Thinking about the books that made me, here in England on a rainy summer’s day, I am reminded of reading surreptitiously under a night bulb well past bedtime on muggy tropical nights halfway across the world: a practice that would gift me my myopia. I devoured too many Victorian classics while growing up. The town I grew up in had two English bookshops with very limited stock, and my father would buy books for me every time he travelled to Calcutta. Before I was old enough to know exactly what I wanted, he picked up books he liked from College Street. Being a man of traditional tastes, for years he bought me the great classics. Reading, laughing and crying with Dickens made me appreciate him as the entertaining story-teller that he was. Then there was George Eliot and Hardy, whom I started reading at fourteen, continued reading at seventeen, hiding A Pair of Blue Eyes under my heavy physics book, shedding numerous tears for ‘An Imaginative Woman’ (Wessex Tales), and revisiting them again during my undergraduate days. I read and reread all the Brontës and Jane Austen by candlelight (thanks to the regular powercuts which plunged most of the 1990s and early 2000s into darkness).
Over the summer holidays, I would rediscover classics from the Bengali canon. My absolute favourite has always been the novels and short stories of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, and his world of destitute but strong women, the wit of quinine-chewing malarial men, and his beautifully-crafted tetralogy of Bildungsroman Srikanto. Through weekly classes for twenty years, I trained in the music of Rabindranath Tagore, but the summer holidays were the only time when I read him. There was something about his collection of short stories which acquired a special taste in the late afternoons, after a heavy Bengali lunch, with mango, milk and rice as the last course. In fact, every time I try to look up a particular story or novel online here in England, I can almost smell the mangoes, and feel the heavy quiet afternoon air, made doubly soporific by family and neighbours indulging in siesta. I discovered Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay’s Pather Panchali (later made into Apu Trilogy by Satyajit Ray) as part of the ‘second language Bengali’ school curriculum, and the beauty of language and the simplicity and tragedy of rural Bengal a hundred years ago has remained with me. Then there were the children’s stories of Sukumar Roy and his son Satyajit Ray, which I read from borrowed copies from my cousins during family holidays, and from my mother’s library subscriptions; and developed a taste for sci-fi from Ray’s character Professor Shonku, and a refined taste for crime and murder through his character Feluda. This brought me to my enduring love for the old-fashioned murders of Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and my favourite younger son of an English Duke, Lord Peter Wimsey.
Mastering German opened up a new world to me. I would no longer need to read German classics in translation any more (although I would reread The Magic Mountain if only for John E. Woods’s excellent translation). The one German book that followed me from Hamburg to Calcutta to Sheffield is Elias Canetti’s autobiography Die gerettete Zunge. It is certainly one of the few books outside the texts I study now that has had a profound influence on me. A Bulgarian writing in German, the impeccable beauty of his language, as he languishes in memories of his childhood by the Danube, then Manchester, Lausanne and Vienna, fills me with hope, and I still cling on to my notebook where I began meticulously translating excerpts from this book into English four years ago. This is also why I liked Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words much more than her books on the Bengali diaspora.
The texts that made me are narratives of loss, hope, melancholia, beauty, and nostalgia. They colour my writing, and they colour the way I see and come to terms with the diverse and dangerous world we live in.