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January 08, 2019

How We Interpret Books Differently As We Age

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Dhruv Tyagi

Madhu Jain reminisces about the books that she grew up with and discovers that the passage of time sometimes changes their understanding and impact….

The other morning, two colleagues in Verve’s sister publication The Indian Quarterly were talking with me about our respective and changing relationships with books and films down the decades. American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby kept popping up in our discussion. Read in adolescence, the novel was a captivating and tragic love story about a mysterious and wealthy man who moved from the Midwest to Long Island on the Eastern shore, into a huge Gothic mansion. Here, he threw lavish and wild parties every Saturday night to impress Daisy, his former girlfriend who was married to the born-to-wealth Tom Buchanan.

Underlying themes
Decades later, Fitzgerald’s prose remains iridescent. However, deeper meanings surface. These alter both our understanding of the novel set during the roaring twenties and, of course, our silent conversations with it. Not to mention the friction between classes and the relationships of those belonging to different backgrounds and religions. The billionaire protagonist has changed his name from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby, hiding the fact that he is Jewish and not to any manor born. Buchanan is a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) from a privileged, family with old money and recipient of a blue-chip education.

There is much more at play here, glossed over a bit in the slightly giddy 2013 film The Great Gatsby directed by Baz Luhrmann, in which Leonardo di Caprio is Gatsby and our very own Amitabh Bachchan plays the mysterious, slightly iffy and dark Jewish Meyer Wolfsheim. The outsider in the milieu of the Long Island, toffee-nosed elite. The underlying themes are racism, anti-Semitism and old versus new money, among much else.

So it is with many books, films and people. The perspective of time and distance (and perhaps place) alters our reading as well as our interactions with them. Reflecting on them years or even decades later conjures up a totally different picture. Psychoanalyst-author Sudhir Kakar once told me that the best conversations he has ever had have been with the writers, philosophers and people he encounters in books — all in his mind of course.

Undoubtedly, the tenor and gist of such ‘conversations’, which many of us may have had, has usually evolved over the years. I doubt that rereading Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as adults would evoke the same reactions that it did when we first read it when we were children. Nor would the wonder that L. Frank Baum’s 1930 novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz — and indeed the film with the dazzling young Judy Garland and her magic pair of ruby shoes — induce today as when we first came across the novel and the film.

Or Enid Blyton: her books have influenced generations of children belonging to countries which were or still are part of the Commonwealth. I left behind most of my ‘personal’ library when we moved to Washington DC. I was not quite 11. However, my Enid Blyton books made that long journey across two oceans. Noddy, The Famous Five, The Secret Seven, the characters in Malory Towers and the terribly naughty Amelia Jane series continued to be my companions.

I also kept up my special and almost-private relationship with Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree series, in which Joe and Beth move to a new home on the edge of an Enchanted Wood, where they discover the Faraway Tree. The series long remained a two-way ticket to childhood — a journey from which one returned enriched and more optimistic after spending ‘time’ with Saucepan Man, Moonface, Silky the fairy and others as they discovered new lands at the top of the magic Faraway Tree. A turn and you could be in the Land of Treats or the lands of Topsy Turvy, Spells and Do-As-You-Please.

Object Love
My conversations with the characters in these books, in the seclusion of my bedroom and away from my American classmates and friends, continued as a young adult. Dame Barbara Cartland’s romantic novels influenced many of my Indian friends — and no doubt caused many an adult relationship or marriage in the future to flounder. Especially for the ‘convent-educated’ girls who binged on such escapist fiction in which the archetypal romantic hero was rich, often titled and endowed with a determined jaw while the middle-class, virtuous heroine ended up living happily ever after.

Fortunately, the Barbara Cartland and the Mills & Boon factories didn’t impinge on my life or imagination. However, Nancy Drew, the teenage American sleuth in the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories and, strangely enough, Superman did in my teen years. The American dream, as I was to learn in adulthood, was quite different though. The self moved centre stage: it was now all about loving yourself, long before the age of the selfie dawned. And as Oscar Wilde so memorably put it: ‘To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance’.

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