The joy of a good, long novel
Have you ever experienced the sadness of finishing a book in which you have been immersed for a long, long time? I mean a book of over 600 pages, one that has prevented you from doing what you should. Some of the consequences of your marathon reading are: a dusty house, missed trash pickup, unwashed dishes, maybe an unwashed you. A sure bet is that you have woken up tired, having read way too long into the early hours of the morning.
I am lucky enough to be reading just such a novel right now: Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. This novel, which is the story of a man who escaped from prison in Australia and fled to India, is 933 pages short. Yes, I mean short, not long, because I can tell that I will be grieving when I get to the last page.
The novel is full of evocative descriptions of Bombay (now Mumbai) life. The protagonist, dubbed Lin by his Indian guide, is interested in all of Bombay. His descriptions of tourist areas, ex-pat hangouts, mansions of rich crime lords and slums of the poor make me feel like I am there. Lin himself lives in the slums, or hutments, where he opens up a free clinic. The details of slum life and the living conditions of its inhabitants are both hopeful and dreadful. Lin eventually leaves the slum to work for an important crime figure, a don, who is obsessed with the definition of good and evil.
As you see, this book has a lot to offer: an exotic location, a cast of characters about whom the reader cares, drama, suspense and even a bit of a love story. In short, I don’t want it to end!
Thinking back on long novels I have enjoyed in the past, I realize many are by Indian authors. A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry comes to mind. This is a relatively short book at 603 pages. It, too, is set in Bombay (Mumbai) and has a cast of characters whose fates are intertwined. Set in the 1970s, it includes an account of some of the effects of a forced sterilization program started when India was in a state of emergency.
A lighter (but heavier!) Indian read is A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. I truly was sad when I finished this novel on page 1349. (Happily, I have heard rumors of a sequel to this sweeping drama set in newly-independent India of the late 1940s.) As the title suggests, the plot revolves around the search for a groom for Lata Mehra, and encompasses the story of four families. Though set in a fictional town, Calcutta (Kolkata), Delhi and Kanpur also play a role in the story. Nawabs, zamindars and ghazals are a few of the subjects I was introduced to in this novel.
In conclusion I’ll say that while long, sweeping novels may take a while to read, the transportive experience of a long immersion in another world can be enjoyable, refreshing, educational and more. Don’t worry, your dirty dishes, dust and trash can wait….