Aditya Sinha: When did reading go out of fashion?

By  Aditya Sinha | Mumbai | Posted  10-Jul-2017

Books invariably provide a better experience than adaptations on TV, films, but public at large continues to be anti-intellectualism

The latest Lily James-starrer adaptation of War and Peace attempted to bullet point the entire Tolstoy saga, but couldn’t do justice to the magic Tolstoy has woven
The latest Lily James-starrer adaptation of War and Peace attempted to bullet point the entire Tolstoy saga, but couldn’t do justice to the magic Tolstoy has woven

A recent bizarre television experience I had was the first episode of a fresh BBC adaptation of 'War and Peace'. It was like a PowerPoint presentation of Leo Tolstoy's epic novel about the churning in St Petersburg's high society before, during and after Napoleon's invasion of Russia. It had nice-looking actors and lavish sets, but it was in a hurry to cover as much narrative ground as possible.

I read the Larissa Volokonsky-Richard Pevear translation six years ago, and immensely enjoyed the six-week nightly immersion into its 1,200-odd pages (except for the last 30 pages, a dreary abstract lecture about individuals and history's tide, etc). Even regarding the animals – the bear caught up in Count Bezukhov's drunken revelry, a fallen horse in a meadow, a dog weaving through a live battlefield – the teledrama did little justice to Tolstoy's magic. The only redeeming feature was Lily James as Countess Natasha Rostova, but it that wasn't motivation enough for a second episode.

Reading may be more immersive than films, TV or videogames, but the public at large still seems to disdain it. Some years ago, I stood in a bookstore, when a youngster followed his girlfriend into the store, loudly declaring that reading was a waste of time. I suppose it is for someone happy in his limited world. A good book, however, is like a gym for your mind.

Yet, crappy gyms mushroom in our cities, and similarly, there is an avalanche of sub-standard books with a formulaic narrative, lackadaisical writing, and clichéd characters (that invite zero sympathy). But, they're overwhelmingly popular; and it is precisely because of their predictability and their gibberish. Years ago, during a TV debate on Bollywood and Hindi-indies, an audience member asserted that he didn't want to apply his mind while watching a film – he preferred stories where he knew what came next. Perhaps, he wanted the book to be like a soothing visit to the astrologer.

I find such books difficult to even start, but people lap them up – a recent self-published novel has sold lakhs, even though speculation is that it was written by the good-looking author's public relations "guru". Good marketing likely trumps good writing. Another writer with my publisher apparently uses a PR agency to promote his books, to profitable effect. I read his latest plot-driven thriller. It was sheer torture. I skimmed pages, something I never do – one trudges through each of a book to savour its writing, to properly review it, or simply to empathise with each author's struggle with their each and every sentence.

For instance, a brilliant recent book was Omar Shahid Hamid's 'The Party Worker'. It is a lean thriller set in Karachi that never lets up; it is tightly written. It is filled with intrigue and betrayal – Karachi is perfect for such narrative richness; no wonder it produces the world's current best literature – reminding me of James Hadley Chase's pulp novels from my youth, where each character was worse than the last. Perhaps social anxiety and collective panic are necessary to a good thriller. That would explain why Indian thrillers are underwhelming; most are just middle-class homoerotic fantasies about national glory. It would also explain why the only good thriller situated in Kashmir has been Mirza Waheed's 'The Collaborator'; the rest of English-writing is very much the James Bond onanism mentioned earlier.

To me, Viet Thanh Nguyen's 'The Sympathizer' and Hideo Yokohama's 'Six Four' are recent examples of how good thrillers can be, without resorting to poorly-written mindless jingoism. The former is set at the end of America's Vietnam War, when the South Vietnamese officials are fleeing and among them is a communist mole. It is engrossing; every sentence is a universe of observation by a Vietnamese about this weird cultural monster called America. Jonathan Lloyd-Davies translation of 'Six Four' is a 600-odd-page kaleidoscope of Japanese police politics centering around an unsolved 14-year-old kidnap-murder case of a seven-year-old girl. It has so many characters that the novel starts with an organisational chart. It has true surprises. The tension never slackens, and you don't want to skip a single sentence.

Publishers often complain how such-and-such genre in our country hasn't matured yet, which is paradoxical considering each of our epic contains all genres rolled into one. Perhaps it's because authors are nowadays busy trying to sell their moderately selling books into movies, TV serials or webcasts. Or maybe it has to do with the culture of anti-intellectualism that has recently taken hold, deriding thought and industry, and instead celebrating robotic acceptance of the status quo. Indians are happy with their flabby minds: either they want to switch off their cognition and be comfortably numb; or they want to be fed bullet-point summaries of epics like 'War and Peace'.

Aditya Sinha's crime novel, The CEO Who Lost His Head, is available now. He tweets @autumnshade. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com