From Mahabharat To Marcel Proust: Gurcharan Das’ Favourite Reads
Gurcharan Das loves nineteenth-century novels that talk of love, defying odds and living life at one’s own terms.
Here’s what the author finds inspiring about Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and his other favourite books.
My all-time favourite is the Mahabharat. I can almost feel the brute vitality of the air, the magnificence of chariots, the wind, the fires; the raging battles, the plains charged with terrified warriors, the beasts unstrung and falling; the men flung face down in the dust, the ravaged longing for home and family and the rituals of peace between two sets of cousins, bitter enemies descended from King Bharata. I am in rapt admiration of this apocalyptic war poem, which has been told with excruciating vividness and obsessive observation of horror that causes almost disbelief.
I have recently written a book on desire (Kama: The Riddle of Desire) and in researching it, I learned more about the human heart from the following three texts.
Recherche du Temps Perdue, by Marcel Proust
First, Marcel Proust’s long novel, Recherche du Temps Perdue, available in two English translations. I learned from Proust that the recollection of love is more powerful than the original confused experience itself. Memory binds us to our former selves, sews together events that have not met before, reshuffling the past to suit our present. Proust believed that only in recollection does an experience become fully significant, as our imagination arranges it in a meaningful pattern, recreating it to suit our desires.
The second is Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and the third, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy & Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
In both 19th century novels, the heroine faces the old tragic dilemma: how does one reconcile devotion and loyalty to one’s family with the freedom and excitement in discovering a new love?
Anna is torn between loyalty to her son and husband versus her lover. Madame Bovary fails to cope with her affairs in order to escape banalities and emptiness of provincial life. Both women took great risks and in both cases the establishment found a way to curb their freedom. Society acted in a subtle way, placing the onus on the women to resist their own desires and sublimate their passionate feelings. It is dispiriting that both women had to die because they stepped out of line.
The Story Of My Experiments With Truth, By Mahatma Gandhi
This is still one of the most ‘powerfully moving’ autobiographies that I have read. It has two virtues: one, it is remorselessly honest, and this is unusual because we are conditioned to make ourselves look better than we are—something we learn from kindergarten onwards—Gandhi describes his mistakes instead of hiding them. Its second asset is in demonstrating how the timid can become warriors and win.
The Discovery Of India, By Jawaharlal Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India is still one of my favourite explorations of India’s history and of the ideals of India’s founding. It is the book that first stirred my romance with India. It’s elegant and effortless style has remained a model for me of good writing in English.
Midnight’s Children, By Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is my favourite novel about modern India. It hungrily swallows India whole and coarsely spits it out. I loved its sparkle and zest; reading every gleeful sentence, its allegory of the nation-as-family, was sheer joy. It was truly a defining moment in the history of the Indian English novel.
The Leopard, By Giuseppe di Lampedusa
I discovered The Leopard, an Italian novel by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, in the 1960s when I was at the university. Set in 19th century Sicily, it recounts the impending doom of the old order caught in the midst of civil war and revolution.
In the bleak light of Lampedusa's vision of mortality and decay, experience counts for nothing. The young will make the same mistakes as the old. Happiness is fleeting and it offers little consolation. As the aristocratic hero watches his handsome nephew dance with his beautiful fiancée at a grand ball, he is aware they will not find happiness together because ‘marriage is a year of fire and thirty years of ashes.’ Still, as they dance, he finds the sight charming and magnificent.
In each other’s arms in the ballroom, they are the most moving couple on the earth—who can resist the sight of two young persons deeply in love, dancing as though in the clouds, unaware of each other's defects, oblivious to the warnings of fate, deceiving themselves in believing that the course of their lives will be as shiny as the ballroom floor. The Leopard is the only novel I know where the film (by Luchino Visconti with Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale) was almost as good as the book.
The Home And The World (Ghaire Baire), By Rabindranath Tagore
This is another lovely novel that was successfully made into a movie (by none other than Satyajit Ray. It was written in 1915, during an early phase of the Independence movement. It is ‘deeply moving and tragic, filled with competing visions’ of the idea of India as a nation.