A meeting of minds That’s what the best books always are. When you read, you get a peep into a world of ideas and insights divergent from your own.

If you are a reader, you know that books can be your best friends. If you are not, know that books can be your best friends. Reading is a conversation conducted silently most of the time, but if you are in the habit of reading aloud it can be auditory too. The thing about best friends is, you can discuss anything under the sun. They listen when you sound off something, and you listen in turn.

Three-daughters-of-eve

Recently I read Elif Shafak’s Three Daughters of Eve (2016). Shafak (the word means ‘dawn’) is a Turkish writer based in London and has many fiction and nonfiction works to her credit. She is one of very few to highlight the massacre of Armenians by Turkish authorities under the Ottoman Empire during the First World War in her book, The Bastard of Istanbul. The response to a book, as to a film or a painting or even a piece of music, is subjective. So, even if there are conflicting opinions as to the merits of Three Daughters of Eve, there can be no argument about the fact that it throws up political, religious and philosophical concerns, and what most engages each reader depends upon each reader’s disposition.

The central character of this novel is a woman called Nazperi who’s grown up with a progressive-minded if dissolute father and a disciplined if excessively orthodox mother. Although they love their daughter, each in their own way, the atmosphere at home is not congenial. Peri escapes by going off to study in Oxford. There she befriends two women as alike as sugar and jaggery, and she takes a course called ‘God’ run by a charismatic professor. It’s ‘God’ not ‘Religion’ as the professor himself reminds his students and as Elif writes: “Whereas in former times, philosophers grappled more with the idea of God than with religion, now it was the other way round.” It is in this context that the professor cautions them against the ‘malady of certitude’.

“Certitude,” writes Elif, “was to curiosity what the sun was to the wings of Icarus. Where one shone forcefully, the other couldn’t survive. With certainty came arrogance; with arrogance, blindness; with blindness, darkness; and with darkness, more certainty. This he called, the converse nature of convictions. During these lectures they were not going to be sure of anything, not even the seminar syllabus, which was, like everything else, subject to change…”

“They were travellers too, companions of the road, having yet to arrive at any particular destination and perhaps never to do so. They were only striving, searching. For in a world of elusive complexity, only this was clear: diligence was better than idleness, spiritedness preferable to apathy. Questions mattered more than answers; curiosity was superior to certitude.”

Reading these two paragraphs I began to realise the ramifications of a comment once made to me by a nine-year-old. In the course of a classroom interaction he had said, “We know how to give answers, not to ask questions.” Reading Elif threw light on the idea that maybe the more we think we know the less we really do and it could take a lifetime to even begin to grasp this fundamental truth, if ever. This shaft of self-awareness came from a passage in a work of fiction. Philosophers may have been screaming it from rooftops but their words had not pierced my faculties. It took a book.

In The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, a character called Max has to stay hidden away in the depths of a house for fear of being discovered by the Nazis. Liesel, the daughter of the house, brings him things from the outside world to make him feel better:

“How do you give someone a piece of the sky?

“Late in February, she stood on Munich Street and watched a single giant cloud come over the hills like a white monster. It climbed the mountains. The sun was eclipsed, and in its place, a white beast with a grey heart watched the town.

“ ‘Would you look at that?’ she said to Papa.

“Hans cocked his head and stated what he felt was the obvious. ‘You should give it to Max, Liesel. See if you can leave it on the bedside table, like all the other things.’

Liesel watched him as if he’d gone insane. ‘How, though?’

“Lightly, he tapped her skull with his knuckles. ‘Memorise it. Then write it down for him.’ ”

When I picked up The Book Thief to look for a suitable example to illustrate the possibility of a meeting of minds, the book automatically fell open to the page that contained this passage. Was it a coincidence that it talks exactly about words and painting pictures with them? Reminding us of the power of word pictures and what the world’s greatest writers do for us?

Another book I read recently was a nonfiction work called Walking the Himalayas (2016) by Levison Wood. In it the author recounts his experience of walking along the Silk Road, starting in Afghanistan and going all the up to Bhutan on roads and paths actually used by people, traversing five countries in the process, the other three being Pakistan, India and Nepal. This is a region that’s been in the news for many years now. We are aware of the starkness of the landscape, the constant threat of terrorist attacks, the low literacy levels, the oppression of women. With all these notions in my head, I read what Wood had to say about the Hunza Valley in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of northern Pakistan bordering the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan and the Xinjiang region of China. Not a particularly great address no matter how beautiful the region.

Wood writes: “The Hunza valley was the basis for James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon, the inspiration for Shangri-La — paradise on earth… Here the people were from the Burusho tribe among whom, like in Afghanistan, they liked to claim descent from the soldiers of Alexander the Great. Their dialect is unlike any other in the world, bearing no relation to the neighbouring Pashtun, Urdu and Persian languages and has left anthropologists bewildered for centuries.”

Sher Ali, a university professor from Hunza, tells Wood: “We’re different here. We are the Hunzakut — the people of Hunza. For centuries we have defended this valley against invaders — even the Muslims didn’t reach us until a hundred years ago.” Sher Ali makes it abundantly clear why the Hunzakut are different, despite the remoteness of their location and the widely held notion that education is anathema in that region: “ ‘It’s only because we’re so liberal here that we’ve managed to thrive. Do you know what the literacy rate is for Pakistan?’ ” And then Wood goes on to quote him as saying: “ ‘It’s a stain on the nation. How will we ever become first world if we don’t let our women read? … We have ninety-five per cent. All the kids go to school and we send hundreds to university. All the best surgeons and pilots come from Hunza.”

I had not known this and I thank the author for drawing this particular picture. It gives me hope because it upends a misconception and opens a window to possibility.

The columnist is a children’s writer and senior journalist.

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