I was introduced to Wilbur Smith, the South African author who passed away earlier this week, by a friend in college where we were both studying English Literature. Quite aptly my friend went on to become an archaeologist of repute. The book that I borrowed, and I suspect didn’t ever return, was The Sunbird, about a whispered curse and a chance encounter with a local tribe that lead to the discovery of an ancient civilization and the legendary lost city of Opet, built by those who escaped the fall of Carthage around 149 BC. It was a quintessential Smith thriller. Its scope and scale were grand and the writing built up to a crescendo along with the action.
Subsequently, I read a few other of Smith’s books including When the Lion Feeds and Bird of Prey. Frankly, I have little memory of any of them but I do remember as if it was yesterday, the exhilaration that I felt when I read The Sunbird.
Some books are like that. The feelings they arouse, go on to mean much more than what the contents of the book did. Perhaps it is about one’s state of mind at that moment. At 18, young and full of hope, the clarion call of The Sunbird “Fly for me, Bird of the Sun”, was like an anthem to my own adolescent yearning for adventure.
Similarly, the bitter antagonism of a father and son in A Stone for Danny Fisher by Harold Robbins, echoing the often conflicted relationship I shared with my father particularly at the age when we all were lost souls looking for a cause, makes the book a permanent fixture in my mental book rack. Robbins, too often dismissed as a trashy novelist, was a brilliant essayist of the human condition and in Danny he created a masterly protagonist for whom things just keep going wrong. In the Calcutta of the 1970s, replete with its 18-hour power cuts, bandhs and an under-construction metro rail which had turned the entire city into a vast excavation zone, there were many such characters.