Books of The Times – 'Ruined by Reading', by Mayank Austen Soofi
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The definitive Delhi novel.
[Review by Michiko Kakutani]
“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 lover? What to do in the evening? Can I read the entire Proust? Should I really buy a Khaled Hosseni? Will I again masturbate this morning?
While such oddly unfocused questions may sound banal and crude, 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 sexuality, loneliness and big-city life, but self-absorbed to the point of narcissism.
A blogger 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 blog post. Set in Delhi against a backdrop of traditional religious and sexual 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 an ancient tower.
Although Mr. Soofi’s graphic sex scenes combine with an I-Me-Myself obsession to create the impression of a coming-out-declaration-disguised-as-a-fiction (his work has already been compared in India 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 Muslim shrine, a Mughal emperor’s tomb, in a metro train. As one of his characters wonders: “Am I losing faith? Last night even the Dargah was a dud. I mean I did my number – reciting the fatiha, kissing the pillar, swallowing the rose petal – but nothing stirred inside the heart.”
Writing from the point of view of a young man who is the namesake of the author, 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.
Parallel to this pursuit 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, and if not lover, a sex-mate 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’s his part-time mate, Geroge Wickham, a fellow Arundhati Roy reader and an English teacher in British Council, who has come all the way from England only to meet a terrible fate. There’s his friend, Abdul – who appears in the novel only after his untimely death – and Abdul’s grief-stricken mother, a follower of Jane Austen. Both mother and son together speed up the growing madness of our hero. And then there’s the sensible J, the ice-cool Mr. Darcy of this fast-paced, crazy novel.
Mr. Soofi gives us a richly pictorial feel of this book-ridden world where the living are as much unreal, or real, as the characters of say, a Pride and Prejudice or The God of Small Things. In fact, a few literary figures of such famous novels merge into the actual people of Mr. Soofi’s novel and occasionally it becomes difficult to separate the two.
“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 dimesions? 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 abruptly in a violent splash. Mr. Soofi has made a promising debut and there is every reason to look forward to his second novel.