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The forgotten books that live on in our hearts

Some books are like that. The feelings they arouse, go on to mean much more than what the contents of the book did.

November 21, 2021 / 08:44 AM IST
Illustration by Suneesh K.

Illustration by Suneesh K.

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.

A Stone for Danny Fisher by Harold Robbins coverSimilarly, 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.

A Stone for Danny Fisher was a heartbreaker and left a hole in the heart that even the passage of decades hasn’t filled. Over the years, fused with the guilt trip around my father’s painful death, it has become like a maudlin jukebox tune that I just can’t get out of my mind.

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Around that time I also got to read Death of a Salesman and then watched Alyque Padamsee play Willy Loman in the play. At that early stage of life, I could barely identify with the anxieties and doubts that Arthur Miller voiced so eloquently but I have carried a bit of Biff and some of Happy in my mind these last 30 years.

Some years later I read Middlemarch, and at 21 I barely understood what it meant. Not surprising considering Virginia Woolf called it one of the "few English novels written for adults." But slowly over the years, like a quilt in winter, the warmth of the book grew until it became the balm of troubled nights. Dorothea’s final awakening to the possibilities of life, is a piece of literature the taste of which has never left me. This is the actual bit from the book though I only remember its import:

“There was a light piercing into the room. She opened her curtains, and looked out towards the bit of road that lay in view, with fields beyond, outside the entrance-gates. On the road there was a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby... She was part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining.”

I doubt I have opened the curtains too often but it remains one of the most uplifting moments in a book that I have been privileged to read.

Over the years there have been just a dozen such books. The plot, the characters, the narrative may be forgotten. What stays though is one fleeting memory of something that we take away for a lifetime. It is the greatest gift we are given in the first few decades of our life. Sadly, adulting ends that magic.

South African author Wilbur Smith signing copies of 'Assegai' in London in April 2009. Smith passed away on November 13, 2021. (Image by Vesi Libra via Wikimedia Commons 3.0) South African author Wilbur Smith signing copies of 'Assegai' in London in April 2009. Smith passed away on November 13, 2021. (Image by Vesi Libra via Wikimedia Commons 3.0)
Sundeep Khanna is a senior journalist. Views are personal.
first published: Nov 21, 2021 08:17 am

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