A bibliophile, with wide ranging interests, Ashoka finds it difficult to name his all-time favourite books. The author takes us through various genres and names some of titles that has remained his chosen titles, while some others were replaced by authors and titles that caught his imagination later. Here’s an interesting subject for all book lovers exclusively for Different Truths.
One of the most difficult questions I have repeatedly been confronted with is to identify my favourite book. It is generally believed that the choice of books is a reflection of an individual’s inner psyche, which helps in the evaluation of his or her personality.
Prima facie the question is simple enough and quite straightforward. But I have always had problems identifying a single time as my all-time favourite.
I have always found the question to be rather complex. As a compulsive bibliophile, I know that books come in different genres. To compare the merits of a volume of one genre with another of a totally different genre is to use the metaphor akin to comparing apples with oranges.
I do not know about the others but I have also had the problem of retaining the evaluation as the time passes. A tome that gave me no end of joy at one phase of my life does not carry the same attraction after passage of some time. Similarly another tome that I tended to find cumbersome and tedious began to present itself as a work of considerable merit.
Hence when confronted with an interrogatory of this nature, I am in a habit of identifying about 10-15 books of different genres rather than present a solitary choice. Even this exercise is difficult for me. And as I have stated my list does not remain consistent over time. The choice is also influenced by my moods, which I must confess have always been more dynamic than I would normally like.
I decided recently to compare and contrast my choices at different times relying primarily on my powers of recall. It was fascinating to discover that there were certain books that have always remained on my list.
In the fantasy genre, Alice in Wonderland despite the passage of time retains its place along with the Narnia Chronicles. In the adventure genre it is difficult to beat Robert Louis Stevenson’s and Walter Scott’s classics. There can hardly be a better satire than Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. And when I move on to science fiction then in my view Jules Verne is way ahead of H.G. Wells. It was especially interesting for me to note how he defied all the contemporary scientific wisdom of the time and in his classic Robur the Conqueror was able to declare that any viable aircraft would have to be heavier than the air and that balloons did not have any long term future. In the biographical genre, Bertrand Russell’s autobiography was always a constant feature in my lists – and would always continue to do so!
The biggest difficulty as one would have gathered was in identifying my favourite philosophical tome and my favourite novel. I vacillated widely in my choice of philosophical books. At one stage in my career I was a David Hume fan but very soon moved over to Immanuel Kant. Even that did not remain a consistent choice.
There was a time when I was an avid admirer of the French novelists, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo and Honore Balzac. But, as of today, I find Thomas Hardy carrying a higher literary quotient than the three I have mentioned.
It took me 18 long years to complete reading War and Peace! I just could not keep up with the number of characters. I suspect my being a dyslexic also did not help matters. The only other authors who introduced comparable number of characters were Galsworthy and to a certain extent Sholokhov. While their books were absolute masterpieces and I must confess I turn to them from time to time, they never found a place of my lists.
But interestingly enough there was one book of fiction, which always managed to be on my list. It was curious as this book was written about 2500 years ago. I am of course alluding to Sophocles’ Antigone.
The very fact that this work manages to excite book lovers more than two thousand years after it was composed speaks volumes. I personally believe that it should be made a compulsory reading in the school curricula – even if the Bard from Stratford is to be relegated.
My choice of novels is dictated by how I find the different characters develop and how much of resonance do they have with me. Antigone is a tragedy which elaborates the development of all its characters – not just the central – in an unprecedentedly competent manner. I first read the book when I was not yet a teenager and fascination remains undiminished even after 50 years and at least 50 readings. I have not known any other author develop his/her characters so beautifully. No wonder it is regarded as one the foremost Greek classics.
All the more surprising that this great work has not captured the attention of the Indian readership the way I would have expected it to. The plot in the story is so much in keeping with many other Indian novels written more than two thousand years later. While I have no reason to suppose that the Indian writers were consciously influenced by it, the similarities between the plots in my view as a Jungian psychoanalyst is that we indeed do have something like a collective unconscious.
I shall attempt to adumbrate the plot here in the fervent hope that it would spur those who have not yet read the classic to make an effort at reading it.
The background of the play is the Thebes civil war that took place in which there were two brothers Eteocles and Polyneices are on the opposing sides. Creon who becomes the ruler after the war decrees that Eteocles who had sided with him should be honoured while the dead Polyneices would not be even extended religious rites. Antigone is one of the sisters of the two brothers, who passionately believes that this edit is unjust and after failing to persuade her sister Ismene to help her in her plans, decides to complete it herself. This infuriates Creon who decides to punish Antigone. Consumed with guilt, her sister Ismene, who had refused to help her presents herself before Creon and falsely confesses her crime.
This does not convince Creon who orders imprisonment of both. His son Haemon enters the picture and after visiting the scene falls in love with Antigone and pleads with his father to release her as it was against the wishes of the gods. Creon refuses which turns his son into a rebel. Infuriated, he then decides to have Antigone buried in a cave.
At this time a blind prophet appears who convinces Creon’s wife Eurydice that her husband’s actions are against the wishes of the gods. She manages to convince her husband and they proceed to the cave to release Antigone only to find that she had killed herself. Haemon grieving for his love kills himself before his parents. Eurydice retires to the palace and very soon Creon learns that she has killed herself as well.
A broken man, he realises that going against the wishes of gods has cost him his wife and his son and realizes that when gods punish, they also impart wisdom.
The outline of the story would sound a note of familiarity with many of the Bollywood movie plots. But the real beauty of the classic is the way in which the characters develop which is what makes it so riveting and unputdownable.
On that count alone Antigone would qualify as one of the greatest novels ever written. And it shall always remain my all-time favourite.
©Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad
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