with make us who we are, or, not to claim too much, that the act of falling in love with a book or story changes us in some way, and the beloved tale becomes a part of our picture of the world, a part of the way in which we understand things and make judgments and choices in our daily lives. As adults, falling in love less easily, we may end up with only a handful of books that we can truly say we love. Maybe this is why we make so many bad judgments.
Nor is this love unconditional or eternal. A book may cease to speak to us as we grow older, and our feeling for it will fade. Or we may suddenly, as our lives shape and hopefully increase our understanding, be able to appreciate a book we dismissed earlier; we may suddenly be able to hear its music, to be enraptured by its song. When, as a college student, I first read Günter Grass’s great novel The Tin Drum
, I was unable to finish it. It languished on a shelf for fully ten years before I gave it a second chance, whereupon it became one of my favorite novels of all time: one of the books I would say that I love. It is an interesting question to ask oneself: Which are the books that you truly love? Try it. The answer will tell you a lot about who you presently are.
I grew up in Bombay, India, a city that is no longer, today, at all like the city it once was and has even changed its name to the much less euphonious Mumbai, in a time so unlike the present that it feels impossibly remote, even fantastic: a real-life version of the mythic golden age. Childhood, as A. E. Housman reminds us in “The Land of Lost Content,” often also called “Blue Remembered Hills,” is the country to which we all once belonged and will all eventually lose:
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
In that far-off Bombay, the stories and books that reached me from the West seemed like true tales of wonder. Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” with its splinters of magic mirror that entered people’s bloodstreams and turned their hearts to ice, was even more terrifying to a boy from the tropics, where the only ice was in the refrigerator. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” felt especially enjoyable to a boy growing up in the immediate aftermath of the British Empire. And there was Huckleberry Finn, irresistible to a Bombay boy because of its hero’s extraordinary freedom of action, though I was puzzled about why, if the runaway slave Jim was trying to escape the world of slavery and get to the non-slave-owning North, did he get onto a raft on the Mississippi, which flows south?
Perhaps tales of elsewhere always feel like fairy tales, and certainly it is one of the great wonders of literature that it opens up many “elsewheres” to us, from the Little Mermaid’s underwater world to Dorothy’s Oz, and makes them ours. But for me, the real wonder tales were closer to home, and I have always thought it my great good fortune as a writer to have grown up steeped in them.
Some of these stories were sacred in origin, but because I grew up in a nonreligious household, I was able to receive them simply as beautiful stories. This did not mean I did not believe them. When I heard about the samudra manthan, the tale of how the great god Indra churned the Milky Way, using the fabled Mount Mandara as his churning stick, to force the giant ocean of milk in the sky to give up its nectar, amrita, the nectar of immortality, I began to see the stars in a new way. In that impossibly ancient time, my childhood, a time before light pollution made most of the stars invisible to city dwellers, a boy in a garden in Bombay could still look up at the night sky and hear the music of the spheres and see with humble joy the thick stripe of the galaxy there. I imagined it dripping with magic nectar. Maybe if I opened my mouth, a drop might fall in and then I would be immortal too.
This is the beauty of the wonder tale and its descendant, fiction: that one can simultaneously know that the story is a work of imagination, which is to say untrue, and believe it to contain profound truth. The boundary between the magical and the real, at such moments, ceases to exist.
We were not Hindus, my family, but we believed the great stories of Hinduism to be available to us also. On the day of the annual Ganpati festival, when huge crowds carried effigies of the elephant-headed deity Ganesh to the water’s edge at Chowpatty Beach to immerse the god in the sea, Ganesh felt as if he belonged to me too; he felt like a symbol of the collective joy and, yes, unity of the city rather than a member of the pantheon of a “rival” faith. When I learned that Ganesh’s love of literature was so great that he sat at the feet of India’s Homer, the sage Vyasa, and became the scribe who wrote down the great Mahabharata
epic, he belonged to me even more deeply; and when I grew up and wrote a novel about a boy called Saleem with an unusually big nose, it seemed natural, even though Saleem came from a Muslim family, to associate the narrator of Midnight’s Children with the most literary of gods, who just happened to have a big trunk of a nose as well. The blurring of boundaries between religious cultures in that old, truly secularist Bombay now feels like one more thing that divides the past from India’s bitter, stifled, censorious, sectarian present.
and its sidekick, the Ramayana
, two of the longest wonder tales of all, are still alive in India, alive in the minds of Indians and relevant to their daily lives, in the way the gods of the Greeks and Romans were once alive in Western imaginations. Once, and not so long ago, it was possible in the lands of the West to allude to the story of the shirt of Nessus, and people would have known that the dying centaur Nessus tricked Deianira, the wife of Heracles or Hercules, into giving her husband his shirt, knowing it was poisoned and would kill him. Once, everyone knew that after the death of Orpheus, greatest of poets and singers, his severed head continued to sing. These images and many others were available, as metaphors, to help people understand the world. Art does not die when the artist dies, said Orpheus’s head. The song survives the singer. And the shirt of Nessus warned us that even a very special gift may be dangerous. Another such gift, of course, was the Trojan horse, which taught us all to fear the Greeks, even when they bring gifts. Some metaphors of the wonder tales of the West have managed to survive.
But in India, as I grew up, the wonder tales all lived, and they still do. Nowadays it isn’t even necessary to read the full Ramayana
; some may be grateful for this news, because the Mahabharata
is the longest poem in world literature, over two hundred thousand lines long, which is to say ten times as long as the Iliad
put together, while the Ramayana
runs to around fifty thousand lines, merely two and a half times as long as the combined works of Homer. Fortunately for younger readers, the immensely popular comic-book series Amar Chitra Katha, “immortal picture stories,” offers adept renderings of tales from both.