Blame you I couldn’t if the beginning of this post reads like a textbook case of name dropping. I do it purely because it is factual and not because of the person involved in this little anecdote was of considerable consequence in India for quite sometime.
The late Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao was famously polyglot. A voracious reader with some scholarly affectations, Rao was known to have sought the original Spanish version of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ to read. I asked him once if that was indeed the case and he replied through his trademark pout that it was. “It is even more magical in Spanish,” is what Rao told me sometime in 1992-93. Of course, he clarified that his Spanish was not as good as his English, Urdu, Marathi, or Telugu. He also learnt French. It was on his recommendation that I read two of Marquez’s books ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ and ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’.
It is funny how I instantly thought of Rao on reading the news of Marquez’s passing at age 87. Reading for me, like everything else in life, is a transient activity. I make no effort to remember details of what I read but more often than not a lot sticks in some recess of one’s mind. I do not remember plots in great detail. So I could not tell you off the cuff what I liked about the two works of the Latin master. I remember bits such as the opening line of ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’: “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”
I remember it because it involves a scent, any scent since scents have long been the reference points of many events in my life. For instance, I remember Marquez through the scent of a clove that Rao was chewing.
I am not what you might call an intelligent reader in so much as it means being able to persist with novels. While I finished both of Marquez’s famous books, I would not be bold enough to say that I remained seriously engaged throughout. This is an affliction I have written about here before. I am desultory and shallow by nature.
It is never a great writer who fails me but it is I who fail a great writer. I am just not able to keep it together in terms of attention to what is being narrated even though I tend to remember things quite graphically. I remember enjoying both these books sporadically in passages but not enough to make any literary judgment. Not being able to judge literature is an old failing of mine. Also, I find that I am not invested enough in what is grandly called “the human condition” to be able to rustle up any cogent emotions at the passing of someone, anyone. Of course, I am aware of Marquez’s enormous standing as a writer globally and what his death means for literature generally.
I admire people who feel personally affected or aggrieved by the passing of others, particularly artists and litterateurs. For instance, my dear friend and fellow journalist Kajal Basu said this on his Facebook update about Marquez’s death: “One never gave a thought to the possibility of his dying. Never a thought to his age. Not to his condición humana (never thought he had one, warts and all, as we do). The day seems darker now.”
This is genuine and heartfelt. I am not sure if I can ever say something like this without sounding transparently bogus.
I get lost in tangents such as the mention of Prime Minister Rao here while writing about Marquez. Within my extremely minor capacity as a reader of great literature, all that I can do at Marquez’s passing is quote a line from ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’: “Humanity, like armies in the field, advances at the speed of the slowest.”
I am the slowest kind that Marquez may have been referring to.