What were ham and bacon?
We figured it was from pigs. But, what then was the difference between ham and bacon. There is a limit to imagining foods of a different culture, particularly in those primitive days before the internet, before the television, and when telephones were rare. So, I figured out a solution to the puzzle: bacon and ham had to be something like idli and dosai, which are from the same ingredients but look and taste different from each other.
The power of imagination that fiction provides; they help us understand the world, and somehow make order of the chaos that is outside.
With the Indian fiction, especially like in RK Narayan's Swami and Friends, there was no need to imagine the foods they ate. Because I ate the same kind of foods. Like Swami, I too hoped to have a good cricket game every single day. Swami's grandmother reminded me a lot of my own grandmothers. I could absolutely relate to this fictional kid in a fictional town. The pains and pleasures of his were mine as well. His Malgudi was my Neyveli, plus Sengottai, plus Pattamadai.
The inability to understand an alien culture did not stop me, however, from reading a whole lot of fiction by British and American authors. And, of course, the Russian authors too.
Now, did I for a moment ever pause to think that the British authors were speaking for all the British, or that the American authors were portraying all Americans? Of course not. But, I could imagine the situations in which the Artful Dodger was trapped in a world of child criminals in a Dickensian world. And could empathize with him and Oliver Twist. I could feel for Anna Karenina. The people and the settings that Somerset Maugham described were not difficult to understand.
I don't merely read fiction that is written by "my people" and set in "my contexts." Zadie Smith writes about all these and a lot more:
I felt I was Jane Eyre and Celie and Mr. Biswas and David Copperfield. Our autobiographical coordinates rarely matched. I’d never had a friend die of consumption or been raped by my father or lived in Trinidad or the Deep South or the nineteenth century. But I’d been sad and lost, sometimes desperate, often confused. It was on the basis of such flimsy emotional clues that I found myself feeling with these imaginary strangers: feeling with them, for them, alongside them and through them, extrapolating from my own emotions, which, though strikingly minor when compared to the high dramas of fiction, still bore some relation to them, as all human feelings do.It was never a one-to-one matching between me and the characters. But, the human condition bore plenty of similarities. Similarities to what I felt and experienced, or to what I observed around me.
As one whose imaginations are highly circumscribed, I have always believed that "some people will tell our story better than others." I want them to help me understand the world in all its complexity.
[A] book can try to modify your behavior, but it has no way of knowing for sure that it has. In front of a book you are still free. Between reader and book, there is only the continual risk of wrongness, word by word, sentence by sentence. The Internet does not get to decide. Nor does the writer. Only the reader decides. So decide.We can try to understand this wide world through stories. Go ahead.