Thursday, November 29, 2012

Never Push when it Says Pull

I like essays. Even the entirely fictional ones. I like the most, essays that blur the difference between fiction and non-fiction. They are the creative ones that shape your thought through the unease they suffuse through their fine mix of facts and fantasy. Finding such essays, leave alone finding such essayists, is hard. It is an endeavor. In Tamil, several essays/short-stories by Nanjil Nadan repeatedly define this standard with ease. Recent collections titled "kAvalan kAvAn enin" and "sUdiya pU sUdarka" (that won him the sAhithya akAdemy award) are treasures that demand your thinking and action. Discussing these books is for another note.

While on a recent splurge at a local bookstore for such essay collections in English, along with the relative heavy-weights like "The Collected Essays" of A. K. Ramanujan, "Patriots and Partisans" by Ramachandra Guha, "Selected Essays" of G. K. Chesterton, "Readings" by Michael Dirda, "Inventing the Enemy" by Umberto Eco, "Some Remarks" by Neal Stephenson, I also picked "My Husband and Other Animals" by Janaki Lenin with a prompting from my dame and on a lark, Never Push When It Says Pull by a guy named Guy Browning, a relative unknown to me. But that is one reason we read books, don't we -- to meet over a course of their printed discourse made available for a price, strangers whom you could become life-long friends with.

Never Push When It Says Pull is a collection of 800 word long (short?) essays with titles beginning with a "How to..." discussing everyday topics. The essays are segregated under ten categories ranging from "Out and About" to "Reading and Writing" to "Shopping and Spending" to "Lying and Swearing". Intended as humorous asides peppered with unintended profundities, on several occasions they fall between sarcastic observations and ignorant hyperbole. The prose with distinctly understated British humor reminds one of those "How to Be..." books by George Mikes, popular from several decades back. But then, George Mikes was an emigrant (Hungarian) who 'became' a Brit.

Several of the first sentences of these essays are deadly. Sample these: You don't realize how important your dignity is until you suddenly lose it (How to...embarrass yourself); The golden rule of healthy living is to make sure you keep your total units of alcohol below your total number of cigarettes (How cleanly); Singing is what you do when you want to make a noise but haven't got anything much to say (How to...sing); Things are very like people in that at any given moment one tenth of them are poorly (How to...fix things); Having too many choices leads to moral obesity (How to...choose); tourists are people who spend their life savings travelling many thousands of miles in order to stand directly in front of you when you are trying to get somewhere in a hurry (How a tourist). One does feel some of the essays in this collection shouldn't have been written beyond such first sentences.

Science is the religion for people who can't cope with religion. That is the first sentence of "How scientific". If the humorous intent is kept aside, that first sentence only exposes the ignorance of the writer about science. In fact, many of the observations on science in this essay, if not taken as humorous observations, are either confused or wrong or both. But then, in the next essay on art, he observes:
Impressionism was the world seen through a couple of glasses of vin rouge. Expressionism was impressionism after the whole bottle. Vorticism was when the room started spinning and modern conceptual art is the throwing-up stage
Humorous and barbarous, respectively, for those who don't know and know about art/paintings.

Like any short story or essay collection or even the omnibus of an author, this is a book not to be read in one go. It should be visited periodically, if not often, like  chatting with our beer-buddy or meeting the town wise-counsel. Else the humor would begin to appear cynical, the reflections would appear judgmental and before long, the wry would turn dry. That is when the prose of such essays would settle into boring fiction or bland facts.