Thursday, March 26, 2009

Books are the centre of attention

The Kochi Reading Group meets every six weeks to discuss a work of fiction or poetry

Photo: (From left): Amita Palat, Joseph Cleetus, Talitha Mathew, Shipra Cleetus, Thomas Chacko and Paul George

By Shevlin Sebastian

Last Friday evening, a group of people gathered at one corner of the DC Bookshop on Chittoor Road. They are members of the Kochi Reading Group which comprises retired management professionals, teachers, journalists, authors, businessmen and lawyers.

For this particular reading, the group has selected the late American author, John Updike’s Pulitzer-winning novel, ‘Rabbit Is Rich’.

Joseph Cleetus, the convener of the group, got the book by downloading it from “I donated $10,” he says. Then the book was distributed to all the members by e-mail.

Some, like Amita Palat, took a printout, which cost Rs 200, and has brought along a spiral-bound version. Others have read it on the computer screen.

Before a member starts reading, photocopies are distributed to the others. The reading comprises short extracts and following it, each reader gives a perspective of the writer’s achievements or drawbacks in that particular passage.

Shipra Cleetus, of Bengali origin, spoke of how she first read John Updike’s juicy tale of wife-swapping, ‘Couples’, while staying in a hostel in Calcutta. “We were excited and put off by Updike at the same time,” she says.

In the next three decades, during which she lived many years in the United States, she stayed away from Updike, till this reading. “But I am glad I have read him,” she says. “Apart from a beautiful style, he is keenly aware of what is happening in American society.”

She reads out a line: ‘America disgraced and barren, mourning her hostages’. She explains: “This is in reference to the Iranian hostage crisis. (In 1979, 52 U.S. diplomats were held captive in the American embassy at Tehran by a group of Iranian students.)

She reads another line: ‘They are descending over Maryland and Delaware, where wild horses run and the Du Ponts are king’. “I have been to Maryland and it is, indeed, a place where wild horses run,” she says. “In Delaware, the Du Ponts have had their chemical industries for years. Updike is a quintessentially American writer.”

Talitha Mathew has brought along hand-written notes of quotes given by Updike in various interviews, which she reads out. She admires Updike, but feels that the main character, an ordinary, middle-rung American, Harry Angstrom, sometimes talks in a philosophical manner.

“It is inconsistent with a character who does not read much, and is not a reflective person,” she says. “I feel that in these sections Updike is injecting his personal views.”

There is an animated discussion of whether this is true. And, as expected, the women are appalled by the way Updike describes, in such minute detail, the anatomy of women and the sex act.

“Is it necessary?” says Amitha. “It is so crude.”

The male members say, “Men think like this. So what’s wrong in writing about it?” Clearly, there is a male-female divide on this.

The others who read extracts include Joseph, Thomas Chacko, and Paul ‘Bobby’ George.

The Kochi reading group was started by Bobby on December 17, 2005 at his now-defunct ‘Just Fiction’ bookstore in Thevara. “The idea was to get together people who were interested in reading,” he says. “It is difficult to talk about a book with everybody. You need like-minded people.”

So what are the benefits for these like-minded people in attending a session? “Earlier, when people would ask me why I liked a particular book, I was unable to formulate my reasons,” says author Thomas Chacko. “But after coming here, I have understood several facets of a book. I also have an idea of what is right or wrong with it.”

Says Joseph: “The discussions are often the most engrossing part of the meeting since unforeseen ideas and issues come up. We are able to appreciate a novelist or poet more intimately.”

Since Joseph has a PDF file of ‘Rabbit is Rich’, he is able to come up with some interesting statistics, which gives an indication of Updike’s obsessions. “Death occurs 21 times, love 156 times, and life 133 times,” he says. “Sex occurs 45 times, while the nether body parts total 155 occurrences.”

When discussions begin to lag a bit, because of the summer heat, cups of coffee are provided by a waiter from the Mr. Bean shop in the book store. Spirits rejuvenated, the members go at Updike with heightened vigour and enthusiasm.

(To know more about the group, go to

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

No comments:

Post a Comment