I have to begin by making a confession. I love to read fiction. Or, let me put it this way, I still love to read fiction. Being as old as I am, doing the job that I do (you could call me a journalist, the ‘senior staff member’ is off-putting I know!) and still wanting to read fiction appears a little odd; even to me sometimes.
But that’s how it has always been. I enjoy good fiction like no other piece of writing.
A colleague in office finds that heartening and tells me that fiction is understood to be the ‘ultimate’ or ‘high’ reality. Conversely, autobiography is the biggest lie, he says. In fiction, you are not compelled to hide anything, so that’s the ultimate truth; everything else is a lie.
Some consolation his words but my sheer inability to read non-fiction makes me think that, perhaps, it’s time to problematise the issue. The issue in question being: why is fiction such a joy and where does it leave a reader who happens to be a journalist.
In my mind, there had always been a linear self-constructed rule — the teens and some part of the twenties are reserved for fiction; soon after, one must turn to non-fiction — history, politics, biography, philosophy, literary criticism, linguistics and what not.
Logistically speaking, I worked as per the linear rule in my mind. I got all the right books (or always had them) placed neatly on the shelves — from Seervai to Hamza Alavi to Feroze Ahmed to Ayeha Jalal. The more than one biography of Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah keep each other company as well as to that of Mandela, Clinton and Gian Singh Shatir in the shelf. I even have my share of feminist literature (the Germaine Greers and all), philosophy and literary criticism.
Every few months, this huge collection needs to be dusted thoroughly. I do that lovingly but with a profound sense of guilt; for not having read most of it.
Because, to fiction I must return, and with a fondness and interest that is unmatched. The plans of a chronological reading of non-fiction (Taliban must come first before Descent into Chaos) never seem to materialise. I find fiction more liberating because you can break all chronological rules; an Oscar Wilde can be read before or after a Mirza Waheed, and Dickens, Milan Kundera or Rohinton Mistry can all be read together and enjoyed.
This has not been for want of trying I tell you. I have tried reading almost every single non-fiction book that would turn me into a smart reader/analyst/opinion-maker. Somehow I couldn’t finish it. The only books I could read till the end were those that read like fiction. I know that’s a silly un-definable criterion but, to me, that’s that.
In the process of trying, I developed a love for a genre other than fiction and that is the essay. George Orwell has amazed me with his clarity of thought and lucid prose, and Mencken I am still discovering.
But essay I found is closer to journalism; hence limited. The possibilities of fiction, on the other hand, are endless.
Close to home are Intizar Husain and Manto and so many more. The discovery that Manto is a pure genius came to me a little late. To me, Manto is literature, history, politics, biography, philosophy, society and journalism all rolled into one. A master of irony, he is a story-teller par excellence who had the courage to challenge God.
Must I then crib why I’m reading fiction only?