My friends between the pages

My friends between the pages

The lit-company we keep

My friends between the pages

Surpanakha in a Ravi Varma painting

Why do we re-read books, why do they become favourites and live in our minds? The best gift works of fiction offer are those radiant moments when you chance upon characters that move, intrigue, amuse or frustrate you, as a reader, in a special way. Good or villainous, strong or weak, they are people you fall in love with. This happens sometimes, but not often, in a movie.

I made a mental list of my best-of-all fictional friends and was taken aback by the company I keep. I shall skip over the predictable: Rhett Butler, Kim, Hanuman, Karna, Mr Micawber, Scout and Atticus Finch, Holden Caulfield. They are likeable and interesting in a predictable sort of way. My bigger favourites, however, are more puzzling.

Surpanakha and Vali deserve better treatment than they get in our much-loved epic. Imagine having your ears and nose chopped off for merely lusting after a handsome prince. It is not proper to throw yourself at a married male but does that merit mutilation? The fatal arrow which strikes Vali comes from the bow of Rama hiding behind trees, when Vali is engaged in fighting Sugriva. Sugriva then adds to his dishonour by claiming Vali’s wife. And yet, Rama, Lakshmana and Sugriva are glorified while Vali and Surpanakha fall on the wrong side of dharma. Mythology is open to different interpretations and that, really, is the role of fiction. It offers a choice: I’d rather converse with Surpanakha or Vali than with Sugriva, Sita or the Prince of Ayodhya.

The Mahabharata is peopled with fascinating characters. Gandhari intrigues me. A young girl duped into marrying a blind king silently shows her wrath by blindfolding herself for life. She mothers a hundred sons, and lives on while the sons self-destruct or are killed in vainglorious battle. What was her life really like? Here, a particularly appealing character plays a minor role within the story, much like a good actor being given few lines. It allows the reader to stretch his imagination and look more closely at what might have been.

I cut many of my English language teeth on Oliver Twist. Fagin is a favourite. Dickens is blamed for resorting to caricature, especially with his minor characters, but what a caricature this is! The antics of the roguish man help us see clearly the quality of life in the back streets of 19th century London.

Samuel Butler’s near-autographical The Way of All Flesh shows truthfully the anguish of an innocent mind trapped in an unyielding cage of ‘parental affection’ and authority. Such control — always dressed up in the garb of love — is a pernicious evil that is not resisted by society. In this novel the parents who outdo each other in fulfilling their ‘duty to their son’ are both so odious, it is difficult to know which one of them to hate more. Their son Ernest is fortunate in finding himself, although it happens only after he has plumbed the depths of despair.

Robert Graves means more to me as a novelist than as a poet. He is unsurpassable in his ability to imagine the thoughts and actions of his characters, even when they are many centuries away in time. His lesser-known A Wife To Mr Milton is written in the voice of Milton’s 16-year-old bride. The confusion and angst of the young girl married to an egotistical, 30-something poet is distressingly real. The dowry system was prevalent in 17th century England, as it is here, in the 21st. One of the saddest passages in the book is about their wedding night, when Milton discovers that his young wife is with her period. Infuriated, he sends her to her parents and shuns her for months on end. How well we understand.

The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea is a tragedy rendered to perfection by the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. It is about a young boy’s anger against the dashing sailor who becomes the lover of his young widowed mother. The psychological build up of his resentment is exploited by a gang of his friends, all pre-teens like himself. The rationale for the act that follows is as chilling as the act itself. Even so, we empathise with the boy. The compelling truth behind the apparently twisted motive of a young mind will be hurtful to every parent. In a mere 100-odd pages, resentful anger topples emotional stability and justifies the unthinkable. Yukio Mishima killed himself in public by seppuku (ritual suicide) soon after the book was finished. Perhaps he believed too much in the truth of his words.

Readers of the Modesty Blaise series by Peter O’Donnell will understand my fascination with the two protagonists: Modesty Blaise and her aide, Willie Garvin. Each story is a tightly written edge-of-life thriller in which this pair faces very tough challenges and wins. The humour that bonds them in a very close, asexual friendship is forever funny; and very enviable.

The creation of Mr Biswas is Naipaul’s stroke of genius. The story never moves away from the ordinary concerns of this mundane creature and yet it is completely engaging and has that lasting quality which will take you back to it. H G Wells is better known for his science-fiction novels. My favourite, however, is the little novel which gave us Mr Polly. The blundering, utterly serious Mr Polly conveys the essence of human goodness. Meet Polly once and you will certainly want to meet him again.
If there were a prize for the most lovable character ever created, I would give it to Yossarian in Catch 22. As a reader, I love him for all sorts of frivolous reasons; but more than anything, I admire the perspicacity with which he understands the hateful nature of war. Yo-Yo makes every effort to stay alive while all around him his very young friends die tragic, “patriots” deaths.

He is constantly pitted against bullish senior officials who are determined to earn glory in battle by sending younger men (it is the same everywhere, in every war) to fight. Yossarian knows that he must fob off death with all he has because nothing is worth dying for. And how can I mention Yossarian without speaking of Nately’s whore, that incorrigibly sensual woman who sends young Nately nuts with love for her; and who turns completely beserk when she loses him?

I re-read novels to keep in touch with people. I read new novels to meet more people and love some. Who and how many have you fallen for?

(Kavery Nambisan’s new novel, ‘The Story that Must Not be Told’, will be published by Penguin next year.)