'Don't we all have fractured, segmental personalities?' She laughs. 'We are, every one of us, mango-coloured.'
-Mango-Coloured Fish, Kavery Nambisan (1998)
18 was a significant year for me: it was a year of transitions, of graduating from school and starting university, shifting from one country to another, and shedding one persona to assume another. When I think of 18, I think of it as simultaneously fraught with fear and anticipation/excitement: the fear of treading beyond the comfort-zone to explore the unmapped, unknown territory called The Real Life and the palpable excitement of discovery. All in all, it was a memorable year, 18.
Unsurprisingly, I read a good number of books that year which still continue to remain favorites of mine; as I may have mentioned elsewhere, over the years, I have developed a relationship, friendship almost, with the books whenever I happen to re-read and return to them. I can literally resume my relationship with the books from the page I left them at and - comfortingly - be admitted into their self-contained world once again. And so, I have observed that whenever I need to indulge in a bit of comfort-reading, I always reach out for those books that I first discovered at 18: A Suitable Boy, A Map of Love, Interpreter of Maladies, Difficult Daughters, The Ice Candy Man, and Mango-Coloured Fish.
Mango-Coloured Fish is probably the least well-known of all of these books; in fact, honestly speaking, I would not even call it a great favorite of mine. Yet, I have religiously re-read it at least once a year ever since I first bought it and it has never failed to give me insight or a curious kind of solace each time I have read it.
In terms of plot, honestly speaking, there is not much going on in the novel; it begins with twenty-two year old kindergarten teacher, Shari bidding her parents adieu at Madras airport. Newly engaged to a computer sofware engineer, Shari is flying out to Delhi to visit her surgeon brother, Krishna and his wife, Teji in Brindawan. From there on, while Shari eventually travels from Brindavan to her friend, Yash's house and then, a hostel in Delhi, she hopscotches between memories, meditations, and contemplations of her life lived so far: one moment, she is watching her beloved uncle, Paru abstract a salmon-pink silk parasol for his wife, the next moment, she is writing in her thick fat journal, listing the best places to drink coffee in Madras. However, we allow her these meanderings through her past because she is on exile, a temporary reprieve from life, a reprieve that she may never get again and which invests her with the courage to live her life as it is actually is, unshackled from rules and expectations and obligations.
Is life worth living if it is not authentic to yourself? All through the novel, Shari struggles with the dilemma of a double life: one life lived for yourself, one life lived for others. While the novel arguably comes to a rather predictable conclusion in which Shari finds the courage to jettison her ersatz live and actually live for herself, Shari's predicament is not an unusual one. All through our lives, we encounter the challenge of remaining faithful to ourselves, our beliefs, and principles -we may succumb to the alternative on occasions and for a while...but is it really worth it all at the end of the day?
Interestingly enough, I remember reading the novel for the first time en route to Madras - I had bought the novel along with a bunch of others in a Hyderabad bookshop and on our car-journey between Tirupathi Balaji-Madras, I had somehow chosen to read this one first. A few months shy of travelling to UK and starting university, my mind filled with a great deal of questions about the future, I got much consolation reading this novel - and even now, so many years later, as I mentioned above, I still continue to derive solace and a gentle reminder that one should ultimately remain true to themselves, come what may.
There are some books that make sense whenever you read them: time does not diminish them, rather, it only enhances their appeal.
Do you have any such long-cherished books?
Gold-fish image courtesy: Cute Home Pets