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When I immigrated to Canada in 2001, one of the first things I did was go to a book reading by John Irving in Toronto.
When Irving came to the podium and started talking about his book, The Fourth Hand, I was transfixed and hardly able to contain the tears welling up in my eyes. I couldn’t stop thinking of the evening almost a decade earlier in Lahore when I’d accidentally picked up a book – and how it changed me.
I was 19. That evening I had been tasked to pick up my sister from her friend’s house. As usual, when I got there my sister wasn’t yet ready to leave. Her friend’s baby brother led me to the drawing room, where I was expected to spend the next half hour marinating in boredom, frustration and feelings of general ill-will toward my sister.
As I settled into a sofa, I saw a worn-out book sitting on the coffee table. It had a picture of an apple on its cover. It was much later that I realized the coincidental appropriateness of that symbol: I was about to take a bite, and be expelled from the Eden I had inhabited with Frederick Forsyth, Alistair MacLean, Robert Ludlum and authors of any other cloak-and-dagger story I could get my hands on.
I was about to be condemned to years of wandering in the literary desert of the streets of Lahore.
The book’s title was The Cider House Rules, and Irving was its author. With contemptuous skepticism I opened it to the first page and read the first sentence:
“In the hospital of the orphanage – the boys’ division at St. Cloud’s, Maine – two nurses were in charge of naming the new babies and checking that their little penises were healing from the obligatory circumcision.”
The story was not about an international assassination plot; it wasn’t about some terrible alternatives faced by a powerful president. It was about ordinary people in an ordinary orphanage.
I read furiously in the futile hope of finishing the book, all 600-odd pages of it, before my sister could appear and prevent me from learning what happened to Homer Wells and the other princes of Maine and kings of New England. For if I left that house without finishing the book, where else was I going to find it in Lahore?
Along the Mall, the main artery of the city developed during the British Raj, was the Anarkali Bazaar, named after a courtesan who dared consort with a Mughal prince and paid the ultimate price. That was where the old-book vendors hawked their wares: textbooks way past their expiry dates, potboilers, bodice rippers, whodunits, cookbooks and past issues of Vogue and National Geographic.
And within shooting distance of Zamzama Gun, which Kipling immortalized by having Kim straddle it, sat Vanguard Books and Ferozsons, whose stuffy environs had provided my steady diet of thrillers and carried a lot of classical literature – Dickens, Hardy, Trollope; even Kafka, Camus and Sartre.
In a city that, judging by its reading preferences, chose either to live in the past or to dull its senses to the present, where would I ever find Irving?
I was lucky that evening: My sister’s friend let me keep the book, with a shrug, as it appeared to belong to no one and had been gathering dust at her house.
I finished it in a few days. Even though I had not been able to appreciate its political undertones about abortion, it was Irving’s prose and the story’s universal themes of vulnerable children and not-much-less-vulnerable adults entangled in complex relationships and dilemmas that got me hooked.
I had tasted the fruit and started to become aware. It was not easy to find other books by Irving, but I savoured the search. I had been wrong about Ferozsons – they did carry his first book, Setting Free the Bears. Several months later, I found The World According to Garp in the air-conditioned library in the premises of the British Council.
An old bookseller in Anarkali Bazaar dug out The 158-Pound Marriage from his heap, and promised to keep an eye out not only for other books by Irving, but also Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Philip Roth and Joseph Heller – names that often popped up on the back covers of Irving’s books.
It was amazing. In conservative Lahore I read about prostitutes, men in bear suits, life in Vienna; about transsexuals and incest.
And I came to appreciate that one of the most compelling things about literature is that it is about us, about ordinary people. With its subtle nudges we come to understand the multidimensionality of human characters. We become better at understanding humanity’s foibles and also its strengths, and we become more forgiving.
In other words, literature achieves beautifully what religion often fails to do.
I never was able to lay my hands on any Vonnegut, the author who had written a novel called Slaughterhouse Five. “What a strange title,” I used to think.
I only got to read it when I went to Montreal for my graduate studies. The quaint little masterpiece made me acutely aware of death, the inevitable and indifferent equalizer. And I learned not to take myself too seriously because, as Vonnegut so inimitably puts it, “So it goes.”
When I climbed the stairs of the library at McGill University for the first time, my legs trembled in awe of the sheer number of books that surrounded me.
In a daze, I walked across the alphabetically-arranged aisles and found the shelf on which stood, side by side, all of Irving’s books, which I had spent years looking for in Lahore.
There they stood for my taking – all of them, all at once, if I wanted.
Saqib Nazir lives in Toronto.