1. Vyas/Valmiki – Ramayana and Mahabharata – I guess almost every kid grows up reading abridged versions of these books. From pictorial books (series) to comics and novels, I have read poems and novels based on subplots. Hindi literature is rich with such poems and stories. Dinkar wrote famous poem ‘Kurushetra’ and also, ‘Shakti aur Shama’ from Ramayana. For Mahabharata, even different points of view are available. Most memorable, for me, was Duryodhan’s – well-argued in a book called ‘Mahabharat ki ek saanjh’ by Bharat Bhushan Aggarwal. It was first time I viewed Mahabharat with new eyes. Then, I read Draupadi’s point of view. My most quoted poem at school was from ‘I, Draupadi’:
Swayamara was mine
The decision my father’s
My life pledged to a bow and arrow
My life an offering to the shooter of fish…
Years went by….
We started towards our journey’s toward snow-clad Himalayas
I fell first, no Pandava stretched a hand
Towards paradise they walked,
Then I realised heaven too must be for men.
FYI, This poem was written by a man, Kartikeya Sarabhai, son of the scientist Vikram Sarabhai.
More recently, I read another version of Draupadi’s story in ‘Palace of Illusions’ by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. A delightful read, this book tells a racy story with outrageous suggestions and claims (I am deliberately avoiding mentioning other outrageous claims. ) Bhima was only Pandava who loved Draupadi. I am still to finish Ashok Banker’s Ramayna series and am told Bhima’ s version of story is also available somewhere. I am not tired of reading these epics yet, though I can no longer watch any superficial tv/movie adaptation on the same.
2. Premchand – I feel privileged to have read most of works of this great writer in Hindi. It saddens my heart that not only the write die in penury, unrecognised, but also today, again, his work is being ignored. His stories and characters tell tales from the time when India wasn’t yet an ‘emerging nation’ instead was struggling to be on its own. Yet, his characters have that timeless quality – you can spot them amongst all classes and even in your own family. His ‘Godan’ is much more than Naipaul’s ‘A House for Mr. Biswas’. If you ever want to read poignant as well as light stories, closer to home, about people you know, pick up Premchand.
3. Saadat Hasan Manto/Ismat Chugtai – Most of what I have read from these Urdu authors have been translations. And I am told, I have missed a lot. Yet, I treasure reading their stories. They are ‘bebaak’ (irreverent or impertinent would be the closest English word) writers who were tried for obscenity several times. Believe me, none of their writings are obscene just than they don’t shy away from taboo subjects. Even Ismat Chugtai’s accounts of trials (and how they chose not to plead guilty when people all over simultaneously hated them and wanted to shower them with money if they plead guilty) is funny, a translation is available somewhere online.
Some of the most poignant partition stories also have been written by Manto. I may not remember the names of stories but plots are forever etched in my mind. This is a great deal, considering I am an amnesiac.
4. Charles Dickens – My childhood is incomplete without Dickens. As a kid, I rarely watched movies. But I read a lot, largely unsupervised. Other than comics (I ran a comics racket at school), if I was reading any books that were about children, it was Dickens. I was in love with ‘Oliver Twist’ such an innocent, lovable child – my heart went out to him. ‘Great Expectations’ is a hopeful fairy tale where for the first time the god-fearing child in me felt sympathetic to a convict. David Copperfield, said to be largely autobiographical can still give me creeps if I think of Uriah Heep. Anyone remembers? For long time, I refused to watch movie adaptations of these movies for fear it will ruin my imagination. But I liked the screenplay for ‘Great Expectations’; I am still to watch ‘David Copperfield’ though.
5. George Orwell – I was deeply impacted when I read ‘1984’. I even wrote about it here and here– the concepts of authority, thought crimes, thought police and Room 101 are unforgettable and were hugely foresighted for its time. He is originator of the concept that ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Big Boss’ are minting money on today. Then, I read his ‘Animal Farm’ – though he wrote a fable with animal characters of how even an idealistic system can go wrong with corruption. The allegory ‘pigs’, ‘sheep’, horse’ etc. represent are classic. Though Orwell had written that book, inspired by Russian Revolution, it has relevance even today, especially in countries where socialist, totalitarian governments exist. This reminds me of another classic English novel, Watership Down, by Richard Adams. This book though was written as a story (of rabbits) for kids, is also a short political allegory novel. I have written about it here.
6. Agatha Christie/Arthur Conan Doyle – Both of them are amongst very few writers whom I have reread many times. Holmes and Poirot are my favourite detective. I don’t think I need to elaborate on either of these writers.
7. Sidney Sheldon – Now some may object to his name on this list – but I am someone with a healthy appetite for pulp/popular fiction it will be dishonest not to include him here. But, I fell in love with Sheldon books ever since I read his first – The Naked Face, which IMHO is also one of his best. Soon, his plots became a giveaway – there is a secret, a favourite author ploy, which I believe all regular Sheldon readers know that made the finale apparent. Yet, pleasure of reading and the thrill was never diminished. In fact, I learnt more about world from his books – ambitious corporate honchos, ruthless family patriarchs, nuns, Basque county (Sands of time), artists, businesses – what’s more – first novel I read about MPD (Multiple Personality Disorder) was in ‘Tell Me Your Dreams’. (I refuse to read the derivatives tho, I heard they are out in market at the moment.)
8. Jane Austen/Bronte Sisters (Charlotte/Anne/Emily) – Ms. Austen was original ‘chicklit’ author with her witty, smart, proud memorable heroines. And boy, she did the genre proud. Her books are also notable for being laced with interesting social commentary. Pity, most of her work was published as anonymous in her lifetime.
I was much shaken and in dilemma when I read ‘Wuthering Heights’. I didn’t know who my sympathies should lie with in such a torrid plot, where each character, even the villain Heathcliff, was shaped by their treacherous circumstances. I discusses this novel a lot with friends/teachers and found peace only when during a discussion, we came to the conclusion: Just because you were once wronged, your own wrongs cannot be justified. These women writers opened the world of classics for me – George Eliot, Anna Sewell, Louisa May Alcott et al came after this.
9. Roald Dahl – Unlike most children, I discovered children’s books much later. I was already a teenager and disdainful of what I thought were ‘kiddie’ books. (In fact, for long time, I avoided watching animation movies since I thought they were kiddie-stuff.) Then one day I chanced on Dahl’s delightful memoir ‘Boyhood Tales’. Intrigued, I got his books from library – I love Matilda, BFG, Charlie and his Chocolate Factory. I realised for the first time even adults can find pleasure in children’s books. And then followed horde of other classic books – ‘Bridge to Terebithia’, ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’, ‘The Wind in the Willows’, ‘The Secret Garden’, ‘Winnie the Pooh’ and ‘Charlotte’s Web’.
10. Paulo Cohelo – This one is no-brainer on this list since my blog ID ‘alchemistpoonam’ is anmed after his book. But, I must make it clear for the record; I have not liked a single Paulo Cohelo book other than ‘Alchemist’. Somehow his ‘lyrical, magical, inspirational’ prose just doesn’t reach me. Neither does he have any story that would hook my attention. But, Alchemist, also most clichéd book, has a personal meaning. This Santiago’s fable has profound messages for me. One being – whatever I am seeking is perhaps right under my nose, but to be able to see it I need to make that searching journey. Our (life’s) journeys may not lead us to easy answers as we hope for, but they do make us wiser by imparting ability to interpret better. Or, something such.
11. Frank McCourt – His first memoir ‘Angela Ashes’ about a miserable childhood recounted without a trace of self-pity hit some chord. His humorous and charming way of telling biographical story of an ordinary, non-celebrity citizen was path-breaking. His book was not only a bestseller but also won several awards, he could also be credited for popularising the ‘memoir’ genre. He wrote two more sequel, which I am still to read.
12. Khalid Hosseini – His book ‘The Kite Runner’ just blew me away. It had an intense reaction from me, for personal reasons. The book is a man’s journey amidst the chaos around him to find courage to do the right thing. It not only has well-etched characters ( I love how neither Baba nor Aamir are saintly), twists, secrets, but also provides accurate, visual descriptions of changing times of Afghanistan. I couldn’t take to Hosseini’s second book –‘Thousand Splendid Suns’ because of immense pain it brings. Even the memory of some of the descriptions of abuse in his book can cause me unpleasantness and pain. Somehow, it didn’t sit right as the first one.
13. Pinki Virani – I found Pinki Virani, while my regular gleaning of Khushwant Singh columns. Pinki Virani’s ‘Bitter Chocolate’ is perhaps the first factual book about child sexual abuse (CSA). To say that the book was an eye-opener would be an understatement. It explained what my school friend was going through, an experience that impacted my life as well. I wondered how much of it even my parents know. Do people realise even boys can be abused and sometimes, women can also be perpetrators. Or, that even a six-month old CSA victim can keep a traumatic memory stamp that may have implications as an adult. I summed up few pointers from the book on my blog – The subjects remains close to my heart – someday I hope to create an elearning program for parents on the subject.
14. Azar Nafisi – Most books from Middle East have this reputation of being sob stories. Not that I mean to disbelieve, disregard or undermine their miseries/stories, just that Azar Nafisi’s memoir ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ was different. Azar is an independent, educated professor in changing Iran who struggles to keep both her freedom as a woman and her love for literature that is gradually being banned in increasingly totalitarian government. She rebels in a simple manner – starts a secret book club with her students, a risky activity for which both she and her students can be brutally punished. Her students too are women who share same love (for books) and struggle – even though they all have different backgrounds. What I love most about this book is how beautifully they discuss and dissect various English classics – The Great Gatsby, Madame Bovary, Lolita, Daisy Miller (all banned books in Iran) – it takes several readings and deeper understanding to be able to critique classics in such a readable manner.
15. William Dalrymple – His book ‘City of Djinns’ is fantastic travel memoir about his stay in Delhi. Reading this book filled me with regret and shame that why wasn’t I the one to uncover the anecdotes and history of the city (Delhi) I call home and spent most of my adult life in. This foreigner was more curious than us residents that he researched the facts and did it so well that he soon had enough stuff to write his next book. (Regret and shame has long since gone with the realisation that I have made a choice to have a job with regular hours and regular pay to pay off my loans. Till then, my priority remains to enrich and entertain myself with good books and movies. Lame, but truth.) Pico Iyer, Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson and Gerald Durrell are my other favourite travel writers. And while we are at it, do watch Michael Wood’s documentary films, especially ‘The Story of India’. Mark Twain
All the authors that have made to my this list are ones that have struck either stuck personal chord or lead to a (self) discovery. Ask me about writing style, genre or individual books, my list would change.
P.S: You can skip reading this part. Also, it would be unfair not to mention other pleasures such as Mark Twain, Jules Verne, Stevenson, Carroll for adventure; H. G. Wells, Clarke and Adams for sci-fi, Irving Wallace, Erich Segal, Archer, Harold Robbins (this could be a shocker), J.D. Salinger, one-book wonders such as Harper Lee, not to mention Murakami, A.S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood, Capote and some good Indian authors as Shashi Tharoor, Upmanyu Chatterjee (not read his later books), Ruskin Bond. I have also had good time reading mystery and fantasy novels from lesser known (but good) blogger-authors such as J. A. Konrath and Lynn Viehl.