“Ruined by reading”

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The definitive Delhi novel not yet written

Last week, my spy in HarperCollins India told me that Pakistani blogger Raza Rumi is almost done writing a non-fiction book on Delhi.

How on earth can a Pakistani write about India’s capital?

By the way, have you read the definitive Delhi novel? (No, it’s not Ahmad Ali’s Twilight in Delhi.)

Of course, you haven’t read The Delhi novel. I’m still writing it but last night I dreamt that The New York Times carried a review of my novel! Here it is:

“Ruined by Reading,” Mayank Austen Soofi’s affecting first novel, begins as a sort of diary entries of a lonely book lover. What novels to buy today? Where to find a soul mate? What to do in the evening? Can I read the entire Proust? Should I really buy a Khaled Hosseini? Will I again return to the good old Jane Austen this morning?

While such oddly unfocused questions may sound banal, they provide the narrative beginning of a novel that turns out to be as strange as it is powerful, a novel that is Baldwinian in its ambitious tackling of alternativeness, loneliness and big-city life, but self-absorbed to the point of narcissism.

A newspaper reporter who grew up in Delhi, India, Mr Soofi creates a hysterical story of an enduring romantic passion and a love of books that juxtapose into each other in chapters as short as a newspaper column that he writes for a Pakistani paper.

Set in Delhi against a backdrop of cultural and social taboos, his story depicts the catastrophic confluence of events – it remains unclear till the end that they were real or just the fevered imaginations of the protagonist who is an aspiring novelist – that bring about three suicides: by consuming arsenic, by being devoured in a fire and by jumping from the southern tower of Jama Masjid mosque.

Although Mr Soofi’s graphically-depicted intimate scenes combine with an I-Me-Myself obsession to create the impression of a coming-of-age-declaration-disguised-as-a-fiction (his work has already been compared by Indian critics to that of Gonzalo Daveouz Melcón), the most moving, revelatory and introspective moments in “Ruined by Reading” do not occur on the double bed or around the family dining table; they are to be found in a sufi shrine, at a Mughal emperor’s tomb, in the ladies coach of a metro train.

Mr Soofi does a marvelous job of conjuring the inner world of a serious booklover, his sense of hardbounds and first editions, the joy of re-readings, the pleasure of buying even if not reading those books, the frustration of not finding the desired translation and a single-minded pursuit which wouldn’t care to consider the moral argument of stealing somebody else’s precious volume. One of the peculiarities of the protagonist is that he would often “go to Mughal princess Jahanara’s tomb, sniff some hash, sprawl down on the cool marble floor and sleep.”

Parallel to this love of reading, especially the works of Jane Austen and the novel of Arundhati Roy, runs a quest to find true love. Mr Soofi’s central character, other than rummaging forgotten books in Delhi’s various independently-owned bookstores, is almost frantically hunting for a lover in the city’s various ghettos, tombs, mosques, discos, cafés, parks, buses, markets and ruins and thereby, almost unconsciously, making this the most definitive modern-day Delhi novel.

Through this young man’s egoistical world, we are introduced to his family, friends and lovers. There is his comrade-in-writing, Geroge Wickham, a fellow Arundhati Roy reader and an English teacher in British Council, who has come from England and meets a terrible fate. There is his friend Abdul – who appears in the novel only after his untimely death – and Abdul’s grief-stricken mother, a Jane Austen devotee. Both mother and son together speed up the growing madness of our hero. And then there’s the sensible Lahore-born Jalal, the ice-cool Mr Darcy of this fast-paced, crazy novel, who is actually a Dracula-in-disguise.

“Ruined by Reading” also raises questions about the craft of novel-writing. How much of it can be soaked from the surrounding world? How much fact has to be peddled into a fiction and how to make the latter look real and yet not compromise with its novelistic dimensions? And is it ethical to discreetly borrow snippets from the lives of real people and transplant them into what is passed off as a work of art?

If Mr Soofi is assured in his narrative pace, the high melodramatic quotient becomes a little overbearing and threatens to bring down the haunting magic of his remarkable tale. Towards the climax, the plot loses its remaining coherency and rushes to a racy, breathless, exhilarating motion blur where fact becomes fiction (or is it otherwise?) and the reader is left hanging in wonder as the novel ends in a violent splash. Mr Soofi has made a promising debut and there is every reason to look forward to his second novel.

Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website and four blogs. The website address: thedelhiwalla.com. The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos