By Anjum Altaf in the Economic and Political Weekly
These days, though I am reading as much as ever, I am reading much less fiction. My children tell me a person who does not read literature is as good as dead. I am touched they wish me to stay alive and want, in return, to measure up to their expectations, but try as I might, I can’t.
I have lost patience with story and plot and character. Ideas, on the other hand, fascinate me: I want to get to them as quickly and directly as possible. Could it be that at some point I shed the need for a character as an embodiment of an idea, a plot as a vehicle for its development, and a well-crafted story as the medium to sustain interest in its unfolding?
Reading for me was as natural as breathing. I was born in a house overflowing with books and magazines in Urdu and English, to all of which I had unhindered access. For a child, everything is new, a revelation, an input into an unformed mind. The stories were windows into the world, the characters lending eyes through which events beyond my own experiences were seen and connected in some inchoate manner to my thoughts – perhaps devices for ordering ideas without being aware of it. For me, the stories I grew up on might have been like the training wheels I used to learn to ride a bicycle.
My predicament falls into place in this perspective. I have retained an abiding interest in making sense of the world, something at an early age I could neither have known nor satisfied for lack of tools to do so. Education at home and school got me to the point where I was able to transition from stories, first to the long essay and then to non-fiction in general.
I must confess I am disappointed at not being the type who can enjoy literature for its own sake, but I am less agonised now that I know myself better. It is just that all fiction does not attract me equally; I still engage with a story if it promises to challenge my world view, and there remain works of fiction I am drawn to repeatedly because they yield something new with each reading. But this set, of necessity, is smaller than the set of all fiction, and it continues to shrink as the blank slate of the mind gets written over with time.
This could explain as well my reading preferences and the way they have changed over time. I believe I was attracted early to literature about South Asia because it connected me most directly to the world I wanted to know. South Asian writing in English is now most completely displaced from my reading because, barring exceptions, it fails to sustain my interest – the windows are different but the landscape remains familiar. I continue to seek fiction in Urdu more, probably because it references dimensions of life my education has failed to connect me with, but new fiction in Urdu is limited and of uneven quality.
I wonder if an appetite for fiction could be revived by learning a new language to enter an unfamiliar world. Reading translations has not helped; people think differently in different languages, and while one can convey the gist of a story, too many of the social and cultural intricacies that shape ideas and drive actions elude capture. I sense this from reading South Asian fiction in English, much of which comes across now as translation from another language, the very edges one seeks as a mature reader flattened. Perhaps, the picture being painted is for eyes other than mine.
What might lend the freshness of new vistas to South Asian writing in English could be the democratisation of reading. The storehouses of books in a few homes if matched by even richer ones in school libraries might bring forth writers with quite different lives to share.
Every journey is unique, but they do have aspects in common. In this case, it is that stories provide windows into the world, giving it form. That world, peculiar to every individual, needs to be negotiated and understood and enjoyed, and people do so in myriad different ways. For every path that is taken many others are given up. That much I understand. What remains less clear is the difference made by the variety of stories we encounter and the set of people we share them with. To what extent are we the stories that we read or did not read together?
Anjum Altaf is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This essay was published in the April 5, 2014, issue of Economic and Political Weekly and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission.