When I met Dostoyevsky

I have wandered the streets, nooks and corners and alleys of Saint Petersburg with Raskolnikov. I have felt tremors and numbness in my legs when I had to accompany him to the old-lady’s room. I have often got entangled in the arguments of Mitya, Vanya and Alyosha and lost in thoughts. But how I met Dostoyevsky himself is rather a pleasant memory of my undergraduate days.  

You may all have stories of how you found your own much-loved writers. My story took its beginning when I was an undergraduate student of English literature.

If my memory serves right, I started reading literary texts when I was in eighth standard. I was fortunate to have a friend who was six years elder to me at that time. He was instrumental in orienting my readings into thicker, longer versions of the stories I unearthed in the little magazines. 

Both of us were huge book-lovers and have gone to various libraries on foot, trekking for miles, walking on the mud-parapets, crossing the paddy fields. He prompted me to read  books like Asuravitth, Ummaacchu, Sundharikalum Sundharanmaarum. 

The memories of going to various libraries are etched in my mind. This particular library where I met Dostoevsky was in a sorry state. It was not actually a library, but one displaced to a stitching institute owing to lack of funds. It did not have a regular staff and most of the times it remained closed. One lady was entrusted to look after it, but she hardly turned up. Many authors, from Dickens to Thomas Hardy to Vaikom Muhammed Basheer enjoyed the rhythm of scissors, that too from the hands of adorable damsels. Basheer would have written secret letters to them, for sure. He would have been the most sensitive to be intoxicated by the scents of oil and talcum powder filling the room.

There were two, three big shelves of books in no order. It was a library which lost its glory and the authors in the shelves felt claustrophobic. The occasional, lucky readers sometimes gave these authors an outing. It was in such chaos that I met Dostoyevsky in ‘Choothaattakkaaran’ (The Gambler). He was a big gambler himself who gave everything to the game.

when I reached home and started reading the book, I was overcome by an unprecedented emotional turmoil. I used to be an avid reader then, who would not care for anything including food. I could just lie down in my bed and read for hours together. Now, such marathon readings seem unachievable, maybe you enjoy the book differently when you are older.

Once I finished the novel, I could not control my emotions. I was literally jumping in my room out of psychic explosion. When I felt that I would be unable to contain my feelings, I dressed myself and ran to the public telephone booth. I had a mobile phone then. Maybe there was no balance, I am not sure. I called up one of my graduation friends who was as crazy as me over books. 

We had this strange habit of calling each other in the middle of reading, if we are overwhelmed by certain passages. Mostly, I used to call him. Then, I would read out the passages that touched me. Then, we would discuss n-number of things about the book each of us has been reading. We were lovers through books. 

I do not exactly remember what all I talked to him about The Gambler. But I am sure I spilled my beans for more than half an hour and he patiently listened to all my outpourings. I would have told him how much I felt like pulling Dostoyevsky from the gambling table, just to put some sense into his ears. Or, how much I enjoyed being at the table with him, as agitated as he was! Or, I would have joined in his cursing his luck at one moment, and the instant consolation that being part of the game is more important, not winning. I would have felt pity for his sufferings and envied his resilience in hardships.

I have been hooked on to him then, once and for all.  

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How do you tell parents that you have changed?

You might remember the chilling hollowness you felt on a giant wheel or on a swing when it came downwards. The regale, hoot and boo on the way up quickly turn into nervousness, fear and screaming. I remember holding the iron bars in front of me with gritted teeth. Do you feel this gripping nothingness in other times? Maybe this sudden experience is felt in our quite ordinary lives in an extended manner. The nervousness, fear and restlessness are painted in broad strokes in our canvases.

I grew up in a Muslim family where doing namaz on time was an established practice from the word go. I went to madrasa when I was five years old; I began my schooling in the same year too. Madrasa started at seven in the morning and dispersed at nine thirty. I studied till the eighth standard. In Kerala, Muslim students, both boys and girls, go to madrasa at this age. I learned how to do namaz, recite Koran, how to behave as a Muslim and little bit of details about Prophet Muhammad.

Then just after my tenth, I was encouraged to join a religious institution where both religious and non-religious education was imparted. For ten months, I acted that role, with a turban on my head, white full sleeve shirt and dhoti. When I felt enough is enough, I somehow saved my skin from there. Not only my parents but also my relatives, and even people in my neck of the woods who otherwise wouldn’t say even ‘hi’ expressed regret in me leaving the ‘good path’.

It was during my graduation, long past madrasa and just over with higher secondary school that I came to read books that were considered bad. I particularly remember a night when my mother was so much agonised to see a book on agnosticism in my hand. She considered it a bad book to read and gave half hour lecture on why a Muslim like me should not read such books. But I have been reading them since then.

A year and a half ago, I asked my younger brother (he was in tenth standard then) why he was doing namaz five times. Quite innocently he said, ‘everybody does it, mother does it, father does it’. Then I told him that he was not do the prayers because others were doing it. ‘If you feel like doing it, then only you should do it’, I said. For my unlucky hour, he stopped praying thereafter. After a week or so, he was caught by my mother. He stated, ‘if elder brother does not do prayers, then why I should’.

I did not know all these incidents apart from the coldness I felt in my mother’s conversations thereafter. Then after a few months, I visited home. I learned that she had already thrown away a packet of green tea that I had taken home last time. She said, ‘if my son does not live like a Muslim, then I do not need anything from him’. I could not help falling for such blackmailing. After all, she is my mother. I did not want to hurt her.

This episode was followed by endless days of discussions when I would try to convince her that I had asked that question to my younger brother as part of my research. I just wanted to know how we come to believe and practice the way we do. I am not entirely sure whether I was successful in convincing her, because she became more attentive to me doing prayers.

When I am at home, it is literally hell. Sometimes I do imagine that I am doing some exercises while doing prayers. When your mother cribs five times a day at prayer times, it is not easy to make sleight of hand. On Fridays, I mostly go out early in the morning to avoid going for Friday prayer. But on some Fridays, I do go to the mosque. It is funny how strong and claustrophobic our social institutions are!

Whenever I am at Delhi, one of the queries in my conversations with my mother is about namaz. She would ask whether I did the last prayer. Alas! I am an inveterate liar when it comes to this.

Things have been fine so far. We usually value peace of mind to anything else, no!

                                                                                                                      To be continued.

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