I was introduced to Indian poets and authors while in school. I read Rabindranath Tagore, Sarojini Naidu, contemporary poets like Nissim Ezekiel, Keki N Daruwala, Dom Moraes before I got to read serious Indian novelists. R K Narayan and Anita Desai were exceptions though, I soaked myself in Narayan’s novels ‘The Guide’, ‘Bachelor of Arts’, ‘The Financial Expert’. I started reading Anita Desai a little later; while other Indian novelists like Raja Rao, Mulk Raj Anand, Manohar Malgoankar and Kamala Markandeya had to wait till I began college.
New Century Bookhouse located in Mount Road, published books written by Russian authors. They undertook translations of Russian writers in Tamil, writings of Marx, Lenin, Stalin were translated in Tamil for propaganda of Marxist ideology. The books were dirt cheap, booklets with collected essays of Marxist thinkers could be bought for a song. One could buy the Tamil translation of ‘Das Kapital’ for twenty rupees, and small booklets cost ten rupees. Since profit did not drive the publication of books in New Century Bookhouse, books written by great authors like Tolstoy, Pushkin, Maxim Gorky, were affordable.
I bought hardbound volumes of Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’, ‘Anna Karenina’ , and Gorky’s ‘Mother’ from New Century Bookhouse and those were the first of my collection of books. I was about fifteen when I read ‘Anna Karenina’. I remember reading the book during a summer break from school. I became engrossed in the plot of the story, the diverse threads of the plot kept me hooked, the characters cohabited with me through the long hours that I read the book every day.
Anna reminded me of strong women characters from the novels I had read, especially Catherine of ‘Wuthering Heights’ and Maggie Tulliver of ‘Mill On The Floss’. Like them I found Anna Karenina sensual, restless, agonized by a world that she found inadequate, searching for a dream that vanished like vapour. These three women die in the end – that was not the only fate they share; though they were diverse people living through circumstances very different, they were like sisters because they dared to embrace the forbidden, fatally.
I had never enjoyed historical fiction, and that was why I could never proceed beyond a few chapters of’ ‘War and Peace’. I could complete reading Maxim Gorky’s ‘Mother’ though I found it dreary and uninspiring. I found ‘Mother’ dated, working in a specific socio-political context that I could not relate to.
I was near eighteen when I started reading Dostoevsky, I was overwhelmed by intense energy that his novels ‘Crime and Punishment’, ‘Brothers Karamazov’ and ‘Idiot’ represented. Though writing in mid 19th century, I found Dostoevsky a modernist in terms of his thinking, themes and style. His novels were a psychological probe into the human soul, his brooding characters were tormented by existential angst and spiritual turmoil – they anticipated Freud, Jung, Kafka, Milan Kundera in my reading oeuvre.