In celebration of life and literature

  • Education
  • Sunday, 18 Apr 2004


“I was eleven, no more, when the wish came to me to be a writer; and then very soon it was a settled ambition.” (Reading and Writing, A Personal Account, 2000

LUCKY for us! Tagged as the defining voice of post-colonial fiction, Trinidad-born VS Naipaul is known for three things: his extraordinary style with the English sentence; his complex dialogue and vision; and his semi-autobiographical accounts.  

His writings are characterised by his status as an outsider, first as an Indian in Trinidad, and then as a Trinidadian Indian in England. Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, Naipaul consistently focuses on themes of exile and belonging, 

Half a Life, is set in India, London and an unnamed African country; and tells of Willie Somerset Chandran, who arrives in 1950s London determined to remake himself through study and literature.  

Coming from a mixed Indian background, Willie finds it difficult to fit in his new surroundings, while his dreams of succeeding as a writer are dashed when his first novel fails. He then meets a young Portuguese-African, Ana, whom he follows to Africa. There they live for 18 years but as an outsider, Willie is lost in his own “half-and-half” world. In his precise style, Naipul brings to life the dilemmas of marginality and exile.  

The Mystic Masseur is Naipaul's first novel which was published in 1957. This is also the first and only novel of his that he has allowed to be adapted into film. 

Set in Trinidad in the 1940s, it features Ganesh, a failed primary school teacher, whose writing aspirations also failed. Ganesh's career takes a different turn when he becomes a masseur instead, apparently possessing miraculous curing powers.  

The stories of his gift spreads through Port of Spain, earning Ganesh fame, wealth and respect, and prompting him to enter politics. What makes this novel so delightful is the author's wicked humour and his eye and ear for details. He creates a whole community of languid Trinidad people and their world that fascinates as it entertains. 


A self-imposed recluse, JD Salinger, formally stopped his writing career in 1965 and ferociously defended his privacy. 

When The Catcher in the Rye was first published, the reviews were dismissive; now it is a modern classic, a must-read for many an angst-ridden teenager.  

The book celebrates the sensitive outsider, Holden Caulfield. Holden dreams of becoming a “catcher in the rye”, who is a person who would run through the fields that were on the crest of a sharp cliff and save the children playing in the fields from falling to their deaths.  

In spite of his “Me against the world” bravado, Holden is obsessed with death, mourning and loss. 

Unsurprisingly, it was written in the wake of the Second World War – when all over America families had lost their sons and brothers and husbands- and the whole nation was trying to deal with the grief. 


AFTER the box-office hit of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, this most popular work of fiction in 20th century publishing history needs no introduction.  

However, not much is known about the writer. 

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on Jan 3, 1892, in South Africa. 

His father, Arthur Tolkien, emigrated to South Africa in the late 1880s to make his fortune and brought his fiancee Mabel Suffield out to marry him in the wilds. 

Hence, into this arid foreign land Tolkien was born. Three years later, his mother took him and his younger brother back to England on holiday. However, their father died suddenly, and they stayed on in England. They settled down in a little hamlet in Birmingham, where Tolkien fell in love with the countryside, which later became where he set The Hobbit.  

Unfortunately, four years later, his mother died of exhaustion. From then on, he moved from one orphan's lodging to another in depressing suburbs. This affected him deeply and is reflected somewhat in his books. 

In his preface to Lord of the Rings, he described the Hobbits as a well-ordered race, which loved to haunt the well-farmed countryside, but had to leave and fight hopeless wars against persistent evil.  

When Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit came out, many saw them as irrelevant to the modern world. 

However, his influence on other writers grew tremendously as people realised how rich the imaginary world he created was. 


BORN in Czechoslovakia, Milan Kundera was a labourer, jazz musician, professor of world literature as well as a writer. 

Kundera's first novel, The Joke, tells of a man whose life was ruined after making a flippant scrawl of “Long live Trotsky!”. This was reflected in his real life when the book destroyed his life and caused him to lose his citizenship, forcing him to migrate to France. 

Sardonic and philosophical, Kundera is an astute observer of human behaviour and effortlessly combines personal and national politics in his writings.  

One of his more famous books, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, dramatises the spring of 1968, when Prague was under threat of Russian tanks and violence. Set against a sweeping, stunning backdrop of Communism and beautiful Prague, this book examines the question of personal identity and individuality in a changing world. 

Ignorance is the story of two refugees who go back to their homeland after 20 years in exile. Irena fled the country in 1968 with her now-deceased husband Martin while Josef emigrated after the Russian invasion. 

As fate would have it, the two meet, only to discover that they have met before in their former lives. 

This book tells of what homecoming brings, particularly its conflicting set of emotions. Expertly tackling the philosophical and emotional themes of nostalgia, memory, love, loss, and endurance, Kundera continues to astound readers with his masterful ability to understand the human condition.  


IT is written that before starting a new book, Coelho looks for a white feather; and as he prints out the first draft he touches the plume to each page. The idiosyncrasy is befitting to the magical writer whose books use symbols, dreams and spells to convey simple but universal truths. 

Journalist, pop lyricist and artistic director of CBS in Brazil, Coelho is also one of the world's biggest selling authors. Over 40mil copies of his books have been sold and published in 140 countries.  

Fans describe his books as “life-changing” but critics tend to be sceptical of the simplicity of his stories.  

As he was quoted, “All of my books are attempts to answer my own questions about life. I can write complicated books any day.” 

Coelho's classic work is his first, The Alchemist. It is the tale of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy who dreams of travelling the world to find treasure and sets out to realise his dream, only to discover that he should have been looking in his own heart.  

Eleven Minutes deals with the issue of people trafficking. It tells of Maria, a naive Brazilian girl who learns about life and love as she is caught in the web of international prostitution. The extracts from Maria's diary express a childlike wisdom and complement Coelho's touching tale. Still, this is not Coelho at his best but it has a strange and charming chemistry of its own. 


ARUNDHATI Roy’s first novel, The God of Small Things, shot straight to the bestseller list and won the Booker Prize in 1997. It is the only piece of fiction that she has written, before she became better known for her extremely controversial, political writings and active in protests which have landed her in court.  

While the strength of her political work has found is great support from the political scene, it is just as interesting to read her works on a very personal, human level and compare these to the emotional depth of The God of Small Things. Roy's writing deals with the very human element of life.  

The novel itself centres on twins Estahappen and Rahel who after 23 years find themselves reunited and thrown back into the memories of a particularly tepid summer during their childhood.  

Left in the past is a crumbling world, fraught with a sense of abandonment – around the twins are their divorced mother, a blind grandmother, a bitter aunt, a sad uncle and a hundred stories that spin out all at once after the accidental drowning of their visiting English cousin.  

The God of Small Things, much of which is said to be drawn from Roy’s own experiences of growing up in Kerala, India, tells poignantly of the realities of cultural and caste divides, the good and evil of human nature, the forgotten place of marginalised voices and the destruction of innocence.  

As Roy said once of the book, “To me the god of small things is the inversion of God. God's a big thing and God's in control. The god of small things, whether it's the way the children see things or whether it's the insect life in the book, or the fish or the stars – there is a not accepting of what we think of as adult boundaries.''  

The book challenges the borders and boundaries that are so often historically, culturally and politically imposed. The narrative explosions and implosions throughout the novel herald the births of new voices as they champion for new ground amid oppressive voices like Communism, caste systems and generation gaps.  

Because of this, the novel has often been compared to postcolonial writing and to the more political stance of her non-fiction but Roy herself has said that the book works on a more human level that deals with the pain of loss.  


AWARDED the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, Colombian-born Gabriel Garcia Marquez has carved out a most spectacular niche of storytelling that will challenge any imaginative mind.  

His epic novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, chronicling one hundred years of a South American family is perhaps his best known work and beloved by readers all over the world, but let it not distract from the strength of his many other writings. 

Having started out as a journalist, Marquez worked for 10 years in various towns throughout Europe and Latin America. From there, he branched out as a screenwriter, author and publicist, producing a variety of works including short stories, novellas and major works like One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. 

Having touched on so many areas of writing, Marquez's outlook is acutely perceptive, yet crazily imaginative at the same time. Readers will find in his writings unbelievable phenomena of all sorts: flying carpets, iguanas in a woman's womb, week-long bouts of insomnia burst at the seams of his novels. Like a sweet shop, Marquez's works are always written in splashes of colour, iced with the sugary twang of magic and filled with a most eclectic range of people.  

In his world of magic realism, magic and miracles are as much a part of the tale as the print; here, the fantastical elements are what make the world real. Time is putty for Marquez as he weaves pasts, histories, the present and the future into giant mosaics of fairytale stories and plays havoc with the boundaries of your imagination.  

Love in the Time of Cholera, in true Marquez spirit, takes the simple emotion of love and fills it out enough to swell the heart of every reader.  

At the heart of the story is unrequited love and an inextricably linked love story between Florentino Ariza, Fermina Daza and Juvenal Urbino. The novel deals eloquently with the life long search for love and the passions between humans as they meet, touch and leave each other.  


CANADIAN writer Margaret Atwood broke new ground with the universal appeal and poetics of her writing. Now with over 14 novels, children's writing, non-fiction and poetry, hers is a name that every avid reader will know.  

Among her writings, The Blind Assassin won the Booker Prize in 2000 and her major works have been translated into more than 30languages.  

She is perhaps, most loved for The Handmaid's Tale which brought forth a chillingly original narrative about a futuristic world wherein women are valued only for their reproductive function.  

Also noteworthy are Alias Grace, the (fictional) retelling of a true murder mystery which happened in Canada in the 19th-century; Surfacing, which tells the fragmented story of a woman and how she rediscovers wholeness through solitude; and Cat’s Eye, about the destructive influence of childhood bullying on a woman’s ability to love later in life. 

The female protagonists on all of Atwood's fictional stages are, however, strong-willed, brazen and bold – her stories tell of the power of women while maintaining a warm sense of humour that allows both writer and her characters to laugh at themselves.  

A significant vein running throughout her novels is the ability of her characters to shape-shift, or take on alternative identities.  

“I collect con-artist stories,” Atwood once said in an interview. “One of my favourites is that of a Portuguese woman who had been passing herself off not only as a man but in the military establishment as a general. Then there was the jazz musician who was married and had three adopted children and turns out to have been a woman all along.” 

The women of Atwood’s novels are young, old, cunning, subservient, defiant, daring, secretive and most of all story-tellers with the gift of lyrical prose and imagination. And in every story, the reader will find different sides to the protagonist that change the nature of the tales completely. Atwood's writing is particularly clever for its many acapella voices which bounce off and rely on each other to form entire works of symphonic proportions.  

The Blind Assassin, in particular, follows the story and secret history of two sisters, Iris and Laura, who live through two world wars. In it are prosperity, misery, marriage, love, loneliness and loss while at the core of the story is the enigma of Laura’s sudden death.  

It is a delicious triumph of a book – reading The Blind Assassin is like being thrown into a melting pot of stories that come at you from all directions and which speak straight to the heart. Here, as with all her books, Atwood is unexpected, magical, real, funny and delightfully touching all at once.

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