City Reading – The Delhi Proustians – XIII, Indian Coffee House
A la recherche du temps perdu.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Today is the 13th meeting of The Delhi Proustians, a club for Delhiwallas that discusses French novelist Marcel Proust. Every Monday evening for an hour we read his masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time.
It is 7 pm and The Delhi Walla is with Anshul Kumar Pandey, an undergraduate student in Zakir Husain College.
“I usually read non-fiction,” says Mr Pandey. “This is my first attempt at fiction.”
And he is attempting Lost Time, a novel notorious for its long length and dense passages.
“I went to buy Proust yesterday at the Om Book Shop in PVR Saket complex but it’s too expensive,” he says.
“I have a spare copy. If you get serious about Proust, I will give it to you,” I say. “On the other hand, the novel can be read for free on the internet. Just Google ‘Complete Text Proust In Search Lost Time’.”
“I’m on page 166. Shall I carry on from there?” I ask.
Mr Pandey says, “Just give me a synopsis of what has happened so far.”
I say, “The book begins with this man who is remembering his sleeping patterns, and then he is talking about his childhood, and how his mother would come to give him the daily goodnight kiss, and then he talks about his grand aunt’s village and… well, I don’t know how to describe it. Nothing really has happened, and yet it is full of impressions. I think you will have to read from the start.”
Mr Pandey nods.
I’m desperate to make him feel interested in Proust.
“Ok, I’ll read a passage… I love it very much. I will like to know what you think of it.”
I turn to page 14.
My sole consolation when I went upstairs for the night was that Mamma would come in and kiss me after I was in bed. But this good night lasted for so short a time: she went down again so soon that the moment in which I heard her climb the stairs, and then caught the sound of her garden dress of blue muslin, from which hung little tassels of plaited straw, rustling along the double-doored corridor, was for me a moment of the keenest sorrow. So much did I love that good night that I reached the stage of hoping that it would come as late as possible, so as to prolong the time of respite during which Mamma would not yet have appeared.
Mr Pandey says, “I’m suddenly realizing that I take my mother for granted. She lives in a town in Madhya Pradesh. Every time I visit her, she treats me like a prince. She is always there… ”
Suddenly a steward interrupts. This part of the coffee house is closing for the day. We must move to the other seating area.
Settling down, I say, “Look at the passage like this: I have to meet my lover in the evening, let’s say 8 pm. I’m looking forward to it. But our meeting could last only for an hour. I’m thrilled, I’m anxious. But as the time nears, I want the moment to be delayed. If the lover comes at 8.30, then we could be together till 9.30. The moment of separation moves further ahead in time. And finally, seeing the lover walking towards me, I’m happy but also sad. Because now I’m anticipating the moment when the lover would leave.”
We order coffee.
“There can’t be any synopsis of this book,” I say, “but I can help you understand its essence.”
Turning to page 47, I say, “I’ve read this passage so many times, but first, please close your eyes.”
Mr Pandey follows my request.
“Now think of your mother.”
A half-smile is playing on Mr Pandey’s face.
“What do you see?” I ask.
“Mum is barefoot in the kitchen. She is wearing a blue sari. She is making poha. Now, she is opening a cupboard that is stacked with masala boxes. She knows which spice is in which box. Had I been cooking, I would have opened ten boxes before finding the one I needed. But Mum is the empress of her kitchen and knows how to make the perfect poha.”
“So, whom do you think of each time you come across poha?” I ask.
“When I close my eyes and I think of rajma chawal, I see my Mummy,” I say. “I’m still not very informed about Marcel but I think his novel is all about finding the fragments of our past through… ”
I grope for suitable words and fail.
“Ok, so I’m reading this passage. The narrator eats a tea-soaked cake and he suddenly remembers things that had long sunk to the very depths of his being.”
But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.
As we leave, Mr Pandey says, “Tomorrow when I’ll think of our Proust meeting, I might not recall the specific conversations we had, but something of this evening would stay, such as, for instance, I might remember that while I had a few sips of water from my glass, your glass remained full. Or, that when we were shifting from that seating area to this one, we forgot to carry the sugar sachets with us. These details are insignificant but through them I might be able to reconstruct this evening.”
“Yes,” I say, “this too is Proust.”
The 14th meeting of The Delhi Proustians takes place on 19 March, 2012.
Where Indian Coffee House (it has three seating spaces; enter the enclosed area that looks to Baba Khadak Singh Marg), Mohan Singh Place, near Hanuman Mandir, Baba Kharak Singh Marg, Connaught Place Time 7 pm Nearest Metro Station Rajiv Chowk
The sole Proustian
First time in fiction
Thinking of Mum
He might crack Proust
This too is Proustian