Recently, not even as long ago as November, I had occasion to recall The Catcher in the Rye fondly. I was presented with a unique situation. A birthday gift had to be bought for a friend. I did what I usually do, asked him what he would like. He said a book would be welcome. Perfect! Theres nothing more I enjoy than shopping for books even if the buys don’t go into my shelves. But his next specification puzzled me. He said a book on economics , globalization etc or books that envision a different kind of India like imagining India by Nandan Nilekani, would be nice and definitely no poetry and novels. No poetry, I understand. Poetry requires a different sensibility that needs to be cultivated. And I, for one, prefer to do poetry reading with other people. Unlike reading novels, where I would love to be alone with a book, just the two of us understanding and unraveling each other much like intercourse. But no novels/fiction of any kind, I don’t understand. I understand not like genres of fiction like chic lit, murder mysteries, Victorian novels etc. But to shun all fiction with one stroke is unfathomable. But, he said, fiction is alright if the guy is using it to depict an alternate reality, like Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. So that was my only clue.
So I was determined to find a novel. This is tricky, if you wanted to introduce someone to fiction and get them hooked and stay hooked, finding the right novel would be crucial. I wracked my brains. My favourites, as of now, happen to be literature from the third world, about conflict, colonialism, and life. But I definitely cant give Marquez or Allende, much as I love them for the simple reason, that they are making a statement not only with what they wish to say but also with the way they say it. Magical realism can be very very irritating for the novice reader. Also latin America seemed really far away. Fortunately or unfortunately, my friend and I live in an India where we would be quicker to understand American idioms, language and grief than we will the latin American, African, middle eastern or even rural Indian. So latin American literature, the kind I had read, was out.
What about Indian writing in English? After all, Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh is my all time favourite. And it speaks of so many things. I myself am a great fan of the Stream of Consciousness style of writing. But is that safe for someone who doesn’t have a great opinion of fiction to begin with. Arundhati Roy was also good, not as good as Ghosh or Seth, I think. But the amount of hype that her book had could put anyone off. And most people who I knew had read it either loved it or hated it. Couldn’t take that risk!
What about the classics? Austen is generally considered to be a chic lit person. Dickens is tedious reading. I needed something racy, snappy and over in a week. Hardy, same as dickens and sometimes so much more soap opera’ish than even Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu thi.
I needed something that was quick to read, easy on the eyes and brain, a kind of book that would be popular among men and didn’t give any inkling of being chick lit. And it was there, just so plain to see, the book was Catcher in the Rye. Most of the boys who I know have read it, seemed to like. It is my dads favourite book. Its easy going and extremely realistic language makes it a quick read. And yet, it critiqued society all through. It was about a young American boy who has been given the axe at this school, Pencey Prep and what he does and thinks on his way home. It is a critique by a child brought up in a wealthy home with all the luxuries of life. It was closer home than any other book I could think of. It was radical.
Holden Caulfield is blasé. He finds most things people say and do in high society phony. Surprising, considering that’s the only society he knows. And he poses some of the most basic questions that all of us have asked of ourselves while growing up. Like if being a lawyer is about making a reputation or about saving people’s lives? How do you know when you save a guy’s life if you really wanted to do it or because you wanted to be a really good lawyer? These are questions that we as adults have ‘resolved’. But have we? Holden’s deliberations, in the entire book including the psychotherapy that he receives at the end are all sharp pointers to the fact that we never never really resolved these issues. We have just let society resolve them for us. And that these questions still give us pangs underneath all that self assuredness. And this is most telling as he recalls the events in the novel after more than a year after it happened, meanwhile undergoing therapy.
I gave my friend a choice between the Catcher in the Rye and Catch 22. He chose Catch 22 after a quick glance at the plot of both novels in Wikipedia. War always wins with boys! But more importantly, I will always remember Salinger as someone who wrote a book that I could use to get someone hooked on to fiction. A pastime from which I myself derive great pleasure.