March 24, 2015

The Books that I Missed Re-Reading

When I visited my parents' home a couple of months ago, my mother presented me with cartons full of my old books and shoes that I was unable to have shipped over to the States when I was living there. I had been able to bring quite a lot of my clothing to the States but the books and shoes, alas, no  - and I have to admit that I missed them all. I spent a happy few weeks re-reading my favorite books and of course, sorting out and slipping into my shoes (I always feel that shoes/clothes which I haven't worn for a while and  subsequently, find tucked away in the back of a closet or bottom of a carton after ages become new in my eyes once again!)

I am in the process of re-building my library here in India and I am adding the books that I have so enjoyed reading over the years to it. For me, re-reading books not only makes me appreciate them anew in each encounter but it also contributes to the cache of memories that I have accumulated of reading them. The act of reading is as important as the books themselves.

Here are a few of my favorites: 

Manju Kapur's Difficult Daughters

This is Manju Kapur's first book and I must say that it remains my favorite one after having read two more of her subsequent works. Even though I usually don't judge a book by its cover, I would like to make an exception for Difficult Daughters though (at least, of the edition that I happen to have). The front cover features a sepia-toned image of a young, wistful looking woman while the back meanwhile depicts a similarly-hued portrait of a grave bespectacled man. I am always curious as to the extent to which an author's biographical details seep into his/her work and I recall reading somewhere that the novel was based on the author's parents and their love story, the portraits presumably being of her parents. Regardless of whether that's true or not, the novel is still a compelling reading of a young woman, Virmati growing up in a traditional Punjabi Hindu household in Amritsar prior to Independence, forsaking tradition for illicit love and pursuing higher education in the backdrop of the Indian independent movement and soul-shattering horrors of Partition. I remember reading it for the first time on a hot summer night at my grandmother's home in Jodhpur; there was a power cut and my family was gathered in the room where a single tube light flickered, the fan feebly cut through the air, and we could smell rain and night flowers from the garden outside. I have read the book many times since but I still remember that night and how oblivious I became to everything as I became further and further involved in Virmati's story.

Kamila Shamsie's Kartography

I was in a bookshop in Heathrow, searching for a good book to read for my flight back to Muscat when I spotted Kartography. I had never heard of Kamila Shamsie before and had also been wanting to read a new Pakistani literary voice. I picked it up and began reading the first page - and the second - and then, the third before realising that the departure time for my flight was swiftly approaching and it was a good twenty minute walk to the gate. I bought the book and started reading it even before the flight took off. Arriving home and in any case, too jet-lagged to immediately fall asleep, I stayed up into the early hours of the morning to finish reading it. I have since then read and loved everything that Shamsie has written but this novel too remains my favorite of her works. She brings Karachi to such tremendous life in the book, her voice heart-breakingly gentle, fiercely protective, and affectionately teasing towards her clearly beloved city; as the book's name tells us, she is a cartographer of multiple Karachis and Karachiites and their stories. 

Ahdaf Soueif's Map of Love

I bought this book in my university bookshop and somehow, waited to read it on my flight home for Easter holidays (I am beginning to see a pattern here!) After reading The Map of Love, I scoured bookshops and libraries to lay my hands on everything else everything she had written: In the Eye of the Sun, Aisha, and Sandpiper. It was partially to do with her writing as well as the fact that I have been an earnest Egyptophile since I was eight years old and been longing to visit Egypt for years. I have mostly read about her depiction of Cairo in her writing though and she presents it in all its untidy, grand, ancient, colorful and chaotic glory. The Map of Love is really about two parallel stories of Amal, a middle-aged woman in Cairo who discovers the chest containing letters and objects belonging to a 19th century English woman, Anna, who had come to visit Egypt following the death of her husband only to fall in love with and marry Amal's great uncle and an Egyptian Nationalist, Sharif Al-Baroudi. A  couple of years later, I wrote a paper during my graduate studies about British colonial women's travel writings of accessing the zenanas in India. I have to admit that The Map of Love and Soueif's presentation of Anna's wanderings into Egypt and what she makes of this exciting, strange land planted a seed in my mind about the dramatic, transformative possibilities that travel  afforded for Victorian women in the 19th century.

I couldn't bring A Suitable Boy back with me this time round but that is one book I religiously re-read every year; it is akin to a literary pilgrimage for me. I first read it in my last two months of school, manically studying for my exams and alternately dipping into Vikram Seth's superb albeit gargantuan saga of four Indian families in newly Independent India - and it has never failed to enchant me over the years. The book perhaps deserves a post of its own and in the meantime, if you haven't read it already, please do so (the length is a tad intimidating but once you get into the thick of things and have sorted out one branch of the family tree from the other, I promise that the pages will just fly by). I am meanwhile eagerly anticipating the release of its sequel, A Suitable Girl in 2016!

Do you like re-reading books? Which ones do you find yourself returning to over and over again?

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