When I was a child, my cousin used to boast that he could read four storybooks at a time. As an adult, when he invested in an e-Reader, he continued to boast that he could keep several books ‘open’ at a time. More than that, he could quote from said books and command his ‘audience’ (mainly us cousins when we were children) with recitations of texts. I, on the other hand, was (still am) a painfully slow reader. As a child, I struggled to finish one storybook a week and I often wondered if slow to read also meant slow in the head.
Earlier this year, I decided to try an experiment. My aim was to simultaneously read more than one book. I wasn’t ambitious. I stuck with two books at once and chose The Ordinary Chaos of Being Human by Marguerite Richards and Learned Men & Women of Ancient India by Sreelata Menon. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing both these women before – Sreelata a few years ago and Marguerite last year. From these interviews alone, I was aware that both these women have travelled extensively and have loads of experience within the publishing industry.
I also chose both their books on purpose because I figured that they were completely different and I couldn’t possibly mix up the stories when reading the books at the same time.
Learned Men & Women of Ancient India was described on the internet as a book wherein you can ‘[d]iscover the lives of the great learned men and women of ancient India who could control their minds to achieve anything they desired. From pioneering surgical techniques to solving mathematical puzzles and even attempting to turn metal into gold, read about the incredible contributions of Vyasa, Sushruta, Valmiki, Surya Savitri, Chanakya, and others.’
The Ordinary Chaos of Being Human was described as ‘A collection of true stories from people living in many different Muslim worlds.’ The blurb at the back says a little more:
True stories. Soul-baring moments. No apologies. Two schoolgirls in Yemen skip class and wander into a yellow circus tent, empty except for one rusty cage. A Jordanian man spends a maddening summer in his sweaty apartment, cursing his loud, ignorant neighbours. A woman in Beirut is heartsick, waiting for her kidnapped parrot to return. A young Bangladeshi-American argues with her father about her choice of boyfriend. A lady discovers the secret about the Pakistani neighbour who had stolen her birthday gifts. And an Iraqi soldier pines for an American journalist obsessed with someone else. This ambitious collection is a four-year quest to find diverse stories from many Muslim worlds that build bridges between each of us, through intimate experiences of love, loss, laughter and everything in between.
The writing style and prose were also different between these books. At a glance, Learned Men & Women of Ancient India was written in simple language, which made sense as its target audience was seemingly the younger generation. There were also illustrations and I enjoyed these because they gave me an idea of what people like Vishwamitra and Chanakya might have looked like. Written by one person, naturally, the style remained the same throughout, and I would describe it as light and easy.
The Ordinary Chaos of Being Human was something altogether different. Never had I come across a book that was given such an apt title. The various explanations for these stories were there in the title itself. That search for identity was universal in them all; it was there in the ‘ordinariness’ of what the characters did – getting henna applied on their hands, answering a phone, playing in the garden, teenagers confused by the names they were called by others, the cruelty of truth, etc. The chaos came from having to leave one’s home abruptly or returning ‘home’ which, with the passage of time, had become unrecognisable. Most of all, they were human. I thoroughly enjoyed the different voices and styles of writing. Some were literary in nature, some were reportage and some were a mix between both. In all, though, the stories were very moving.
The one thing that both books have in common is how much I learned from a single story. For example, one of the fundamental prayers for all Hindus is the Gayathri mantra. The spirituality, explanation and meaning of it aside, I wanted to know the origin of it. Who composed the various stanzas?
I remember my deep frustration when I was growing up because everyone told me what the meaning of the mantra was, how important it was for me to recite it and that it was ‘good for my future’. No one, however, could tell me who composed it. All I knew at the time was that it had something to do with two rishis – Vishwamitra and Vashista.
Then again, even when there was YouTube and Google, another problem arose – there were too many answers to the same question and each one insisted that only his/her version was correct. For example, in one version, when Vishwamitra came to pay obeisance to Vashista, he prostrated before his guru. Just as his head touched the feet of his guru, he felt an electric current pass through him and from deep within his being he heard the mantra. In the second one, Vishwamitra was given the mantra by Vishnu when he attained the status of Brahmarishi. Finally, there’s the version where Vishwamitra focused his attention during deep meditation, he heard the mantra form from within.
I was, therefore, curious to read Sreelata’s version of the origin of this mantra. It was different from all the above and I shall leave you to read her version. However, as expected, I learnt something new – I learnt how Vishwamitra got his name. And that alone made Learned Men & Women of Ancient India special for me. In all, the information in this book was disseminated in quantities that any reader could easily digest. In fact, I could read four to five stories in one go.
With The Ordinary Chaos of Being Human, it was different. After reading two stories, I needed to take a break. The intensity with which the authors narrated their tales stayed long after finished reading them. I tried to read the stories in the morning and found that, throughout the day, I could be thinking about the taste of Eltinaé’s description of drizzling honey over sliced bananas and cheese. So, I switched to reading the stories in the evening. This was no better as I spent a considerable amount of time remembering what it was like to go to the Chapel when I was a girl in Alor Setar Convent after reading Merhi’s story about the kids who attended Sunday school.
When I finished both books, I thought about my experiment and wondered if it was a success. Certainly, I’d completed reading two books at the same time. Did I enjoy the process? The answer was no. Would I do it again? No. Henceforth, I would stick with my one book at a time habit, however long it took me to read it.
Before I put both these books aside and picked up my next book (not books!), though, I smiled. During this experiment, I also discovered something about my cousin and his ability to read voraciously. He started with the title, turned to the blurb, read the first chapter, read the end, and skimmed a few of the pages in between. I watched as he concentrated on a few sentences, muttered as he committed them to memory. With that, he’d read the whole book.
By Aneeta Sundararaj
The Age of Smiling Secrets is the latest novel by Aneeta Sundararaj. Set in contemporary Malaysia, it is about a family torn apart when a man converts to Islam and, without the consent or knowledge of his wife, converts their child as well. One of the chapters from this novel, The Legend of Nagakanna, was accepted in an anthology called, We Mark Your Memory published by the School of Advanced Studies, University of London in 2018. Aneeta trained and practised as a lawyer before she decided to pursue her dream of writing. Read more stories like this on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. (http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com).